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Jonah and the Whale


This classic story has been one of the top examples of Bible fables since at least the 19th century. For example, a snippet in Lincoln, Nebraska's The Nebraska State Journal (Jan. 30, 1896, p.4) says: "Admitting the wondrous scope of infinite possibility, it requires the most heroic effort of finite credibility to have implicit faith that the author of the story of Jonah was not misinformed about the whale." The Seattle Post Intelligencer ("A Great Modern Feat", Jun. 17, 1891, p.2) has the following:

Mr. Goodman - Wasn't it quite a feat for the whale to swallow Jonah?
Mr. Badun - Yes: but it was nothing to what many people do nowadays.
Mr. Goodman - What is that?
Mr. Badun - They swallow the story.
The obvious question: how could Jonah have breathed and not been chewed up or digested in the fish's mouth for three whole days!? But far from a typical legend, I think the story's authenticity has merit.

It's not exactly like one has access to test such an experiment - even if a sailor ever survived in some whale for at least a few hours, he may have died later leaving his micro-Jonah scenario a mystery to his crewmates.

  1. Jonah the Man
  2. Case History
    1. Marshal Jenkins (1771)
    2. A dog (1926)
    3. James Bartley (1891)
      1. Origin of the Story
      2. Reliability
      3. Conclusion
      4. Final Thoughts
    4. Hoaxes
      1. Luigi Marquez (2016)
  3. Natural Mechanics
    1. Whales Swallowing Humans
    2. Breathing
    3. Heat
    4. Decomposition
  4. Identity of the whale
    1. Sperm whale
    2. Shark/Fish?
    3. Baleen Whale
  5. Conclusion

I. Jonah the Man

Dr. Zakir Naik, a Muslim apologist, was extremely surprised when an Indian Christian from his audience questioned him and revealed he didn't know the story of Jonah. It led Naik to comment he'd never heard of a Christian who didn't know about Jonah and the whale. No judgment on anyone, because we never know at what stage they are on their journey. The point being to give some background and not assume too much familiarity.

In Jonah's day, the Assyrians had made (or were going to make) an incursion in Galilee. Every war is destructive, but the Assyrians were especially brutal with their victims. God tells Jonah to go preach to one of their cities to save the inhabitants from destruction: when the Israelites themselves are to suffer it! It's like asking a relative of a victim to not only forgive the murderer (not unheard of), but go and help him get back on his feet. Jonah decides that he can't preach if he's not there and goes on a ship to run away in the exact opposite direction. It's an interesting solution because a simple rejection could mean disaster upon Israel. While on the ship, a storm causes the crew to draw lots and it's revealed Jonah is the reason - he is thrown overboard, and a whale swallows him, spitting him back to the shore. Naturally, Jonah does not defy God anymore and completes his mission.

Jonah's prayer in Jonah 2:5-6 tells us he was quite deep in the water. Verse 3 doesn't have to mean he was somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, since even a few miles would give that impression to a man drowning to the "root of the mountains". Sperm whales are known for their quick and deep dives [Valencic, 15] and toothed whales normally penetrate the deeper depths, to 3000 feet, searching for food. [Valencic, 17] Jonah would've long drowned by even a tenth of that, so perhaps he was merely sinking and one picked him up on its quick way up. Sperm whales don't suffer from the bends, so a very quick resurface could've happened. One could've easily picked him up and surfaced for air, for up to several hours. Both Packard and Schimpf had their whale surface quickly. Schimpf notes that he expected it to dive deeply so he held his breath.

The question of Jonah's survival in the whale's "belly" naturally comes up. It's tempting and typical to ascribe it to a miracle, which although unmentioned, could easily be implied (cf. 1:10b, nor is Jonah's response recorded to God's final remarks in chapter 4).

Yet I feel it's possible for Jonah, unlikely as it is, to have survived in the whale for three days - perhaps a little over an actual day with Jewish inclusive reckoning, the evening and morning counted as a day like in Jesus' death - Friday evening to Sunday morning was about a day and a half.

The ancient Israelites were not tall (frequent mentions of giants and giant fruits when they enter Canaan), and sandals at Qumran confirm a height of about 5'1" (155cm). Saul, the tallest Israelite, was still no match for Goliath (whose height is not literal but an expression).

II. Case History

Marshal Jenkins (1771)

In 1771 the case of Marshal Jenkins was documented in the The Massachusetts Gazette, and Boston Post-Boy and the Advertiser (p.585, p.3 of that day):

We hear from Edgartown, that a Vessel lately arrived there from a Whaling Voyage; and that in her Voyage, one Marshal Jenkins, with others, being in a Boat that struck a Whale, she turn’d and bit the Boat in two, took said Jenkins in her Mouth, and went down with him; but on her rising threw him into one part, from whence he was taken on board the Vessel by the Crew, being much bruis’d; and that in about a Fortnight after, he perfectly recovered. This account we have from undoubted Authority. [apud Moe, Peter Wayne. "Of Tombs and Wombs, or, The Whale, Part III", Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, Vol. 17.1 (2015): 53]
I suppose that's an unverified claim, long ago:
One might expect Jenkins to be front-page material (the lead that day is “A Review of the present State of the War between the Russians and Turks” [583]), but Jenkins is relegated to the Gazette’s third page, buried amid a list of maritime happenings, of ships arriving in Boston in various states of disarray and disrepair (585) [Moe, ibid, p.59, n.6]
The detail about bruising is very similar to the modern case of Michael Packard, who, age 51, had minor but extensive bruises. Rainer Schimpf did not have any, but he was caught in the mouth for all of two seconds by his count; and he was unable to dislodge himself until the water from inside the whale pushed him out as it was spit out. That one would be tossed and turned, despite there being water, inside a solid encasement, with the high speeds whales can achieve, makes sense that there would be bruises. But it is not something one thinks of, especially if making up a story about whale swallowing. Also, like Jenkins, being spit out at the surface shortly after is what happened in Packard's case.

The observation that this story only made page 3, passed over by various other notices doesn't prove anything: the story was clearly believed, and it was simply not as important (or perhaps interesting) as international affairs like war, or the state of ships upon which commerce depended.

A dog (1926)

A dog supposedly survived 6 days in the air compartment of a blue whale (see below). I am inclined to disbelieve this story without any kind of corroboration.

In particular, the article claims the owner of the dog climbed into the air-chamber of the blue whale: something I'm not particularly inclined to believe. The danger of natural whale explosion after death may not have been known in 1926 and perhaps there was enough time for him to perform his experiment: the 2004 Taiwan whale exploded only after being transported for some time and perhaps the man with the dog tracked it and spotted it immediately on the beach. This blue whale washed ashore Newfoundland and had swelled up for a week without having exploded.

