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Jonah and the “Big Fish”

16th August 2006

I found this dialogue on Bits & Pieces:

A little girl was talking to her teacher about whales.
The teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though it was a very large mammal its throat was very small.
The little girl stated that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible.
The little girl said, “When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah”.
The teacher asked, “What if Jonah went to hell?”
The little girl replied, “Then you ask him”.

Of course, we know that both teacher and student are wrong. Jonah was swallowed by a “big fish” (דג גדול), not a whale! While we are on the topic of whether a person can be swallowed by a fish/whale and live, I came across an article a number of years ago on the “urban legend” of a man being swallowed by a sperm whale. This story even made its way into a number of standard conservative biblical reference works. The article available online:

Edward B. Davis, “A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories” in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (1991) 224-237.

The article is definitely worth a read.

(While I am on the topic of Jonah, I thought I would note that I haven’t forgotten about my series on “Jonah’s ‘Big Fish’ Story.” I just ran out of time and energy before finishing the series. I will be returning to the series this upcoming year as I take my intro Hebrew class through the book of Jonah — so stay tuned!)


3 Responses to “Jonah and the “Big Fish””

  1. tim bulkeley Says:

    Oh, yes don’t “forget”! I wish I was teaching Jonah to a Hebrew class. Though I enjoyed teaching it to an English medium class too.

  2. Simon Montagu Says:

    That’s nice, it’s kind of a modern urban version of The False Knight On The Road

  3. Paul Says:

    On the whale/fish debate, and whether a whale could ‘swallow’ a man, do bear in mind that it is only in VERY RECENT history that we have known that whales [as with other cetations, such as dolphins] are in fact mammals and not fish, and no such distinction existed during Biblical times, so there is no conflict with the Hebrew word we translate “fish” and the possibility that Jonah was, in fact, inside a whale.

    Then again, there are whales and whales, so the teacher in the anecdote is wrong to say no whale could swallow a man whole; nothing bigger than tiny organisms get into a baleen whale due to its filter; other species have large pharyngeal cavities that will be full of regularly renewed air, commodious enough for a man.

    But why do we feel we always have to try to prove that a MIRACLE is possible?!