Biblical Intertextuality: Jonah, Pinocchio, and a New Creation


One of the things I loved to do when I covered Jonah in my 9th grade Old Testament class was show my class the movie Pinocchio by Roberto Benigni. I wouldn’t show the Walt Disney movie because most of them had already seen it, and I wanted them to watch the story with different eyes. Both Benigni’s and Walt Disney’s movies come from Carlo Collodi’s nineteenth century children’s tale of the same name.

In the case of Pinocchio, the case of biblical intertextuality is very straightforward and relatively simple. Once you realize that Jonah is fundamentally a story about re-creation, one can not only see how the story of Jonah is used in the Gospels, but one can also see how it is used in various stories still today, be it The Matrix or Pinocchio.

Jonah Themes…in Jonah and the Gospels
Let me first clarify what I mean when I say Jonah is a story about re-creation:

(A) God wants Jonah to go preach to Nineveh, but Jonah refuses and flees;

(B) God sends a storm at sea, and Jonah ends up being thrown overboard into the sea and swallowed by a big fish—this “big fish” symbolizes Sheol itself. In a metaphorical sense, Jonah “dies;”

(C) After three days Jonah get vomited up onto dry land, and proceeds to then go to Nineveh to preach judgment upon the Ninevites;

(D) Surprisingly, Nineveh repents; and even more surprisingly, God forgives them—Gentiles! And not so surprisingly, Jonah is upset—he wants God’s judgment to fall on these Gentiles, and instead, God has brought forgiveness and new life.

(E) The point in Jonah therefore is this: when God “re-creates” his people after the “death” of exile, what will that new people of God look like? The answer is shocking: it’s going to include even Gentiles who repent. Thus Jonah is a story of death and resurrection, in a very peculiar way.

In the Gospels, we find this concept then applied directly to Jesus: he, like Jonah, goes down into death; and like Jonah, three days later Jesus comes out of death and brings salvation to the entire world, even Gentiles.

Jonah Themes in Pinocchio
With that in mind, we now turn to Pinocchio. What is the story really about? In the story of a wooden puppet who longs to be a real boy. But since he constantly disobeys his maker/father, Geppetto, he finds himself led astray by various people. Geppetto, though, because he loves Pinocchio, goes out searching for him, and travels across the sea, only to be swallowed by a sea monster.

When Pinocchio finally finds his way home and discovers that Geppetto went out searching for him, he goes to find Geppetto. His journey takes him across the sea, where he too gets swallowed by that same “sea monster.” Eventually Pinocchio helps Geppetto escape from the sea monster, and because of his brave deed, the Blue Fairy grants Pinocchio his wish, and turns him into a real boy. What we see in this fairy tale, therefore, is the story of a wooden puppet who is “re-created” into a real boy, only after a death-like experience in the sea monster. This speaks to a very fundamental Christian belief.

In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains sanctification by using the example of a tin toy soldier. Essentially, human beings in their natural state, having what Lewis calls bios life, are like tin soldiers. We have the shape of men. One can push the analogy further by quoting Genesis 1:27: we are made in the image of God. Yet we do not have the life of God, the Christ-life, within us. The story of the Gospel is essentially this: Christ became a tin soldier so that he could impart his life, what Lewis calls zoe life, to us. Thus, the entire Christian life is one of a Christian slowly being transformed and recreated from a tin toy soldier into a real man.

Lewis makes many other observations and points concerning this, but for our purposes the basic analogy is enough. It is this analogy that can be seen in the fairytale Pinocchio—the wooden puppet is given animated life, but is not yet a real boy. The story thus tells about his trials and attempts to become a real living boy. The story is about transformation and re-creation.

One can see numerous analogies between the story of Pinocchio and the biblical understanding of sin and salvation. The wooden puppet Pinocchio is not really “evil,” but rather is very gullible and is easily led astray. When you think about it, isn’t this what we see with Adam and Eve in Genesis 3? No one who reads Genesis 3 honestly can conclude that the actions of Adam and Eve were “evil and devious.” They seem more like gullible children. This, incidentally, is the very view that the early Church Father Irenaeus had of Genesis 3 back in the 2nd century.

That is why it is so easy to see ourselves in the story of Adam and Eve—it is basically our story. Let’s face it, everyone can simply look at their own life admit that, while there certainly are many times one consciously and knowingly sins, there are also many times “sin” happens due to one’s immaturity, gullibility, and ignorance.

Pinocchio and Whale

Pinocchio, like everyone at some point, finds that he is lost. It is at this point in the story where the Jonah theme of re-creation/death and resurrection is apparent. In order to find his maker and father, Pinocchio journeys into the sea and is swallowed by a sea monster. It is within the belly of the sea monster where Pinocchio meets his maker and father Geppetto again. The story ends by Gepetto and Pinocchio escaping from the great fish, getting chased by him on the sea, and eventually reaching dry land safely. Because Pinocchio proved himself brave by going into the sea in search for his maker and father, his wish to become a real boy is granted. It is his experience within the belly of the great fish that transforms Pinocchio from a wooden puppet into a real boy.

The story of Pinocchio is not like Jonah in every respect. It does not have anything about Pinocchio preaching to other puppets that they would be made into firewood, and it does not have Pinocchio complain to Geppetto that those cursed alarm clocks Geppetto had in his workshop should be destroyed. Pinocchio simply takes one snapshot from the story of Jonah, a snapshot everyone is familiar with, and reworks and reinterprets that snapshot within a very memorable fairytale. The basic theme of going into death (symbolized by the great fish), and being transformed and reborn (re-creation into a real boy) is nevertheless retained. Pinocchio is, in fact, a modern example of intertextuality.

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