The Original Fish Story

"Don't wonder at those who are good without god. Pity those who need God to be good." - Anonymous

There is no better story from the Bible to highlight the principle of the Divine Default than that of Jonah. The story appears in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and it essentially deals with a man named Jonah who is ordered by God to go to the city of Nineveh and tell them to repent for their sins. Apparently Nineveh is a "wicked" place. Jonah refuses by fleeing to Jaffa and sailing to Tarshish. I assume that God wasn't paying attention during the whole time Jonah was fleeing towards the ship and setting out to sea or else He probably wouldn't have let him board the ship. In any event, God realizes that Jonah has disobeyed Him and He brings about a massive storm. This massive storm terrified the sailors who try to figure out why it's happening. They eventually learn that Jonah is the one to blame for the storm and if they throw him overboard, the storm will stop. Once Jonah is thrown overboard, God settles the seas and the storm goes away.

Here's where the story gets really interesting. A great fish comes along and swallows Jonah. This is not a metaphorical fish. A large fish literally swallowed Jonah and he remained in there for 3 days and 3 nights. While inside the fish, Jonah prayed for the first time. God then commanded the large fish to vomit Jonah out on the beach outside of Nineveh. Jonah then does as God originally commanded and warns the people of Nineveh to repent; which of course they do, and the city is saved from God's wrath.

Believers are left with wonderful morals from the story such as God's compassion in giving Jonah a second chance, the futility in disobeying God, and a reminder of God's omnipotence. Skeptics are left trying to reconcile how a man could survive in a fish for 72 hours. The problem is that the story wasn't written as a parable. It was written as a historical event, and for centuries, people of all three Abrahamic faiths believed it to be literally true. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes reference to Jonah when pressed by the Pharisees for a miracle. Muhammad speaks highly of Jonah and even says "One should not say that I am better than Jonah" (Sahih al-Bukhari, 4:55:608) which implies that they are equal as prophets. If the story wasn't deemed true, what point would there be for Muhammad to make such a comparison? If early adherents to the Abrahamic faiths believed Jonah's story to be true and it was written as a historical event, then it speaks volumes about the historical authenticity of the of our religious scriptures. To believe the story as true and accurate requires one to willfully ignore the logistics involved with making this happen. If the story is false, then why should we believe any of the other "historical" events that these ancient texts purport to be true? Let's explore the plausibility of this story.

I will gladly concede the fact that it could be possible for a large fish to have swallowed a man whole. There have been circumstances where we've found whole men inside great white sharks for example. The men weren't in there for 72 hours and found alive, but a whole man could fit. It could also have been a whale. Depending on the type of whale, the size of the esophagus might make it difficult to swallow a man whole. For example, it couldn't have been a whale shark as its throat is at most only 4 inches wide with a sharp bend behind the opening. I doubt that it was a baleen whale either, but a sperm whale with a 20-inch esophageal opening could be a likely candidate. In 1955, a 405-pound squid was removed from the stomach of a sperm whale. It wasn't alive, but it was intact. If it was a shark, we'd have to assume that he was swallowed without the shark's many razor-sharp sharp teeth injuring him somehow. If it was a sperm whale, again - the most likely candidate, we'd have to assume the same thing. Using a sperm whale as the most likely type of "fish", the safe swallowing of a man is still not likely, but it's plausible so we'll assume that this was the species in the story.

So here we have Jonah, the reluctant prophet, sitting in the belly of a great fish. It's in here that he begins to pray to God. Considering his options, I'm sure there wasn't much else to do. I have a few logistical problems with this story that I can't seem to overlook. The first is the lack of oxygen for Jonah. Even if the great fish made frequent trips to the surface to swallow oxygen, he is in the fish's belly. A suitable amount of oxygen could be available if he stayed in a constantly-surfacing mouth of the great fish, but the difficulty in keeping oxygen flowing down to the stomach makes this scenario less plausible. Unfortunately, the Bible fights us on this and never says that he stays in the whale's mouth, but is rather explicit on where Jonah is: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matthew 12:40) Read your favorite translation of the Bible and you'll see that they will all refer to it as a belly or stomach.

