Jonah swallowed by the big fish in the Book of Jonah

Jesus spoke of the “sign of Jonah” in Matthew 12:


Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here (verses 38-41).




What is a “sign” in the Bible?

A “sign” in the Bible often refers to a miraculous sign, something done by the power of God for a purpose, to verify someone and/or that person’s message, and to open the door for belief.


The Pharisees, most of whom opposed Jesus because he rejected the extra laws they burdened the people with (and for other reasons), asked Jesus for a sign.


Jesus had already performed numerous signs, some of which they witnessed, but all of which they rejected. These signs fulfilled prophecies such as Isaiah 42:6, 7, which gave evidence that Jesus was the promised Messiah, along with other prophecies about the Messiah.


So when asked to perform a sign, Jesus brought up Jonah.


Jesus’ message is loaded

Jesus could said a lot with a few words. In this passage:



Is The Jonah Account Historical?

There are quite a few who do not want to “swallow” the fish-swallowing-Jonah record and prefer to see it as an allegory or parable. Looking at the book of Jonah, we read at the very beginning:


“The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.’ But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Jonah 1:1-3


What we see is not an allegory or a parable, but a historical narrative. Firstly, the account begins with these words:


 “The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai.”


“The word of the Lord came to” indicates a prophet to whom God is giving revelation. This language is never used allegorically in the Bible.


Secondly, Jonah is identified as “the son of Amittai.” Identifying Jonah this way indicates he is an historical personage. If this were a parable, there would be no name of a person, and certainly not the name of his father; nor would there be “And the word of the Lord came to…”


In the third place, parables are indicated either with specific type language or stating outright that what follows is a parable. Whenever something not historical is presented in the Old Testament, it is clear from the language, genre, and context. God does expect people to use common sense. The very first sentence in Jonah could not be more clear that this is an historical narrative.


If it were natural for someone to survive in the belly of a large fish, or if it were natural for someone to die and then come alive again after being swallowed this way, it would not be a sign. It was God, in fact, who directed the fish to swallow Jonah and to spit Jonah out. The supposed hard-to-believe elements of the story actually are more evidence of its veracity since Jesus referred to the events with the fish as a “sign.”


Therefore, it is not only reasonable to conclude that Jesus referred to the account of Jonah as literal and historical, but the evidence in God’s word strongly supports it.


Jonah’s Prayer

In chapter 2, Jonah prays “from the stomach of the fish” (verse 1) about how he had been drowning and had called out to God:


“For You had cast me into the deep,

Into the heart of the seas,

And the current engulfed me.

All Your breakers and billows passed over me….

Water encompassed me to the point of death.

The great deep engulfed me,

Weeds were wrapped around my head.

I descended to the roots of the mountains.

The earth with its bars was around me forever,

But You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God” (verses 3, 5, 6).


Jonah is thanking God for rescuing him with the fish. This is a parallel to other biblical narratives showing protection from drowning:



That Jonah prayed in the fish’s belly indicates that he may have survived being swallowed. God then “commanded” the fish to vomit Jonah onto “dry land” (that the fish would get Jonah onto dry land is in itself another miraculous act), thus rescuing and saving the life of Jonah through the fish. The great fish was like the ark in the Flood, the wicker basket in the Nile, and the dry ground passage in the midst of the sea.


Jesus’ reference to Jonah in Matthew 12 seals the historicity of Jonah and what happened to him. Jesus uses the account of Jonah’s experience in the fish and being regurgitated three days later as pointing to his own death, burial, and resurrection.


Thus, Jesus confirms the historical truth of the book of Jonah, including Jonah being swallowed by the great fish, living in its belly for three days (or dying and being resurrected), and being spit out by the fish.


Jesus also refers to “the men of Nineveh” and how they repented at the preaching of Jonah. This is further evidence for the veracity of this account of Jonah.


So Much More

The book of Jonah is rich with significance:


Lessons in Jonah

The book of Jonah demonstrates that


In essence, Jonah is like a mini-gospel prior to the incarnation of Christ, foreshadowing in many ways the coming Messiah, and whose truth was later confirmed by that very Messiah himself, Jesus Christ.


