Picture of whale head.

Jonah and the Great Fish (Jonah 1:16)

Have you ever wondered about the possibility that someone could survive being swallowed by a great fish? Few people would question the historicity of Jonah apart from the “fish story.” It is a whale of a tale! But could it have actually happened?

In Sir Francis Fox’s book, Sixty‑three Years of Engineering (cited in Princeton Theological Review 25 (1927), pp. 630-42), it is reported that the sperm whale can swallow lumps of food eight feet in diameter. In one of these whales was found the skeleton of a shark sixteen feet in length. Harry Rimmer (The Harmony of Science and Scripture, 1940) suggests that Jonah’s “fish” may have been the Rhinodon shark which has no teeth and feeds by straining its food through great plates in its mouth (p. 185). A large fish of this type would certainly be capable of swallowing a man.

What would be the chances of surviving inside the fish? Rimmer reports that whales, being air breathing mammals, have in their heads a large air storage chamber. The chamber is an enlargement of the nasal sinus and, in a large whale, can be as large as fourteen feet by seven feet, and seven feet high. This amounts to 686 cubic feet of space. It is possible that a man could survive for three days and three nights in such a chamber. Rimmer explains that if a whale takes into its mouth an object too big to swallow, to thrusts it up into the air chamber. If it finds that it has a large object in its head, it swims for the nearest land, lies in shallow water, and ejects it (p. 183). It is also reported that a sperm whale always ejects the contents of its stomach when dying.

Rimmer tells of an English sailor who was once swallowed by a giant Rhinodon shark in the English Channel. The sailor fell overboard attempting to harpoon the shark. Before he could be picked up, the man was swallowed. The entire trawler fleet sought to hunt the fish down so the sailor’s body could be recovered and buried. Forty‑eight hours after the accident occurred, the fish was sighted and killed. The carcass was towed to shore and the body cavity opened. Much to his friends’ surprise, the sailor was unconscious but alive! He was rushed to the hospital where he was found to be suffering from shock alone. A few hours later he was discharged as being physically fit. Rimmer reports that he met the sailor in person and was able to corroborate the incident. The man’s physical appearance had been effected by his experience. His body was entirely devoid of hair, and odd patches of yellowish‑brown covered his skin (pp. 188-189).

Drawing of a whale.

Fox reports an incident that took place in February 1891. A whale‑ship, Star of the East, was in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands when a large sperm whale was sighted three miles away. Drawing near for the kill, one of the two harpooning boats was upset. One man was drowned; the other, James Bartley, disappeared and was presumed dead. The whale was killed and the sailors worked all day and part of the night butchering it. As they began to work near the stomach, they were “startled by spasmodic signs of life.” Inside they found the sailor, doubled up and unconscious. He was laid on the deck and revived by a bath of sea‑water. He was placed in the captain’s quarters where he raved as a lunatic for two weeks. But at the end of the third week he had entirely recovered and resumed his duties.

It is reported that Bartley’s face, neck and hands were bleached to a deadly whiteness by the gastric juice in the stomach of the whale. He believes that he would have lived inside the stomach of the whale until he starved, for he lost his senses through fright and not from lack of air. After falling into the foaming waters, he was drawn into a dark place where the heat was intense. As he tried to find a way out and touched the slimy walls around him, he realized where he was and fell into an unconscious state as a result of the shock.

Other cases have been reported of men who survived the ordeal of being swallowed by a fish. A. J. Wilson reports two other incidents in which men were swallowed by whales and vomited up afterwards with only minor injuries (Princeton Theological Review 25 (October 1927, pp. 630-42).

It appears to be technically possible for a man to be swallowed by a whale or a great fish and survive. Actual incidents of such have been reported. Yet these reports must not be swallowed hook, line and sinker! In response to an inquiry regarding the James Bartley incident, the widow of the ship’s Captain affirmed that no sailor fell overboard during the period that her husband commanded the vessel (Expository Times 17 (1905/1906), p. 521; 18 (1906/1907), p. 239). Was the incident a hoax? Believers must avoid propagating false rumors even when they seemingly support the Christian faith.

The validation of a modern Jonah story would serve as an encouragement to the faithful. But the lack of such validation should not diminish a Christian’s appreciation for the miracle in the Jonah story. All the miracles of Scripture lie in the shadow of the Great Miracle‑‑the resurrection of Christ! The God who can raise the dead can appoint a fish to deliver Jonah! Faith in the resurrection significantly diminishes the difficulty in believing Jonah’s fish story.

About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July 2011).