An impossibly large fish.
To quickly fill you in, there is a story in the Bible where God asks a man named Jonah to go to Nineveh (capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire at the time) and tell the people there to turn from their wicked and destructive ways, and towards God. The people in Nineveh are known to be famously awful so Jonah decides to board a ship heading east, literally the opposite direction of Nineveh, in an attempt to “run away” from God’s task for him. God isn’t into Jonah’s attitude at this point and goes all Zeus on him by creating a storm to take out the vessel he’s attempting to escape on. When the sailors become aware that Jonah was the reason behind the calamitous weather, they agree to a plan that involved throwing him overboard, which was actually quite successful as far as they were concerned, stopping the storm and saving their ship.
At this point Jonah is in the middle of the ocean, a long way away from the call God had given him, basically doomed to drown in his disobedience. And then… along comes a fish.
This part of the story is perhaps one of the most difficult passages in all of Scripture for readers to come to terms with. I mean, this is ridiculous right? What serious, rational person believes in a story where a giant fish intercepts the main character, swallowing him and spitting him up on shore 3 days later? And why is it a fish (Dag in Hebrew) and not a whale? Wouldn’t that make (slightly) more sense? And what does it do for the credibility of the Bible? Because it certainly doesn’t seem to help.
Well, let’s think about it.
Firstly, it’s not the only weird thing in the Bible, I mean Genesis opens with a talking snake, in Exodus we see plagues of frogs and a nation of people walking through the middle of the Red Sea. Scripture certainly doesn’t shy away from story features that don’t correspond to our normal experiences of life, whether it’s giant fish or a virgin giving birth, the Bible doesn’t have a problem embracing these anomalies and even positioning them central to key Biblical stories.
Secondly, this passage doesn’t really attempt to make this detail imaginary or poetic in nature. The story not only includes the giant fish, it’s pivotal to the narrative of Jonah’s life, rescuing him at the lowest point in his rebellion from God. In some ways, the fish is the most important part of the Jonah story.
So if it’s not an outlier, and not mere poetry, how can intelligent people talk about this? Wouldn’t it be much easier if this detail was left out of the Bible, along with the talking snake, walking on water and Jesus coming back from the dead?
When it comes to passages like these in the Bible, there’s a question I always like to ask that helps me to make sense of fragments I’d prefer to ignore. It’s possibly the most powerful question you’ll ever ask and I promise it will change the way you read the Bible forever. It goes like this: why did God do that?
Profound, no? Let me explain.
Now I don’t know a lot about God, though I figure He’s somewhat powerful. Powerful enough to do basically whatever He wants. So if we look at the story of Jonah and ask “why did God do that?” we must also extend the question to something a little more thorough: why did god do that, and not something else?
You see degree of difficulty doesn’t come into the equation when God makes something happen, it doesn’t need to be sensible or easy, and it certainly doesn’t need to conform to the “list of things I think God can do”. Why didn’t God send a giant wave to wash him ashore? He could have created a massive sea horse or used the eagles like Lord of the Rings? Why not instantly transport Jonah to where he needed to go? Or simply send another boat? It’s probably better to ask why God didn’t do something even crazier than the giant fish.
If God could have chosen literally any way to rescue Jonah from certain death in the middle of an ocean, there must have been good reason for him to go the fish option.
Let’s consider here one possibility.
It’s well understood that one of the ancient semitic gods worshipped throughout the Neo-Assyrian Empire was Dagon, a god of fertility and grain, even considered the “god of gods”, and we can be fairly sure he was one of, if not the, major deity of the Ninevites. Curiously one of the forms of Dagon is speculated to be that of a fish, recalling that the Hebrew word for fish is Dag.
On a journey to direct a group of his enemies to turn from Dagon and their own self-destruction towards Yahweh, of all things God could use to twist the plot, he chooses a Dag. Maybe God is making a statement about what he is really doing in this story, showing Jonah how much it sucks to be bound by a fish, trapped and away from God; kind of like Nineveh.
You see Jonah’s time in the fish was dark and without hope, where the only way out was miraculous. The situation for the people of Nineveh was indeed dark and without hope, trapped by a fish god, in need of a more than transformation or a new set of rules to follow. The people, like Jonah in the fish, needed freedom.