These two topics – talking animals and “a man who lived in a fish” more than the others really highlight how your worldview and a priori assumptions influence how you understand any text as we’ll see. Of course I had to shorten the title up a bit for this one. “A man who lived in a fish” following the series name makes for a long title. But we all know who he’s referring to: the prophet Jonah. As a reminder, here is the list of fantastic creatures this particular atheist takes issue with, with links to the ones we’ve already covered:
“He follows a holy book with a jealous & genocidal god, ghosts, zombies, seers, devils, demons, witches, satyrs, unicorns, talking animals, a man who lived in a fish and a 7 headed dragon.”
(Not listed but also covered already: The Cockatrice)
The answer to this question invokes your worldview presuppositions. Does God exist? Does Satan exist? Are they active in the world? How you answer these questions determines whether or not you believe the following explanation. Since that is the case, though it should already be clear, let me be explicit about the worldview from which I address these questions:
1. God exists. It’s the premise of this entire blog
2. Satan exists. He started as an angel and fell. More on his fall here.
3. Have God and Satan been active in the world? Yes, as the texts we’ll look at demonstrate.
When people refer to talking animals in the Bible, they’re typically talking about the serpent in Genesis 3 and Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22. We will not talk about the Dragon because, 1. It’s typically not included, and 2. I’ll be doing a separate article on the 7 headed Dragon.
Balaam, the Donkey and the (Angel of) The Lord
A lot of ground is covered in this passage, but I’ll summarize and try to keep it brief. But one verse of a related passage is important enough that I will include it verbatim:
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
This is God’s promise to bless Abraham and his descendants. It is a key text, a defining statement for the nation of Israel, and a key concept in the Bible, and also in this account of Balaam and his donkey. On to what happened with Balaam:
It’s shortly after God has led the Israelites out of Egypt as recounted in the book of Exodus. God has told Israel to take possession of the promised land. In so doing they bring God’s judgment on wicked kings and peoples by dispossessing them of their land. Such was the case of the Amorites and Sihon, the king who ruled over them, among others. (Deut 1.4) The Israelites are now camped north of Moab, opposite the promised land. Balak, king of the Moabites, has heard of the Exodus, and how Israel dispossessed kings like Sihon and is afraid of the same happening to him. So he wants to put a curse on the Israelites. How does he think he’ll do that? He decides to call on a prophet of God to put a curse on the people of God.
Now it should be obvious this is a bad idea. If not to the pagan king, at least to a prophet of God. In fact, in light of the promise given above about God blessing the Israelites, no one – and particularly not a prophet of God – should have to ask God about this. God has already answered. The answer is no. No one, and particularly not a prophet of God, can put a curse on the people of God because they’re blessed. But Balak the king offers the prophet a lot of money. Balaam is tempted, so he asks God. God patiently tells him no, he can’t curse God’s people. (Num 22.12)
Not satisfied, the pagan king piles up a whole lot of money and plies Balaam again with it. Balaam should know the answer. He knows God’s promise. He’s already asked God once. Why does he need to ask again? Yet he does. This time God once again tells Balaam he can only do (and thus say) what God tells him, but this time God allows Balaam to go to the king (Num 22.20) – apparently to teach him a lesson.
Along the way, God, in the person of the “Angel of the Lord” a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ teaches Balaam a lesson. It’s a rather amusing lesson involving his donkey. But to make a long story short, during the lesson God makes the donkey speak. (Num 22.28) Now does that mean animals speak? In the account of the Exodus, God turns a stick into a snake (Ex 4.3) as do the Egyptian magicians (Ex 7.11-12). Does this mean the Bible teaches sticks turn into snakes?
The proper thing to conclude from both of these instances is there was a work of God causing the donkey to speak and the stick to transform into a snake. Or in the case of the Egyptian magicians – a work of Satan. (Satan loves to counterfeit the works of God – as far as he is able – as he will do at the end of days. (Matt 24.24))
So do normal animals talk? No. Do normal sticks become snakes? No. But as God tells us, nothing is too hard for him. (Gen 18.14; Jer 32.27) So if he wants an animal to speak, he is able to bring that about. If he wants a stick to become a snake, he can do that too.
Notice: If you reject the worldview from which this explanation comes, you can’t accept anything I just said: You don’t accept God, or that he acts in the affairs of humans. You don’t accept the Exodus, or the promised land (since you don’t accept the God who promised it), or a king being afraid of a people led out of Egypt by the Exodus (since you don’t accept the Exodus). You won’t accept any of the miracles. None of it makes sense. Thus your worldview, more than the facts, ultimately determines if an explanation is acceptable or not.
We have a similar dynamic going on in Genesis 3. Only this time it’s Satan doing the speaking, not God. I do an extensive explanation of what’s happening with the “talking serpent” in the garden in “A Talking Snake and the Alien Connection” so I won’t repeat it here. I’ll just emphasize the point: it was not a regular, normal snake in view. It was the prince of Darkness, Satan himself. And Satan was speaking in his native tongue: the language of deception. (John 8.44)
Here is the relevant portion of what the Bible says about Jonah:
15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.
