The Bible in Its Traditions

Jonah 4:10


10 And Yhwh said, —

You have shown pity on the qîqāyôn for which you did not labor and you did not grow,

which came to be overnight and perished overnight.

10 And the Lord said Sto him, —

You treated the gourd leniently though you did not suffer over it

Stook pity on the tendril of the gourd for which you did not labor and you did not raise,

which came to be overnight and perished overnight.

Sthat sprouted in a night and dried up in a night.

10 And the Lord said, —

You grow sorrowful over the ivy for which you did not labor, nor did you do [anything] that it might grow,

that was born in one night and perished in one night.


Christian Tradition

1:1–4:11 Veracity of Jonah as a Miraculous Account

  • Luther Tischr. 3705 “The majesty of the prophet Jonah is surpassing. He has but four chapters, and yet he moved therewith the whole kingdom, so that in his weakness, he was justly a figure and a sign of the Lord Christ. Indeed, it is surprising that Christ should recur to this but in four words. Moses likewise, in few words describes the creation, the history of Abraham, and other great mysteries; but he spends much time in describing the tent, the external sacrifices, the kidneys and so on; the reason is, he saw that the world greatly esteemed outward things, which they beheld with their carnal eyes, but that which was spiritual, they soon forgot. The history of the prophet Jonah is almost incredible, sounding more strange than any poet's fable; if it were not in the Bible, I should take it for a lie; for consider, how for the space of three days he was in the great belly of the whale, whereas in three hours he might have been digested and changed into the nature, flesh and blood of that monster; may not this be said, to live in the midst of death? In comparison of this miracle, the wonderful passage through the Red Sea was nothing. But what appears more strange is, that after he was delivered, he began to be angry, and to expostulate with the gracious God, touching a small matter not worth a straw. It is a great mystery. I am ashamed of my exposition upon this prophet, in that I so weakly touch the main point of this wonderful miracle” (Hazlitt 1857, 239).


Literary Devices

1:6c,14b; 3:9b; 4:10c perish + perished — Isotopy of Death: Structuring Repetition

Sailors and the Ninevites: “We might not perish”

Hope for salvation from death is expressed by:

Jonah: “hurl me into the sea”

Jonah ultimately comes to believe that he can only escape God’s call through death. In the belly of the fish, however, he realizes that such an escape is not possible (cf. Christian Tradition Jon 2:2–6). The sailor’s and Ninevites’ desire for salvation is starkly juxtaposed with Jonah’s repeated wishes for death (māwet), both on the ship amidst the storm and in his booth, beyond the walls of Nineveh, for his desire that the Ninevites would receive their comeuppance brings him great anguish when God spares them destruction (Jon 4:8–9).

The Dead Shrub

  • The shrub which perishes overnight (Jon 4:10) inspires more pity in Jonah than the potential massacre of Nineveh’s population.



3:10–4:11 Use in Lectionary


1–11 Puzzling Plant and Anger In the Qur’an, Allah creates the plant in order to strengthen Jonah, weakened by his stay in the whale. The fish deposits Jonah in a wasteland; God sends the plant to give him food and shade. It is traditionally thought that “Yaqtin” refers to a gourd—called in a hadith “Jonah’s plant.”

  • Qur’an 37.145–146 “But We cast him forth on the naked shore in a state of sickness, and we caused to grow, over him, a spreading plant of the gourd kind.”

In the Qur’an, the episode happens at a different time than in the biblical narrative since it precedes Nineveh’s conversion. The Qur’an therefore does not link the plant’s story with Jonah’s anger after Allah spares Nineveh in spite of his prophecy. However, the Qur’an does mention that Jonah was angry (see Qur’an 21.87). This anomaly disturbed several commentators who had difficulty with understanding how a prophet could be angry with God’s will.

Jewish Tradition

10f God's Lesson

  • Kimchi Comm. "You pitied it only because of your discomfort…nevertheless you had nothing to do with it..and one usually grieves the loss of something he toiled over."
  • Rashi Comm. "You grieved over its loss not because it was your handiwork, but only because you recognized its usefulness to you in providing shade."

But if Jonah grieves over the destruction of something gratuitous, like the God-ordained qîqāyôn, should not God grieve even more over the destruction of his own creation, namely the Ninevites—and, by extension, all of mankind? Cf. Zlotowitz and Scherman 1978, 140–141.

  • ibn Ezra Comm. "The analogy is not exact for God cannot be said to toil over his handiwork. Nevertheless, it is couched in human terms, so that the message would be clearly understood: You took pity on something you did nothing to create, how shall I, by contrast, refrain from taking pity on My handiwork?"
  • Altschuler and Altschuler_Metzudah "The Ninevites are My handiwork; how could I not take pity on such a large city?"

History of Translations

6ad,7b,9b,10b gourd + ivy — High Stakes Translation in the 5th c.  When Jerome published his translation of the Book of Jonah, it caused something of a controversy in the Church.

