For me, the most inspiring story of the Bible is the book of Jonah. Most people know of this as the story of Jonah and the whale. (This would be the scene in the trailer of the movie Jonah!) Ask most people what they remember of the story, and they’ll tell you some variation of “Jonah blah blah blah whale something something 3 days yadda yadda lesson”. The whole story is a lot more interesting to me. It goes something like this:
(Disclaimer: I am about to take a lot of liberties with the wording and motivations here, because I’m a Catholic, and we don’t consider this to be a literal historical account. Think of this as a “re-imagining” of the original inspirational story, based on the parts I remember without going and looking it up again.)
Once upon a time there was a man named Jonah, who was largely uninteresting, except for the fact that he was the first person in history to be named Jonah. So one day, Jonah is hanging out doing whatever it was people did back in those days (after hunter-gathering, before mowing), when he hears God call out “Jonah!”
Jonah, being the only person named Jonah, assumes it’s him that’s being called and answers, “Yes, Lord”. God says, “I want you to go to Nineveh. The people there have decided to be wicked again, and I need you to tell them to knock it off and repent. How about it?”
Jonah, after looking around in the hopes that there’s another Jonah nearby (Spoiler warning: there isn’t), considers the situation. To Jonah, this sounds an awful lot like being a prophet, and the propheting business was not known back then as a job you do for a few years and then retire to the Promised Land’s version of Florida. People hate repenting, almost as much as they hate living a good life. Prophets were usually ignored and killed, which is why God used to have to do a lot of smiting and exiling and stuff back in the day. Jonah was aware of this (maybe he had a neighbor or a cousin who got into propheting and it ended badly, I’m not sure), and decided to run, secure in the knowledge that the omniscient all-seeing God who found him in the first place would never find him a second time.
Meanwhile (Disclaimer: this is in the deleted scenes section of the Book of Jonah), God notices this. To be honest, God’s not particularly surprised, since He did give Jonah free will. So God thinks to Himself, “Huh, Jonah’s headed for the Mediterranean. Nineveh’s in the other direction. OK, let’s try it his way for a while. There’s a few things I need to have done over there. I can work with this.”
Well, Jonah gets to the coast and figures, “Hey, this is still the Promised Land. God might find me here. Maybe if I hop a boat to someplace less Promised, God will get tired and find someone else for the Nineveh gig. I hear Isaiah might be free.”
So Jonah bums a ride on one of the fishing boats. Unfortunately, it was monsoon season in the Mediterranean, and a big storm came up. The weather started getting rough. The tiny ship was tossed. The Skipper and his crew started praying to their various gods for help. (Note: The particular gods aren’t named, but I figure probably Poseidon, Thor, maybe Sauron. The usual suspects.) This has about as much effect on this storm as praying to Thor would have had on Katrina, but I digress.
Jonah, however, has figured it out. Of all the people on the ship, he’s the one that had an appointment to be somewhere else, but skipped out on it. So he goes to the Skipper and says, “Sorry guys, this is my fault. Poseidon has nothing to do with the storm. The God of the Israelites is angry with me for not following orders. If you dump me overboard, maybe He’ll leave your ship alone.” (Note: this sounds awfully selfless for a known slacker like Jonah, but after all, God did want him as a prophet, so he couldn’t be all bad.)
So the crew throws Jonah overboard, and lo and behold, the storm stops. The crew is so impressed that they decide that God must be The God, so they give thanks to Him, and stop worshiping characters from Norse mythology and/or Tolkein.
God, having expected this, says to Himself, “Excellent! Jonah got that crew back on track. Now let’s do something about the fact that he’s drowning.” So God spots a nearby whale (or some other roomy ocean denizen) and has him swallow Jonah, swim around with him for 3 days, and then spit him out on the beach back in the Promised Land. (Note: 3 days is a particularly meaningful amount of time in the Bible — everything in the Bible happens in either 3 days, 40 days, or 40 years. The last two would have been awfully hard on Jonah, not to mention the whale.)
So there’s Jonah, on the beach, trying to get the fish smell out of his clothes, and along comes God, who says, “Jonah, I want you to go to Nineveh. The people there have decided to be wicked again, and I need you to tell them to knock it off and repent. How about it?”
Not surprisingly (particularly to God), Jonah looks out at the water, takes a big whiff of fish stench, and says, “OK.” And he sets off for Nineveh.
To nobody’s surprise, when Jonah gets to Nineveh, the people are still carrying on, so Jonah enters the town and tells them off. To everybody’s surprise (except God), the Ninevites go, “Hey, Jonah’s right! We’re setting a pretty poor example for people who are going to read this story over the next few millennia! Let’s clean up our act!” And they decide to repent and obey God (temporarily, as usual).
You would think that Jonah would be relieved. He didn’t get killed. The Ninevites repented like God wanted, so maybe God will finally let him go home. But Jonah, in spite of all his life lessons over the past few chapters, is not a happy camper. He did not expect all this repenting and stuff. He had gotten himself worked up for a decent smiting, and now it wasn’t going to happen.
So he complains to God. “Hey, what’s the deal with the not smiting? I went through a lot of stuff here! These people were totally unworthy, and with one quick repentance, you let them off the hook? I had to live in a fish!” And God answers Jonah. “Hey, who’s the God here? I sent you here to preach a little repentance. You did, and I got some repentance. How are you missing the point? Wake up and smell the fish guts!”
The first time I read this story (the book of Jonah is only 5 chapters long) it resonated with me. My relationship with God consists of a lot of these events. God wants me to live my life a certain way. I respond, “I don’t want to go to Nineveh!” and go looking for alternatives. God, in His infinite wisdom, says “OK, I gave you free will for a reason. We’ll try it your way. Let’s see how that works out. Oh, and incidentally, I put a bunch of stuff over that way. See if you can take care of that for me while you’re stalling.”
I find I can accept that deal. I have my free will, but I also know that God has His, too. I believe God lets us use our free will to find our way, because we’ll be better for it.
But sometimes, you just have to suck it up and go to Nineveh.