If you do not know Jesus for who He declared himself to be, the Son of God and the Savior, think about what Jesus has said above and here:


“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” John 5:24


More Information

Regarding the word used for the sea creature that swallowed Jonah:

From Bible Study Tools:

“The Hebrew word tan (plural, tannin) is so rendered in Job 7:12 (A.V.; but RSV, “sea-monster”). It is rendered by “dragons” in Deuteronomy 32:33 ; Psalms 91:13 ; Jeremiah 51:34 ; Psalms 74:13 (marg., “whales;” and marg. of RSV, “sea-monsters”); Isaiah 27:1 ; and “serpent” in Exodus 7:9 (RSV marg., “any large reptile,” and so in ver. 10,12). The words of ( Job 7:12 ), uttered in bitter irony, where he asks, “Am I a sea or a whale?” simply mean, “Have I a wild, untamable nature, like the waves of the sea, which must be confined and held within bounds, that they cannot pass?” “The serpent of the sea, which was but the wild, stormy sea itself, wound itself around the land, and threatened to swallow it up…Job inquires if he must be watched and plagued like this monster, lest he throw the world into disorder” (Davidson’s Job).

The whale tribe are included under the general Hebrew name tannin ( Genesis 1:21 ; Lamentations 4:3 ). “Even the sea-monsters [tanninim] draw out the breast.” The whale brings forth its young alive, and suckles them.

It is to be noticed of the story of Jonah’s being “three days and three nights in the whale’s belly,” as recorded in Matthew 12:40 , that here the Gr. ketos means properly any kind of sea-monster of the shark or the whale tribe, and that in the book of ( Jonah 1:17 ) it is only said that “a great fish” was prepared to swallow Jonah. This fish may have been, therefore, some great shark. The white shark is known to frequent the Mediterranean Sea, and is sometimes found 30 feet in length. From


From CANA article on Serpents in the Old Testament, more on the word “tannin” (I was focused on the use of “serpent” so I did not mention the Job passage):

A more ambiguous term is tannin, which can also be translated “monster,” “dragon,” “sea serpent,” “crocodile,” and can mean any large sea creature or reptile, as in Job 7:12.4 It derives from the Ugaritic tnn, referring to mythological sea monsters. This word is found in the creation account in Genesis 1:21, where it is usually translated as “sea monsters;”5 in Exodus 7: 9, 10, and 12, where Aaron’s rod turns into a tannim, and is usually translated there as “serpent;” and in Deuteronomy 32:33, where God pronounces judgment on Israel’s betrayal of Yahweh, saying that their wine is the “venom of serpents” and “the deadly poison of cobras,” (New American Standard Bible translation, hereafter referred to as NASB).

Outside the Pentateuch, tannin is also used to represent the foes of God. In Jeremiah 51:34, it is used of Nebuchadnezzar, and it refers to Egypt as a dragon (in several translations) in Isaiah 51:9. In Ezekiel 29:3, God calls Pharaoh “the great monster that lies in the midst of his rivers, that has said, ‘My Nile is mine, and I myself have made it,'” (NASB), a clear reference to the deity claimed for Egypt’s pharaohs. Tannin is again used to rebuke Pharaoh in Ezekiel 32:2 as “the monster in the seas,” (NASB).”


Excellent brief article responding to assertions that the account of Jonah is not historical; the author, Wayne Jackson, responds point by point.


Interesting article about Jonah:

What better heralding, as a divinely sent messenger to Nineveh, could Jonah have had, than to be thrown up out of the mouth of a great fish, in the presence of witnesses, say on the coast of Phoenicia, where the fish-god was a favorite object of worship?”…….

As for the city of Nineveh, from the word “Nineweh” which means “place of the fish”, it was rediscovered in the 19th century after more than 2,500 years of obscurity. It is now believed to have been the largest city in the world at the time of its demise (see Tertius Chandler’s Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census). According to Sir Austen Henry Layard, who chronicled the rediscovery of Nineveh in his classic Discoveries at Nineveh, the circumference of Greater Nineveh was “exactly three days’ journey,” as recorded in Jonah 3:3 (Austen Henry Layard, A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh, J. C. Derby: New York, 1854, p. 314). Prior to its rediscovery, skeptics scoffed at the possibility that so large a city could have existed in the ancient world. In fact, skeptics denied the existence of Nineveh altogether. Its rediscovery in the mid-1800s proved to be a remarkable vindication for the Bible, which mentions Nineveh by name 18 times and dedicates two entire books (Jonah and Nahum) to its fate.” From article by John Sanidopoulos