An Analysis of the Book of Jonah, Part 1

by Roy Hanu Hart, M.D., July 29, 2016

The Book of Jonah could be entitled “Jonah and the Whale,” for it is one whale of a story. Then again, “Jonah: What a fish Story!” would do as well. Jonah’s tale, one might say, is just about the biggest fish yarn ever. Well, maybe not. Carlo Collodi outdid the author of Jonah with The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883). During his various adventures and misadventures, Pinocchio is swallowed by the Terrible Dogfish, a dogfish-like sea monster (tannin, “sea monster” in Hebrew) more than half a mile in length, not including its tail.

The largest fish in the Mediterranean is the great white shark, made famous, or infamous, by Peter Benchley in his novel Jaws and Steven Spielberg’s subsequent movie adaptation. Male great whites average 12 feet in length (females 15.5.ft.) and are the largest predatory fish known, but not large enough to accommodate an average-size human comfortably or uncomfortably for a three-day sojourn, provided, of course, its guest survives its carnivorous appetite in the first place.

Perhaps a more hospitable host – and I’m thinking of Jonah’s precarious situation at sea -- would be a blue whale, the leviathan of the deep. These sea creatures, the largest animals ever to have inhabited the earth, can grow to 90-100 feet in length, weigh as much as 100 tons, and digest 40 million (8000 pounds) krill (small shrimplike crustaceans) a day, their dietary mainstay. Members of our species are not known to be even an occasional treat for these sea giants.

The blue whale, with a tongue the size of an elephant, has baleen (whalebone) bristles instead of teeth in its upper jaw that act like a comb. When the whale expels a mouthful of water it has ingested, the krill are retained on the bristles, which it then licks off with its tongue and swallows. (Baleen whales are thus “filter feeders.”) However, as huge as the whale is, its esophageal opening is too narrow to admit anything as large as a grown human.

Those who read the Jonah text as word-for-word gospel will say that chapter 1 specifically mentions a large fish, not a whale. Of course, we know that the whale is a cetacean, that is, a marine mammal, not a fish, but the ancients didn’t know that. They would have viewed a whale simply as a large fish, dag gadol in Hebrew, which is how the text reads. There was no word for whale in biblical times.

But is there any chance whatsoever that Jonah could have survived three days and three nights somewhere in the body of a whale? Memory of the first patient I saw as a medical student in 1961 at Dundee Royal Infirmary in Scotland provided me with a possible answer.

He was a retired judge in his 70s, hale and hearty, but he lived with an inconvenient congenital defect: he had a pharyngeal pouch, an abnormal sac formed in the wall of his pharynx at the junction of the lower part of the throat and the esophagus. The elderly gentleman cheerfully demonstrated to the students gathered around him how he manipulated a specially designed silver spoon to scoop out food trapped in the pouch.

In baleen whales, such as the blue whale, but not in toothed whales, the pharynx resembles that of other mammals, and it is conceivable that Jonah could have been swallowed by a blue whale with a pharyngeal pouch. But it should be emphasized, a pharyngeal pouch is an anatomical anomaly rarely encountered in humans and perhaps never seen in cetaceans.

If it did happen as Jonah 1:17 states, such a pouch in a blue whale could have been large enough to house Jonah for several days.  He would have had to steel himself every time the whale opened its mouth to take in water and then expel it when (filter) feeding. Whether he would have enough oxygen when the leviathan was submerged is a key question. At least he would have been far enough removed from the sea-going beast’s stomach with its gastric juice containing hydrochloric acid (pH 2-3) and the protein-digesting enzyme pepsin so as not to wind up as so much chyme (digestive mush).

It should be noted that most species of whales can remain under water for 20 minutes before surfacing for air. The longest a human has held his breath under water is 19 minutes. Peter Colat, a Swiss free- diver, performed the feat in 2010 – but was allowed to breathe pure oxygen 10 minutes before his attempt. The biblical account does not mention that Jonah was a world-class free-diver.

Whatever his aquatic housing arrangement, Jonah was Mediterranean sea-going because he defied God. However, his defiance made obvious sense to him. Why would he want to preach the message of repentance to the Ninevites – that’s what he was charged by God to do --when the might of Assyria would soon enough destroy his beloved Israel?

A prophet hears the word of God and transmits His message to the people. He also has the gift of prophecy – the ability to catch a glimpse of the future. Jonah knew what would befall Israel in the second half of the 8th century BCE: the Assyrian horde would descend upon the Northern Kingdom (in 722 BCE), and its 10 tribes would vanish into history.

He was between the devil and the deep blue sea: forced to bring spiritual aid and comfort to the detestable inhabitants of Nineveh, or defy heaven and suffer God’s displeasure. Emotionally distraught as he was, he nevertheless managed to board a cargo ship at Joppa on the Mediterranean headed west – the opposite direction from Nineveh – to Tarshish beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar), symbolically, the ends of the earth.

Jonah’s ministry is dated to the first half of the 8th century BCE, and his visit to Nineveh – he eventually gets there – can be narrowed down to about 757 or 756 (q.v.). Jeroboam ll was on the throne of Israel from 786-746, and Assur-dan III ruled over Assyria (772-755) from his throne in Assur (or Ashur), the Neo-Assyrian Empire’s capital, located about fifty or so miles downstream from Nineveh on the west bank of the Tigris.

How he got to Nineveh is an intriguing part of the Book of Jonah. (I, for one, don’t buy the fish or whale story, which the storyteller added to his tale simply to flavor the plot.) Three days out of port a storm came up the likes of which the ship’s crew had never experienced. Jonah, trying to hide from God’s wrath, as represented by the storm, took refuge in the depths of the ship curled up in the fetal position – a uterine-like hiding place is generally considered a safe a place to be when trouble comes --but it didn’t work for him. He discovers he can run but can’t hide from God.

Jonah has himself thrown overboard to save the ship and its crew, and the storm ceases. During the gale, the crew had thrown the cargo overboard to lighten the ship. Jonah, now struggling to keep his head above water, found something among the flotsam and jetsam to climb on so as to get out of the water. (This alternate version to the biblical account presupposes the Jonah story is just that: storytelling -- fiction; if it were historical, this version, I think, sounds more plausible than the big fish narrative.) During his three days and three nights floating on the sea, he prays to God for forgiveness, and God does show him His mercy. Jonah will now undertake the mission God has charged him with.

To close out part 1, let me quote Jonah 1:9 (KJV): “And he said unto them [the crew of the ship bound for Tarshish], I am an Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land.” He has survived his misadventure at sea, and now he is on dry land. What happens to him on dry land -- and what the story of Jonah is actually all about -- will be analyzed in part 2.

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