We've identified the most likely "fish" to be that of a large sperm whale, and if you're not familiar with the digestive system of a whale, it's important to note that the stomach is made up of multiple chambers. The first chamber is called the forestomach. The second chamber is where the chemical digestion takes place. The chemicals that a person would encounter in this chamber are certainly not going to help them survive, so let's assume that Jonah was in the first chamber. We still have to get regular oxygen to him for 72 hours in a part of the whale that wouldn't normally need to hold oxygen. We also need to accomplish this by using the mouth to get that air which would be unnatural. Whales pull in oxygen through blow holes.

The next problem I have relates to Jonah 2:6: "To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God." This tells me that Jonah went down to the bottom of the sea bed. If they reference mountains and not hills, I would assume that the rocky formation at the bottom of the sea was quite tall. Just how far down did he go? The Bible doesn't say he went to the peaks of the mountains, he went to the roots. The deepest recorded point in the Mediterranean Sea is 17,280 feet (Calypso Deep) and the average depth is 4,900 feet.50 The Bible also never says where in the Mediterranean Sea Jonah was thrown into so let's let the Bible-thumpers off the hook and use the average depth of the sea for the "roots of the mountains" instead of the deeper depths. With this "gimme", it means that Jonah sank an estimated 4,900 feet.

In April 2010, a 29-year old man from New Zealand, William Trubridge, broke the world record for the deepest free immersion dive at 380 feet in the Atlantic Ocean. The "no limits" free dive record is an amazing 702 feet. In no limits free diving, divers descend on a weighted sled to their target depth. Once they want to go back up, they open a pressurized tank which fills a large inflatable balloon that helps them ascend to the surface. Keep in mind that this is 1/7th the distance that Jonah had to go and Jonah never had any inflatable balloons or tanks - all he had was a great fish!

While religious people relish the analogy in Jonah going as far away from God as he can, the real implications are quite inconvenient. Consider the conditions that Jonah would have to endure. At 4,900 feet, Jonah would have had to withstand approximately 2,192 psi. The water temperature is 36 degrees Fahrenheit so hypothermia becomes a legitimate concern. Assuming Jonah was as trained as today's world record holders, he could have found his heart rate slowing to as low as 14 beats per minute as he descended. Considering the depth he was going down to, oxygen would have been the least of his concerns. His lungs would have collapsed and he would have blacked out well before he even got close to that depth. You could take our estimate based upon the average depth of the Mediterranean Sea and cut it in half and then cut it in half again and Jonah still wouldn't survive.

The only way for the story of Jonah to be plausible would be to invoke the Divine Default. Once we place God in all of the scientifically inaccurate parts of the story, the story of Jonah becomes much more believable doesn't it? God got Jonah safely into the whale's first stomach chamber. God gave Jonah oxygen while he was under water or magically eliminated his need for oxygen. God provided a warm cocoon for Jonah that was impervious to the cold temperatures of the deep sea. God must have suspended all natural laws and changed the rate at which water pressure accumulates as Jonah descended into the water. Do you see where I'm going with this? None of this could have happened without God's divine intervention, thus the Divine Default must be invoked. This story is realistically and scientifically impossible.

The trouble with the story of Jonah is that it speaks directly to the historical accuracy of these texts. There are a great many things that I do not agree with religious fundamentalists on, but I do tend to concede their assertion that whenever the Bible writers, for example, used parables or allegories, they generally made that evident in the context of the story. Reading the story of Jonah doesn't read like this. The fact that all three Abrahamic faiths tell essentially the same story would lead me to conclude that none of the early Jews, Christians, or Muslims had any doubts whatsoever as to the authenticity and historical accuracy of the story. Why would they? What background knowledge would they have had to adequately critique and refute the story? If the original authors, original audience, and modern day fundamentalists take the story of Jonah as a literal telling of a historical event, the logistics involved in making it happen become crucial and open for debate. If the story is false, what other stories are false?

The major problem we encounter reading this in the modern world is that we have to abandon every sense of reason and logic to make this story plausible without invoking the Divine Default. This story could NOT be replicated today. It is utterly impossible without defaulting to supernatural causes. When we finally realize this, the story of Jonah becomes hard to swallow...pun intended.