What was it, a fish or whale that swallowed Jonah?                                                By Jack Kettler                                       


“Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17)


From the Strong's Concordance, one learns:


dag: a fish

Original Word: דָּג

Part of Speech: Noun Masculine

Transliteration: dag

Phonetic Spelling: (dawg)

Definition: a fish.”


Was it a whale or some great fish that swallowed Jonah? Did God create the fish? There is no reason to think that the text regarding “prepared” a great fish has any meaning other than to assign or appoint.


Theological liberals and the Bible:


“Author C. Dennis McKinsey believes that Americans have only seen or heard the good things about the Bible, without any exposure to its many shortcomings.” – Goodreads.


According to Dennis McKinsey, he supposed that Matthew 12:40 was:


“probably the most famous scientific error by Jesus.” (1)


Keil and Delitzsch’s Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament says the following:


“(Heb. Ch. 2:1). “And Jehovah appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” מנּה does not mean to create, but to determine, to appoint. The thought is this: Jehovah ordained that a great fish should swallow him. The great fish (lxx κῆτος, cf. Matthew 12:40), which is not more precisely defined, was not a whale, because this is extremely rare in the Mediterranean, and has too small a throat to swallow a man, but a large shark or sea-dog, canis carcharias, or squalus carcharias L., which is very common in the Mediterranean, and has so large a throat, that it can swallow a living man whole.”


“(Note: The aqualus carcharias L., the true shark, Requin, or rather Requiem, reaches, according to Cuvier, the length of 25 feet, and according to Oken the length of four fathoms, and has about 400 lance-shaped teeth in its jaw, arranged in six rows, which the animal can either elevate or depress, as they are simply fixed in cells in the skin. It is common in the Mediterranean, where it generally remains in deep water, and is very voracious, swallowing everything that comes in its way - plaice, seals, and tunny-fish, with which it sometimes gets into the fishermen's net on the coat of Sardinia, and is caught. As many as a dozen undigested tunny-fish have been found in a shark weighing three or four hundredweight; in one a whole horse was found, and its weight was estimated at fifteen hundredweight. Rondelet (Oken, p. 58) says that he saw one on the western coast of France, through whose throat a fat man could very easily have passed. Oken also mentions a fact, which is more elaborately described in Mller's Vollstndiges Natur-system des Ritters Carl v. Linn (1 Thessalonians 3.p. 268), namely, that in the year 1758 a sailor fell overboard from a frigate, in very stormy weather, into the Mediterranean Sea, and was immediately taken into the jaws of a sea-dog (carcharias), and disappeared. The captain, however, ordered a gun, which was standing on the deck, to be discharged at the shark, and the cannon-ball struck it, so that it vomited up again the sailor that it had swallowed, who was then taken up alive, and very little hurt, into the boat that had been lowered for his rescue).” (Emphasis mine)


“The miracle consisted therefore, not so much in the fact that Jonah was swallowed alive, as in the fact that he was kept alive for three days in the shark's belly, and then vomited unhurt upon the land. The three days and three nights are not to be regarded as fully three times twenty hours, but are to be interpreted according to Hebrew usage, as signifying that Jonah was vomited up again on the third day after he had been swallowed (compare Esther 4:16 with Esther 5:1 and Tob. 3:12, 13, according to the Lutheran text).” (2)


As noted above, theological liberals believe the account of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish is just a made-up story. But, unfortunately, for the doubters of Scripture, Jesus confirmed the account of Jonah:


“For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so, shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40)


Matthew Poole's Commentary explains how Jonah in the fish belly typified Christ’s burial:


“Now, Heb. And.”

“Prepared; created at first, say some; but what need that, when a mighty overgrown fish of a double age may do this; by God’s will and appointment it attended the ship, and followed it in the storm, expecting a prey, and ready to receive the prisoner.

A great fish; a whale, as we read, Matthew 12:40; others say it was a shark, a fish common in those seas.”

“To swallow up; not to chew upon him, but to take him down whole.

Jonah was in the belly of the fish, in safe custody, three days and three nights, that he might rightly typify Christ’s burial in the grave.” (3)


The Strong's Concordance informs the reader:


kétos: a huge fish

Original Word: κῆτος, ους, τό

Part of Speech: Noun, Neuter

Transliteration: kétos

Phonetic Spelling: (kay'-tos)

Definition: a huge fish

Usage: a sea monster, huge sea fish, whale.”


In closing:


While a whale is a possible translation of Greek, a huge or large fish is a better translation. In Jonah, the Hebrew dag: a fish is the best translation.


It could have been a whale:


“Humpback whale swallows diver whole, then spits him out 56-year-old Michael Packard lives to tell tale after spending 30 to 40 seconds inside huge marine mammal. In a story reminiscent of that of Biblical Jonah, a veteran lobster diver was swallowed whole by a humpback whale on Friday off the Massachusetts coast and survived to tell the tale.” - By TOI staff and AP -2 June 2021


Humpback whales were considered extremely rare in the Mediterranean Sea until recently. The whale’s migratory pattern in the North Atlantic did not normally consist of the Mediterranean Sea. Researchers remain divided on why this change is so.      


Moreover, as seen from the Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, there are large fish in the Mediterranean Sea, such as the sea-dog (Carcharias), which can swallow a man whole. While it could be “whale,” nevertheless, the KJV’s poor translation of kétos, whale, fueled needless ridicule from theological liberals.     


“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)




1.      Dennis McKinsey, The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1995), p. 142.

2.      Keil-Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Jonah, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Reprinted 1985), p. 398.

3.      Matthew Poole's Commentary on the Holy Bible, Jonah, Vol. 2, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985) p. 929.

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of books defending the Reformed Faith. Books can be ordered online at: https://www.amazon.com/Books-Jack-Kettler/s?rh=n%3A283155%2Cp_27%3AJack+Kettler