How beautiful and timely it must have been, that lovely plant sprung up in a day to shade and delight Jonah! Jonah is the favorite prophet of many people. His story is straight-forward and to the point. As the writer of the story tells us, one day Jonah got an unwelcomed call from God. God wanted him to go to Nineveh --modern-day Iraq-- and warn the people to change from their wicked ways. Or else. The people of Nineveh show up in other prophetic books and Bible histories because they are long-time enemies of Israel.
Jonah disliked his mission and ran away from God by ship to Spain. Then a storm arose. The well-traveled sailors realized the storm was not normal. While Jonah was napping peacefully during the storm, they threw lots to see who was responsible for the storm. This action doesn’t condone fortunetelling, by the way. People were always throwing lots in Biblical times. But it does show us that God can sometimes use the traditions, cultures and beliefs of other ethnic groups to lead people to a particular truth. The lot fell on Jonah.
Jonah told the sailors that he was running away from the God who made heaven and earth This made the seamen afraid. In those days, gods had territories. But, even in religions where many gods are worshiped, people often believe in one chief god who is greater than all the other gods combined. The sailors were afraid when Jonah told them this was the God he served. Jonah told them to throw him overboard. They did not want to throw him into the sea. But what could they do? It seemed Jonah’s god wanted them to. When the foreign sailors threw Jonah into the sea, the storm stopped immediately and the sailors worshiped Jonah’s God.
But God was not finished with Jonah. He prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. There in the middle of the sea, the fish’s stomach is the safest place for Jonah to be --whether he likes it or not.
After three days in the fish’s stomach, Jonah was vomited out dry land. He still had a missionary journey to undertake. God could have chosen another more willing Israelite prophet. He might also have raised up a prophet from among the Ninevites. But He didn’t. He chose Jonah. Jonah, who hated the Ninevites-- of all things. Jonah was not happy about saving the lives of the enemies of his people. He knew that the Ninevites might repent of their sins. He also knew God was forgiving. That was the worst thing that could happen as far as Jonah was concerned.Nineveh had a cruel history. They had raided many nations, including Jonah’s homeland of Israel. And here was God giving them a second chance. Jonah is the only prophet who didn’t want his hearers to listen to him. He did not want God to give these people a second chance. But God had intimidated, coerced and harassed poor Jonah into preaching to the Ninevites and Jonah was stuck. He preached to the people, and as far as Jonah was concerned, the worst thing happened: the people in the city felt the need to ask God for forgiveness.
Jonah’s mind was full of anger and the need for revenge. He went to the top of the hill and built himself a booth to shade himself from the sun while he sat watching the city. He was hoping all their prayers would fail and God would destroy the city. He wanted rivers of blood to flow as payback for the blood that had flowed through his country.
Nineveh is a hot country and the place where Jonah sat –on top of a hill– was unshaded from the sun. Not only was Jonah seething and hot inside, he was seething outside too. Jonah built a make-shift shelter to keep the sun off his body. But it wasn’t adequate. The heat still attacked his body.
So God made a gourd plant which sprang up in a day to shade and cover Jonah. God did a lot of creating for Jonah –first he created that great once for all time fish to swallow Jonah. Then he created that magnificent vine plant. There are two things we know about this gourd plant and several things we do not know. First, the things we know: The gourd plant was extremely large. Anyone who has ever put superfertilizer on their squash plants know how large those vines can grow. Well, Jonah’s gourd was way larger. That’s strange enough. But the strangest thing is that the vine grew up in a day ----and right where Jonah happened to be sitting and venting.
Jonah knew God had made the gourd. (He was too mad with God to thank Him for making the thing but he appreciated it.) The great fish had popped up out of the blue at the most convenient moment to engulf, protect, and entomb him. Very convenient. Jonah loved the vine plant. The vine's wide beautiful leaves and tendrils wound around Jonah's make-shift little shelter and protected Jonah from the sun.
Jonah’s love for this plant was so strong that it delighted him. He watched it grow over him with its shining transcendent shimmering leaves, gazed at its wonderful design and color as it coved him tenderly. And then Jonah saw this wonderful creation that had so protected him cut down in its beautiful prime. The plant wilted and weakened before his eyes and Jonah could not help it. This was the most crushing blow for Jonah at this time in his life. Then, to make matters worse, God sent a hot wind that beat down on Jonah’s back.
Jonah became very angry. Then God asked Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the gourd?” Jonah answered, “Yes, I have every right to be angry!” God then replied, “You are angry about the death of this plant that came up in a day and died in a day? A plant you had nothing to do with creating? But you want me to destroy this country, with young people who don’t know the difference between their left hand and their right, and also a lot of livestock?”
“And also a lot of livestock?”
Why did God say that? Jonah hadn’t reached the place where he could care for his enemies, but the idea of wounded animals would surely have affected him. Often, the trouble with revenge is that after a while it takes over every nook and cranny of a person’s heart. Jonah obviously needed healing of his hatred for the Ninevites. He was so full of anger and grief that he didn’t care about human life but he had so bonded with this plant that it grieved him to see it die. Some people have been so hurt by other people they can only have compassion for animals and plants. Jonah was already a prophet when God called him. He was all but burnt out on people. Nah, Jonah was not a people-person. God had to create something for Jonah to love before Jonah could identify with a loving God.
Jonah’s mind had been so overwhelmed with hurt and anger that he could no longer feel compassion for human beings. God –who understand human hearts more than we can ever say– taught Jonah’s heart to love again and then he enlarged Jonah’s ability to understand human pain by showing him the plant’s pain.
I have no doubt that when God later did destroy Nineveh, in God’s time after the Ninevites returned to their old ways, Jonah grieved for his enemies. The God of love and power who is everywhere is a destroyer as well as a creator. He is everywhere and he loves the creatures he has made. He also wants his people to love all his creatures, not just those who haven’t hurt them. In the book of Jonah, he created three organisms: a great fish, a gourd that sprang up in a day and a destroying worm. All these were created for God’s loving purposes towards Nineveh, the enemy of his people.
In the beginning Jonah would rather have died than forgive his enemies. God called him to do something extremely unpleasant. He wanted his enemies to suffer but God used Jonah’s mission to heal both Jonah’s heart and to save the people of Nineveh..
I remember seeing a trial on Court TV. The person involved had had his family killed in a shoot-out with the FBI. This person, previous to his family's death, had wanted to create a race war in which tons of blacks --like your sweet kind writer here-- would have been killed. But instead in some horrendous accident, his family was killed by the FBI instead. The man later said, "I don't wat a race war anymore. I wouldn't want any death to happen to even my worst enemy." Strange and sad way to learn compassion. Let us love our enemies...let us not love vengeance or nurse it so much in our hearts that our hearts lose their ability to empathize with others. Vengeance and anger belong to God.
PLEASE ENCOURAGE AUTHOR,
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Wow! What a great article, Carole! I have great interest in Jonah' story. While I have done a fair amount of research on Nineveh, and have spoken and written about Jonah a number of times, you shed a whole new perspective on this story with your reference to Jonah's love of nature. I hadn't thought of that before, and have often stumbled at those final four words in the book, "...and also much cattle." But I think you are right, Jonah does seem to relate more to things in nature than to humanity (even enemies). And I also think you are correct in saying that God found a way to melt Jonah's heart and he probably mourned when the Ninevites were overthrown by God. Thanks so much for this insightful piece!