But it feels like it's meant to add credibility since a man who actually lost and recovered his dog from that place, wouldn't in my opinion, bother going in there: almost as if he's trying to verify Jonah's story, which serves as motivation for an invention or distortion of the facts. The article is one of a number of identical stories from 1925-6 in various newspapers. [Kokomo Tribune Sep. 9, 1925, p.2; "Whale Could've Toted Jonah in Lungs", Indianapolis Times 37.96 Aug. 21, 1925, p.19; "New Light on Jonah" Cleveland Plain Dealer Jun. 2, 1926, p.10]

"Some time ago" a sailor's dog went overboard in the Bering Sea and was found six or seven days later alive, having gone inside an "air chamber" of the whale where other animals too big to swallow like turtles go. In such cases, the whale swims to shallower waters (i.e. close to land) to get its head above water to expel the occupant.

Although air can go from the airways of baleen whales (not toothed whales like the sperm whale) to the mouth, such as when humpback whales blow bubbles, if Jonah, a sea turtle, or even a fish could end up in such an air chamber, so could water. Thus, it can't be connected to the airways, because the whale would quickly drown. So, this "air chamber" cannot be the laryngeal sac.

Rimmer compares it to our sinuses. I can't find any other "air chamber", and the sperm whale's spermaceti organ is filled with oil. It's far easier for something to be spit out than put into such a chamber. Moreover, a whale is capable of keeping its head above water and does not need to go near land to expel anything. Its surface breaches are enough for it to get the air needed to push out whatever is in its mouth. Unless he's beached, the depth would be irrelevant anyway.

James Bartley (1891)

If one wanted to find parallels to a man swallowed by a fish, for at least some hours, the example of James Bartley immediately shows up. It's so common that I even remember it mentioned in an English-learning textbook of mine in the 90's (the man in the fictional drawing was much older, and the fish much smaller - a point my teacher emphasized because I kept asking questions about it to her annoyance; but I clearly remember it saying his skin was permanently yellowed or tanned).

As it goes, in February 1891, a ship named Star of the East was hunting whales near the Falkland Islands. Upon seeing a sperm whale, two boats were sent to attack it. The whale was harpooned twice, but in its rage, broke apart one boat. Everyone from it was recovered, except a sailor - James Bartley. While cutting up the whale, which had died, they found Bartley inside its stomach: unconscious, but alive! More details can be found in the sources.

But the extremely thorough investigations of Edward B. Davis [Davis, 224-37] reveals the James Bartley story to be a myth. It was invented by mariners. Although there was an actual ship called Star of the East (three of them, but only one big enough to have boats, etc), it was not a whaling vessel, nor was there a James Bartley on it. But numerous sources refer to the story with all credibility, including an edition of Encyclopedia Britannica! Why?

Origin of the Story

The transmission of the Bartley case itself is a story. The incident is supposed to have taken place in February, 1891. The earliest account of it is in the English newspaper, The Yarmouth Mercury Aug. 22, 1891. In 1895 a sperm whale was caught off the Azores which vomited out some squid in preserved condition, leading a certain conservative Christian author, Courbet, to write about it in Le Cosmos and how it vindicates the story of Jonah against critics who argued whales' throats were not large enough to swallow a man, whole, and untouched (i.e. by stomach gastric juices, crushed by muscles, etc). A few months later, Courbet must've found the Yarmouth story and published it in another article of his in Le Cosmos (March 7). Courbet's source is simply "the English papers".

Davis' investigation only dug up one English paper: The Yarmouth Mercury August 22, 1891, which must've been Courbet's source. He must've read a copy or something, maybe from someone, because he's very unspecific when he cites "the English papers", yet the story is essentially the same, with a few added details by Courbet, such as treatment at an English hospital. The fact that The New York Times (Nov. 22, 1896, p.16, col.4) citing the Mercury is the sole reference to any of "the English papers," - with an incorrect date (Oct. instead of Aug. 1891) shows that they themselves had a source that got confused - probably a similar situation to Courbet (showing the low priority of fact checking at the time): until World War II, most newspapers relied on news agencies for stories outside their immediate geographic areas. [Morris, Joe Alex (1957). Deadline Every Minute The Story of the United Press. Doubleday & Company] ["Upi R.i.p. As A New Book By Two Veterans Of United Press International Shows, The World Lost More Than A Scrappy Wire Service When Upi Died. It Lost A Vital Witness To History". Chicago Tribune. May 4, 2003.]

For example, an article in the New York World (not the NYT article), 12 April, 1896, dates the incident to 25 Aug., 1895! Numerous additional details are given: the age and appearance of the sailor, bluish (not white/yellow-tan) appearance of his skin, etc. One wonders where they got their information from, because it was obviously not any crew, and they probably confused the date with the Mercury article (Aug. 22), and simply assumed the incident occurred the previous year from the Parville article. That's 19th century journalism for you. This then gets uncritically repeated (e.g. The Youth's Instructor and following it the Signs of the Times 1914 articles repeat the New York World erroneous date).

Henri de Parville must've been a regular reader of Le Cosmos, because he cites Courbet in his own article on March 12, 1896 in Journal des Débats. By Parville's article, the story is so trustworthy that he relates how the captain is "worthy of trust", when neither he nor Courbet had met any of the crew. The rest of the references to James Bartley simply cite de Parville's article, though The Literary Digest ("Could the Whale have Swallowed Jonah?" Vol. 12, No. 23, April 4, 1896, pp.681-2) translated most of Courbet's account instead.

A popular preacher from the 1920's and on, Harry Rimmer, published an account that was somewhat different: a man in the English Channel, not the Falkland Islands, swallowed by a whale shark (quite possible), found alive two days later. This is a lot closer to Jonah than Bartley by several magnitudes: the animal was alive and the time was two days. However, he most likely conflated Bartley along with some other story, since Davis points out Rimmer changed the source in later reprints of the sermon from The Literary Digest to "a magazine devoted to current affairs."

Rimmer does claim to have met the person. It may not have been Rimmer himself who met him, because he says:

We corresponded with our representatives in London, and shortly afterward received corroboration of this incident, and last year had the privilege of meeting this man in person. His physical appearance was odd, in that his entire body was devoid of hair, and odd patches of a yellowish-brown color covered his entire skin.
Davis notes how Rimmer's criteria for fact-checking wasn't so rigorous at all. But how likely is it, assuming Rimmer himself saw this individual, that the man he met wasn't lying? The only further reference to this, in Davis' copy, said the meeting took place in Canada, but he couldn't substantiate that or anything else about it.

At any rate, it's very easy to confuse details. Many citing James Bartley, misinterpret or misremember the story to be that Bartley was inside a living whale for 36 hours - i.e. that it was found 2 days later (Wilson's article; John Brown commentary on Jonah 2) - whereas Courbet and de Parville's story explicitly mentions the whale died at the same time when Bartley was swallowed, and over the course of 36 hours was being cut up alongside the ship.

The numerous apologists, wanting to defend Jonah's historicity, cited this story as convincing proof. [Quinn, John N. "The Repentance of Nineveh - A Modern Jonah", The Youth Pastor 62.14 (April 7, 1914), pp.5-6; Hare, R. "A Modern Jonah", Signs of the Time 29.25 (June 22, 1914), pp.391-2]

The popular version started with Sir Francis Fox's Sixty-Three Years of Engineering, Scientific and Social Work (1924), pp.298-302, where he relates the first-person account by the survivor. This story is then cited by Ambrose Wilson in two articles in The Princeton Theological Review.


