What Do Whales Symbolize in the Bible?

Whales are mentioned several times in the Bible, often in symbolic and metaphorical ways. As massive creatures of the deep, whales can represent many different themes and ideas to Christians. In this comprehensive blog post, we’ll explore the meaning behind whales in the Bible and what they represented to the biblical authors and early Christians.


Whales appear in a few key stories and passages in the Bible. The most prominent mentions are in the book of Jonah, where a whale swallows the prophet Jonah. Whales also appear in Genesis during the creation story, in Matthew during Jesus’ teachings, and in the Psalms as part of God’s glorious creation.

While literal whales are certainly intended in some of these passages, whales also took on symbolic meanings for early Christians. They represented chaos and the powers of evil, as well as God’s deliverance and salvation. Whales were all-encompassing symbols of death and danger as well as life and redemption.

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Here are the key takeaways we’ll explore regarding whales in the Bible:

  • Whales symbolize chaos, danger, and death, as seen in the story of Jonah and the whale.
  • They represent salvation and deliverance when God intervened to save Jonah.
  • Whales appear during creation in Genesis, symbolizing God’s power and the mystery of the ocean depths.
  • In the Psalms, whales represent the majesty, wonder, and praiseworthiness of God’s creation.
  • Jesus referenced Jonah and the whale as a foreshadowing of his own death and resurrection.
  • Early Christians saw baptism connections in the story of Jonah’s time in the whale.
  • Whales represent the depth of sin, evil, death, and judgment.
  • But they can also symbolize renewal, redemption, and salvation.

By exploring these key passages and themes, we’ll see how whales took on rich theological symbolism for biblical authors and early Christians. Their appearance in scripture reveals important biblical truths.

What Do Whales Symbolize in the Bible?

Whales as Symbols of Chaos and Danger

The most famous mention of a whale in the Bible is in the book of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet called by God to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. But instead of obeying God’s command, Jonah fled by boat in the opposite direction. As judgment for Jonah’s disobedience, God sent a powerful storm to toss the boat about and threaten the lives of everyone on board (Jonah 1:4).

The terrified sailors cast lots to determine who had brought this calamity upon them. The lots indicated Jonah was to blame. When questioned, Jonah told them his story and said to save themselves, they must throw him into the raging sea (Jonah 1:12). At first the men resisted, but eventually the storm grew so violent they had no choice but to toss Jonah overboard.

Immediately after Jonah was thrown into the raging waters, the storm and chaos ceased. But God was not done with Jonah yet. Verse 17 describes what happened next:

Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17 NKJV)

Jonah was swallowed whole by a whale. He remained alive inside the whale’s belly for three days before the whale vomited him up onto dry land (Jonah 2:10).

This opening story showcases the symbolic meanings whales take on in the Bible. The whale represents chaos, danger, and even death. The stormy sea was chaotic nothingness, the very opposite of God’s orderly creation. Jonah’s rebellion brought danger upon the ship. When he was thrown into the sea, drowning represented his death.

The whale encapsulates all of this chaotic danger and death. Swallowing Jonah in one gulp was certain death. The dark, watery confines of the whale’s stomach entombed Jonah in chaotic disorder. In Bible times, the open ocean represented untamed chaos and evil that stood against God’s sovereignty. The whale embodies these themes as the instrument of Jonah’s death sentence.

Later in Matthew, Jesus used the story of Jonah and the whale as a parallel to his own coming death and resurrection:

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40 NKJV)

Jesus compared his tomb to the belly of the whale – a suffocating realm of darkness and danger. The whale epitomizes death and chaos swallowing up God’s order and salvation.

So in its first key appearance, the whale represents the antithesis of God. It is chaos, evil, danger, and even death personified, poised to swallow up the prophet of God. The whale encapsulates all that is aligned against God’s purposes.

Whales as Symbols of Salvation

Yet immediately after swallowing Jonah, the whale becomes an agent in God’s plan of salvation. God appointed the whale to swallow Jonah, then it vomited him up three days later (Jonah 1:17). Jonah survived his entombment and emerged ready to preach God’s message.

