Whatever swallowed the prophet, it’s not called a “whale” in the Hebrew original text.
Prophets have not always been called prophets — not even in the Bible. In fact, the word prophet is a relatively new one. It was used to translate the Hebrew nevi’im into Greek around the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, and later adopted by early Christian Churches. And whereas the Greek prophétēs certainly says something about who a prophet is supposed to be (and what is he supposed to do), two other Hebrew words found in the Bible to refer to these same characters help us understand them better.
The Greek prophétēs is a compound word. The prefix “pro” is often translated as meaning “in advance.” The verb, “phesein,” means “to tell,” “to speak.” This suggests a prophet is a person who is able to say things that have not yet occurred. An old Hebrew word found in the book of Samuel, “ro’eh,” commonly translated as “seer,” has more or less the same connotations. This is the reason why these biblical characters are often thought of as being able to foretell (or foresee) the future —which is not exactly the case. What prophets actually do is pretty commonsensical. They remind the people of the consequences of their actions. Prophets warn.
But there is another way to read this Greek translation. Pro can also mean “on behalf of,” “in the name of.” This translation is actually closer to the original meaning of the Hebrew nevi’im. A passage in Deuteronomy seems to be summarizing what and who a navi (the singular for nevi’im) is: “I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.” A navi is a spokesperson. The very root of the word (the three letters comprising the word in Hebrew, nun, bet, and aleph), rabbinical medieval commentary suggests, is based on a root (nun-bet) that denotes openness —or, even better, hollowness: the prophet remains “hollow” so that God can speak through him. He is an “empty mouth” to be filled with God’s words.
But not Jonah.
Jonah ran the other way
A typical prophet worth being called a navi would get immediately to work. Elijah, for example, was famously said to be burning with zeal for the Lord almighty (Cf. 1 Kings 19, 10). As soon as they hear their call, no matter how afraid or reluctant they might have felt, prophets go and deliver the message as required, using the classic prophetic formula “thus sayeth the Lord.”
But Jonah ran the other way and slipped aboard a ship trying to get as far away as possible from God. Even more so, when he finally gets to Nineveh (where God had asked him to go in the first place), he barely delivers the prophetic message. His is surely the shortest, least persuasive piece of rhetoric found in the whole Bible. Whereas other prophets would passionately and zealously preach, reprimand, sway, and persuade their audiences, Jonah’s speech consists of a single line — “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Cf. Jonah 3, 4).
Jonah’s plain preaching works. The Ninevites wholeheartedly convert. They even dress their cattle in sackcloth. The city is saved. But Jonah is far from being pleased. Instead, he bitterly complains, arguing he already knew God was going to forgive the city. Why would God make him go through all this trouble in the first place? This whole prophetic business gets him so upset that he asks God to take his life away. Not once, but twice. The book ends with God gently rebuking him for his small-mindedness.
But perhaps describing Jonah as small-minded is unfair. He knew, after all, that his God was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” (Cf. Jonah, 4, 2) That was the reason he fled in the first place. Like all good prophets, he was able to foresee what actually happened in the end — a forgiving God forgiving a city; no need for a prophet to do much there. It seems logical, then, that he barely had to open his mouth to preach to the Ninevites. A simple phrase would do. Rather than “small-minded,” perhaps he should be better be described as “small-mouthed.”
But are not prophets supposed to be “hollow,” as the Hebrew navi suggests? Jonah seems to be pretty filled up with his own words — there is barely room in him for a single phrase actually coming from God. How can he be a hollow, open mouth through which God’s words are spoken?
Now, there is another character in the narrative that really opens wide. Enter the “whale.”
Jonah’s “big fish”
When Jonah decided to flee from his mission, he got on board a ship going to Tarshish. A threatening storm breaks, and a shipwreck is looming. Jonah urges his fellow sailors to throw him overboard to save themselves. It is then when “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Cf. Jonah 1, 17).
Now, the text doesn’t say “God appointed a whale” but just “a great fish.” Both the original Hebrew dag gadol and the Greek of the Septuagint, kētei megalōi, translate as “huge fish.” Archaeology has proved that the Mediterranean was once home to a great variety of whales —which the Romans hunted almost to the point of extinction. It might be the case that the author of the biblical text simply wanted to contrast Jonah’s “closed mouth” to that of the “big fish,” able not only to swallow a whole human being but also being hollow enough as to provide him with safe shelter for three days and three nights. Interestingly enough, during those three days Jonah certainly keeps his mouth open — he seems to spend them praying out loud.
But how did this “big fish” turn into a whale and not into one of the 47 species of sharks found in the Mediterranean? It seems St. Jerome is to blame.
Again, the Septuagint translated the Hebrew dag gadol as kētei megalōi, “huge fish.” Jerome followed suit, but only once. He used the expression “piscis grandis” (Latin for “huge fish”) when translating the book of Jonah. But he went for “ventre ceti” when translating Jesus’ reference to Jonah found in Matthew 12:
“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish (kétous) so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Marine mammals (whales, dolphins, porpoises) are called “cetaceans” — obviously, from the original Greek kētos. This is a word that was used in Greek mythology with relative frequency to refer not necessarily to whales or dolphins but rather to sea monsters: Perseus slew one to save Andromeda, and Heracles killed another one to save Hesione. Chances are Jerome intended to highlight the exceptional character of the beast that swallowed Jonah. In fact, the word kētos had already been used in the Septuagint to refer to the biblical tanninim, the great “sea monsters” listed among the creatures God made in the fifth day, according to the first book of Genesis. It seems then that Jerome had these genesic “monsters” in mind when translating the Gospels —but not necessarily when translating the book of Jonah.