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What if it isn't about the Whale?

Updated: Jan 7, 2023


When I was a kid, I knew two stories that included a man being swallowed by a “whale”: Pinocchio and Jonah. Somehow because all of Pinocchio was a metaphor, the idea that Geppetto survived being swallowed was never the focal point of the story. Instead, it was always dismissed as something of fantasy for a fairy tale, because “everyone” knew the Disney version of Pinocchio was about obeying your parents, telling the truth, and following your conscious (which is good). Then, I would go to church, where I was taught the story of Jonah and was told surviving the whale was real, because when we don’t follow God, scary things happen, but then God is merciful and will give us a second chance if we promise to obey.


I was reminded of the confusing mash-up of these stories when watching Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio with my children. Granted, the del Toro version is messier than Disney’s, but here I want to focus on the overlap between Geppetto and Jonah surviving being swallowed by a larger-than-life fish. If you are unfamiliar with the Jonah story, he is a prophet of the Hebrew God, and his story begins with him receiving a message to go to the city of Nineveh and tell the people there to repent of their wickedness. When people teach on the book of Jonah, they often point out that instead of eagerly following the directions given in the message, Jonah set out to go about as far from Nineveh as possible, and that he was choosing to head towards a vacation spot rather than an urban center. It is when he boards a boat in the opposite direction of Nineveh that things go sideways and a storm comes. Jonah tells the sailors on his ship to throw him overboard, because he believes the storm was sent by God, and he would rather die in the storm than go to Nineveh. However, when he goes overboard, he is swallowed by the fish. In del Toro’s version of Pinocchio, Geppetto is traveling to be reunited with Pinocchio. Unlike Jonah, he knows there is the danger of running into the monster fish, but for Geppetto death by giant fish is better than not taking a risk, so when he finds himself in the belly of the fish, he calmly waits. Jonah, in contrast, is surprised to be alive in the belly of the fish, and he begs God for a second chance.


So, for me, this presents the question, what if these stories aren’t actually about the fish?

How would these stories be different if Jonah and Geppetto had been stranded on a desert island rather than swallowed by a monster? Aside from Jonah’s fish transporting him to Nineveh, I don’t think the stories would alter significantly if Jonah and Geppetto were stranded somewhere other than the belly of a fish, because I think these stories are about more than the miracle of survival. I think these stories are about what happens when our plans and the Divine’s plans are different.


[Spoiler Alert] Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio allows Geppetto to be devastated when his life plans are destroyed by his son’s death. Geppetto rails at God, drinks too much, and carves an imperfect wooden boy out of the tree planted to memorialize his son. However, by the time he finds himself in the belly of the beast, he has already seemingly “learned his lesson” about life not going as planned; he simply wants to be reunited with the son he has. Geppetto wants to make the most of the life he has, and he has survived enough loss to know the fish is a temporary setback.


But what about Jonah?

When people teach on the book of Jonah, they like to focus on second chances and repentance, and if the story was only three chapters, instead of four, I would agree. However, storytellers know the final 25% of the story is usually the most important. When I read Jonah 4, it feels like a slap in the face. Chapter 3 ends with the Ninevites repenting, so we praise God for grace and mercy, but then we turn the page. “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”


All of a sudden, this story is no longer about Jonah and a “great fish” or even about God’s grace; it’s about more.

Maybe it is trying to get us to think about what it means when we seek to flee God. Jonah didn’t like the message God gave him, so he tried to run away, and now, Jonah is mad because God forgave the Ninevites. He tells God their repentance is why he didn’t want to preach to them in the first place. He did not want them to have the opportunity to repent and get a second chance. And this is where, if I seek to apply the Bible to my life, I begin to find the book of Jonah convicting. This is where I am forced to ask myself who are the people that I believe are beyond redemption? Who are the people that I think are so different than me that it’s not worth my time, but I know God is inviting me to get to know them?


I find those hard questions to answer.


But, maybe Jonah is about more than just asking us to confront our own prejudices. What if it’s about fleeing our calling to be love to the world? In Jonah 1, Jonah is fleeing the presence of God, and it is easy to see how God pursues Jonah. Nevertheless, in chapter 4, we see that even though God is present with Jonah, they are not at peace. Jonah is pushing away God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and fellowship and instead is wallowing in his anger and entitlement. Jonah is yelling at God, and multiple times Jonah tells God he would rather die than live to witness God’s unmerited favor, so God rebukes him. Jonah wants God to do things on his timetable, in his way, but God disagrees. The Divine challenges Jonah, “should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”


The book of Jonah ends with this question. Unlike a movie, it doesn’t end with the answer. It ends with God reminding Jonah of people’s humanity, of their need for well-being and flourishing. When I look at these two stories side by side, I don’t think it matters if science can or cannot prove whether Jonah (or Geppetto) can survive in the stomach of a sea beast. I think it matters whether we respond in the disruptions in our lives like Jonah or like Geppetto.

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