Though the whale represents chaos and death, God transformed it into an instrument of salvation. its three-day confinement of Jonah foreshadowed Christ’s own death and resurrection. So while still symbolic of evil and danger, the whale also delivers Jonah out of death into new life and obedience.

The prophet himself declares this truth:

I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, And He answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice. (Jonah 2:2 NKJV)

Jonah praised God for saving him from the clutches of death personified by the whale. The whale’s stomach is compared to Sheol, the realm of the dead.

Rather than dying, the whale becomes the means through which God rescued and redirected his prophet. It moves Jonah from disobedience to obedience. So the whale transitions from an embodiment of death into an agent of salvation.

Later in his prayer, Jonah reiterates this truth:

You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God! (Jonah 2:6 NKJV)

By swallowing Jonah, the whale brought him as low as possible. Any lower and Jonah would have entered Sheol forever, the point of no return. But precisely at this bleak limit, God performed a miracle of salvation. The whale carried Jonah as low as possible, then released him to new life and obedience.

So in the same story, the whale represents two opposites. It personifies Satan’s desire to destroy God’s messenger through chaos, danger, and death. Yet it becomes the means through which God enacts his rescue. The whale takes Jonah about as low as he can go, then delivers him into renewal and redemption.

Through his deliverance from the whale, Jonah becomes a new creation. He moves from running away to running towards Nineveh, ready to declare God’s message. His whale-like tomb becomes the gateway to resurrected life and obedience.

Whales During the Creation Story

The other key appearance of whales in the Bible is at creation. Genesis 1 documents God creating the heavens, earth, and everything in them in six days. On the fifth day:

So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:21 NKJV)

Though not directly named, whales fall into this category of “great sea creatures.” As massive inhabitants of the oceans, they exemplify the beauty and complexity of God’s creation.

Their immense size demonstrates God’s majestic power and control over even the deepest parts of the sea. The whales’ appearance on the fifth day shows that they are not chaos monsters. Rather, they are intentional creations fashioned by God and declared “good.”

Even in the primordial beginnings, the whale represents the mystery of the ocean depths. The sea often symbolizes chaos and disorder in the Bible. Yet God’s creation of the whales and other sea creatures proves that even these unknown depths are under his dominion.

Later in Genesis, God blesses the great sea creatures and tells them:

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas (Genesis 1:22 NKJV)

Not only are whales part of God’s intentional design, they are blessed to thrive and increase from the very start. So whales in Genesis represent God’s power, creativity, and control over all the earth, even the mysterious aquatic realm.

Whales in the Psalms as Symbols of God’s Majesty

Whales appear in the Psalms a couple times as part of praising God’s wondrous creation. The psalmists mention whales and other sea creatures to express the majesty, might, and praiseworthiness of God:

O LORD, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your possessions . . . There the ships sail about; there is that Leviathan which You have made to play there. (Psalm 104:24, 25-26 NKJV)

Most likely a reference to whales, these verses portray the creatures frolicking in their watery domain that God created. Just as God intentionally designed the dry land as a habitat for people and animals, so too did he fashion the oceans as domains for whales, fish, and other creatures.

The psalmist is awestruck at the variety and artistry of God’s creation. Even powerful, mysterious whales declare God’s creative capacity and sovereignty.

Elsewhere in the Psalms, whales and sea creatures are called to actively praise their creator:

Praise the LORD from the earth, You great sea creatures and all the depths; (Psalm 148:7 NKJV)

As intentional designs of God, whales and other sea life are summoned to praise his name. Their massive size and mysterious watery homes display God’s greatness. Their very existence brings him praise.

So in both Genesis and the Psalms, whales are symbols of the beauty, complexity, intentionality, and magnificence of God’s creation. Their home in the ocean depths represents how all spheres of the earth, even the mysterious and chaotic, are under God’s complete dominion.

