Jonah and the "Whale"?
by Dave Miller, Ph.D.
Skeptics frequently have railed against the allusion to a “whale” in Matthew 12:40 in the King James Version. They have insisted that the very idea that a person actually could be swallowed by such a creature and survive is preposterous. Yet this charge has been shown to be impotent for two reasons: (1) historical precedent exists for the possibility of just such an occurrence; and (2) the text of Jonah insists that the sea creature in question was orchestrated supernaturally by God for the purpose intended (see Thompson, 1996, 16:86). God specifically “prepared” (mahnah—appointed, constituted, made ready) a great fish (Gesenius, 1847, p. 486). The same term is employed in the same book to refer to additional direct manipulations initiated by God. He also prepared a plant (4:6), a worm (4:7), and a vehement wind (4:8) [see Wigram, 1890, p. 733]. George Cansdale was correct in concluding: “[T]here is no point in speculating about the full physical explanation of an incident that primarily is metaphysical, i.e., miraculous” (1975, 5:925, emp. added). McClintock and Strong agree: “[T]he transaction is plainly miraculous, and no longer within the sphere of zoological discussion” (1881, 10:972). Jonah’s survival after being inside a sea creature is no more remarkable than Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego surviving the “burning fiery furnace” (Daniel 3:27).
In addition to the evidence that may be deduced for (1) the credibility of a whale swallowing Jonah and (2) the miraculous preparation of the creature by God, a third clarification is in order that pertains to translation. The actual text of the book of Jonah states that “the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah” (Jonah 1:17). The Hebrew term (dahg) that underlies the English translation “fish” (1:17; 2:1,10) is a broad term that “always has the collective meaning ‘fish’ ” (Botterweck, 1978, 3:135). William Gesenius, whose lexicographical labors in the Hebrew language were without peer, defined dahg merely as “fish” (p. 189). Eminent Hebrew scholar, C.F. Keil, insisted strongly that “[t]he great fish, which is not more precisely defined, was not a whale” (Keil and Delitzsch, 1977, 10:398, emp. added). We conclude, therefore, that the word used in the book of Jonah to refer to the sea creature that swallowed Jonah, refers indiscriminately to any type of fish—without regard for the technical taxonomic, classification schemes developed by the scientific community in the last few centuries. It has the same generic latitude that inheres in the English word “fish” has, which can refer to any number of cold-blooded aquatic vertebrates—from a trout, bass, or crappie to sharks, rays, jellyfish, and crayfish (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000, p. 665).
However, a point of clarification needs to be sounded even here. According to the present zoological nomenclature, a “whale” is not a “fish”—it is classified as a mammal. Hebrew linguistic experts note no such distinction in the terms used in the Old Testament. The ordinary term for “fish” (dahg) would not necessarily exclude the whale in its application.
The Hebrew uses three additional terms that are germane to this discussion. Two of the words are closely interrelated: tan-neem and tan-neen. The first term generally is translated (though erroneously) as “dragon” in the KJV. Newer translations typically use “jackal,” except in Ezekiel 29:3 and 32:2, where the creature’s habitat is obviously aquatic, so “monster” generally is employed (Day, 1939, 2:873). The second term is treated more loosely in the KJV, and variously translated as “whales” (Genesis 1:21; Job 7:12), “serpent,” archaic for “snake” (Exodus 7:9,10), “dragon” (Jeremiah 51:34), and “sea monsters” (Lamentations 4:3). The third relevant term is “leviathan”—a transliteration of the Hebrew term liv-yah-thahn (Job 41:1; 104:26; Isaiah 27:1). This “very large aquatic creature” (Gesenius, p. 433) was unquestionably a now-extinct, dinosaur-like reptile that once inhabited the oceans (Lyons, 2001). Whereas the term “leviathan” undoubtedly refers to a specific type of animal, the previous two terms (tan-neem and tan-neen) are generic and nonspecific like dahg. [Interestingly, Isaiah 27:1 refers to leviathan as both a “snake” (nah-ghahsh) and a “monster,” or “reptile” (NKJV) (tah-neen)].
