The sheer unlikelihood of this event has caused many to interpret Jonah’s book as allegory or parable, not history as such. Indeed, no other account exists of a human being surviving such an event. Did it really happen to Jonah, and if so, how did he survive?
First, consider biblical time periods. “Three days and three nights” could mean one full day and parts of two others. This was the case in Jesus’ death and resurrection, which Jonah’s experience clearly foreshadowed (Matthew 12:40). Jonah’s time of food and water deprivation could have been considerably shorter than seventy-two hours.
Second, consider the scientific possibilities. Remote, indeed, are the chances that a large surface-swimming fish without digestive enzymes picks up a human being and hours later dumps the living but limp body in shallows near his intended destination. Very remote.
Third, consider the miracle. God is saying something important about all of human history through the life of this minor prophet. The gospel will come through God’s own Son, who will succumb, as it were, to an implausible end: death as a criminal. Yet there is life beyond. God’s miracle in Jonah’s experience is one of many miracles God has chosen to communicate with the creation He loves. The greatest of those miracles was the Incarnation-that is, the coming of God Himself in human form, Jesus Christ, whose resurrection gives hope beyond the certainty of death.