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.