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Jonah Swallowed By A Big Fish

By James Donahue

The story of Jonah is told in the Book of Jonah in the Old Testament, and also repeated in reference by Jesus in Matthew Chapter 12. A similar story appears in the Quran. Mythologist Joseph Campbell suggests the story is an ancient myth drawn from the Greek story of Jason, a legendary hero who led the Argonauts in a quest across the sea in search of Golden Fleece.

Other theories link the story to the Babylonian mythological deity Oannes, a half-man, half-fish that rises out of the water and teaches humans in writing and the arts.

Few scholars take the story of Jonah as anything more than a myth since there is no known fish or whale in existence that is capable of literally swallowing a man. And once swallowed, if it had happened, it would have been impossible for any living creature to remain inside the digestive system of the beast for three days and then emerge alive.

Of course the Bible believers, arguing the omnipotence of God, claim that all things are possible with God, and a special fish was produced just to teach Jonah a lesson in obedience.

What few people realize is that Jonah was a prophet who allegedly existed in Gath-hepher, in the northern kingdom of Israel in about the Eighth Century B.C. He made predictions about the future of Israel which were reported in Second Kings. The story of his being swallowed by a giant fish is told in the Book of Jonah and briefly repeated by Jesus in Matthew 12:39-41.

The story in brief is that Jonah was commanded by God to go to the city of Nineveh and warn the people against their "great wickedness." But Jonah fears the Assyrans of Nineveh and runs away, jumping aboard a ship bound for Tarshish. On route the vessel is caught in a terrible storm. The sailors, always superstitious, began thinking someone on the boat was a jinx. Noah confessed that he was the problem. Thus he was thrown overboard where he was swallowed by the great fish.

From this point on the story becomes difficult to believe. While in the belly of the fish Jonah repented and cried out to God for mercy and salvation. After three days the fish vomited Jonah onto dry land. Having learned his lesson, Jonah went to Nineveh where he warned the people that the city would be destroyed in 40 days. The people listened to the prophet and repented. They wore sackcloth and covered themselves with ashes. Consequently God spared the city too.

There has been a strange story involving the sailing ship Star of the East that allegedly lost a man named James Bartley while on a whaling expedition off the Falkland Islands sometime late in the Nineteenth Century. The story, as published in an 1891 issue of the Yarmouth Mercury newspaper, stated that Bartley’s boat was attacked by a large whale. Bartley was thrown overboard and landed in the whale’s mouth. The crew killed the whale and cut Bartley alive from the creature’s stomach. After 15 hours inside the whale Bartley’s skin was bleached by gastric juices and he remained blind for the rest of his life.

The Bartley story has since been declared "a great sea yarn." Mrs. John Killam, the wife of the captain of the Star of the East, said she sailed with her husband when the ship was at sea. She said the ship was not a whaling vessel and the crew list never included a James Bartley. She also said the ship never lost a man overboard in all the years the vessel sailed the high seas.

James Bartley was never swallowed by a whale and Jonah probably wasn’t either.