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The Biblical figure of Jonah and the Book that bears his name are some of the most interesting in human history. There are a few historical aspects that might give you a new appreciation for what has been relegated to children’s fairy tales.


The Assyrians were a brutal Canaanite people who’s practices in conquest made you want to not be conquered by them. They skinned captives and hung their remains on the walls of their cities. The Bible records that they took pleasure in ripping open pregnant women to personally slaughter their babies (Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom “Israel” until it was conquered by the Assyrians).

Samaria will be held guilty,
For she has rebelled against her God.
They will fall by the sword,
Their little ones will be dashed in pieces,
And their pregnant women will be ripped open.
~ Hosea 13:16

The Assyrians were not Jews nor did they keep the Mosaic Law. They practiced all kinds of perversion which actually precipitated many of the “don’ts” in the Torah. They were precautions given by God before entering the Promised Land.

When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. ~ Deuteronomy 18:9

Jonah emergesLeviticus 18:1-23 lists all sorts of sexual perversions, incest, homosexuality, bestiality and the like. The verses after my reference above (Deuteronomy 18:9-14) lists demonic worship that included casting infants into bonfires and calling on spirits through divination, orgies and narcotics.


Jonah was no-more swallowed by a whale than Adam and Eve ate an apple. These are extrapolations and conventions that have been passed down through the ages that have no basis in the original passages.

The original Hebrew of Jonah 1:17 is dag gadôl or “fish, great” but the Septuagint translation into Greek implied more of an unusual aspect to the creature; kêtei megalô from the root “ketos”.

Keto (Ancient Greek: Κητώ, Kētō, “sea monster”) — Latinized as Ceto — is a primordial sea goddess in Greek mythology, the daughter of Gaia and Pontus. … As a mythological figure, she is most notable for bearing by Phorcys a host of monstrous children, collectively known as the Phorcydes. …

This goddess should not be confused with … various mythological beings referred to as ketos (plural ketea); this is a general term for “sea monster” in Ancient Greek. ~ Ceto, Wikipedia

This is the same term Jesus uses to recount what happened to Jonah and relate it to Himself in Matthew 12:40.


The Bible states that a great sea monster swallowed the prophet Jonah but did not devour him. If we take this literally (and we should) this was probably a rather unpleasant experience.

There is actually a man who suffered a very similar fate (perhaps what he suffered was a bit of poetic justice given the barbarism of whaling):

True Tales Of Terror On The High Seas

The records of the British Admiralty testify that James Bartley, an apprentice seaman on a whaler, was swallowed by a whale in February, 1891, some two hundred miles east of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.

It was his first whaling voyage and he was aboard the whaling ship Star of the East.

The lookout spotted a huge sperm whale half a mile off the port bow and gave the cry “There she blows!” The ship’s sails were slackened and soon her small boats were lowered. A deadly race began between the Star of the East and the immense whale.

Young James BartIey was in the first longboat to reach the side of the prey. They crept up from the rear, so near that the harpooner leaned over and rammed his weapon deep into the whale’s vitals. As the stricken beast sought to free itself of the harpoon, Bartley and the other oarsmen rowed frantically to get out of reach of the massive flukes, the two-pronged tail which threshed the water to foam in the whale’s agony.

The whale sounded and eight hundred feet of heavy line streaked out of the line tub before he ended his dive. Then an ominous slacking in the line signaled the monster was going to surface. But where?

The oarsmen readied themselves to pull for their lives. Without warning there was a splintering crash which sent the longboat spinning into the air. The whale thrashed about wildly, snapping at the men and the wreckage with its huge jaws as the water turned to a bloody froth before he sounded again.

Another longboat picked up the survivors of this encounter, but two men were missing – one of them the young apprentice, James Bartley.

The wind now deserted the Star of the East and for hours she lay becalmed, wallowing in a light swell.

