A Whale of a Problem

Does the Bible err when it calls a whale a fish or are the critics merely holding a double standard?

For as long as I can remember there have been arguments over what type of fish swallowed Jonah in the Biblical account of the same name. Critics eagerly point to two “conflicting” passages that call it both a whale and a fish.

“For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Mat. 12:40)

“Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17)

So what is it, a fish or a whale? This argument can be easily dispensed with if we recognize that the Bible was written in ancient times by people who lived in those times, therefore we should expect the Bible to reflect the thoughts and culture of that time period. Critics argue that the Bible errs because an omnipotent God should know basic science. However, although it is obvious that God knows the classifications of modern biology, the people who wrote the Bible did not. Clearly, God didn’t see a need to instruct them on terms that only began to be used in the last few centuries. Even though the authors of the Bible could not access modern science that in no way means they were “objectively” wrong. Our modern classifications are used to help us identify the vast amount of different species but for the ancients who weren’t so informed, if an animal was able to fly it was simply called a bird and the same thinking applies in Jonah.

Imagine a child walking up to a large dog and she says to her mother, “Mom, look at that big puppy!” Do we feel the need to correct her and say, “No, that is a fully grown German Shepherd, not a puppy”? No, because we recognize that they haven’t yet learned modern names. The child isn’t wrong, they’re merely seeing and describing things through their eyes. Our classifications aren’t ontologically “correct.”

There is also the problem of basing an objection on a modern translation of the text rather than on what the original intended to say. The Hebrew word for “whale” in Mat.12:40 is ketos which is generally intended to mean “sea-creature” or “great fish” as some lexicons translate it rather than any specific type of animal.

This objection only serves to reveal the double standard critics place themselves on. On one hand, they often argue that the Bible isn’t reliable because (they say) it has been rewritten and added to over the years. Their conclusion is that because we don’t know what the originals say we can’t trust it. However, objections like this one show just how hypocritical they can be because it argues that the Bible isn’t reliable because modern science hasn’t been added to it and nothing has changed. It’s fascinating how obsessed critics can be with finding contradictions in the Bible when they don’t even realize the contradictions they are often making themselves.