Fox and following him, Wilson, claim the story was examined by the dilligent scientists Henri de Parville (and Courbet). Yet neither Parville nor Courbet ever spoke to any of the crew! Davis masterfully and with unlimited patience traced the sources and the inescapable conclusion is that the story of a whale - nothing to do with consuming a human - was paraded in the area of Yarmouth in England, generating a lot of attention (for decades) and tall tales within days. One of these anecdotes appeared in an August 22, 1891 article in the Yarmouth Mercury (p.8 "Man in a Whale's Stomach") about James Bartley.

It's undoubtedly to "these" "English papers" Courbet refers, because this solitary source (somewhat incorrectly) is cited in a New York Times article (Nov. 22, 1896, p.16 col. 4 "Swallowed by a Whale"). This shows they either asked Courbet or did enough research to find the same Yarmouth Mercury article (most likely the former due to the inaccurate name). If this minor newspaper was all that was found, one should not be looking for Bartley's story in any major London newspaper, where Bartley was hospitalized according to Courbet, whose source is unknown as it's not mentioned in the Yarmouth Mercury. Most likely Courbet's source was a thorough summary and not directly taken from the Yarmouth Mercury or anywhere else. Hence his vagueness and additional details. Perhaps someone mentioned details to him from a clipping.

According to him, Bartley was treated in a London hospital - yet no medical journals of the time mention it. Nor any newspapers except the Mercury mention the story at all (except a reference to a "Canadian Aurora" where the story from "the English papers" was reprinted - but no such newspaper seems to have existed specifically from 1891-1896; most likely it reprints Parville or Courbet like the others anyway). Why is that? Did they figure out it was a hoax back in 1891? Perhaps it didn't draw attention. If it made such a huge deal in France and the US in 1896 (but not Britain?!), briefly as it may have, five years later, one would think it would've been somewhat more infamous in its homecountry in 1891 - especially since Bartley had the marks (permanently changed skin) to prove it, and was clearly not too shy about the incident if the story in his first-person words appeared in the Mercury. If the Gorleston whale made headlines for decades, one would expect the same from Bartley.

Let's review some theories/facts in favor:

  • Wilson maintains the account was too specifically accurate, mainly the "peristaltic [swallowing]" action of the whale being described, too realistic to be made up.

    Answer: Aside from the subjective nature of this conclusion, any skilled story-teller can probably make up similar details, including details based on a person's own swallowing mechanisms; especially if he were an actual whaler or knew one.

  • Wilson dismisses the denial of the captain's wife as essentially evidence by omission: she simply forgot or didn't learn about it, so the story can't be discounted based on someone who didn't see or maybe can't remember. Yet the widow categorically states she was with her husband all the years aboard the ship and that he never lost a man - this is not something one wouldn't learn about, especially the whole procedure of rescuing the shipmate from the whale's stomach, nor would one forget about this the rest of their life.

    Another possibility is that she is hiding the fact that this happened. Her tone is defensive and off the point: she insists no one was ever lost on her husband's watch - something that could be quite damaging to his career and reputation. Could she be covering up James Bartley?

    Answer: But Davis' thoroughness shows there was no James Bartley "nor anyone of similar name" among the crew.

  • James Bartley could've been a pseudonym, to protect the sailor from unwanted publicity or retribution from the Captain.

    Answer: Yet this sailor would've been known to Cpt. Killam, who would've exposed him. And besides, the articles claim he was a well-known and experienced sailor. Ironically, the Natural History account of an eaten sailor, was written by an author with a pseudonym: Egerton Y. Davis' real name was William Osler, and he had invented it in the 1880's (!), to escape being accosted by journalists for one. However, this being a pseudonym was immediately known (and the story a fake). ["An Egerton Y. Davis Checklist", Osler Library Newsletter No. 38 (Oct. 1981): 1]

  • The ship was not a whaling vessel, but perhaps an unexpected scuffle with a sperm whale occurred.

    Answer: But that is not what the story narrates: there's an active pursuit of the creature, with appropriate equipment. Even though ships were frequently bought and sold and converted to or from whalers, they obviously had the equipment no matter how quickly changed from their previous purpose: and why leaving whaling equipment on a non-whaling ship?

  • Bartley could've skipped a hospital in New York, owing to no serious injuries; especially if they had business and needed to leave (to complete the trip back in London? were they done with their voyage?). The absence of a mention of a hospital visit in the Mercury may be an omitted detail or because Bartley didn't need to go to one at all.

    Answer: It would be a strange choice both for Bartley and for doctors to pass up this unique case, and they must've heard as Bartley's supposed to be well-known. It would also be very strange that nothing about this was mentioned in New York newspapers in 1891.

Some arguments against:

  • Whaling near the Falkland Islands didn't begin until the early 1900's.

    Answer: This is an especially weak argument. If whaling began near the Falkland Islands regularly some years later, certainly an incident, especially by a desperate (or perhaps more knowledgeable!) crew could've occurred there.

  • Though conceivably James Bartley could've gone to one some time after the article, as it doesn't mention a hospital visit (Courbet's does). This omission and the fact that nothing was mentioned in hospital histories/journals that Davis checked (not records, which would be each individual case - extremely unnecessary and massive when as Davis notes such a case would've interested at least one history or journal)

    Answer: Could Bartley have been disbelieved to the point where his injuries were chalked up to something else? Perhaps the whole crew were silent, not wanting to risk the asylum. Perhaps a similar reason caused the story to be printed only in one newspaper. But by this point there's nothing to distinguish it from a rumor.

  • The ship's captain is unnamed.

    Answer: Trivial as it may seem, the fact that Bartley as well as the ship are named, makes it wonder why at least the Captain, who plays a somewhat prominent role in the story, is anonymous. Davis notes that the captain provides details Bartley couldn't have; and is clearly more trustworthy than a random crewmate. Reasons of privacy are not a good explanation, because the ship is named (and must be for it to not seem like a complete fable, even if it were true). The idea that the ship's name is good enough, but fewer people could harrass Cpt. Killam and his family without naming him is, in my opinion, weak, because the newspapers would've immediately revealed it. Bartley must've spoken to the Mercury (or its source), because the details only he could've known are in the first person. But perhaps he went to a smaller paper for this reason. Still, what exactly he would be protected the Captain from, when he didn't die and it would be the sea-story of the century, is a question mark.

  • The 1891 Mercury source doesn't exactly read like an interview, but more like an anecdote - it's missing details such as how they approached the man (did he come forward? did someone mention him?), why he, the captain, or anyone else should be believed, etc.

    Answer: But this is a subjective objection, and unless the author/editors were the hoaxers, they did interview someone. Perhaps this lack of credibility, noticeable by de Parville's unjustified inclusion that the captain was "worthy of trust," is why further newspapers did not run the story - or they didn't approach Bartley, who perhaps shrank away after some criticisms and disbelief.

