The Book of Jonah: A Whale of a Tale

Do you believe the tale of Jonah in the Bible, or do you think it’s just a big fish story?

God created “the great creatures of the sea” (Genesis 1:21) and “the great leviathans of the deep” (Job 41; Psalm 104:26). The Book of Jonah in the Old Testament describes the account of a disobedient prophet who, upon being swallowed by a whale (or a “great fish”) and vomited upon the shore, reluctantly led the people of Nineveh to repentance.

According to the Bible, God called to Jonah one day and told him to go preach in Nineveh because the people there were very wicked. Jonah hated this idea because Nineveh was one of Israel’s greatest enemies and Jonah wanted nothing to do with them. They could all go to Hell for all he cared!

So, instead of obeying and going straight to Nineveh, Jonah tried to run away from God. He went in the opposite direction of Nineveh, boarding a ship heading across the sea to Tarshish. But God set a mighty storm upon the ship, and the desperate crew decided that Jonah was to blame. They threw him overboard, and as soon as they tossed Jonah into the water, the storm stopped.

God sent a great fish (Jesus called it a whale in Matthew 12:40) to swallow Jonah and to save him from drowning. Jonah was alive within the fish (whale) for three days and three nights. While in the belly of the whale, Jonah repented and prayed to God for help. Then, God had the whale throw up Jonah onto the shore near Nineveh.

This time Jonah did what God told him to do. He preached to Nineveh and warned them to repent before the city is wiped out in 40 days. God’s use of a whale or great fish as Jonah’s mode of transportation was sure to capture the Ninevites’ attention, since they worshiped Dagon (the fish-god) in that particular area of the ancient world.

And it worked! The people of Nineveh believed Jonah. They turned from their evil ways, and God had mercy on them. However, Jonah was hugely disappointed because God did not annihilate these enemies of Israel. Angry and bitter, Jonah left the city and then he sat down to rest.

God provided a vine to shelter Jonah from the hot sun, and Jonah was glad to have the shade. But the next day, God sent a worm to eat the vine. Now the sun beat down on Jonah’s head which made him mad. He wished the vine hadn’t been destroyed. God scolded Jonah for being more concerned about a plant than he was for the lives of 120,000 people who lived in the city of Nineveh.

Jonah was obviously selfish, disobedient, and had anger issues. Sound like anyone you know? But he learned that you can’t run away from God. The Book of Jonah teaches us that God is not pleased when people do bad things, but he won’t give up on you – he extends his grace to all kinds of people, even the Ninevites.

Many people think that the story of Jonah is just a parable or allegory. However, the Bible’s plain teaching is that the Book of Jonah is a historical narrative and Jonah was truly swallowed by a whale or a great fish. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus himself indicates that chapters 1 and 2 of Jonah are literal events which foreshadowed his own literal and bodily resurrection from the dead.

Swallowed by a Whale, and Lived to Tell About It

Michael Packard of Wellfleet, Massachusetts has been a lobster diver for 40 years – he first started commercial diving when he was 18 years old – but up until now had never experienced anything like this…

On the morning of June 11, 2021, he was out gathering lobsters off the coast of Cape Cod, and got swallowed by a Humpback Whale! Whales can open their mouths really wide, in what is called gulp feeding. Yep, the whale literally swam up and went: “gulp!”

“The next thing I knew it was completely black,” he told The Cape Cod Times. “I could sense I was moving, and I could feel the whale squeezing with the muscles in his mouth.” Packard estimated that he was in the whale’s mouth for about 30 seconds.

“Then all of a sudden he went up to the surface and just erupted and started shaking his head,” Packard told WBZ-TV News. “I just got thrown in the air and landed in the water.” Captain Joe Francis, who was heading a fishing charter nearby, got a front row seat to the narrow escape.

Francis told WBZ-TV, “I saw Mike come flying out of the water feet first with his flippers on and land back in the water,” Francis said. “We got him up, got his tank off. Got him on the deck and calmed him down and he goes, ‘Joe, I was in the mouth of a whale. I can’t believe it, I was in the mouth of a whale Joe!’”

Josiah Mayo, Packard’s crew mate and driver who was on the lobster boat as his friend tussled with the whale, told that he initially thought Packard must have been severely injured in the whale encounter. Amazingly, Packard only had soft tissue damage to his legs and a dislocated knee.

Similar incidents to Packard’s have happened in the past. In 2019, wildlife photographer Rainer Schimpf was capturing images of a sardine run off the coast of Port Elizabeth in South Africa when a Bryde’s whale scooped him up inside its mouth.

If getting swallowed by a whale can happen in modern times, it surely happened in ancient times as well. Still, it’s not every day that someone gets swallowed by a whale and lives to tell the tale!

“In trouble, deep trouble, I prayed to God. He answered me. From the belly of the whale I cried, ‘Help!’ You heard my cry. You threw me into ocean’s depths, into a watery grave, with ocean waves, ocean breakers crashing over me. I said, ‘I’ve been thrown away, thrown out, out of your sight. I’ll never again lay eyes on your Holy Temple.’ Ocean gripped me by the throat. The ancient Abyss grabbed me and held tight. My head was all tangled in seaweed at the bottom of the sea where the mountains take root. I was as far down as a body can go, and the gates were slamming shut behind me forever — Yet you pulled me up from that grave alive, O God, my God! When my life was slipping away, I remembered God, And my prayer got through to you, made it all the way to your Holy Temple. Those who worship hollow gods, god-frauds, walk away from their only true love. But I’m worshiping you, God, calling out in thanksgiving! And I’ll do what I promised I’d do!” ~Jonah’s Prayer, The Message Bible

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