What happened to Jonah in the sea?

I’m writing a novel about Jonah and have come upon a heart stopping discovery. Jonah actually died in the sea creature (whatever it was, probably a blue whale) and when spit onto the beach, the Lord resurrected him! I’ve never studied this idea before in all my years as an educator and teacher of the Bible. But the more I examine it, the more I’m led to believe this may be what happened. It makes the event even more of a miracle!

How do you know this?

“. . . .Augustine views the story of Jonah as a figure for Christ. For example, he writes: “As, therefore, Jonah passed from the ship to the belly of the whale, so Christ passed from the cross to the sepulchre, or into the abyss of death. And as Jonah suffered this for the sake of those who were endangered by the storm, so Christ suffered for the sake of those who are tossed on the waves of this world.” Augustine credits his allegorical interpretation to the interpretation of Christ himself (Matt. 12:39,40), and he allows for other interpretations as long as they are in line with Christ’s.”

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I’ve read a lot and believe this conclusion made by many theologians is in harmony with what Christ himself said in Matthew 12:40 that as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for 3 days and 3 nights, so he would be three days and three nights in the earth. Of course we know it was not a literal 72 hours, but figuratively speaking–good Friday night, all day Saturday, and very early on Eastern morning. Was it not possible that Jesus was comparing his resurrection to that of Jonah’s? Just thinking here. Perhaps that is what the “great fish” vomited him onto the land–he was dead, and probably quite distasteful. I like to think that where the scriptures are silent, God expects to use our informed intelligence to figure these things out. To me it is a greater miracle that God gave Jonah a new life, a second chance at completing his mission and Christ offers us the same miracle.

It’s possible. I’m not sure that interpretation is confirmable.

A blue whale is incredibly unlikely, since its a baleen whale and therefore uninterested in eating anything larger than plankton (blue whales actively avoid eating fish and marine life other than plankton). Additionally, its esophagus is only about a foot wide; it would choke if it tried to swallow a human.

The only whale with a large enough esophagus is a sperm whale; they have been known to swallow giant squids. A sperm whale could have swallowed Jonah, and their natural habitat is extensive (they can be found everywhere but the polar waters), so it would not have been unusual to find one in the Mediterranean. However, once swallowed Jonah would have needed a constant miracle to survive, given the lack of oxygen and the stomach acid. Given the details of Jonah’s own prayer I am more inclined to believe that he died and was raised, especially since no passage of Scripture uses him as an example of miraculous preservation; as you note, the only mention of him is in connection with Jesus’ death and burial.


Thank you Jonathan. In looking over my research notes I found that the sperm whale was the most likely candidate. At first I thought the whale shark would be a good candidate, but even though they have a large wide mouth, their esophagus was also too narrow. Thank you for adding to my understanding.

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If Jonah was swallowed by a whale and was there for 3 days, he’d be mostly digested and absorbed in the gut, with the indigestible remainder being excreted in feces.

As for me, I’d prefer to focus on Jonah and the message of repentance he was commanded to preach, etc.


Thanks for your input. I agree, I think Jonah receiving a new life and a second chance to fulfill his calling is the real message of the very small book. I also read that the juices in the “great fish’s” stomach would have bleached him white. So, if the citizens of Nineveh worshipped Dagon–a fish/man god–and Jonah was thrown on land by a sea creature, then that could be why so many repented when he spoke to them. He may have looked like a spirit, or some creature from the gods. Interesting don’t you think?

I don’t think hydrochloric acid, which is what stomach acid is, would have bleached him white. The HCl helps break down food. If it penetrates the mucosa in the stomach you can get an ulcer. Most of us have puked occasionally, and the acidic taste is revolting, but the vomit is not white.

Of course. But there is a difference between what God can do, and what He has done. Without any suggestion in the text of “constant miracles”, it is unwise to posit them. Otherwise we can make up anything we like and just appeal to “constant miracles”, the way people do when claiming there was a global flood. In this case there is more evidence that Jonah died, than there is that Jonah was preserved by “constant miracles”.

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Well you addressed me, personally, so I responded to what you said.

Given that Jonah’s prayer, with language indicative of death (“I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever”, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord”), and given Christ’s use of the passage, and given the fact that no one in the rest of the Bible provides any indication that Jonah survived, this is not an unnatural reading. You don’t need theological coaching to realise that Jesus said that his death and burial would be analogous to Jonah’s experience.

Given your personal preference to write off the entire Genesis flood as something which never happened (which is hardly a natural reading of the text), I’m surprised that you view Beaglelady as a skeptic. I’ve found you at least as “skeptical” of the Bible as her.


Well, as for me, I think the book of Jonah is a parabolical short story, a work of inspirational fiction to teach how God’s mercy extends beyond the borders of Israel to even the worst and most undeserving of enemies. I find that the book just reads far more naturally in that light; many interpreters including C. S. Lewis have thought so too. I’ve given several reasons for understanding the book this way previously, none of them original or idiosyncratic, and you can reference them if curious ("Narrative Theology" approach to Scripture - #50 by Relates).

So I find speculation about what really happened to the man Jonah while in the belly of the fish to be misplaced. What happened to him? Well, as the story says, the character Jonah prays elegantly, poetically and at length to God over the course of 3 days as he contemplates his fate, until God causes the fish to vomit him onto dry land; and nothing more of note (like a death and resurrection) takes place to Jonah over that period.


Even if we view it as an inspirational fiction (which Christ does not appear to have done), that doesn’t avoid the question of whether the text is telling us Jonah died in the whale, or survived in the whale. Given Jesus’ use of the parable, the question is relevant regardless of whether the narrative is fictional or not.


I think the odds are that Augustine got the message written between the lines … that Jonah was dead for 3 days.

If God can miraculously keep someone alive in a fish … it makes even more sense that God miraculously RESURRECTED after being dead for 3 days.

Thanks, Dr. Jorgenson. The book of Jonah is about God’s love for gentiles who were given a chance to repent of their sins. Jonah wanted nothing to do with this, but was finally obedient. This book is read in the synagogues on the Day of Atonement, quite fittingly.

Ninevah is in present-day Iraq, and ISIS has been destroying the archaeological treasures of this city.

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Friends, I am thoroughly inspired by all of your comments. As an author, I need to write from a particular point of view, and since my main character is Jonah, I’m trying to ascertain what really happened to him. I know we can never know except for what I feel are his reflections on the event years afterward. He is very poetic and his writing beautiful when he remembers what happened. He had to have died I think, because most experts of whale anatomy say there would have been no air for him to breath–therefore…Your comments have been excellent, thank you for contributing to this discussion. Maybe you can check out my novel when it comes out this fall. “Return From the Abyss,” by yours truly. I have about 20 readers who will tear apart the manuscript which I find very helpful. I only which they would ask the kinds of questions you folks have been raising. Thank you once again. There are so many questions. Did he marry? What did he do after his pity party with the gourd at the end of the book. Did he go home again after Nineveh?