17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. 2.1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
These are the difficult facts that must be accounted for:
- The fish was large enough to swallow Jonah whole.
(He wasn’t chewed up / cut up by teeth.)
- Jonah lives for three days and three nights in the belly of the fish (He wasn’t digested, and he didn’t suffocate)
- Jonah is conscious inside the fish
(He is able to pray)
So what are we to make of this account?
Well we know what’s not the case. While it’s not the story of Jonah, the parallels in the Disney cartoon “Pinocchio“, are unmistakable. In it, Geppetto, Pinocchio’s father, is swallowed by a whale large enough to swallow him and his entire boat whole. In fact large enough for Geppetto to fish from his boat from within the creature. Pinocchio is later swallowed along with a school of tuna during his search to find his father. (below)
So this depiction has the right idea – not harmed, not digested, not suffocated, sufficiently large scale; but it’s obviously not the solution. A cute depiction, but not helpful for figuring out what really happened. In that regard it’s about as helpful as depictions of Noah’s ark as tiny and overstuffed, with a giraffe’s neck sticking out the top. It’s depictions like these that make the faith hard to believe. (To get an idea of the full scale of Noah’s ark see here or here.)
On the serious side, some have tried to identify a fish big enough to swallow Jonah. Ichthyologist and shark expert Dr. George Burgess suggests a fish with a huge mouth like a Megalodon – a huge shark that’s supposed to have gone extinct four million years ago – might fit the bill. They are known to have eaten whales. But note, according to the evolutionary scheme, they went extinct long before humans made their supposed evolutionary debut. That timing doesn’t accord with the biblical account, but this theory has a bigger problem than when it went extinct.
That problem: even if you find a fish large enough like a megalodon – as is purported in the fake documentary “Megalodon – The New Evidence” (which claims to have captured photos of a live megalodon), you still have to answer the following questions:
- Why is Jonah not digested?
Not even harmed by the acids used in digestion
- How is Jonah able to breathe for three days(!) inside the body of a fish?
These would preclude even a fish that would seem large enough to swallow Jonah whole. And note even large plankton eating whales like the massive blue whale were ruled out by Burgess due to the sieve like mechanism they have built in to catch the plankton they feed on. Those filter mechanisms would prevent a human from moving all the way to the “belly” of the whale as the text says. So they too are ruled out as possibilities.
So the question still lingers: what are we to make of the account of Jonah? Some interpreters want to turn it into an allegory or metaphor, pointing out that between the 21st and the 24th of December, the nights are the darkest. And in ancient times – during the days of Jonah – the winter solstice was known as “the whale’s belly”. During those days a huge constellation – Cetus – imagined to be a mythical sea monster was visible. Sailing under that constellation on those days became known as “being in the whale’s belly”. The problem with that interpretation is:
- It doesn’t fit the text. That interpretation means Jonah isn’t actually thrown overboard, he isn’t actually swallowed by a huge fish, so there’s no actual danger to his life that he needs to pray to God about. So there’s no reason for him to repent and go to Nineveh as the text clearly indicates that he does. If he’s safe on a ship, why not keep running away as he started to? (Jonah 1.3) The reason for Jonah’s repentance is because his life was in danger – “ebbing away” (Jonah 2.7) while in the belly of the fish. He’s in no such danger in a metaphorical fish that’s actually a ship. And his change of heart to take a journey to preach to a people he likely hates and initially refused to preach to is rendered incomprehensible if he’s safe on a ship.
- Jesus speaks of the event as if it were a real event – not a metaphor. Jesus considers the event so real and so significant that he bases the ultimate validation of his entire ministry – the resurrection – on a comparison to Jonah. Why would he do that if the account of Jonah were only a metaphor?
So we can safely reject the metaphor suggestion. What’s left?
The Unannounced Miracle
The survival of Jonah in the fish is an unannounced miracle. One arrives at the conclusion that it is a work of God that supersedes the natural order based on the evidence. Since God doesn’t announce it or make a big deal of it, it is an implicit miracle. What happens defies the laws of nature. And God is involved. The God – as we’ve already noted above (Gen 18.14; Jer 32.27) who is able to manipulate the laws of nature however he desires. Sometimes the conclusion that a miracle has happened is drawn for us in scripture. Sometimes it’s not, and you’re left to draw the conclusion yourself. Let me give you some examples:
Explicit Miracles – Conclusion drawn in scripture
- The Wedding at Cana – Water changed to Wine
At the wedding at Cana, Jesus doesn’t announce the miracle. In fact no one knows that Jesus has performed the miracle until those who filled the containers with water realize what is drawn out is not water, but wine. But John, the apostle and gospel writer explicitly makes the connection (and thus the conclusion) for us in John 2.9:
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. 8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.
