The story of Jonah is a good read, only about four pages long. Everyone probably knows one detail, that he was swallowed by a big fish. (To quote James Kugel, “It was indeed a ‘big fish,’ by the way, not a whale — that was Pinocchio.”)
But the story has some interesting twists. Called to go to Nineveh, he did leave home, but tried to travel by ship in the opposite direction. It didn’t work, and he ended up back on dry land, and did go to Nineveh. He told them that they were to be destroyed, and they repented. This annoyed Jonah even further, since he expected what he prophesied to come true. But God reminded him, again, that he could change his mind and learn. God was pleased not to have to kill of more of his creations.
This is a welcome advancement from the more radical plagues and smiting that God appeared more prone to do earlier in the Bible.
The first sketch I wrote for Jonah was more in the line of Woody Allan-like comedy. Viewed one way, the story of Jonah is really funny, the story of a guy trying to get on with his life while storms, trees, and even fish conspire against him. But as I tried to write it, a darker layer appeared underneath the humor, and writing it the new way felt more true.
Jonah, in this telling, is a man obsessed. Devoted to his job as a sandalmaker, he finds himself growing curt and discourteous to his customers as his mind overflows with the need to answer God’s call. Writing it, I drew on my own experience as a bookseller, when other matters pressing on me kept me from giving appropriate attention to my customers’ needs.
It was there that I found connection to the tenuous balance of desires in Jonah’s life, between the drive to follow his obsessions and the dream that they will end. The Book of Jonah ends with an unanswered question. We can only wonder what answers Jonah finally found for himself.
Have opposing desires ever pulled at you so powerfully that you were immobilized between them, unable to fully obey or fully resist either one? How did you resolve these desires? Did either or both eventually fade? Looking back, how does the person that you were then look to you now? Would you have advice to give to your earlier self, or to others in that situation?