  • Michael Packard (2021 swallowed by humpback whale for 30-40 seconds) had bruises. Nothing but the skin discoloration and wrinkling in Bartley's case.

    Answer: Yet Egerton Y. Davis' story is a hoax, and he was able to invent this detail. And can we really be so sure what Bartley would remember about his own condition, assuming anyone told him? As far as he was concerned once he regained his senses three weeks later, the only physical remnant of his experience was the skin color and wrinkle changes.

    This would also explain why Bartley wasn't crushed. The "pristine" cephalopod corpses in the Azores sperm whale were maybe recently swallowed, and apparently had not entered the stomach. [Literary Digest article, 681] One could argue, unlike the 1893 case, Bartley was inside a dead whale, or perhaps in a different stomach, hence not crushed and maybe little mucus after 36 hours.

Other notes:

  • Davis doesn't mention the return destination of the ship. But regardless of where the ship returned, Bartley would've likely gone to London for medical treatment - even if he only, for whatever reason, related the story to the Yarmouth Mercury (or to someone who did).

A different ship

Here's where the story takes a twist. Davis could've seriously benefited from modern technology with a simple newspaper archive search, the way I did at newspaperarchive.com. I looked for English newspapers and found a paper in London, St. James's Gazette (Jan. 23, 1892, p.6), referring to the Great Yarmouth Mercury. It even expressed skepticism: "It may not be true; but, as Mr. Oscar Wilde would say, at least it is perfect".

However, I was not prepared at all for what happened next. I found that the Great Yarmouth story was not an original at all and had copied American newspapers that predated it by more than a month! The only other English newspaper to mention Bartley in 1891 or 1892 in that archive...mentioned him on July 11, 1891 - over a month before Yarmouth's Mercury! The London Evening News & Post (Jul. 11, 1891, p.2) had a brief paragraph:

James Bartley, of New London, returned from a sea trip with the yarn that he had been thirty-six hours inspecting the interior [...] of a whale. And his friends are unsure whether he shall be re-christened Jonah or Ananias.
I'm unaware of what the reference to Ananias is supposed to mean, but we see that the word "yarn" doesn't have to mean the sailor equivalent of "fable", but simply "incredible story." The London Gazette above, the subtitle had the story as, "A Splendid Yarn."

Neither Davis, nor anyone else had mentioned anything about "New London" - an American city in Connecticut. Switching to look at American newspapers, I found about a dozen who mention James Bartley from July, 1891 and on. The earliest from Wheeling, West Virginia's Daily Intelligencer was on July 2, 1891. It said the whaler Star of the East had just arrived at New London last week from July 1, after being in the South Atlantic for two and a half years.

This was clearly a different ship from the one Davis searched, who checked only vessels under British registry. This ship was American and did not go from England to New York and back, but to New London, CT, presumably having left from there like his other two voyages on the Star. Bartley is American, not English. The paper gives more details about him: from Bedford (NY or perhaps MA or even NH) or as other articles say, New Bedford (MA: another major whaling city), and that he was 38 years old.

This means the supposed tombstone in Glasgow, if it ever existed, is a fraud. Bartley is born 1852/1853 according to the oldest source. This doesn't vindicate the story immediately. One should note the Gorleston whale happened in June, 1891 and that's when the Great Yarmouth Mercury printed the story. The city is mentioned frequently in US newspapers in 1891, so it's not impossible someone read about it. The Indiana State Sentinel of Indianapolis calls Great Yarmouth's Mercury their "esteemed contemporary" (Apr. 20, 1892, p.4).

But until the ship registry for American Star of the East vessels is checked, it remains a possibility that there was indeed a James Bartley who may have been swhallowed. Why didn't the New London newspapers mention him, but the first source is in West Virginia?! This isn't necessarily an indicator of falsehood, because the year 1891 isn't in the online archive I searched. The date couldn't be earlier than "last week" from July 1, a Wednesday, so the earliest the ship would arrive would be Sunday, June 22. Perhaps a week or two earlier at most.

The newspaper closest to the source is from New Haven's Morning Journal and Courier (Jul. 7, 1891). The story is identical like the rest published in 1891. No mention of a hospital in any of them until Courbet's 1896 article. If one were to check hospital records, one should probably do so at New London and New Haven. Bedford/New Bedford would be a soft maybe. First the ship has to be identified, and if it was a whaler (likely as New London was one of three major whaling cities), and if there was a James Bartley. Then when it reached New London. And that's the terminus ante quem for medical articles. It's possible he didn't visit any hospital, as it's not mentioned. James Bartley can't be a pseudonym as he's supposed to be famous amongst sailors per the earliest July 2 article. If there are records for any of the Bedfords (four of them: NY, MA, NH, and New Bedford, MA), for 1852-3, then that would help. Mainly, if there was a ship Star of the East with a James Bartley on board, but that could easily have been a true detail without the story having an ounce of veracity.

If by "English papers," Courbet meant "English-speaking papers," that would make sense, because there are over a dozen articles (19 that I found) from July-August about James Bartley that predate the Aug. 22, 1891 Great Yarmouth Mercury article - whose source they undoubtedly were. Ironically, when Courbet published his article in March, 1896, American newspapers ran the story, unknowingly republishing it, but this time using Courbet, de Parville, and various other sources that use them, with statements such as "published in the English papers," etc. Some US papers in 1892 do refer to the Yarmouth Mercury. But all in 1891 cite the same, different source, whichever that is. Without a doubt it's to these 1891 "English" papers Courbet and de Parville refer to, hence how they can refer to the "trustworthiness" of the captain, crew, and Bartley himself.


It has to be admitted that the story is a "widely-believed" hoax. Neither Courbet, nor de Parville were scientists: the former was a writer, the latter a journalist who did not even see any of the crew, least of all the captain, whom he deemed "worthy of belief". Courbet likely heard a summary the story from someone or read it somewhere because his sources are unnamed and the detail about the "London hospital" is not in the 1891 original.

Some theoretical loose ends to completely close (or re-open!) the verdict on this story:

  1. The names of the crew of the other two Star of the East ships (and to know there weren't others)
  2. Our Star of the East return date to London if available
  3. Any other stories from "English papers" prior to Courbet's article (most likely in 1891 - i.e. London papers)
  4. Verifying the existence of anything like a "Canadian Aurora" between the years 1891 and 1907 (when it was mentioned as reprinting "the English papers"); the Swedish newspaper that was renamed to Aurora is not it, as the renaming was in the 1920's. Nor the Philadelphia paper which was discontinued in 1824. The closest is the Antigonish Aurora, but this seems to have ran from 1881-1885
  5. The King's Business Part One (and if more than Part Two) "Jonah, the Whale, and the Word of God"
  6. Other Literary Digest articles (Davis says he missed a few issues in the 1910's)
  7. The alleged Gloucester tombstone that reads, "James Bartley, a modern day Jonah" with a deathdate around 1934 - though one could hardly verify this really was Bartley and the truth of the story even if it could be found
The story of the whale shark Rimmer refers to should maybe be up there, but unless one is prepared to look through every imaginable source, or at least English newspapers, he could've had between the 1890's (?) and 1927 (earlier, when he first gave the sermon), it's probably futile considering his memory probably mixed up details. For example, the Nature article mentions how the sperm whale was shot and killed with a cannon [Moe, 52], like in Rimmer's story, so it must've been somewhat common an occurrence.

