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 2002-09-13: Jonah

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What swallowed Jonah?
Sea World educators identify the prime suspects

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, Sept. 13, 2002

By Donald H. Harrison

In the popular imagination, it was a whale that swallowed Jonah. But when
you read the English translation of the story of Jonah this coming Yom
Kippur afternoon, you¹ll find that in most Bibles and chumashim, it was a
"great fish."

So we have a biblical what-dunnit, as it were.
Over at SeaWorld, Keith Robinson and Donna Parham agreed to speculate about
the mystery. 

Robinson, a senior marine science instructor, and Parham, a science writer,
methodically studied the few clues that the Bible offers for solving the

The biblical text tells us that the prophet Jonah tried to flee from God on
a ship that left from Jaffa (in modern-day Israel). Furthermore, the text
said the ship was headed toward Tarshish when it was beset by a storm. There
are various hypotheses where Tarshish was. Some sources say Turkey; others
say Spain. 

In either event, the ship would have been sailing on the Mediterranean Sea.
So Clue Number One: the suspect was a denizen of the Mediterranean.
In the Stone Tanakh, Jonah 2:1 is rendered: "Hashem designated a large fish
to swallow Jonah, and Jonah remained in the fish¹s innards three days and
three nights."

In the King James version of the Bible, that verse is numbered Jonah 1:17
and is rendered: "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."

One version says God "designated" the fish; the other says He "had prepared"
it. Could this make a difference? If God "had prepared" the fish, perhaps He
had created it anew, especially for the purpose of swallowing Jonah. If such
were the case, the fish may have simply existed for that particular moment
in time. There may, therefore, be no modern-day equivalent.

Based on that premise, Robinson and Parham offered the first in a series of
"suspects": The Jonah Fish, created by God specifically to swallow Jonah and
hold him inside for three days; a fish that never was seen before and never
seen again.

The alternative translation in the Stone Tanakh allowed for other
possibilities. If God "designated" the fish, He might have looked into the
waters of the Mediterranean, spotted a likely-looking great fish and
commanded it to wait with its mouth open at the storm-tossed spot where
Jonah would be thrown overboard from a bucking ship.

Whatever that great fish was, Robinson and Parham agreed, in order to
swallow Jonah whole it would have needed a very big mouth and a very large

And have lived in the Mediterranean.
Robinson said most whales don't have big enough throats to swallow a man
whole. For example, the orca whales that perform in SeaWorld's shows
couldn't do it.

So Shamu is "off the hook," as it were.

One whale that does have a big enough esophagus is the sperm whale -- an
albino version of which bedeviled Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's 19th
Century masterpiece, Moby Dick.

Robinson said that large sperm whales have esophaguses that measure as large
as 50 centimeters, or roughly a foot and a half wide. They can be found in
the Mediterranean. 

He said sperm whales don't have to chew their food, they can move it into
their stomachs by peristaltic or muscle action -- so Jonah could have been
swallowed whole.

The sperm whale, therefore, is the second "suspect."

However, men often measure more than a foot and a half across their
shoulders, so in order for his swallower to have been a sperm whale, Jonah
would have to have been of fairly slight build.

Whales are mammals with digestive systems similar to those of humans, noted
Robinson. Think of "all the digestive juices, hydrochloric acids, the heat,
just suffocating heat, the lack of air..."

A whale's stomach would be no place for a human to spend three days,
Robinson said. Not to live to tell about it.

An active member of the fundamentalist Maranatha Chapel in Rancho Bernardo,
Robinson noted that Christian theology suggests that Jonah actually died in
the belly of the great fish and then was resurrected by God. As Christians
understand Jonah's ordeal, it prefigured the death and resurrection of

Parham said the belly of a fish is a far more hospitable possibility for a
human dwelling than that of a whale. The whale's metabolism "is a lot faster
so they digest their food a lot faster" than fish do, Parham said. "Fish are
cold-blooded, so things move at a different rate."

Parham and Robinson in turn considered as suspects two species of fish.
Until the international society in charge of naming fish responded to
protests from the Anti-Defamation League and officially withdrew the
moniker, one species of giant grouper had been known popularly as the
jewfish. There were various theories why the fish got that name, most of
them anti-Semitic in origin. But one theory suggested that the giant grouper
was called the jewfish because it was the one that swallowed Jonah.

Robinson said that the grouper can grow to 800 pounds, and "I know that
there have been divers who have had their legs sucked into the mouths of
groupers. The way they feed, all they do is open their mouths and the water
just flows in, so divers' legs have been sucked in."

Mark down the giant grouper as the third suspect. However, neither Robinson
nor Parham considers it to be a very strong suspect. In detective lingo,
they don't "like" the grouper for gulping Jonah.

Sure, giant groupers have sucked down divers' legs, but there is no evidence
they've ever ingested a whole person. To swallow a person whole, there is a
far better candidate, one known throughout the Mediterranean, Robinson and
Parham said. Thanks to Stephen Spielberg, director of Jaws, this species is
known throughout the world, even in regions remote from the sea. Suspect
number four is the great white shark.

"Elephant seals is one of the favorite meals of the great white shark,"
Parham said. "And some elephant seals are bigger than Shamu."

Robinson told of seeing a photograph "of a great white shark opening its
mouth, and it had within its gullet a whole blue shark. You could see the
head of a six-foot blue shark, so it could easily swallow a man."

Parham added that "in the cold water, with the metabolism of a shark, a
man's body could last three days without deterioration..."

How Jonah might have found air to breathe inside the stomach is another
question -- an unanswered one. Even though some other fish species have been
known to surface from the sea and gulp down air, like the lungfish for
example, there is no known explanation for how such air could be transferred
to the fish¹s stomach.

After Jonah was swallowed, he prayed to God. Three days later, the great
fish "vomited" Jonah onto the dry land, according to the King James version
of the Bible. It "spewed out" Jonah, according to the Stone version of the

Robinson thumbed through the book Great White Shark by Richard Ellis and
John McCosker to a page where it noted that in the 16th Century the French
naturalist Guillaume Rondelet had sought to identify a marine mammal capable
of swallowing a man and then bringing the prey back up later on.
The authors said the great white shark was a great substitute choice.
Every scientist knows that a theory is simply a best-informed guess, until
perhaps new facts come along. But based on the foregoing, Parham and
Robinson have their hypothesis.

What dunnit? The great white shark dunnit. "Jaws" swallowed Jonah!