J is for Jonah, the reluctant Old Testament prophet. He’s been called by YHWH to bring the word to Nineveh–something he is definitely unprepared and unwilling to do. So Jonah hits Joppa Road and boards a ship sailing to Tarshish (this is pretty much as far away as one could get from Nineveh in the known world). YHWH is a wrathful God, and sets out in pursuit, sending storms to wreak havoc on the ship; the sailors panic and despair and pray. Jonah, meanwhile, manages to sleep like a baby through the whole thing. They eventually wake him up and he says, “Oh yeah, this is kinda my fault, throw me overboard.” At first the sailors are reluctant, but eventually the tempest leaves them no other choice, and they heave Jonah off the ship. Wrathful YHWH now shows his merciful side: he sends a “great fish” to swallow Jonah, thus saving him from drowning. In the belly of the beast, Jonah sends a prayer of repentance and thanksgiving; the whale then “vomits” him out onto the dry land of Nineveh where he preaches the word of YHWH. Jonah, however, is wrathful now–he hopes that the people won’t accept the word, and that YHWH will wipe them out. YHWH’s satisfied, however, and leaves Jonah outside of the city in the heat. A gourd grows giving Jonah some shade, but then a worm eats it, pissing him off again. He even gets suicidal sitting in the hot sun. YHWH asks him why if it’s right that he’s angry and Jonah replies: “I do well to be angry”–his last line in the story. YHWH then lectures him, reminding him that he didn’t make the gourd, and that furthermore he shouldn’t be angry at YHWH for sparing Nineveh, which is full of people and cattle.
The story, especially the episode with the whale, resonates throughout the history of myth and literature and into contemporary stories. But beyond the mythic echoes of Jonah and the whale, we just downright love the guy–he’s angry, lazy, and self-righteous–just like us.