Jonah and the Whale – Oh Crap They Still Want This Story To Be Literally True!

I can’t believe it. (That is simultaneously stunned disbelief and a joke.)

Sure, I sang the song as a child. I had coloring books like this one:

When I made a list of stuff to “debunk”, I thought that this one wasn’t worthy. It’s too ridiculous. Surely awareness of fish and whale biology would now be preventing parents from telling their kids that this literally happened, right? No marine animal could possibly swallow a full-grown human male and KEEP HIM ALIVE inside for 3 days, right? (Poor fishy, what a case of indigestion! Bleh!)

But just out of curiosity, I did a search (completely ignoring the 5 blog posts that are topping my to-do list – like normal), and found SO many sites saying that the story is literal (see Jonah 1-4) and even Jesus agrees! (Matthew 12:38-40)

From Learn Religions:

“It’s not important whether it was a great fish or a whale that swallowed Jonah. The point of the story is that God can provide a supernatural means of rescue when his people are in trouble. Some scholars believe the Ninevites paid attention to Jonah because of his bizarre appearance. They speculate that the whale’s stomach acid bleached Jonah’s hair, skin, and clothing a ghostly white.”

From Jonah’s Biblical Story Was No Big Fish Tale:

“Did God create a special fish? Maybe. He created the world; He could surely create a fish for Jonah. Imagine being inside a fish for three days! Total darkness, nasty smelling whale burps, and floating in dead fish slime and gastric juices. Do you suppose Jonah swore off fish for the rest of his life?”

From Bible Study Tools:

“This fish was prepared, lay ready underwater close by the ship, that he might keep Jonah from sinking to the bottom, and save him alive, though he deserved to die. It was of the Lord’s mercies that Jonah was not now consumed. The fish swallowed up Jonah, not to devour him, but to protect him. Out of the eater comes forth meat; for Jonah was alive and well in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, not consumed by the heat of the animal, nor suffocated for want of air. It is granted that to nature this was impossible, but not to the God of nature, with whom all things are possible.”

And from the site that probably wins the award for the most scientifically-ignorant site on the entire internet, Answers in Genesis:

“Are there ‘great fish’ large enough to swallow a man whole? Of course! Keep in mind that modern animal classification systems weren’t exactly in use at the time of Jonah. Any aquatic creature could be referred to as a ‘fish’. And we know that there are whales (blue and sperm) and even sharks (great white and whale sharks) that can swallow a man whole. The sperm whale grows to a length of up to 70 feet. Its esophagus is approximately 20-inches wide and sperm whales don’t have to chew their food – so Jonah could have been swallowed whole. Two marine scientists from Sea World in San Diego hypothesize that it was a great white shark that probably swallowed Jonah.”

The few stories of sailors being swallowed by a sperm whale and surviving have been widely debunked – and are probably the creations of Pastors trying to claim that their fishy tale isn’t fishy. A pretty good article on the subject lives here:

Whale Shark? The esophagus of a whale shark measures only inches across. Sperm Whale? 20-inch diameter esophagus. A 20-inch male head is extremely small. (Although maybe not 3000 years ago.) Shoulders and hips are MUCH wider. A waist size of 26 inches is pretty emaciated. If there is any gas inside a whale, it’s probably methane, and that’s not going to help you out very much. Certainly, no air inside a fish, so I think that’s really what’s going to get you in the end. Great White? Did god pull out one’s teeth? Sure, there are great whites with three-foot jaw openings, but the way they eat is always to bite first. And then if a human was unfortunate enough to get sucked in by a toothless great white, there’s no air in there. Poor shark, if god pulled its teeth and blew it up with oxygen. Note the ending of “2 Marine Scientists” (no citation, obviously) . . .

Yeesh. The lengths to which fundies will go to insist that their book of absurd fairy tales is literal is astounding.

Learn Science. Study fish and whales. Seriously. Science won’t rot your brain into fish sauce.