Interestingly, a Dr. William Rosenau, a rabbi, in 1908 considered the Bartley story "later conclusively disproved". [" "Alas!" Say Fishermen", Baltimore Sun (Apr 16, 1908), p.5]

Final Thoughts

The most damaging facts are that the ship was not a whaler, there was no James Bartley, and there are no medical records or other news about him. Even if we assume he avoided a parade like an Elephant Man, that he wasn't that well-known (an exaggeration?), at the very least, the ship should've been a whaler. There's simply not enough evidence to outrule falsehood even if it had been a whaler, but the ship wasn't even that.

Most likely an actual whaler, living or present near Yarmouth, saw the Gorleston whale and, like many others, concocted a fun story, picking a recently arrived ship at random, in this case the Star of the East. If we see that it took the ship, with some stops, four and a half months from to get to England from Canada (from June 22 - early Nov, 1890), and five months from England to New York, with some more stops (early Nov, 1890 - April 17, 1891), then it makes sense that it was back in England around August, 1891, around the time of the article, and someone picking up its name. This ship very likely had recently arrived hence he heard of it: hard to verify, especially with constant renaming of ships as they were frequently sold. Perhaps he heard of her if she returned to London, but this individual didn't hail from there or he would've picked an actual whaler-ship - though names were difficult to track as they frequently changed after being sold. He may have heard of her route (otherwise why mention the Falkland Islands, where whaling didn't regularly begin until years later), or could reasonably guess it.

The bottom line is that even if James Bartley's case was credible, and it's far from that, it's still not a parallel to Jonah other than being swallowed relatively unharmed. The crew immediately killed and over a day and a half started cutting up the whale. This could explain how Bartley didn't drown or suffocate. Otherwise, if while underwater something blocked water from the whale's stomach, breathable air for over a day would be unlikely. It's a completely different thing for a man to survive inside the stomach of a sperm whale while the creature is alive in the sea.


Luigi Marquez (2016)

A Luigi Marquez was cited by several news outlets in 2016 as having survived 3 days inside a whale. Aside from the fact that the source the article mentions, the World News Daily Report, is a parody of a newspaper/magazine, and the photo is of some man named "Mike" who was never swallowed but sold water inflatables, here are some of the details.

He was lost during a storm, Coast Guard and everyone couldn't find him. The whale swallowed him in the morning and he survived for 3 days from fish inside its stomach! Light from his waterproof watch allowed him to keep track of time. He says it took him 3 days after to wash the putrid smell of decomposition off him.

Yet somehow he was able to eat the same fish that caused the stench, when a person is well able to survive 3 days without food or water. Not a word about how he left ("flushed out"), or how he was able to breathe. Compared to Michael Packard's details (and numerous interviews), you'd think Luigi Marquez would have a face beyond two photos of him near/floating in water with a life preserver.

III. Natural Mechanics

Whales Swallowing Humans

It may surprise, but the very idea of a whale swallowing a person in the first place was criticized as unrealistic. One reads of how "less than rare" a sailor aboard a whaling ship could be swallowed whole, yet Ben Shattuck scoured countless shiplogs and could find no example. Strange, however, since he mentions several examples (Job Sherman in 1860, Peleg Nye in 1863, and Albert Wood in 1847). He dismisses an account in Natural History, Vol.56 May/June (1947): 281ff, mistakenly thinking it refers to the James Bartley legend (or perhaps equally distrusting it). But despite different details from Bartley's case (including the somewhat obvious doubter of survivability), the article is apparently a hoax: Egerton Y. Davis a pseudonym. ["An Egerton Y. Davis Checklist", Osler Library Newsletter No. 38 (Oct. 1981): 1]

This is not too surprising because sperm whales have teeth that would chomp on their food. Courbet and others after him cite the sperm whale caught near the Azores in 1895, which had the "pristine" corpses of several squid, and in his stomach the remains of what must've been a 2 meter (6.5ft) long creature. From this, a brief article in Le Cosmos (Jan. 11) by Courbet and the fuller, Bartley one on March 7, 1896, concludes that Jonah could've been swallowed whole, unharmed, as sperm whales frequently do not chew their meals.

But here we read about an important difference between squids and humans:

Sperm whales can swallow large objects and there are accounts of them swallowing very large squid (their normal prey item), BUT squid are slippery, malleable and the length consists mainly of tentacles. Squid are often described in length for the extent of their tentacles (to appear more impressive), so a squid that is "25 feet long" (approx. 8m) can be considerably less wide across the widest part than a man across the shoulders. Swallowing a clothed man would need the widest part across the shoulders to go intact down the whale's gullet and with the added friction of clothing as opposed to the squid being slippery and without a full skeleton so allowing it to readily be squashed thinner.

Although a sperm whale has 18 to 28 teeth which can grow up to 8 inches long [Valencic, 17], it eats its prey with a single gulp. [Valencic, 35] It feeds primarily on octopus and squid, but it can also eat shark and other fish. [Valencic, 35] Wilson notes that big sharks and other large animals the size of an ox have been found whole in sperm whale stomachs, so it's not simply "slippery", overestimated in size squid. [Wilson (1927), 633-4] A struggling sailor would not have much time to react with the speed of a, possibly unintentional, swallowing.

Harry Rimmer records two other cases of swallowings. The first is a report he and his group heard while on Oahu. The second is a newspaper article, similar to the first:


Honolulu, T.H., Sept. 2 - (By United Press) - Mystery surrounding the disappearances several days ago of Sadao Nakatus, a Honolulu merchant, was cleared up Wednesday when fishermen found his body inside a huge shark which they caught off Barber's Point.

Identification of the body was through dental work.

Nabatus and another merchant, Minoru Kanagawa, set out last Sunday in a skiff on a fishing expedition. When they failed to return, the destroyer Gamble and the minesweeper Tanager VI began a search for them. Airplanes also joined in the search. The merchant's overturned skiff was found thirty miles off the point, but no trace of either man was found.

Three fishermen caught two sharks in the vicinity of the point Wednesday, brought them ashore, cut them open, and inside of one they found the body of Nakatus.

Two naval aviators who joined the search risked their lives in the shark-infested waters when a plane made a forced landing sixty miles from Honolulu.

The plane, piloted by Lieut. W. L. Rees, rode the seas until the destroyer arrived to take it in tow.

[Rimmer, H. "Jonah, the Whale, and the Word of God: Part Two", The King's Business February, 1952: 23]
If we try to find the source, we might have to do a massive search like the one by Davis. United Press was a news agency, not newspaper, so the story could've come from anywhere (it's not in the Cleveland Plain Dealer). It's not surprising, since the article was probably cut out from the paper years earlier, and so its source unknown.