What is particularly noteworthy is the fact that on the fifth day of Creation, God created sea life. He used two terms to specify these inhabitants of the “waters.” The first was “souls” (Genesis 1:20,21b)—the ordinary term for living “things,” or “creatures” (nephesh). The second was “sea-monsters” (Genesis 1:21a)—the plural of tan-neen (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 1967/77, p. 2). This latter term is important for understanding the generic nature of the Hebrew language in its reference to the animal occupants of the sea. The word is translated erroneously as “whales” in the KJV. The NKJV has “sea creatures,” the ASV, NASB, RSV, and NEB have “sea monsters,” while the NIV has “creatures of the sea.” These latter three renderings are accurate representations of the Hebrew. They illustrate the in-built ambiguity that characterizes the Hebrew designations of animal species in the Old Testament. [NOTE: The term translated “birds” (Genesis 1:20,21, 22,26,28,30) doubtless possesses the same latitude and indiscriminate flexibility in meaning, thereby designating any creature that has the capability of flight, including mammals (e.g., bats), insects, and reptiles (e.g., pterodactyl).]
Moving to New Testament Greek, and the verse under discussion in this article (Matthew 12:40), did Christ refer to the great fish of Jonah as a “whale”? Matthew records that Jesus employed the Greek term ketos to refer to Jonah’s sea creature. The Septuagint translators used the same term in their rendering of Jonah 1:17. Greek lexicographers are decisive on the meaning of this word. The highly respected Greek scholars Arndt and Gingrich offer only one definition for ketos—“sea-monster” (1957, p. 432). The dictionary that was designed for use with the United Bible Societies’ prestigious Greek New Testament text (A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament) defined ketos as “large sea creature” (Newman, 1971, p. 100). Thayer listed three terms—“sea-monster, whale, huge fish” (1901, p. 346), with the reference to “whale” being merely one possibility among many others within the broader sense of the term. Renowned Bible commentator Albert Barnes insisted: “It is well known that the Greek word translated as whale, in the New Testament, does not of necessity mean a whale, but may denote a large fish or sea-monster of any kind” (1949, 1:134, italics in orig.). He speculated that the creature was a species of shark. McClintock and Strong elaborated further by noting that the term “is not restricted in its meaning to ‘a whale,’ or any cetacean; ...it may denote any sea-monster, either ‘a whale,’ or ‘a shark,’ or a ‘seal,’ or ‘a tunny of enormous size’ ” (10:973). Respected Bible scholar J.W. McGarvey wrote: “The Greek word here translated whale is ‘sea monster’ ” (n.d., p. 306). Lenski also preferred the rendering “sea monster,” stating that “[t]he ‘whale’ of our versions is only an effort at translation” (1961, 1:493, emp. added).
The versionary evidence is surely confusing to the average English reader of the New Testament. The KJV, ASV, and RSV all render ketos in Matthew 12:40 as “whale.” Their rationale behind this unjustifiable linguistic decision, which Lewis maintains has created “an unnecessary problem” (1976, 2:178-179), remains a mystery. Ironically, all three versions translate Jonah 1:17 as “fish.” On the other hand, the NASB, NEB, and REB all have “sea monster” in Matthew 12:40. Three translations that handled the matter in a comparable fashion to each other include the GNB (“big fish”), the NIV (“huge fish”), and the NKJV (“great fish”). It also should be noted that, as a matter of fact, the generic word in Greek for “fish” is ichthus—not ketos. The latter term varies from the former in that ketos refers generically to a sea monster, or perhaps, a huge fish (cf. Vine, 1952, p. 209).
What conclusion is to be drawn from these linguistic data? Both the Hebrew and Greek languages lacked the precision to identify with specificity the identity of the creature that swallowed Jonah. As Earl S. Kalland affirmed, “[t]he identity or biological classification of this great water monster is unknown” (1980, 1:401). Both dahg and ketos “designate sea creatures of undefined species” (Lewis, 2:178).
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Barnes, Albert (1949 reprint), Notes on the New Testament: Matthew and Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
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Day, Alfred Ely (1939), “Dragon,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, James Orr, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974 reprint).
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Lyons, Eric (2001), “Behemoth and Leviathan—Creatures of Controversy,” Reason and Revelation, 21:1-7, January.
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Thayer, Joseph H. (1901), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977 reprint).
Thompson, Bert (1996), “Jonah, Jesus, and Anti-supernaturalism,” Reason and Revelation, 16:86, November.
Vine, W.E. (1952), An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell).
Wigram, George W. (1890), The Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980 reprint).