The story of Jonah and the “big fish” is one of the more well-known accounts recorded in the Bible, and many children would be familiar with how Jonah was swallowed by the “big fish.” My own son has read this story multiple times from different children’s books. On a recent reading, my son asked a question:
“Papa, some books said fish, some books said whale, so was it a fish or a whale?” (i.e. Was Jonah swallowed by a fish or whale???)
This is not just a question for 3-year-old kids, but even for fully-grown Christians to consider. The confusion starts because of two seemingly contradictory verses in the Bible. Firstly, in Jonah 1:17, Jonah was described as being swallowed by a “fish.” However, in Matthew 12:40, Jesus described Jonah as being in the belly of the “whale.” Hence, the question: was it a fish or a whale?
Skeptics of the Bible have pounced on this seeming contradiction to attack the inspiration of the Bible. However, this is not a contradiction. When we examine Matthew 12:40, the Greek word used is κῆτος (ketos). There is actually another Greek word used to describe fish: ὀψάριον (opsarion) (cf. John 6:9; 21:9-10). However, κῆτος (ketos) is defined as: “sea monster, whale, or huge fish” (Thayer’s Greek Definitions). This tells us that Jonah was swallowed by some kind of large sea creature; whether fish or whale, it is not clear.
A further problem we need to consider is that the modern way of classifying animals is different from how animals were classified in ancient times. For example, in the Creation account, there were only three broad categories of animals mentioned: creatures of the air and sea, that were created on Day 5; creatures of the land, that were created on Day 6 (Genesis 1:20-25). Additionally, under the Old Law, when we examine the instructions concerning unclean foods, bats were categorized together with birds, since they both have wings and fly (Leviticus 11:13-19). Under modern classification, we would not put bats together with birds, since bats are not birds, but are mammals.
When we go back to Jonah 1:17, the Hebrew word used is דּג (dâg), which is simply translated as “fish.” However, this may not necessarily refer to a “fish,” according to our modern classification system. In fact, in the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the translators used the Greek word κῆτος (ketos), which is the same word found in Matthew 12:40. This may hint to us that the classification for the animal that swallowed Jonah is unclear.
In the end, whether the creature that swallowed Jonah was a fish or a whale, I will honestly say: I do not know. What we do know is this: the “fish” that swallowed Jonah was prepared by the Lord Himself.
God summoned the “big fish” to save Jonah from the depths of the sea, and to keep him safe for 3 days and 3 nights. Though Jonah had run away from God, nevertheless God still kept Jonah safe, and gave him a second opportunity to do the right thing.
Similarly today, though we may have wandered far from God, God will always look out for us and He loves us still. God wants every sinner to come back to repentance.
who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4)