If we try to find it, thankfully we have a specific day: September 2. The destroyer Gamble was launched on 11 May, 1918 and decommissioned on 1 June, 1945. Tanager VI, if that's a mistake for Tanager V, was launched 2 March 1918, sunk 8 May, 1942; but let's not assume that. So we have the dates Sept. 2, 1918 - 1944. Further information comes from Lieut. (at the time) W. L. Rees. This is undoubtedly William Lehigh Rees, whose obituary in the Washington Post Nov. 15, 1989, says:

In the 1920s, he had sea duty in various destroyers and received a master's degree in metallurgical engineering from Columbia University. From 1928 to 1930, he was a student pilot at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. He was designated a naval aviator on Oct. 10, 1930. Subsequent assignments took him to Pearl Harbor, the light cruiser Raleigh and the Navy Department in Washington.
So the dates are actually Sept. 2, 1931 - 1944, or more likely 1931-1941. Even if one could check the myriad of newspapers, the story could've been printed some days after September 2.

But in reality, we don't really need to find the newspaper. Its source were the United Press journalists and they provide enough information to make this a somewhat unnecessary example. For one, we're not told any details about the body's conditions - unlike Rimmer's first case, we don't even know if the whole body, with unbroken bones, was found. And in a shark, not whale shark. That sharks can swallow humans is not particularly impossible. On 25 June, 1951, Alejandro Nodura was swept out to sea off Kapehu Beach, Laupahoehoe, Hawaii, and was seen in the shark's mouth. [Borg, 72] There was even a 14-year-old boy in Indonesia who was eaten whole by an alligator, with a very creepy photo of his head seen from the inside of the mouth (eaten feet first).

Yet from baleen whales, several modern examples exist: Rainer Schimpf in 2019 off South Africa was caught halfway in the mouth of a Bryde's whale for 2 seconds. Michael Packard was actually inside the mouth of an "average-sized" humpback whale for 30-40 seconds in 2021 - with only bruising. Mauricio Handler was almost gulped by a whale shark. In 2020, two women in kayaks were almost taken in the mouth of a whale.

Baleen whales have a throat no wider than the thickness of a human arm, making it impossible for a person to be actually swallowed into the stomach. But "swallowed", "eaten" and "taken in the mouth" are mere synonyms. Just because one wasn't technically ingested into the stomach, does not mean the Book of Jonah could not have used the expression (what word should it use?). This article of a sealion that ended up in the mouth, which didn't even close on the sealion, who was able to swim away, describes it, perhaps a bit sensationally, as a "swallowing".


The main question is how Jonah could survive in there for so long without drowning/suffocating. Some newspaper articles speculated that the whale could've swallowed bubbles of air along with the water. But even so, the air needs to be renewed, and bubbles alone would not allow breathing if an actual swallowing into the stomach occurred.

Rainer Schimpf, who was caught in a Bryde's whale mouth for all of 2 seconds as he estimates, notes how the whale released him when it swallowed the fish and afterwards pushed out the water from its mouth, pushing him as a result. The photos show most of the whale's mouth has air in it and not water. Schimpf mentions that he immediately held his breath, which is of course necessary even with a small amount of water, but also because he feared the whale would submerge with him.

Michael Packard does say he could breathe because he had his scuba gear, implying there was water everywhere. But the humpback whale that gulped him was underwater near seafloor, so there would've been no air to push the water out with until it surfaced, which it did about 30-40 seconds later.

Wilson cites J. E. Sewell, who considers it to be the bowhead whale ("right whale"; Mysticetus). Jonah was "imprisoned in the mouth":

“While the whale moved with its jaws open [its regular way of swimming on or near the surface to obtain food] the seawater rushed in over Jonah and then out again through the whalebone screen : but at frequent intervals the whale closed its great overlapping lips, excluding the water and outer air, and ‘sounded’ : i.e. settled down even to the bottom of the sea.” “It can only dive in this way because of the reservoir of air in its gigantic mouth.” “During these periods Jonah was in perfect darkness, but was warm and dry,” with a plentiful supply of oxygen to preserve life. When the whale rose to the surface he had fresh air and light. [Wilson, Ambrose J. "Notes and Notices: The Sign of the Prophet Jonah and its Modern Confirmations," The Princeton Theological Review 26.4 (1928): 619]
Whales continually eat, and as they do so, they break the surface, mouths wide open, thus perhaps allowing air, but also a lot of water, to continually come up to Jonah (Two examples, showing sufficient air in their mouth here and here). Humpback whales spend four months in the South ocean (near Antarctica), eating continuously and stock up blubber for the rest of the year. So this whale wouldn't necessarily be eating all the time. Each mouthful takes hundreds of thousands of krill; there are around 10,000-30,000 krill/cubic meter of water (35 cubic feet), so perhaps each would be ~10 cubic meters of water (=10,000 liters), or around 2650 gallons - nothing impossible for Jonah to hold his breath about.

Sufficient air in mouth:

Although a sperm whale's dive can last up to 90 minutes, whales normally stay underwater 4 to 7 minutes between breaths (for each minute, one two-three second breath is taken, so 4-7 min underwater: 8-21 seconds breathing above water). Japanese and Korean women pearl divers have learned to dive to 100 feet and spend up to 3 minutes underwater (p.15). But they spend hours doing this every day, for years, and Jonah's experience here is hardly something that happened to him annually. But when going at high speeds, especially when frightened, whales resurface more often.

A large sperm whale can consume a ton of food per day. [Valencic, 35] Humpback whales about 1.35 tons, perhaps much less when frightened. The baleen of the whales feeds them when food is low, so at worst, Jonah would've had to hold his breath through some water every now and then. For every pound of plankton, a whale needs to filter a million gallons of water, so a tenth of a ton would be 200 million gallons. Spread over 24 hours (whales sleep less than 2 hours a day), this is around 8 million gallons of water Jonah would have to hold his breath through every hour, or about 130,000 gallons every minute. This is 1/5 of an Olympic-sized pool going through the whale's mouth and Jonah every minute, which is quite survivable. The whale takes the fish in less than 5 seconds, and pushes the water out a few seconds after that. Of course, the fightened whale doesn't have to constantly eat, which wouldn't cause it to dive deeper and longer, because of the aforementioned need to resurface more for air when frightened.

If something was stuck, the whale could stay at or even above the surface for a while. This rescue by James Moskito and his crew freed an entangled humpback 7 miles off the coast of San Francisco which intentionally kept its eye and whole head above the water for hours, rendered immobile to do anything else from 3000 pounds of fishing gear which was tiring it out.

It's entirely possible the animal knew Jonah needed air. Whale scientist Nan Hauser was continually escorted and protected from a tiger shark by a humpback whale who kept pushing her away from it and even helped her get back on her boat. Dolphins have helped many sailors from drowning.

