A Gourd, a Worm, and an East Wind: Discovering God’s Extensions of Love in the Book of Jonah

by Matt Crawford

Jonah called Gath-hepher home—a town which was west of the present-day Sea of Galilee (see 2 Kings 14:25). When the Lord called Jonah on a mission from his comfortable home to the Assyrian city of Nineveh,[1] he did not hesitate to act. Jonah immediately “rose up to flee unto Tarshish” (Jonah 1:3).[2]

Jonah may have run away from the mission call to Nineveh because one of Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians, lived there. The Assyrians were known to regularly torture and kill their captives, and then gruesomely desecrate their bodies.[3] While we do not know if Jonah was afraid of physical pain, we do know that he hated Assyrians and was afraid that they would repent and receive God’s mercy if he fulfilled his mission (see Jonah 4:2).

Rejecting God’s call, Jonah “paid the fare” (Jonah 1:3) for passage on a ship to Tarshish. One commentator notes that Jonah probably paid a considerable sum of money because the journey to Tarshish could take up to one year—“evidently because of the need to restock provisions frequently at ports along the way, wait for favorable winds, and trade the cargo.”[4] At one point Jonah slept soundly below deck while the ship’s crew thrashed through a storm (see Jonah 1:5). The storm was so brutal that the sailors expected the ship to sink, unless they prayed to their gods and tossed trade goods overboard to lighten the load (see Jonah 1:5). When the shipmaster found Jonah asleep, the captain woke him up and asked him to pray to God (see Jonah 1:6). When prayer did not lessen the intensity of the storm, the crew cast lots.

Proverbs 16:33 declares that “the lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof [the outcome] is of the Lord” (see also Proverbs 18:18). Casting lots was a trusted source of divine intervention during Old Testament times because it allowed the Lord to guide who was chosen—He could order the pieces so that a certain person was picked. Pieces of rock or wood were placed in a container, and, either by rolling all the pieces out of the container or inviting each participant to take a piece out of the container, led to the Lord’s decision (see Joshua 21:4–8; Nehemiah 10:34; 1 Nephi 3:11). In more recent times we might liken lot casting to drawing straws—whoever draws the shortest is the chosen one.[5]

When the sailors aboard the ship cast lots, “the lot fell upon Jonah” (Jonah 1:7). Despite his efforts to run from God’s call, the Lord is not giving up on the reluctant prophet. God continues to reach out toward Jonah through a storm and the lot. Jolted, Jonah confessed to the sailors that the storm was because he ran from God. Surprised, the crew questioned: “Why hast thou done this?” (Jonah 1:9). The sailors asked what could be done to still the storm. Fully realizing that his poor decision to run from the Lord was now affecting others, Jonah came to the following conclusion: “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you” (Jonah 1:12). The sailors initially refused to comply with his wish. Instead, they “rowed hard to bring [the ship] to the land,” but in the end, “they could not” (Jonah 1:13). Thus, the men “took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging” (Jonah 1:15).

When Jonah hit the water, he recalled, “billows and . . . waves passed over me. The weeds were wrapped about mine head [and] I went down to the bottoms” of the sea (Jonah 2:5–6). Fearing that this was the end, Jonah’s “soul fainted” but then he “remembered the Lord” through prayer (Jonah 2:7). It appears that the prayer brought the great fish—potentially some type of whale—and it swallowed the prophet. The scriptures reveal that this was no ordinary experience: “The Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17; emphasis added). To prepare this great fish for Jonah, the Lord knew when the great fish needed to be born, He knew the great fish’s habits, He knew that the great fish had to be in the vicinity when the men threw Jonah overboard, and He needed a creature big enough to complete the job. Such preparation for one frightened missionary begs the question, If the Lord will prepare a great fish, a game of lots, a storm, or a mission call for a rebellious disciple, what will He do for each of us?

After Jonah is swallowed by the great fish he continued to pray: “Out of the belly of hell cried I” (Jonah 2:2). Like Jonah, we may at times be headed in the wrong direction, but change is possible. The book of Jonah is an extremely detailed case of the Lord’s multiple maneuverings to save a single soul. Jonah acknowledged his own “lying vanities,” his selfishness, and “vowed” to be more faithful to the Lord’s will (Jonah 2:8–9). After three days and nights “the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10).[6] Once free from the fish “the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh. . . . So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh” (Jonah 3:1–3).

