Studying Jonah: Part XV

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ii. God responds to Jonah: An object lesson, 4:4–11

4:4. With Jonah’s rant completed for the moment, Yahweh responds to his prophet with a probing question: Are you right to be angry? In Hebrew, this is a sharp, three-word spear (הַהֵיטֵב חָרָה לָךְ) pointed directly at Jonah’s heart (1). More irony is implemented at this point as Jonah, having angrily accused God of not being angry, is now confronted with the evil of his own anger!

4:5. Jonah went out from the city, sat east of the city. Jonah had nothing further to say at the moment and so he leaves the now-safe Nineveh and heads further east (perhaps he is making a point to stay as far away from the sea as possible! [2]) and finds an acceptable observation point from which to monitor the city he still deems to be destruction-worthy (3). Jonah still clings to hope that Yahweh will change his mind once again and bring wrath upon the wicked pagans of Nineveh. 

After finding a good vantage point on which to perch, the prophet made for himself there a shelter. The making of the shelter may give readers a couple of hints. First, that Jonah is prepared to spend time in this spot, enough time to warrant a make-shift shelter. Second, the shelter indicates the prophet’s need for shade and protection from the harsh elements (4). Thus, the scene is set for the final lesson (vv. 6–11).

4:6. Yahweh God appointed a plant. Interestingly, this is only the second time in the narrative that this specific name for God is utilized. Up until this point there have been multiple uses of the Tetragrammaton and of Elohim, but the two together are only found here and in Jonah’s confession before the sailors in 1:9. It has been suggested that while Elohim alone is typically equated with God’s justice, the Tetragrammaton alone with his mercy, the combination of the two in the covenant name of Yahweh suggests a divine balance between divine justice and mercy that is necessary and, certainly in the current narrative, significant (5).

Just as God had appointed (מנה) the great fish to deliver Jonah from the sea, so he appoints a plant (קיקיון “gourd” asv, kjv; “leafy plant” niv, nlt; “bush” nrsv) to deliver him from the hot desert sun. The phrase, to deliver him from his discomfort (לְהַצִּיל לוֹ מֵרָעָתוֹ, lit. “to deliver him from his evil/calamity”) may have an intended double meaning (6). Certainly, as has been said, the calamity of the intense sun was something Jonah could be delivered from with divinely provided shade. This is obviously what happened. 

However, the “evil/calamity” Jonah was being delivered from could also hint at the prophet’s own wickedness, selfishness, and misalignment with God’s agenda. Was God preparing to rescue the prophet again as he had at the end of the first pericope? This time, the deliverance would not be from drowning in the sea but, instead, from drowning in the sea of unjustified and self-righteous anger.

The continued use of the word (root: רַע) for evil, wickedness, or calamity is noteworthy. The table below shows its use by the A/author throughout the narrative.

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And Jonah was extremely joyful about the plant. Jonah’s reaction to the plant was sheer joy. The shade that it provided for him made him giddy with happiness. The attitude of the prophet is transformed from anger to delight by God’s provision of shade.

4:7. Jonah’s exuberance does not last, however, as Yahweh quickly appointed a worm to come and attack the shade-providing plant. Notice here that, once again, God is shown to be in total control as he appoints (מנה) and nature obeys without hesitation. 

Verses 6 and 7 mirror one another in the way in which they begin.

4:6 וַיְמַן יהוה־אֱלֹהִים קִיקָיוֹן The Lord God appointed a plant
4:7 וַיְמַן הָאֱלֹהִים תּוֹלַעַת God appointed a worm

While both verses being with God sending an element of nature to interact with his prophet, “they introduce two opposite aspects of God’s nature: his ability to deliver and to destroy” (7). God is sovereign over all.

4:8. This is now the third consecutive day of God’s appointments. Day one: God appoints a plant (4:6). Day two: God appoints a worm to destroy the plant (4:7). Day three: God appoints a scorching east wind to beat down upon the now shadeless Jonah. To make matters worse for the prophet, the sun beat down on Jonah’s head to the point where he became faint. Jonah is experiencing what is likely heatstroke as he is completely exposed to the elements. 

As the worm had attacked (נכה) the plant the previous day, so now the sun beat down (נכה), i.e., attacked, Jonah. Notice below the appointments of God throughout the narrative.

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If we add to the list of divine appointments above the only remaining miracle found in the book, there may indeed be a chiastic structure that can be seen weaving its way through the entirety of the book of Jonah.

A The storm (1:4)
B The fish (1:17)
Centre The plant (4:6)
Bʹ The worm (4:7)
Aʹ The wind (4:8)

In the suggested structure, A and Aʹ are both miracles associated with the weather while B and Bʹ are both associated with the animal kingdom. That leaves the centre and focal point of these miracles as the plant. Not only is this the only miracle associated with plant life, but it is also the only miracle to which there is a sincerely joyful reaction from the recipient of the miracle. The extreme happiness shown by Jonah because of the plant, however, is shown to be misguided. His selfishness is exposed, his priorities seen as misaligned, and his understanding of the nature and actions of the God he is to be serving are found faulty.

Perhaps it is the cumulative stress of recent events—the storm, fish, undesirable assignment from God, divine mercy on wicked people, the plant, the worm, and now the wind and sun—but Jonah has had enough. The prophet asked with all his soul to die.

An interesting parallel comes to mind here. In 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah is fleeing from murderous Jezebel. On his fear-filled journey, Elijah, “went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.’” Elijah, a prophet, not understanding fully God’s presence and his workings, comes to the end of himself and, exhausted and distraught under a tree, requests death. One author compares the two accounts in even more detail the following table and concludes that authorial intentionality must be assumed with such obvious parallels (8): 

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4:9. As in verse 4, Yahweh asks Jonah a probing question: Are you right to be angry about the plant? Is this not an overreaction, Jonah?