Oh and a few more questions:

Oh! And I forgot something. Maybe a historian or bible scholar can help me out here. God sent an Israelite prophet to NINEVAH? Why? The oldest and most-populous city of the ancient Assyrian empire, now a part of Mosul, Iraq. So, lets see – god decides to send a prophet to a city that does not know him, they worship Ishtar, Iamassu guardians, and a few other deities. He chose Jonah, who he knew would rebel, refuse, and then throw a tantrum afterward. He tortured Jonah into obedience. The Ninevites repented of whatever they were doing wrong, but did not begin to worship YHWH. And it ends with Jonah pouting because he didn’t get to watch god slaughter the Ninevites.

Absolutely none of this story makes sense! Preachers now use this as an example of how god graciously gives his people 2nd chances, but the story is just weird, truly weird, from start to end. Is there an older “lived inside a fish” story from Sumer or Babylon or Egypt somewhere?

Oct. 16, 2021 Update – A few thoughts from modern Jewish scholars

Ok, I have a few answers. 1) Modern Jewish scholars are quite adamant that this story is a composite tale – combining the story of a famous historical prophet with a few “evil king” stories. At the very mention of a boat: “Nobody needs a boat to get from Israel to Iraq!” (Note – yep, check a map. All over-land. Not even a river or lake to cross. In fact, the problem wouldn’t be an ocean storm – it would be a lack of water!) or a human-swallowing fish “(laughter)” they’re quick to point out that the story is not to be taken literally. The theme of repenting from evil and avoiding destruction is the only valuable part of the tale. 2) There may have been a reason for the inclusion of Ninevah – everyone in the region knew the Assyrians as a huge threat, a superpower, the richest and most warlike people of Old-Testament time. There was a wicked King – Esarhaddon – who ascended to the throne by murdering lots of rivals. The Ninevites eventually had enough and overthrew him. 3) The story became linked with the story of Ahijah, the prophet who spoke to King Jeroboam – the wicked King who turned Israel away from God and caused Israelites to become slaves to the Assyrians.

Jonah was known as a famous prophet who called on the powerful to repent 2,500 years ago. (There are actually 3 different grave-sites for Jonah, and yes, one is in Ninevah, although archaeologists are relatively certain that he was never there. A church honoring Jonah was built in Ninevah around 500ace, which probably convinced later believers that it must honor the grave of Jonah.) Ninevah (now Mosul, Iraq) did indeed have an evil King and the town actually did repent. It might have been irresistible to ancient priests (who saw the Assyrians as slavers and enemies and a huge threat) to attribute that “repentance” to the preaching of a Jewish prophet, but that is . . . let’s just say highly unlikely. There was a prophet who tried to convince Jeroboam to return to god, it didn’t work, and his people were enslaved by the Assyrians. It’s the prophet vs. the evil King story that the modern Rabbis honor, which was sweetened by ending with repentance. King Jeroboam did not repent, historically – the Assyrian people did – and the Assyrian repentance had nothing to do with the god of Israel or any of his prophets.

There were actually many ancient stories about being swallowed by a fish and living to tell the tale! There’s the Hindu legend of Saktideva – who was travelling to a distant city and swallowed by a giant fish before being spat out and going on his way. Hercules was swallowed near the port of Jaffa (Jonah’s point of departure) and escaped. And in Babylon, the Whale of Der swallowed Oannes (wow, that’s close to Jonah, isn’t it?) and spits him out, reborn. So it’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that this story could have gotten entwined into this old game of telephone.

Modern Rabbis honor the story as a tale of God giving second chances. They laugh at the story of the boat and the big fishie as stuff from old folk tales that never should have been included. Too bad Fundamentalist Preachers don’t have study sessions with people who know the Old Testament better than they ever will.

Published by libbylawrence

Fundamentalist turned Atheist in the US Bible Belt. Sharing fun memes and musings with anyone who is interested.

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