The prophet promptly enters the city and prophecies that in forty days “Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). The inhabitants of the city, including the king, listened to Jonah’s teachings and began to repent. The people fasted, wore sackcloth as a demonstration to God that they were humbly pleading for forgiveness, and the king issued a decree which encouraged the entire populace to repent (see Jonah 3:5–9). The measures proved successful because “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way and repented; and God turned away the evil that he had said he would bring upon them” (JST Jonah 3:10).[7]

We expect Jonah to be doing back flips of joy, but the final chapter begins: “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry” (Jonah 4:1). What displeased him? How can he be angry? Jonah prayed while upset and explained his reason: “When I was yet in my country . . . I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness” (Jonah 4:2).  In other words: “Lord, when I was at home I knew of Thy goodness and patience toward even the most despicable of people. That is why I headed toward Tarshish and not Nineveh. I did not want Thee to forgive and bless the inhabitants of Nineveh.” Jonah vehemently hated the Ninevites—they were not part of covenant Israel and what is more they were Israel’s sworn enemies. Jonah did not want them to change and be blessed, he wanted them to sin and suffer. Jonah then concluded his prayer by asking the Lord to “take   . . . my life from me; . . . for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3).

After Jonah’s audacious reply, the Lord, once again, shows Jonah mercy and patience—mercy and patience the Lord just demonstrated toward those of Nineveh, but which Jonah spurned. The Lord utters the simple question, “Doest thou well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). There is no harsh rebuke, no flash of lightning which sizzles Jonah’s flesh, no thunder from heaven to scare Jonah into a feeling of gratitude, but a simple question which may, if the prophet allows, work on his heart.

After the Lord asks Jonah if his anger is justifiable, the prophet refuses to respond. Was Jonah stung by the question or pierced by the Lord’s keen insight? The question seemed to infuriate Jonah so much that he gives the Lord the silent treatment. Like a teenager mad at his parents, or a husband after a tiff with his wife, Jonah turns and walks away from the situation, refusing to respond.

Jonah exited the city proper and headed east (see Jonah 4:5). Then he probably scaled part of the hills located in that direction and waited and watched Nineveh.[8]  Jonah seems unconvinced that the repentant state of the people of Nineveh is permanent. He is waiting, hoping, for the city to “be overthrown” after “forty days” as he originally prophesied (Jonah 3:4). While he waited, he built himself a booth or hut to provide shade—perhaps fashioned of overlaid sticks and branches, as was done for a feast required by the Law of Moses (see Leviticus 23:42; Nehemiah 8:14–15). The booth or hut evidently provided some shade, but it was probably hastily constructed from errant sticks from the vicinity. If so, Jonah’s comfort level and shade was minimal—sunshine would have streamed through the sticks. Whatever its construction, the booth was probably intended to be a physical, non-verbal sign that the Lord was wrong, and Jonah was right. Jonah’s thoughts may have ventured into this line of reasoning: If I wait here long enough the Lord will see Nineveh destroyed. Despite the almost worthless hut and Jonah’s constant moodiness the Lord provided a miracle.

While the booth provided a minimal amount of shade from the blazing sun, the “Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd” (Jonah 4:6). We do not know the specific type of plant[9] which grew overnight to such a mass that it shaded Jonah (see Jonah 4:10). Yet, as was the case with the call, the storm, the game of lots, and the great fish, this “gourd” was “prepared” for Jonah (Jonah 4:6). The Lord knew that Jonah would go up on the hill and pout, and so the seed of this plant was in the right place at the right time to provide physical comfort for the prophet. God really does know our moods and routines. Despite Jonah’s gladness for the shade—the only positive emotion Jonah shows in this book—the shadow would not last.

