In the popular imagination, it was a whale that swallowed Jonah. But
you read the English translation of the story of Jonah this coming
Kippur afternoon, you¹ll find that in most Bibles and chumashim,
it was a
So we have a biblical what-dunnit, as it were.
Over at SeaWorld, Keith Robinson and Donna Parham agreed to speculate
Robinson, a senior marine science instructor, and Parham, a science
methodically studied the few clues that the Bible offers for solving
The biblical text tells us that the prophet Jonah tried to flee from
a ship that left from Jaffa (in modern-day Israel). Furthermore, the
said the ship was headed toward Tarshish when it was beset by a storm.
are various hypotheses where Tarshish was. Some sources say Turkey;
In either event, the ship would have been sailing on the Mediterranean
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
to swallow Jonah, and Jonah remained in the fish¹s innards three
In the King James version of the Bible, that verse is numbered Jonah
and is rendered: "Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow
Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three
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
had created it anew, especially for the purpose of swallowing Jonah.
were the case, the fish may have simply existed for that particular
in time. There may, therefore, be no modern-day equivalent.
Based on that premise, Robinson and Parham offered the first in a series
"suspects": The Jonah Fish, created by God specifically to swallow
hold him inside for three days; a fish that never was seen before and
The alternative translation in the Stone Tanakh allowed for other
possibilities. If God "designated" the fish, He might have looked into
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
And have lived in the Mediterranean.
Robinson said most whales don't have big enough throats to swallow
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 --
albino version of which bedeviled Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's
Century masterpiece, Moby Dick.
Robinson said that large sperm whales have esophaguses that measure
as 50 centimeters, or roughly a foot and a half wide. They can be found
He said sperm whales don't have to chew their food, they can move it
their stomachs by peristaltic or muscle action -- so Jonah could have
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,
would have to have been of fairly slight build.
Whales are mammals with digestive systems similar to those of humans,
Robinson. Think of "all the digestive juices, hydrochloric acids, the
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
the belly of the great fish and then was resurrected by God. As Christians
understand Jonah's ordeal, it prefigured the death and resurrection
Parham said the belly of a fish is a far more hospitable possibility
human dwelling than that of a whale. The whale's metabolism "is a lot
so they digest their food a lot faster" than fish do, Parham said.
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
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
them anti-Semitic in origin. But one theory suggested that the giant
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
groupers. The way they feed, all they do is open their mouths and the
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
they've ever ingested a whole person. To swallow a person whole, there
far better candidate, one known throughout the Mediterranean, Robinson
Parham said. Thanks to Stephen Spielberg, director of Jaws, this species
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
mouth, and it had within its gullet a whole blue shark. You could see
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,
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
known to surface from the sea and gulp down air, like the lungfish
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
of the Bible. It "spewed out" Jonah, according to the Stone version
Robinson thumbed through the book Great White Shark by Richard Ellis
John McCosker to a page where it noted that in the 16th Century the
naturalist Guillaume Rondelet had sought to identify a marine mammal
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,
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!