Shortly before sunset, the now dead whale floated to the surface a few hundred yards from the ship. In a longboat, the crew hastily fastened a line to the whale and the winch brought it to the ship’s side. The hot weather climate made it imperative that the whale be cut up at once. Having no means of raising it to the deck, the men took their flensing spades and peeled off the blubber as they slipped and slid along the immense back of this giant mammal.

Late that night, working by lantern-light, the tired crewmen removed the stomach of the whale and slowly winched it to the deck for flensing. They were startled to notice movement inside the large sack, movement that looked like something living and breathing. The captain called the ship’s doctor who made an incision in the tough flesh. And out slid the doubled up missing sailor, James Bartley, as if he were suffering from severe stomach cramps. He was alive, but unconscious.

The doctor ordered Bartley drenched with sea water, a treatment which restored his consciousness but not his reason, for he babbled incoherently.

Confined to a cabin for several weeks and bound so he could not injure himself in his wild flounderings, Bartley gradually regained his senses. Within a month he was able to relate what had happened to him in his terrifying experience.

Bartley said that as he was cast into the water from the long boat he saw a tremendous mouth open over him and he screamed as he was engulfed by it. He then felt sharp stabbing pains as he was swept across the teeth and then slid feet first down a slimy tube that carried him to the whale’s stomach. He could breath, but the hot, fetid odor soon rendered him unconscious and the last thing he remembers was kicking as hard as he could at the soft, yielding stomach. Finally, he lapsed into unconsciousness until he again came to his senses almost a month later.

As a result of his fifteen hours inside the whale’s stomach, Bartley lost all the hair on his body and was blind for the rest of his life. His skin was bleached to an unnatural whiteness that gave the appearance of being bloodless, although he was healthy.

James Bartley never made another trip to the sea and settled down to shore life as a cobbler in his native city of Gloucester, England. He died eighteen years after his remarkable survival and terrifying adventure.

On his tombstone in the churchyard at Gloucester is a brief account of his experience at sea and a footnote, which says: James Bartley -1870-1909 – A Modern Jonah.


It is interesting to note that one of the most important gods of the kingdom that bordered the Mediterranean Sea was Dagon, the fish god. Assyrians could’ve seen this as a cooperative effort with their god or, given Jonah’s dedication to the God who so terrified his sailing companions, proof of YHWH’s Supremacy.

Some scholars like Alexander Hislop believe that the worship of Dagon is reflected in modern sects like the Catholic Church with at least one example being quite striking:

dagon catholic mitre


YHWH is the Chess Master. He always has economy of energy and when He does something there are layers to it that take generations to unravel, sometimes never.

When Jonah was chosen it was just as much for his benefit as the Ninevites. Many people miss a similar lesson when reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son. There are two sons who learn hard lessons about compassion and mercy in Luke 15.

Jonah’s spiritual and emotional immaturity is glaring through the end of Chapter 3 and all of Chapter 4 and the Lord must continue to teach him what “compassion” really means.

How many of us could stand to learn that lesson…?


  • Great story! Jonah is indeed a very interesting book in the Bible.

    I found a small mistake at the end of the quote of the seaman’s story: “James Bartley -1870-1909 – A Modem Jonah.” Should be modern Jonah.

    Be blessed!

    • Thanks for the heads up and the encouragement, EG. Typo fixed. ~ Johnny

    • Doug says:

      Call me gullible if you want, but I am naive enough to believe the literal Word of God, in that the Book of Jonah says he was swallowed by a whale or ‘great fish’ and Jesus confirms it in Matthew 12:40. To not believe it would be calling Jonah and Jesus liars. To me the story of James Bartlett would be the one that is questionable.

  • Dave M says:

    I was just a few days ago wondering about the story of Jonah, as I had recently come across the revelations concerning the mistranslations of the Bible and the original meaning. Of course we could still believe that Jonah was indeed swallowed by a whale, but seeing the original message makes you wonder about the entire story and it’s message. Very inciteful.

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