“Who Ate Prophet Jonah?” or Why It Is Important to Understand the Language of Bible

“So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the Lord and took vows. Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:15-17).
On October 5, the Orthodox Church commemorates Prophet Jonah. Many people know, or at least have heard, the story of Prophet Jonah, who was thrown into the sea and then eaten by the whale. There are people, especially those who are dealing with biology, who call into question this biblical story and consider it a fairy tale: people state that a whale cannot eat even a small fish, for it feeds only on plankton and it is just impossible for a whale to eat a whole human being. Putting this story in doubt, people begin to foster their doubt even more in their discussions and begin to question the words of Christ Himself and His Divine Origin, for Christ once said: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mathew 12:40). So, how can we handle this? Should we reject our mind and common sense and believe that everything was just like that? Of course, nothing is impossible for God and He could perform such miracle. What is more, there were cases when the sailors killed a whale during hunting and found the remains of a human inside of it. But will this assure our brothers and sisters who are full of doubt and who have not believed in Christ yet? Should a Christian, especially the one who respects scientific approach to knowledge, reconcile with his mind, which also needs to be churched? Or is there any other way of reading and interpreting holy texts?
All the troubles with the understanding of biblical texts that emerged and  continue to emerge today, are caused by our disability to listen and understand biblical images. We just do not feel the language of the Bible. We do not catch some senses because we do not know what the purpose of the author was. The Hebrews were a terrestrial people and there were not so many words in their language for various naval creatures. In the original text that was written in the ancient Jewish language, the words גדול דג – “dag gadol” are used, which means “big fish”. In the language of the Bible, this “big fish” could mean not only a large animal living in the sea but rather a “dragon”, a “sea serpent”. In the submission of many peoples, this dragon symbolizes the primal and chaotic waters. For the Bible the words “whale”, “big fish” and “dragon” are interchangeable. This is why in the language of the Holy Scripture there is no difference how exactly you would say: “Jonah was swollen by waters”, by a “big fish” or by “death”. Sea beasts are just a personification of the water chaos, the world in which there is no life and which is hostile to life. This is why we can often find in the Holy Scripture such words like “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck” and “Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink” (Psalm 69:1, 14). Jonah was willingly thrown into that world of hostility and death. He sacrificed himself so that other people on the board of the ship could save their lives. However, by the will of the One Who created those waters and harmonized them, and by the will of the One Whose Spirit “was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2), Jonah did not die in that water, in that kingdom of death, but was saved. This is why Jonah was one of the foretypes of Christ, although the story about Christ’s sacrifice would be told in a completely different language – not in the language of biblical allegory, but of a historical narration.
Let us remember about this wonderful biblical image and this sad story about prophet Jonah. We all were once eaten by the “big fish”, or the waters that took prophet Jonah by his own will, at the very moment of our Baptism, in order to die with Christ for any sin, sinking our old self in the primal water, and to resurrect for eternal life and preach repentance for other people, who still do not know Christ, just like Prophet Jonah did.
By John Nichiporuk, 
a Bachelor of Theology, a student of 
the Minsk Theological Academy .
The Catalog Of Good Deeds
Avatar photo

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. This is a wonderful interpretation, but I'm not entirely convinced it works. Here's why: Jonah had already been thrown into the turbulent sea, was already in those deadly chaotic waters *before* the "sea serpent" was sent to him. If the Hebrew word usually translated as "whale" were really to be interpreted as meaning "the chaos of the sea", Jonah 1:17 would not have been necessary. Jonah 1:17 states: "Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights." The sea was already becalmed when the narrative tells us God sent a "sea dragon" or a whale — which still swam in the Mediterranean at that time — to swallow Jonah and carry him in its belly for 3 days.

    In other words, the whale was *in addition to* the watery element into which Jonah had been thrown, not merely a synonym for it.

Know everything about Orthodoxy? We can tell you a bit more!

Subscribe for our weekly newsletter not to miss the most interesting articles on our blog.

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: