Poor Jonah (He’s the Whale Guy)
Photo Source: Theosophical
Most people forget or never knew that in the very first Rocky movie—Rocky lost the fight. Yes, Rocky in the first movie lost the fight. The funniest thing is that in all the movies afterward Rocky does win, and each time, the wins (and the movies) become increasingly comical. However, the first Rocky movie was not comical, rather, beautiful, honest, and inspirational in a complex way, because Rocky may have lost the fight against the superstar heavyweight Apollo Creed, he won the toughest battle of all—himself. The movie was about battling our demons and insecurities and how we internalize our personal, familial and cultural expectations of what and who we are. That’s a big deal, and I heartily recommend everyone to watch (or re-watch) the first Rocky movie.
There is another story about a struggling, young gentleman that over time people have completely forgotten the real story and only remember the weird, fun part of the story—the part where Jonah gets swallowed by a whale. If the first Rocky movie was a moving story about a young man trying to believe he could accomplish something great, Jonah was a young man bent on doing the opposite.
A summary: The story opens with God speaking to Jonah and telling him that he plans on destroying Nineveh due to its wickedness and that he wants Jonah to travel there and warn them. However, instead of taking up his unexpected calling as ‘prophet of God’, Jonah decides to flee from God and the mission he was asked to do. While on a ship headed away from Nineveh, God stirs up a massive storm. All of the sailors are each praying to their native gods and freaking out. They eventually have to throw everything overboard to row and avoid capsizing. The storm grows even stronger. Meanwhile, while this is all happening, Jonah is down below happily snoozing. Eventually, a sailor spots him, wakes him, and tells him that he can’t just nap through all this—he’s got to go up above with the rest and get praying to his God. Jonah goes up and sees that they all are about to die in the storm and explains that it’s his fault as his God is the God that made the heavens, ocean, and dry land and that he (Jonah) has upset this God. Jonah then tells them to throw him overboard and promises that the sea will calm the moment they do. The sailors are a little taken aback and do not want to throw him overboard. Everyone goes back rowing—but the storm grows even more intense. Finally, the sailors pray to Jonah’s God asking for forgiveness if they are spilling innocent blood and then toss him overboard. Immediately, the sea calms. God then sends a big fish (not whale) to swallow Jonah. Jonah spends three days in the belly of the fish praying to God. Interestingly, Jonah does not pray to be saved. Instead, Jonah cedes he is about to die and professes his love and loyalty to God. With this last line, “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9 NRSV), God orders the fish to spit Jonah out on dry land.
After the fish ordeal, Jonah decides to take God up on his challenge and goes directly to Nineveh to warn them that God is planning on destroying the city and all of the life (including animals) in it. The city is described as being so large that it takes three days to walk from one end to the other. It would be good to think of Nineveh as New York or Beijing—a massive, cosmopolitan city. The detail is important as you could see how perhaps a young man would feel a little underqualified to go to New York or Beijing and tell everyone—including the mayor (or king as in the case with this story) that God is going to burn the city to the ground.
So, Jonah arrives at Nineveh and begins to tell people about how they are totally wicked and awful and that unless they change their ways, God is going to destroy them and the city. As he is doing this, two surprising things happen: one is that the people believe him, totally freak out, and change their ways, and two, the king of Nineveh requests that he see Jonah. Jonah goes to him and tells him that yes, the rumors are true—unless you guys all change your evil ways, God is going to destroy the city and all life in it. Shockingly, the king puts on sackcloth, covers himself in ashes, and orders a massive city-wide period of fasting and prayer. In short, the people of Nineveh change their evil ways.
Now Jonah is pissed off. He can’t believe he went through all of this—the nearly dying, the big fish, all the travel away from home—and then, nothing. As he heads out of Nineveh, completely upset that everyone changed their ways and all the death and destruction was not going to happen he parks it in the desert and seriously pouts—he even wishes he were dead. God then asks him why he’s so upset, and Jonah asks God why put him through all this when in the end nothing happens. God feeling mercy for Jonah makes a bush grow large enough to shade him and offer him some physical comfort. Before dawn, God causes a worm to kill and wither the bush, and as Jonah suffers in the sun and heat of the day to the point where he feels faint. Jonah again bemoans his life and wishes he were dead. God then asked him if the withering of a bush is really worth being so angry as to want to die, and Jonah is like ‘yes.’ Then God delivers the snappiest ending to a book of prophets ever: “Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And 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, and also many animals?” (Jonah 3:10-11 NRSV)
In the first Rocky movie, the lesson for the young man was to battle all of the stereotypes, cultural, social, familial, and personal insecurities and fears that keep a person from really following their dreams. It is a great movie for any young person who has not seen many of their friends, family, or neighbors follow their dreams and are trying to find some hope and courage. And really, I think adults too can benefit as we now live in a work culture that most of us will have to face two, three, or even five major career shifts in their professional career. Perhaps this new work reality could have an unexpected silver lining if we view it as a chance at a new life.
In the Book of Jonah, we have a young man who is running from greatness. And even while Jonah does finally take up his mantle he is furious that people heeded his warning and changed their evil ways—as he then interpreted God calling off the annihilation as somehow making the whole thing a waste of time. Jonah was fearful, apathetic towards his own life as frequently he wishes to die and apathetic towards people and society. The correction God made was pointing out to Jonah that growing a civilization was a lengthy process. The people in Nineveh had grown evil. However, it is clear that they had not grown so evil as to no longer recognize good, as they quickly reversed themselves. However, the biggest correction God made in Jonah’s thinking is his last line. And sadly, it is this line I wish everyone remembered about the Book of Jonah (instead of the whale that was actually a fish), as it is one of the most poignant and intense lessons of wisdom and how one should fix their Jonah-like ways of fear and apathy. “And 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 and also many animals?” (Jonah 3:11 NRSV)
Sometimes we are all young Rocky—battling ourselves and winning. Sometimes we are all Jonah—running from our calling, caring little for our lives, and turning our backs to the world. And sometimes, we are all citizens of Nineveh falling into greed, lust, and hate. However, the Book of Jonah gives us a magnificent clue on how to escape destruction (or at least the misery of Jonah), and that is to remember the amount of work and effort it takes for a person and society to grow and develop, and always to have compassion for others as the citizens of Nineveh really do not know their right hand from their left.