Another possibility, from yet another possible "sea yarn" of a tale, is a dog supposedly surviving in a blue whale for 6 days, unharmed! The same preacher mentioned above, H. Rimmer, writes:

We have records that show the whale has proved itself host to various living creatures. The whale is an air breathing mammal and cannot live without oxygen. This oxygen it has to get somewhere above the water. As the whale has no gills, it can only submerge as long as its air supply will allow. So all whales have in their heads a wonderful air storage chamber. The chamber is an enlargement of the nasal sinus, and in a very large whale, this strange tank, or compartment, would measure fourteen feet long by seven feet high, and seven feet wide [14'x7'x7' - 98sq ft with a 7 foot ceiling].

Dr. Ransome [sic] Harvey recounts that a friend of his, weighing two hundred pounds, climbed from the mouth of a dead whale into this chamber. If the whale takes into its mouth any object too big to swallow, it thrusts it up into this air chamber. If it finds that it has a large object in its head, it swims to the nearest land, lies in shallow water, and ejects it.

Some time ago in the Cleveland Plain Dealer there appeared an article quoting Dr. Ransome [sic] Harvey, who stated that a dog was lost overboard from a whaler. It was found in the head of the whale six days later alive, and none the worse for its unnatural journey. This quotation was reprinted by the Sunday School Times, causing a great deal of comment.

Rimmer, H. "Jonah, the Whale, and the Word of God: Part Two," The King's Business Feb. 1952: 12

Thankfully, the archives of the Cleveland Plain Dealer are searchable, and the article comes from June 2, 1926, "New Light on Jonah."


Ambrose J. Wilson maintains experts determined the temperature in the stomach of the sperm whale would be 104-6 degrees (40-41 Celsius), due to the blubber: very uncomfortable, but survivable. [Wilson (1927), 634]


The idea that Jonah would not decompose in the stomach may sound absurd, but may be possible. The following case about a shark tells us of the remains of Emil Uhlbrecht at Makapuu Point, Oahu in Hawaii on July 14, 1900:

Believed to have drowned when carried out to sea while hunting sea shells with companions. "A thorough search was made for the body for serveral days." Victim's foot with skin and flesh intact "in a fair state of preservation" was found in the stomach of an 11-ft 9-in shark hooked on the night of 8/17/00 off Kakaako, Honolulu, by John Kinipeki. Positive identification of victim made by Mrs. Uhlbrecht, based on an ingrown toe nail. Human pelvis and femus, blackened and totally denuded of flesh were also recovered from the shark's stomach. These bones were thought to be from a different person, probably one of several Chinese fishermen lost over board in the harbor during past months. [Borg, Jim (1993). Tigers of the Sea: Hawaii's Deadly Sharks, p.69] [Emphasis mine]
Note that the foot was found so well-preserved after more than a month that Uhlrbrecht's widow could identify it was her husband's based on an ingrown toe nail! The other remains were clearly more decomposed, having been in the shark for longer ("months"). Courbet's article notes how the Azores sperm whale had the untouched/undigested corpses of several animals come forth from its mouth. [Literary Digest article, 681]

This is not to say decay can't occur in such a timeframe, because another victim's decomposed remains of their right forearm were found in a shark 24 days later. [Borg, ibid, 71]

Wilson's comment [Wilson (1927), 635] that acid could not corrode skin or it would eat through the animal is absurd: stomach membranes prevent this from happening in the stomach including that of humans.

IV. Identity of the Whale

Sperm Whale

The whale is often identified with the sperm whale, which along with the fin-backed whale can be seen in the Mediterranean Sea. Whaling has a long history with this whale for this reason - its numerous encounters with ships; many whalers would carve intricate scenes on sperm whale teeth for example. [Valencic, 35]

Sperm whales are known to be aggressive and sometimes attack ships without provocation. Since Jonah was swallowed soon after his fellow travellers' extremely logical solution, presumably this whale was near the surface, or he would've drowned as few people knew how to swim in the pre-modern era anyway. One can wonder if it had any role in the crew's fears and proceedings. Perhaps someone saw the creature and decided to use Jonah as bait to distract it from assaulting the ship, just like whalers who hunt it would do by throwing a wooden barrel overboard to hopefully divert its attack. But had that been the case, Jonah would've probably been torn to pieces. [Valencic, 35] The whale's presence near the ship is comparable to both Packard and Schimpf who were near a lot of fish, which the whales would eat. Orcas are known for following naval ships and occasionally feeding on the birds that also accompany the vessels. One orca, Old Tom, even helped whalers find and catch whales for a span of 90 years (from 1840-1930)!

The main problem with the sperm whale hypothesis is that Jonah would've drowned as this type of whale has teeth and not baleen to push and keep the water out.

Shark, not whale?

Harry Rimmer writes,

There are sharkes that swim the sea that would come under the restricted meaning of the Hebrew word dag, for these sharks are fish. The late Dr. A. C. Dixon stated that in a museum at Beirut there is the head of a shark big enough to swallow the largest man that history records. Dr. Dixon also recounts instances where the white shark of the Mediterranean was known to have swallowed a whole horse. Another one of these monsters of the deep swallowed a reindeer, minus only its horns. Upon its capture investigators found in another Mediterranean white shark a whole sea cow, about the size of an ox.

There is a ferocious and voracious shark called the somnilosis microcephalous, [sic] also known as the "sleeper shark." [somniosis microcephalus - Greenland shark] While it is small, seldom reaching more than twenty feet in length, it is the swiftest and most ferocious shark extant. It is known to attack the largest whale and to bite hunks of blubber from this huge mammal until the victim succumbs. This shark could have swallowed Jonah, but the difficulty is that it would probably have bitten him into at least two sections. [The King's Business, 12]

That a shark is most likely to bite someone into two is shown by the unfortunate case of Simon Nellist (great white). However, the problem of drowning isn't solved, so it is unlikely to be a fish at all.

Baleen Whale

As noted above, two comparable modern cases of baleen whales taking people in the mouth exist: Michael Packard and Rainer Schimpf. Humpback whales in their case, both were in the whale's mouth for only 30 seconds, with Packard perhaps a bit deeper in the mouth, but even this short length of time shows it's not impossible to get lodged in the mouth and not go in the gut. Both men were in their 50's and neither had broken bones - Packard had soft tissue damage, but Schimpf was perfectly fine.

a Bryde's Whale off the coast of Thailand. The animal can grow up to 55 ft and 30 tons. Getty Images
an Eden Whale eating

I think a baleen whale is more likely, perhaps a fin whale. These don't have teeth, and within a minute expel the water through the baleen right after gulping the krill and fish along with water. Schimpf recalls what pushed him out was this water pumping out action - 2 seconds after he was clamped on. Note, Schimpf was at the surface when this happened and there was plenty of air in the whale's mouth. Baleen whales frequently stay near the surface, eating there as well, and gulping air along with water, so Jonah could've been able to breathe.

