Jonah 4:6-11: The meaning of קיקיון

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:6-11, NRSV)

Why does the LORD appoint a bush only to have it wither the next day? One day God provides shade and Jonah is pleased, the next it is gone and Jonah wants to die. Jonah’s reaction is revealing, but is the Spirit communicating something deeper by using a bush or vine (קיקיון)? What is the significance of the vine?

Historical Context

The image of a tree or plant contained three important themes for the people of Israel. First, God was the gardener. No nation or people planted themselves. The LORD plants the nations. As the gardener, God has the wisdom and right to do with it according to his will.

Second, the tree often represented the nations. Particularly in Daniel 4:4-17 and Ezekiel 31:1-14, the tree-image represents the other nations who had been planted by God. It was not simply Israel that was watched over and made to grow by God’s hand, but all the nations.

Lastly, however, the image of the vine (קיקיון) is usually connected with the people of Israel. In Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80, the people of Israel are described as a vine in a vineyard that has gone astray. It has produced poor fruit and faces consequences, but the people continue to pray that the Lord will restore them.

Thus the use of the plant, its withering, and Jonah’s singular concern for the plant would have brought to mind passages in which Israel was the vine. The metaphor would have been readily apparent for the first readers. Additionally, God’s larger concern as a compassionate gardener would have reminded them of God’s care for Assyria and Babylon as expressed in the prophets. This horticultural reference had deep roots in the metaphorical language of the Old Testament.

Canonical Context

This story of God allowing a plant to wither for the salvation of the nations is echoed in Paul’s language of Romans 9-11. There, Paul expresses similar anguish as Jonah over the current fate of the people of Israel. His heart aches for their lack of faith and for those who will be cut off. However, Paul sees hope for the future of Israel by employing another horticultural metaphor in chapter 11 – an olive tree. The branches of Israel are cut off for a time so that the wild shoots of the Gentiles might be grafted in. “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25). Once this has happen, God will restore all true Israel. The withering of Israel in the time of Jonah was for the sake of the salvation of Nineveh. Once Nineveh repented, God would restore the vine (Israel). God’s punishment and hardening of Israel serves for the salvation of the Gentiles.

There are other parallels with the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. If, as we saw above, God has planted the tree of every nation, then there is a sense in which Israel and all other nations are still God’s children. This is part of the force of the Lukan parable in its own context of Jews and Gentiles as children of God. Thus, Nineveh serves as the prodigal child whom God desires to return. The obedient brother (Israel) resents the Father’s graciousness and feels unrewarded for all his faithfulness. It is similar with Jonah and Nineveh. Jonah resents God’s graciousness and actively blames this attribute of God for his initial flight from God’s call. God’s graciousness to the disobedient, debaucherous Ninevites creates anger in Jonah, whose desire is only for the vine (Israel) and never for the thousands of Ninevites.

Usage in Jonah

There are five explicit references to קיקיון in Jonah chapter four (4:6, 4:6, 4:7, 4:9, 4:10). In each, the plant is the object. It receives action, but never initiates. Even in the process of coming up over Jonah, it is being acted upon by ‘God’s appointing.’ The plant’s primary role in the story is one of obedience and gratitude.

First, the plant obeys every command given to it by God – immediately. Unlike Jonah (and by extension, Israel), the plant does not resist God’s will but gracious obeys it. There is a certain irony in the book of Jonah that everything else hears and obeys the word of God, but Jonah. Secondly, the plant is a gift of God. The plant does not deserve its place. Jonah was not granted shade because of his virtue, but because of God’s mercy. The plant grew by the grace of God. It did not work hard enough to make itself valuable enough to cover Jonah – it simply hears and obeys.

This demonstrates God’s gracious choosing of the plant (and by extension, Israel). However, there is another side to the plant’s life. God sends a worm to cut off its source of life and make it wither. God chose to shrink it. We are not given explicit reasons for this (though an object-lesson for Jonah is implied). There is no indication that the plant was in any way wrong or bad. It was not worse than the other plants, but it was part of the larger plan of God that this plant would wither. In a similar way, God has acted in choosing Israel. Israel did not deserve to be chosen and was not any better than any other nation, but God graciously chose to care for it and make it flourish. If God then causes it to wither for his greater purpose of the salvation of other nations (though in Israel’s case there is disobedience and therefore less excuse), what grounds does Israel have for blaming God?

Thematic Parallels

This parallel between God’s care for Israel and the nations is drawn more sharply in verses 10 and 11 of chapter 4. God chastises Jonah for caring for a plant he did not plant and did not make grow – but one whose shade he enjoyed for a day. By implication, God is chastising Jonah for caring exclusively for the people of Israel, who did not make themselves and did not cause themselves to flourish – a people who have enjoyed the shade and protection of the Lord. By pointing out Jonah’s concern for the plant, God demonstrates Jonah’s lack of concern for Nineveh and his apparent anger at God for caring about Israel’s enemy.

However, God’s concerns are larger. In verse 11, he states that his concern for the entire people of Nineveh. God does not say that he does not care for the plant (Israel), but that his care extends beyond them to all the people of the earth, even Israel’s enemies. God numbers the people and animals in the city, showing all that there is to care for. There is a comparison being drawn between the small size of the plant and the large city of Nineveh. If God cares for even the little plant, why should he not care for all the people of Nineveh who wander lost? The book ends with this question being posed to Jonah and we are left with the same question: Should not God care for the millions of lost and broken people of every nation, even our enemies?

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