Is That in the Bible?

by Bryant Evans on June 6, 2011

Have you ever popped out a quick proverb, credited it to Scripture and then discovered that it’s not really from the Bible? Apparently a lot of people have. Some sayings and quick quips just sound Biblical but may actually be phantom verses. Many times the idea is Scriptural but the actual words are not. An article at CNN points out some of the more common misquotes.

One particular quote that can be very tricky concerns Jonah. We often say Jonah was swallowed by a whale and for three days lived in the belly of the whale. Actually the Bible says it this way:

“And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17).

The text actually says that God “appointed a great fish” to swallow the prophet. Two points. A great fish is not necessarily the same as a whale. This is important because some non-believers use the story as a “reason” to discount the truthfulness of the Bible. They go to great lengths to explain why a whale could not have swallowed a man whole.

Since the text never says “whale” we can’t make that assumption. This leads to the second point. The text says the Lord “appointed” (KJV has “prepared”) a great fish. The story of Jonah is not natural. It is supernatural. It is a miracle. The fish was specially prepared for the task of swallowing Jonah. Some scholars reject the Jonah story because they discard any supernatural act at all including the very resurrection of Jesus. Nevertheless, the point is that if we use the correct language to begin with we might blunt their assault.

As for phantom verses generally we would simply say that vigorous Bible study is a fine way to avoid quoting such verses. Know the book, study the book.

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Dave June 6, 2011 at 2:13 pm

What are your thoughts of the view that the book of Jonah is essentially hyperbole?

– Nineveh would have had to have been a megalopolis on the scale of contemporary cities to have required a 3-day journey to cross. (Jonah 3:3)
– The entire population of Nineveh put on sack cloth to mourn… even on their animals. (Jonah 3:8)
– The very strange ending in ch4.

The great fish seems to be one of many overtly irregular instances in this book. Obviously, God can cause anything he wants to happen but not all of the hyperbole in Jonah is God’s doing. It seems to me that the style of this book may lean towards dramatic tale rather than historical fact. This raises a few important questions:

– What does this do to our interpretation of the book?
– What does this do to our interpretation of Jesus’ mentioning Jonah?
– Is there a way to discern what parts of the book, if any, are historical fact and what parts are hyperbole?

I’m not advocating we dismiss Jonah as fiction, I have a very high view of Scripture. I’m just wondering if that high view demands we look at the literary style of the book and come to some conclusions from that as well.

(Regarding the second question I have about the possibility of interpreting Jonah as other than historical fact, I’m not sure if your December 2010 post “Jonah and the Whale Could Not Have Happened!” is sarcastic or not. I’m pretty sure it is but without some context it’s hard to tell.)

Bryant Evans June 6, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Last comment first, the December post was sarcastic.

I tend to resist calling Jonah hyperbole. In fact I resist it as regards Jonah or any other Scripture passage. I would have to be overwhelmed to reach that conclusion. It seems to me that such would place us on the infamous slippery slope.

Having said that I think you raise some interesting questions. The size of Nineveh is not a problem if we follow the clear text which does not seem to say the city was three days across. It may have been that it took three days to travel through the city, not across. There are alternative and well respected renderings which support this.

Jonah 3:8 is not stated as a fact but as a command of the King. This could be hyperbole on the part of the king. I don’t personally have a problem with that because it only reports what he said.

Chapter 4 is unexpected but when you think about it the ending brings the story full circle. Now it is clear why Jonah refused to go. It is uncommon in that most of the writing prophets are not so clearly revealed to us.

I think your next question really goes to the heart of the problem with calling this hyperbole. Would we expect Jesus to confuse fact with hyperbole? It would place him in the position of mentioning something not really true as something that is true. I’m not ready to go there.

I guess my “default” position is that it is true until proven otherwise.

Thanks for the thoughts as they are certainly worthy of consideration.


Sinyangwe p August 9, 2012 at 4:44 am

The Jonah story is a test of inclination either to natural laws or supernatural laws. Those who doubt this story how easy will it be for them to believe that Jesus walked on water. One thing I know God is not bound by natural laws but he does according to His good pleasure. Humans are independent to make their own observations but to denny Gods prerogative to perform His will is like Thomas doubting Christ’s resurrection.

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