When people start debating whether the Bible is the word of God or not, the question of things impossible to believe nearly always comes up. Can rational human beings living in the twenty-first century believe the Bible stories that we were taught as children? This is a valid area of concern, because credibility becomes an issue when dealing with a talking donkey, a world-wide flood, wrestling angels, the sun standing still, or the deaths of the first born in Egypt — just to mention a few Old Testament examples. Even more complex are the events in Jesus’ life from the virgin birth to His miracles to the resurrection.

Perhaps one case most commonly discussed by atheists is the story of Jonah. Children in Bible classes have a song titled “Who Did Swallow Jonah?” and the answer that is given is “whale did.” Skeptics will be quick to point out that the largest whales are not carnivores, and that all whales have a mouth, throat and digestive system that would not allow an object as big as a human to be swallowed whole. In the past there have been apologists for the Bible who have tried to claim that there have been cases where someone was swallowed by a particular kind of sea creature and was found alive after three days, but so far any attempt to confirm such a claim has failed, and most scientists would suggest it is an impossibility.

The problem here is both a translation problem and a theological problem. The translation problem is pretty obvious to anyone who looks into the original language, or who reads different translations of the verses involved. In Jonah 1:17 and 2:10 the word in Hebrew used to describe the creature is dagah which is translated “fish.” In Matthew 12:40 the Greek word used is ketos which is best translated “sea monster” although the King James Version translates it “whale.” The Greek word for fish is ichthus and is used five times by Matthew in reference to that which is eaten by man. Matthew chooses to use the word ketos in describing the Jonah story. Jonah 1:17 specifically tells us that this sea monster was prepared for this specific purpose. Arguing that the fish was a whale shark Rhincodon, or trying to suggest that there is some creature in the sea we do not know about yet that could do this is a fallacious approach to this question.

The Bible tells us clearly that this creature was prepared by God for a specific job. It is not something that the Jews were familiar with, and the Bible does not portray it as a normal inhabitant of the ocean. The creature was a special creation of God.

This brings us to our second point, which is that when the Bible says that something is a miracle or a special act of God, we are in error trying to explain it naturally. If it can be explained naturally, then it is not a miracle. If a whale shark Rhincodon swallowed Jonah, then the statement that God “prepared a great fish” (KJV) is in error. We either accept the event as a miracle and believe it by faith, or we reject it as a myth or a fable or a spiritual story that is not historical in nature. Trying to explain it naturally is inconsistent with taking the Bible literally — which means looking at who wrote it, to whom, why, and how the people it was written to would have understood the message.

We should hasten to say that this situation is relatively rare in the Bible. Atheists suggest that all the Bible contains is a bunch of bogus stories about claimed miracles. A careful study of the biblical account shows that situations like Jonah are rare. We have already discussed the use of the Hebrew word bara which denotes an act of God — a miracle that man cannot duplicate or explain. We have also previously discussed the Hebrew words asah (make) and yatshir (form) which indicate a natural process was involved in what was accomplished. Bara is only used 42 times while asah is used 607 times in the Old Testament.

In some cases it is not entirely clear from the language of the passage whether the event described is a miraculous act of God or a natural phenomenon used by God to accomplish His purpose. Were the plagues in Egypt natural events or miraculous ones? There are natural events which could explain the frogs, the hail of fire, or the locusts; but the death of the first born would be a different matter. The miracles of Jesus are not explainable by natural events. From His conception to His raising people from the dead we see the direct hand of God in what is happening. The fact that the Bible correctly identifies things as miracles that could not possibly be explained naturally is an evidence that it is not a creation of ancient ignorant people.

There is a mountain of evidence that God does exist and that the Bible is His word, but we need to be careful to take it literally and look at what it actually says to know that. Jonah, the angel wrestling with Jacob, and Balaam’s talking donkey are not natural events we can expect to happen in our daily lives. They are miraculous acts of a God who wants to allow us to be able to make free moral choice about what we will believe, what we will love, and how we will live. But God also accomplished His will by taking whatever action is necessary to fulfill His promises.

We would urge you to trust God and to realize that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16 –17).
--John N. Clayton
Pictures in this article: Art Explosion by Nova Development Corporation, ©1997-2001.

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