As was the case with the storm, the lot, the great fish, and the gourd, the Lord had “prepared” other things for Jonah (Jonah 4:7). A worm “smote the gourd that it withered” a day after its astonishing growth, and a “vehement east wind” probably knocked over the booth[10] and the “the sun [once again] beat upon [Jonah’s] head” (Jonah 4:7–8). While the “vehement east wind” seems to indicate the Lord’s displeasure with Jonah’s behavior,[11] God still does not give up on this angry, uncomfortable child.  Ultimately, the quick growing leafy plant served as tangible evidence of the Lord’s mercy—His constant readiness to forgive Nineveh and Jonah—while the equally fast demise of the gourd and the blasts of hot air presented proofs that without God’s goodness ruin follows.

To underscore these eternal truths, the Lord pointed out the folly of Jonah’s anger toward the inhabitants of Nineveh by asking, “Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?” The prophet retorted, “I do well to be angry” (Jonah 4:9). Patiently, the Lord connected the dots for Jonah: “Thou has had pity on the gourd…should not I spare Nineveh, that great city…?” (Jonah 4:10–11). In other words, “Your appreciation and love for the gourd is but a shadow of the care and love I have for you and the Assyrians of Nineveh.”

In short, every person is valuable to God. He simply will not give up or stop trying to save His children. From a city of Assyrians to a frustrated, bitter servant sitting next to a withered gourd, God cares for, watches over, and strives to bring everyone back home to heaven.

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[1] Nineveh was probably located in modern-day Iraq Pictoral Bible Dictionary, ed., Merrill C. Tenney (Nashville, Tennessee: The Soutwestern Company, 1976), s.v. “Nineveh.”

[2] It is likely that Tarshish was located in modern Spain and known for its successful trade industry (see Ezekiel 27:12); Pictoral Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Tarshish.”

[3] Erika Belibtreu, “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 17 no. 1 (1991): 51–61, 75.

[4] Uriel Simon, The JPS Bible Commentary: Jonah (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999), 6.

[5] For more information regarding casting lots see Joh. Lindblom Lund “Lot-Casting in the Old Testament,” Vestus Testamentum 12, facs. 2 (April 1962): 164–178.

[6] Where the great fish “vomited out” Jonah is a matter of debate. One tradition holds that the great fish deposited Jonah to a spot south of Jaffa—the port city where Jonah boarded the ship days earlier (see Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Atlas of the Crusades [New York: Facts on File, 1990], 43; see also John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commenatry [Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2005], 1011). Others suggest that the fish put Jonah in ancient Alexandretta—now İskenderun in modern-day Turkey (see The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, ed. George Arthur Buttrick, 5 vols. [Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon, 1962–1976] s.v. “Jonah, Book of,” 2:965). The ancient historian Josephus reported that Jonah was disgorged on the shore of the Euxine or Black Sea (see Josephus: Complete Works [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1960], 208).

[7] One commentator notes that the Hebrew text implies that the Assyrians only ritually repented. That is, they repented the only way that they knew how: through sackcloth and fasting. “Ritual response and ethical tidying up are precisely what one would expect from pagan Assyrians—and from every indication, they are still just that, despite the fact that they have taken a step in the right direction.” John H. Walton, “The Object Lesson of Jonah 4:5–7 and the Purpose of the Book of Jonah,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 2 (1992): 53–54.

[8] See The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed., Ididore Singer, 12 vols. (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1901–1906), s.v. “Nineveh,” 12:311.

[9] The most likely was a type of giant castor bean or oil plant. Jules Janick and Harry S. Paris, “Jonah and the ‘Gourd,’ at Nineveh: Consequences of a Classic Mistranslation,” 349–357; paper presented at North Carolina State University’s Cucurbitaceae Conference September 17–21, 2006. See also Encyclopaedia Judaica, eds. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., 22 vols. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), s.v. “Castor-Oil Plant,” 4:516.

[10] See Jack M. Sasson, Jonah: A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary, and Interpretation, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 304.

[11] Alonzo L. Gaskill, The Lost Language of Symbolism: An Essential Guide for Recognizing and Interpreting Symbols of the Gospel (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 153–154.

 

Matt Crawford is a husband, father, teacher, and writer. He resides with his family in Layton, Utah.

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