4:4 וַיֹּאמֶר יהוה הַהֵיטֵב חָרָה לָךְ׃ (The Lord said, “Do you have good reason to be angry?”)
4:9 וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל־יוֹנָה הַהֵיטֵב חָרָה־לְךָ עַל־הַקִּיקָיוֹן (Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?”)

With minor variations (e.g. specific references to Jonah and the plant, the replacement of Lord [יהוה] with God [אֱלֹהִים]), the wording is the same in the two divine addresses, highlighting the anger of the prophet.

While God’s question is repeated, Jonah’s response differs. The prophet offered no verbal response the first time Yahweh broached the subject of anger, he only stomped his feet out of Nineveh. This time, however, Jonah fires back at God claiming he has a valid, justifiable reason to long for death. This is now the fifth time Jonah has expressed a longing to die rather than live, though seemingly unwilling to take his own life.

4:10. The scene has been set for a final lesson and, as it should be, the last word belongs to Yahweh. He reminds Jonah first of the compassion (חַסְתָּ, “upset” NET; “feel sorry for” NLT; “pity” ESV, KJV, NKJV; “concerned” NIV) Jonah had shown for the plant when it was destroyed by the worm. Indeed, Jonah had been distraught.

God has not yet shown this compassion to be misguided. That will come. For now, however, God focuses on demonstrating the disproportionate amount of passion Jonah had shown for something for which he had nothing invested (for which you did not work), no ownership (which you did not cause to grow), and which was relatively temporal in its existence (which came into being in a night and perished in a night). Again, there is no rebuke yet here. Jonah had not sinned in caring for the plant. However, it is Jonah’s concern for the fate of the plant that will serve as the basis for comparison and contrast to the lack of concern he showed for the people of Nineveh (9).

4:11. Jonah’s great concern for the plant is now held up as the standard against which God holds up his own concern for the people of Nineveh. The contrast, whether explicit or implicit, is striking, and can be seen in the table below.

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Jonah’s life was spared but he loathed the idea that pagans could be recipients of a similar mercy. Jonah allowed himself to love and care for things that brought him joy, but his actions demonstrated that he did not believe God should have the same privilege. His anger was all-consuming and mentally debilitating while God’s anger is shown to be exact, judicious, and perfect. 

Yahweh points out to Jonah that the Ninevites who do not know between their right and left hand highlighting their inability to fully comprehend the extent of their own wickedness and depravity (10). In a similar way, Israel was often warned by Yahweh to avoid drifting to the right or left, i.e., into disobedience, but, rather, to stay the straight path of fidelity (cf. Deut. 5:32; 17:11, 20; 28:14; Josh. 1:7; 23:6). 

This statement of the pagan ignorance should not be confused with a pardon for their extreme wickedness (cf. 1:2), but, rather, it serves to highlight the helplessness and lostness of the Assyrian sinners and the height of the goodness and holiness of the God they offend. Interestingly, it seems that God’s prophet is just as ignorant to the extent of his evil as the Ninevites were to their own.

The conclusion of the book is, this author concludes, appropriately abrupt. As well as many animals (וּבְהֵמָה רַבָּה). Once again, this could be a reference back to the role nature has played throughout the book of Jonah, most recently the king’s declaration in 3:7 (11). At the very least, the inclusion of the animals demonstrates the wide net of God’s mercy that is available, a net that is large enough to cover cruel and crude foreigners, rebellious Hebrew prophets, and even helpless animals.

As Crouch states so well, “The narrative of Jonah’s story lacks closure, a sense of completion, a sense that nothing necessary has been omitted from the work” (12). That is not to say it is an inappropriate ending, however. In fact, the ending fits the story and, in many ways, mirrors the beginning—abrupt, to the point, and in conversation between God and his prophet with God speak first and finally.

However one sees the biblical ending to the book, readers are left with a number of questions. Did Jonah repent? Did he even attempt to answer God’s final rhetorical blow? Did Nineveh remain under God’s mercy? Jonah had already moved from prodigal to praying to preaching to pouting. What would come next? Would he again run away from God, back to God, with God, or against God? This dramatic halt to the flow of the narrative forces the reader into the story and to, like the prophet, stare at God’s lingering question: Should I not have pity on Nineveh?


Footnotes

  1. Stuart, Hosea–Jonah, 503.

  2. It is also possible that east of it is a reference to Adam and Eve’s post-sin exit from the Garden of Eden: “So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden” (Gen. 3:24). See Estelle, Salvation Through Judgement and Mercy, 127.

  3. Youngblood, Jonah, 165.

  4. The shelter (סֻכָּה) may also point Hebrew hearers/readers to remember the shelters their ancestors built during their wilderness wanderings, commemorated in the Feast of Booths (cf. Lev. 23:39–43; Exod. 23:16; 34:22; Deut. 16:13–15). See Youngblood, Jonah, 165–66.

  5. Kahn, “The Epilogue to Jonah,” 149.

  6. Baker, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 141.

  7. Ibid., 142.

  8. Youngblood, Jonah, 164.

  9. Stuart, Hosea–Jonah, 506–07.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Yael Shemesh, “‘And Many Beasts’ (Jonah 4:11): The Function and Status of Animals in the Book of Jonah,” accessed September 25, 2018. www.jhsonline.org/Articles/article_134.pdf, 26.

  12. Walter B. Crouch, “To Question an End, to End a Question: Opening the Closure of the Book of Jonah,” JSOT 62 (1994): 101.