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.

The stories of the exodus from Egypt and the conclusion of the covenant on Sinai are the central stories of the Old Testament and their meaning is comparable to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament. They create the identity of the people of Israel and their faith. Accordingly, they are mentioned frequently in the Old Testament.

But since the rise of Bible criticism in the 18th century , these stories have been called into question in university theology . Many believe that they are not historical at all, but that the Israelites lived in Canaan from the beginning. Those who the biblical version concede a certain historical core, believe that a small group like EGYPTIAN origin to the living in Canaan Israelites joined. The doubts about the biblical representation are based on the miraculous elements of the stories, on the lack of extra-biblical sources, on the complexity of the Mosaic Law that did not seem to fit the time, and on the unrealistically large numbers of people who, according to the Bible text, left Egypt.

Today I would like to address the last of these criticisms. I am reluctant to take the biblical accounts of the exodus and desert wandering of the people of Israel as stories largely constructed during and after the Babylonian captivity. When reading the texts, it is noticeable that records are conscientiously kept of travel routes, rest areas and names and numbers of people. This gives me the impression that the biblical texts available to us are based on original records from that time. The reconstructions of the origins of the Bible text that I read in theological treatises seem to me to be only one of several possible explanations.