- The Calling of Nathanael – Supernatural Knowledge
When Jesus calls the apostle Nathanael (John 1.45-51) He exhibits supernatural knowledge about Nathanael – his lack of deceit (1.47) and that Nathanael had previously been praying under a fig tree – something that Jesus should not have known (v48). This knowledge alone is enough for Nathanael to conclude a miracle had occurred and declare Jesus the son of God (John 1.49)
Implicit Miracles – Conclusion left to the Reader
Sometimes miracles are performed unannounced, and it’s left to the reader to realize what happened is beyond the natural order, and thus there must have been an intervention by God. Two more examples:
- The Exodus – forty years wandering and clothes did not wear out (Deut 8.4)
The journey to the promised land was supposed to be a short one. But the children of Israel were disobedient, and God punished them and made them wander for 40 years in the wilderness. During that time he fed them with manna (Deut 8.3), an obvious miracle. A not so obvious one is the fact that in all that time, their clothes did not wear out. (Deut 8.4) These are clothes worn regularly (and probably frequently) for 40 years. And didn’t wear out.
- Jesus’ Arrest: The felling of the soldiers
Picture this: A warrant has been issued for your arrest. A detachment of soldiers has been dispatched to place you in custody. They arrive with officials. What do you suppose it would take to make the whole company fall to the ground? Would it happen by you confirming your name, and telling them “I am the one you’re looking for?” Not likely right? If they’re trained soldiers, I’d say impossible. Mere words would not make them fall. Yet that’s precisely what happened when they went to arrest Jesus:
Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”
5 “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.
“I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) 6 When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.
What’s going on here? What could make a detachment of soldiers (John 18.3) fall to the ground? The text doesn’t say. But something happened. Something miraculous. I suspect it has something to do with the revelation of the name of God by the son of God. The Greek for “I am he” are the same words used to translate the Divine name “I am” from Ex 3.14 and John 8.58. I suspect when Jesus, the son of God, spoke that name, he spoke it with power, and it terrified them, similar to how the disciples were terrified on the mount of transfiguration and fell to the ground when God spoke. (Matt 17.5-6)
Whatever happened, the reader is left to draw the conclusion: something miraculous happened here. An entire group of soldiers doesn’t just fall to the ground when you say “I am he.”
The Conclusion regarding Jonah
Here’s a final clue. I have previously (in another article) made the case that the powerful evidence of miracles is for believers not mockers and unbelievers. (Here) There’s one exception. When asked by the unbelieving Pharisees and teachers of the law for a sign, Jesus said they would get only one: The sign of Jonah- a reference to the resurrection. (Matt 12.38-40) Jesus directly links the miracle of the resurrection – the ultimate proof of him being the messiah, the son of God – to the sign of Jonah. He did so by saying,
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matt 12.40)
So Jesus indicates that what happened to Jonah foreshadows what will happen to him. What happened to Jesus was a miraculous event. Thus what happened to Jonah must also have been a miraculous event. There’s just one big difference. Jesus died and came back to life. Jonah was kept alive – kept from dying in a miraculous fashion. Since Jesus died and he draws a comparison to Jonah, some would therefore say Jonah must also have died in the fish, but I think not. The text never says Jonah died, and we know he’s alive in the fish because Jonah prays to God to get him out of the fish. (Jonah 2.1ff). Thus the reasonable conclusion is that God miraculously kept Jonah alive for three days and three nights in the belly of the fish.
You’ll note in each of these events – something supernatural was going on. God made the donkey speak. Satan was speaking in the guise of a snake. And God kept Jonah alive in the fish. This is why I started this discussion by pointing out that your worldview will influence how you see these events and whether you accept these events to be true or not. If you reject God, or your God is a deist-type God who doesn’t act in the affairs of man, then you’ll reject these Bible-based answers and the possibility these things really happened.
But the Bible is consistent in what it teaches: Animals don’t talk. God does – and he can speak through them, or make them speak. Snakes don’t talk – but spiritual beings do. Such deceptive spiritual beings can pose as snakes. And men don’t live three days in the belly of a fish – unless God intervenes to allow it.
Duane Caldwell | February 28, 2020 | Printer friendly version
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 1: Jealous God and Unicorns?
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 2: Satyrs, devils and demons
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 3: Cockatrice
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 4: Witches and Ghosts
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 5: Seers
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 6: Talking animals and Jonah
2. The identify of the “Angel of the Lord” as the pre-incarnate Christ is a well supported Christian doctrine which I’ll cover in another article at some point.
3. George Burgess, Director, Florida Program for Shark Research, ref. from. Beasts of the Bible, Documentary by Graeme Ball, 2010
4. Some of the Articles claiming the “Megalodon” documentaries are fake:
“Discovery Is Becoming More And More Ridiculous With Its Fake Documentaries”
Ben Winsor Sep 18, 2014, 9:47 AM
“Megalodon: the New Evidence is a fake documentary”
August 7, 2014 by David Shiffman
“Debunking Tall Tales About Megalodon, the Monster Shark”
Bob Strauss Updated August 07, 2018
5. ref. from Megalodon – The New Evidence, Documentary, 2014
6. ref. from Beasts of the Bible, Documentary by Graeme Ball, 2010
7. Both “I Am” (Ex 3.14, John 8.58) and “I am He” (Is 43:10, John 8.24) are translated by the Greek words “εγο ειμι” (ego eimi) – “I am”, “I am he” – Both are names with which God has Identified himself.
Featured: Jonah, the Fish and the Bible © Yafit Moshensky | Dreamstime.com (used by permission)