Sometimes I am asked if, as a scientist, I believe the biblical story of Jonah. The main question is whether Jonah really could have survived three days in the belly of a fish (or a whale – at that time this distinction was not made yet). Scientifically, it seems impossible. The only marine animal that can swallow a person by the diameter of its esophagus is, as far as I know, the sperm whale. But whoever is actually swallowed by a sperm whale dies a double death: it is digested by the corrosive stomach acid and has no oxygen to breathe. So if God doesn’t work a miracle, Jonah must be mouse dead after three days. In the blog post about the resurrection of Jesus I mentioned that I think miracles are basically possible. In a later post I want to say more about miracles. In this contribution to Jonah, however, I am concerned with something else: Can we infer from the biblical text whether it is intended as a literal factual report?
Let us first consider the events of the book of Jonah: God gave him the order to go to Nineveh to announce the downfall to the people there as a punishment for their evil deeds. But he did not want to and fled on a ship in the opposite direction. But God sent a storm that could only be calmed by the ship’s crew throwing Jonah overboard. A large fish swallowed Jonah and spat it out three days later at its place of origin. The second time God instructed him to go to Nineveh, Jonah obeyed. The people of Nineveh believed the message and fasted and prayed to God for three days to forgive their evil deeds. When God did not destroy Nineveh as a result, Jonah became angry, and God gave him a lesson that he should feel sorry for the many people and animals in the city. If you don’t know this story yet, you should read the book of Jonah in the Bible.