This book of Jonah is only four chapters long; the episode of Jonah and the vine is in Jonah Chapter 4.
Jonah was the only Old Testament prophet sent directly to the Gentiles. The theme of Jonah is the God’s divine mercy is applied without favoritism to Jews and Gentiles. Jonah was from the tribe of Zebulun. His ministry was between 800-750 B.C. about the time of King Jeroboam II in the Northern Kingdom. By the end of 721 B.C., Assyria conquered and deported the Northern Kingdom Jews.
The Book of Jonah begins with God telling Jonah to travel to Ninevah, Assyria to warn the people of pending retribution because of their wickedness. Instead of heading northeast to Nineveh, Jonah booked passage on a ship to Tarshish, a city located in southern Spain. God caused a violent storm to buffet the ship. The superstitious sailors cast lots to identify who was responsible for the calamity. The lot fell on Jonah. Jonah was thrown into the Mediterranean Sea where he was swallowed by a giant fish. While inside the fish, Jonah acknowledged his disobedience and the sovereignty of God. After three days, the fish vomited Jonah onto dry land, probably near an eastern Mediterranean country.
Again, God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim a message that God would give to him. Jonah went and proclaimed, “forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4, NIV-SB, 2002). The Ninevehites including their king believed Jonah’s prophecy. They fasted in sackcloth and ashes. When God saw that the Ninevehites turn from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not destroy Nineveh.
Likely, the Ninevites were ecstatic over God’s decision, however, Jonah was angry. His complaint to God and about God included (Jonah 4:2):
- isn’t this just what I said would happen when I was at home?
- that’s why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.
- I knew that you are gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love, and relent from sending calamity.
Jonah was so upset that he told God to kill him; it would be better for him to be dead than alive. God’s response was to ask Jonah the question, “Have you any right to be angry” (Jonah 4:4). Instead of answering God, Jonah went to a spot east of Nineveh, built a small shelter, sat down under it, and waited to see what would happen to Nineveh. Jonah had no confidence that the Ninevehites would continue their reformed ways. As Jonah watched the city, God stimulated a vine to grow over Jonah to screen him from the sun and to ease his discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the vine. At dawn the next day, God made a worm chew the vine so it withered. When sun rose, God caused a scorching east wind and the sun to shine on Jonah’s head. Jonah grew faint and again told God that it would be better for him to die than live.
God asked Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine” (Jonah 4:9). Jonah’s response was a resounding “I do and I am angry enough to die.” God said told Jonah was concerned about a vine that he neither caused to grow nor tended. How much more should God be concerned about Nineveh, a city of 120,000 people who did not know right from wrong.
Castor Bean Plant
The majority of present day botanists and scholars agree that Jonah’s gourd was the Ricinus communis, also known as the castor bean, castor oil plant, and palma Christi (hand of Christ). The castor bean vine is indigenous to Northeastern Africa, the Middle East, or India. It was found in 5000 year-old Egyptian tombs. The castor oil bean tree grows wild in Israel and can be seen on rocky hillsides, in waste areas, along road shoulders, and in fallow fields. Established plants are drought tolerant; but are killed by substantial frost. It grows as an annual that reaches 8-15 feet tall in a single growing season. When young, leaves are red and shining; however, when fully expanded (12-30 inches across), leaves are blue-green and paler on the underside. These large leaves produce abundant shade when the tree is full grown. When the growing season is short, gardeners start seeds inside or scar the seeds before planting. The castor oil tree produces a variety of products. Made from the castor oil seed coat, ricin is a deadly chemical which can be used in biological warfare. Ingesting ricin in even small doses can be fatal. Castor oil is a distasteful laxative made from castor seeds.
The Biblical gourd is a symbol of compassion. Compassion means a sympathetic awareness of another person’s distress together with a desire to alleviate the distress. In the story of Jonah, we see compassion juxtaposition with lack of compassion. God had compassion on the Ninevehites and sent Jonah to call them to repentance. Jonah had no compassion for the 120,000 Ninevehites who repented of their sins. God had compassion on Jonah and caused a leafy gourd to grow over Jonah’s shelter. Jonah had compassion on the gourd that protected him from the sun; he was angry when a worm chewed through the vine and caused it to die.
Possibly some of Jonah’s lack of compassion for the Ninevehites was the result of seeing God as belonging to the Israelites. He did not fully comprehend that God was the God of the world and cared about all peoples to include the Ninevehites (Psalm 145:9). Throughout the book of Jonah, God leads Jonah to a new understanding of God himself. We never read that God was angry with the sulky Jonah. Instead God gave patient explanations using Jonah’s feelings for the gourd vine to parallel God’s feelings for the Ninevehites.
In his ministry Christ demonstrated compassion consistently. In the Gospels we can read that Christ had compassion on individuals and groups (Matthew 9:36, 14:14; 20:34; Mark 1:41, 6:34; and Luke 7:13, 10:13). Repeatedly Christ used the word “compassion” when he told stories of love (Matthew 18:27, 33; Mark 5:19; and Luke 7:13, 15:20).
When investigating compassion, I read that personal salvation should bear fruit in social compassion. Not being too sure of that statement, I searched the scriptures for confirmation or dis-confirmation. I found these words penned by St. John: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions” (I John 3:17-18. John was calling us to have social compassion on others.
Jonah called the Ninevehites to repentance because of God’s compassion for them. Because of Christ’s love for us, we need to have compassion on our brothers and sisters in need.
Reflection. As I write this unit, it is 9 days until Christmas. Many of us have softer hearts at this time of year. We remember that Christ came into the world because he had compassion on us. How do you exhibit Christ’s compassion all year long?
I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com/
Copyright June 11, 2012; carolyn a. roth