Was Jonah Really Swallowed by a Fish?

Was Jonah Really Swallowed by a Fish?

One of the most memorable stories in the Bible is when Jonah, the prophet of God, tries to run from his assignment, and winds up in the belly of a giant fish. It is one that engages people of all ages because of the important lessons it teaches about obedience, God’s omnipresence, and about God’s forgiveness.

But there is also the question and intrigue of the fish itself. What kind of sea creature was it? Could someone really live in the gut of an animal for three days and survive? Is it just a metaphor?

These are all questions that people begin to ask as they grow and begin to think critically about what is in the Bible. When analyzing a story with about something as difficult to believe as Jonah being swallowed by a whale, it is important to remember that, while the Bible does have parables and metaphors in it, it is God’s Word that communicates real, historical events. Nothing is impossible for the Lord.

If the Bible says Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish, he did.

What Kind of a Fish Appears in Jonah?

When looking at the original Hebrew text of the Book of Jonah, the word for fish that is used is “דָּג”, or dāḡ in Roman lettering. This word is a noun, so it is not referring to the act of fishing. Does this word here refer literally to a fish, or could it represent something? The best way to analyze how it is being used is to cross-reference it with other times the same word is used.

Other times the word dāḡ is used in the Old Testament include but are not limited to:

Genesis 9:2 - “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered.”

Nehemiah 13:16 – “Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself!”  

Psalm 8:6-8 - “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

Ezekiel 38:20 - “The fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field and all creeping things that creep on the ground, and all the people who are on the face of the earth, shall quake at my presence. And the mountains shall be thrown down, and the cliffs shall fall, and every wall shall tumble to the ground.”

Zephaniah 1:3 - “I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord.”

This word, dāḡ, is used commonly to describe the non-mammalian creatures of the sea; in fact, the Bible does not appear to have words that make the distinction between mammalian and non-mammalian animals that live underwater. It is therefore academically safe and intellectually honest to assume that when the Bible uses this word in the Book of Jonah – which it does each time it refers to the beast – that it is a literal fish.

So Was It a Whale?

In pop culture, the most common depiction of the creature is a whale, since it lives underwater and gets large enough that it could conceivably consume a person. There are also species of whale like the humpback whale and blue whale that do not have teeth and that consume living creatures like krill. These would not have the ability nor the impetus to chew Jonah for nutrition. In fact, blue whales are big enough that small children could crawl around inside the heart of one. Could God command a whale to swallow and then throw up Jonah? Yes.

It is also important to remember that “... nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). He can command any creature to obey Him. Even the rocks would cry out if commanded to do so.

Another important element to consider when contemplating if Jonah was really swallowed by a fish is that, scientifically, we know less about the oceans than we do about outer space. There could be a fish that is unidentified or extinct that swallowed Jonah. It could be a species that still exists and is thriving in the deep, dark, unexplored parts of the ocean. Giant squid were rumored to be a myth for centuries, and the first pictures of them were not taken until 2004.  What once seemed impossible and unverifiable is now accepted scientific fact.

The Bible speaks of the Leviathan, the largest of the sea creatures. “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook?...Will traders bargain over him? Will they divide him up among the merchants? Can you fill his skin with harpoons or his head with fishing spears?” (Job 41:1-7).

There is nothing comparable to this beast documented by science, but it existed once. To say that because we don’t know of anything today that could consume then spit out Jonah must mean the story is not true is to dismiss God’s power and put too much faith in man’s knowledge, which is constantly proving itself limited and faulty.

The Bible also says, “And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). Other translations say, “prepared a great fish.” The implication being this creature could have been developed by the Lord specifically for this purpose, and no such being has existed since.

Why Wasn’t Jonah Digested by the Fish?

Perhaps a more legitimate question to ask than, “could such a fish exist?” is, “but why wasn’t Jonah digested?” Again, it is important to consider that God specifically prepared for this event, as He knew that Jonah would flee from His command to go to Nineveh to call the people there to repent and turn to God.

Scientifically speaking, some of the largest creatures on the planet digest very slowly, or their digestive systems are created to process certain kinds of foods, but not others. It is possible Jonah was mildly affected by being in the creature’s belly, but it did not have the enzymes in its digestive tract to properly break down Jonah’s body, or its system moved so slowly that Jonah was protected.

The greatest miracle in the Bible was the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. This event was so great the Apostle Paul wrote, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 13-14). The Christian faith is meaningless without the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the promise that one day everyone who had faith will also be resurrected bodily. If it is possible to believe that Jesus was dead for three days and rose again, uncorrupted, and that one day that will happen for all the faithful, is it so impossible to believe that God protected Jonah from the digestive juices of a large sea creature? This event was clearly orchestrated with the direct intervention of God. He can protect Jonah from the worst of what could have happened to him during that time.

When reading the Bible, it is important to understand God’s power so we can accept many of these recorded events. The Bible records many different wondrous events, including the replication of five loaves of bread and two fishes to feed thousands, small nations overcoming mighty ones against all odds, and the resurrection of the dead. The life of Jonah contained one of those amazing moments in history where God moved His mighty hand to enact His will.


McGee, J. Vernon. Jonah and Micah. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Incorporated, 1996.

Morris, Henry. The Remarkable Journey of Jonah. Green Forest: Master Books, Inc., 2003.

Morris, John Dr. “Did Jonah Really Get Swallowed by a Whale?” Institute of Creation Research, December 1, 1993, https://www.icr.org/article/did-jonah-really-get-swallowed-by-whale.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/by wildestanimal

Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer who uses her passion for God, reading, and writing to glorify God. She and her husband have lived all over the country serving their Lord and Savior in ministry. She has a blog on graceandgrowing.com.