In the case of Michael Packard, 57 years old, who was swallowed by a humpback whale for 30-40 seconds, he had his scuba gear to breathe with, but he was gobbled pretty low below water. He had bruises, but no serious injuries. As mentioned, the whale immediately spat him out. Packard described him as average-sized. A bigger whale may not have cared. He was near fish, which helps explain how and why it happened: two women kayakers in 2020 were also nearly gulped when near fish (at the surface). Blue whales, humpback whales, and fin whales are big enough for something like this and all can be found in the Mediterranean Sea, the fin whale commonly so.

Quite possibly Jonah was thrown overboard with a boat. The men were religious enough for this to be assumed (Jonah 1:6, 14, 16). That they felt they were condemning Jonah to certain death does not have to mean they were throwing him overboard with nothing, but that the storm was brutal enough for their multi-decked ship (1:5b) for this to essentially be the case. The book spares a lot of details (e.g. how the Ninevites simply believed; also cf. 1:9 vs 1:10). Either way, they throw a lot of equipment overboard (1:5), which probably included things that could easily get stuck in a whale's mouth like large quantities of rope.

If Jonah along with other items from the ship were stuck in the whale's mouth, this would help explain a few things. First, how Jonah wasn't shortly spit out like Packard or pushed out by the water like Schimpf. Second, whales with articles stuck in their mouth, especially rope, stay at the surface, sometimes near land. This actually happens a lot more than people think. In October 2015, a humpback whale off the coast of California was spotted with fishing line stuck in its mouth as it moved south along the coast from Santa Barbara toward San Diego. The article notes this was one of fifty (!) such cases since January that year, all along the coast, speculating warmer waters was bringing them closer to fishing gear.

In 2014 a right whale off the coast of Georgia was spotted off shore dragging more than 280 feet of commercial fishing line - 20 feet of which had to be left entangled in the mouth, but believed it could free itself. In 2015 a humpback whale was spotted at the surface entangled so much it was immobile. In 2018 off Makena Beach in Maui, another humpback had more than 285 feet of 3/8 braided rope in its mouth. A smaller amount of rope or other material could cause it, along with Jonah, to be stuck in the whale's mouth until it frees itself. Since Jonah was eventually ejected, we see God saved both the animal as well as Jonah.

V. Interpretations

It's possible that Jonah was not in the whale for three whole days. Courbet (apud the Literary Digest article) notes how Jesus was actually dead for about 30 hours whereas it's referred to as "three days and three nights" because it spanned across Friday-Sunday. This still leaves us with 24 hours, so it doesn't exactly lessen any obstacles to the story's credibility.

Perhaps the three days included the whale and the shipwreck experience. Paul notes how he floated for a day and a night in the open sea (2 Cor. 11:25). Still, it would be a very liberal approach to "Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights" (Jonah 1:17).

Suddenly, without warning, Jonah would find himself completely in the dark. He wouldn't know what happened, until a few moments. The only sounds he'd hear is moving water and pulsing muscles, inside with the tongue and fish. It would be terrifying with some possibly serious bruises.

V. Conclusion

Jonah's story is certainly nothing like the exaggerated tales of sea monsters since Aristotle's day: the sea serpent that came out of the Mediterranean once in a while to chase fat cows in the Libyan desert. Or Pliny the Elder who claimed Cretans rode on the backs of trained dolphins to the mainland. A Norwegian seaman reported a non-aggressive sea serpent whose head was taller than the ship's mast in 1734. And so on. ["Monsters of the Sea", Alton Evening Telegraph Mar. 28, 1943, p.10]

Regardless of exactly what type of sea animal it was, the mere knowledge of being inside a creature's mouth must've been traumatizing enough to not even entertain the thought of disobedience. Far from God exerting tyrannical oppression by force, Jonah, who must've seen and performed numerous miracles as a prophet of God, was reminded how selfish his anger was, blaming people who may have had nothing directly to do with killing his countrymen, or if they did, clearly repented of it - a sentiment Jonah begrudgingly continues to hold against them as a personal opinion, seeing how God reminds him of Jonah's lack of mercy at the very end, with no hint of softening by Jonah (Jonah 3:10-4:11).

In a way, this story is a realistic happy ending which is bitter sweet: the Israelite suffering unavoided, the enemy is innocent. It's a paradox: by running away Jonah shows he does not question God's power - and who doesn't want to escape reality? During the Great Depression, the most popular movies were comedies - because they allowed you to do exactly that. In a way, the whole book symbolizes this: the sailors want to escape the storm, the whale wants to escape what's stuck in its mouth, the Ninevites want to escape wrath. But Jonah does not want to escape his unjust desires. He camps outside the city to "see what would happen to it" (4:5). He already knows the Ninevites have repented and that God is merciful - he is simply hoping they turn back so they're destroyed!

It may seem silly how God illustrates this hypocrisy with the plant, but that's exactly the point: Jonah laments the things that comfort him physically. God had very good reasons for destroying the northern kingdom, which he had postponed for centuries. Jonah laments his people who did not repent, but doesn't care and actually wishes the destruction of people who have! Both Israel and Nineveh are God's children, but Jonah cares only for his own countrymen whom he had nothing to do with raising, like the plant he enjoyed. So on what basis but his personal whims, blind nationalism in this case, is his grief? This is nothing but Jonah's earthly desires exposed. Jonah is given no response because all of us have excuses that can be used to fill in the blanks - God's way of saying He's heard it all. The real answer was already given in chapters 2-3.

BUT take a moment to think about how the creature felt. Remind yourself how uncomfortable it is to have a piece of fruit skin stuck between your teeth. Now imagine something almost choking you for three days. When sick, a person's uvula can get inflamed and almost become a choking hazard in extreme cases to where surgery is needed. Whales have no such option. Fishermen's lines can be stuck in their mouth for months: Jonah's whale had him for only 3 days by God's mercy. This is not the only place in the book where there's concern and respect for animals (3:7-8; 4:11). Japan recently in 2019 resumed whaling after over thirty years of having stopped. In the past, this was an easy way to make a fortune if one was lucky enough to spot (and successfully kill and haul) a whale. It took long voyages away from home, 3-5 years, because whales were usually found in deep, secluded waters, and the incredible stench could be smelled up to a mile away, let alone on the ship. Hence why sailors considered it to be one of the worst shipping jobs. Many failed and ships were frequently sold.

With modern technology, it's much easier to hunt whales. But it's exactly that same advance in technology that makes this more inexcusable. With so many possibilities, in a developed country like Japan, with one of the lowest crime-rates in the world, there are countless alternatives. A relative on a simple merchant ship has to spend 4 months at sea, gruelling 14-hour shifts in the cold: is that really the best alternative for sailors who probably profit nothing compared to what their company makes from the valuable ambergris from which perfume is made?

As mentioned, whales are highly intelligent, peaceful animals. Should they and their ecosystem be hunted to extinction? I believe in helping a human more than an animal. However, if I'm asked, "would you save a human over a whale," I can justifiably answer, "depends on the human," but certainly never, "depends on the whale."

One can almost hear Balaam's donkey....
"What have I done to you...?" (Num. 22:28)

A humpback celebrates shortly after being freed from a rope entanglement

VI. Resources