Whales as Symbols of Death and Resurrection in the Gospels

In the New Testament gospels, Jesus mentioned Jonah and the whale on two occasions. In both he used them as a symbol and foreshadowing of his own coming death and resurrection.

Let’s revisit the first mention from Matthew 12:40:

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40 NKJV)

Jesus explicitly connected Jonah’s three-day entombment in the whale to his own upcoming death and burial for three days. Jonah’s time inside the fish pointed forward to Christ’s time sealed in the tomb.

Jesus went even further with this parallel later in Matthew:

For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation . . . The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:40-41 NKJV)

Jonah’s time in the whale led to his renewed call to preach redemption in Nineveh. Likewise, Jesus’ own death and resurrection would accomplish an even greater salvation for all peoples. Both Jonah and Jesus confronted death before experiencing new life and seeking the lost. The whale encapsulates the themes of death and resurrection.

Jesus used Jonah’s entombment in the whale as a foreshadowing of his own victory over death. This underscores again the dual nature of the whale as a symbol. It represents death and chaos, yet also the possibility of resurrection and redemption to follow. For Jesus, as for Jonah, the whale marked the transition from death into new proclamation of God’s salvation.

Whales and Baptism Symbolism for Early Christians

In the early church, Christians connected Jonah’s time inside the whale to the practice of baptism. Paul the Apostle referenced baptism as an act symbolizing death and resurrection:

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4 NKJV)

Through baptism, Christians identify with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The water represents a tomb that ultimately gives way to new life.

Jonah’s time inside the whale mirrored this same pattern of death, entombment, and resurrection. Early Christians saw Jonah’s story as a foreshadowing of the redemptive transformation available in Christ. Justin Martyr, an early church father, commented on these connections:

“As he prayed to God in the whale’s belly, his prayer had power and sufficed to bring him out from the depths of death.” (Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection)

For Justin Martyr and others, Jonah’s prayer from inside the whale demonstrated God’s power to bring life from death. His deliverance provided the pattern and hope of resurrection life through faith in Christ. The whale was Jonah’s symbolic tomb that paradoxically gave birth to renewed obedience and purpose.

Irenaeus, another early church leader, pushed back against Bible skeptics by affirming the historicity of Jonah’s time inside the whale:

“Christ signifies, through the prophet Jonah, the three days of His lying in the grave; and as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of man, He says, be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Against Heresies)

For Irenaeus, those who doubted Jonah’s experience inside the whale also risked doubting Christ’s own death and resurrection. The two events were tied together such that the former gives credence to the latter. The whale represents the tomb Christ would inhabit before being resurrected to new life.

From the early centuries of the church, Christians made baptismal connections back to Jonah’s symbolic death and rebirth in the whale. As an archetype of Christ’s death and resurrection, Jonah’s whale experience bolstered the transformative meaning behind Christian baptism. Submersion in water represented death to sin and resurrection to righteousness, just as Jonah repented inside the whale before arising to preach redemption.

Conclusion: The Dual Nature of Whales as Symbols

As we’ve seen, whales occupy a complex symbolic nature in the Bible. They represent mighty forces of chaos and danger that stand against God’s order and purposes. The whale that swallowed Jonah epitomized the death intended for those who rebel against God. Its stomach was like Sheol, the dark pit of no return.

Yet God transformed this instrument of death into an agent of redemption. The whale became the means through which Jonah experienced rock-bottom before being recommissioned to preach salvation.

Additionally, whales and other sea creatures appear at creation as intentional designs of God, blessed to thrive and fill their watery domain. They declare God’s majesty and creativity.

For biblical authors and early Christians, whales represented the mystery and profundity of sin and evil. Their ocean habitat signified chaos and spiritual oblivion. Yet God can reach down into these depths to bring about renewal and redemption.

Whales simultaneously encompass the themes of sin, judgment, death and resurrection life, order emerging from chaos, and beauty shining in the darkest abyss. They exemplify God’s sovereignty and capacity to save, perfectly illustrated through the fantastical story of the disobedient yet redeemed prophet Jonah.

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