Accusation of Sacrilege

Jerome’s decision to translate directly from the Hebrew, rather than from the Septuagint—which was traditional and liturgical—was considered sacrilegious by some critics.

  • Jerome Ruf. 1.30 “At that point a certain Canterius…is said to have accused me of sacrilege for translating ‘ivy’ instead of ‘gourd-plant’” (in hoc loco quidam Canteriusdicitur me accusasse sacrilegii quod pro curcurbita hederam transtulerim).

Augustine's Objection and Jerome's Response

Although Augustine did not consider Jerome’s translation sacrilegious, he thought it wrong to use a novel translation in the liturgy.

  • Augustine of Hippo Ep. 71.5 "For, when a certain brother bishop of ours began to have your translation read in the church over which he presides, a particular passage in the prophet Jonah caused disturbance because it was presented in far different language than had become familiar to the senses and memory and had been chanted for so many ages." 
  • Jerome Ep. 112.22: Jerome suggests that Augustine’s description of events is an exaggeration. A more accurate translation better facilitates the communication of divine truth. Thus his translation should be preferred because hedera (“ivy”) better corresponds to the Hebrew qîqāyôn, which is reflected in Aquila’s translation, kissos.

Augustine's Rebuttal

Not content to leave the matter, Augustine responded to Jerome with an articulation of his view on the authority of the Septuagint and the liturgical (public) proclamation of the Scripture.

  • Augustine of Hippo Ep. 85.35 “I did not want your translation from the Hebrew to be read in the churches for fear that, by introducing something new opposed to the authority of the Septuagint, we might disturb the people of God to their great scandal, for their ears and hearts are accustomed to that translation that even the apostles approved. Hence, if in Jonah that plant is in Hebrew neither an ivy nor a gourd plant, but something else that supports itself by its own trunk without any stakes, I would prefer that we read ‘gourd plant’ in all the Latin translations."

In fact, the Western liturgical tradition largely sided with Augustine. The propers and lectionary of Miss. Rom. 1570 are largely drawn from the Vetus Latina, not the Vulgate, indicating perhaps that they pre-date Jerome's translation and had already been liturgically established. 



6ad,7b,9b,10b What Is the Qîqāyôn-Plant? The term qîqāyôn is a hapax legomenon. The identity of this plant has been a mystery since Antiquity, as the diversity of interpretations among ancient translations shows (Historical and Geographical Notes Jon 4:6ad,7b,9b,10b).

Tg. Jon., Aquila, and Theodotion simply transliterate the word (Ziegler 1984 ad loc.). In our translation we have opted to follow their lead by simply denoting it “the qîqāyôn”: this clearly notifies the reader of its genus without proffering a particular species (Literary Devices Jon 4:6ad,7b,9b,10b). 

Literary Devices

6ad,7b,9b,10b qîqāyôn Neologism? It is possible that the author did not intend to designate a specific plant by qîqāyôn (Vocabulary Jon 4:6ad,7b,9b,10b; Historical and Geographical Notes Jon 4:6ad,7b,9b,10b). This opens up several interpretive possibilities.

  • It is an exotic term, employed to reinforce the impression of a foreign, exotic setting. Perhaps it was drawn from a foreign language; the exact meaning of qîqāyôn may even have been unknown to the author.
  • It is a nonce-word—a word invented just for a single occasion. It is possible that it plays on the verb qy’ (“to vomit”), especially since it is used earlier when the fish vomits Jonah onto the shore (Jon 2:10). 


Christian Tradition

10b pity on the qîqāyôn God's Lesson for Jonah

  • Calvin Prael. proph. min. "Here God explains the design he had in suddenly raising up the gourd, and then in causing it to perish or wither through the gnawing of a worm; it was to teach Jonah that misconduct towards the Ninevites was very inhuman. Though we find that the holy Prophet had become a prey to dreadful feelings, yet God, by this exhibition, does in a manner remind him of his folly; for, under the representation of a gourd, he shows how unkindly he desired the destruction of so populous a city as Nineveh."


6ad,7b,9b,10b qîqāyôn The Plant in Film

  • In Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, not only is the plant and its destruction featured at the end, Jonah's companion throughout is the worm which will consume it (Cinema Jon 1:1–4:11).


Literary Devices

1:1–4:11 Significance of the Names for God? Throughout Jonah readers find several names for God: YHWH (22x); ’Ēl/’Ĕlôhîm (13x); and YHWH ’Ĕlôhîm (4x).

  • Magonet (1983) suggests that the generic name is used in the context of punishment, whereas the Tetragrammaton is used in the context of mercy and forgiveness.
  • Sasson (1990, 17–18) charts their usage and concludes that the only sensible solution is to admit to no discernable pattern.



1–11 Use in Lectionary

  • RML: Wednesday, Week 27, Year I.


Historical and Geographical Notes

6ad,7b,9b,10b qîqāyôn BOTANICS Unknown Plant Based on the flora of the region, one can hazard some guesses as to the plant’s identity (cf. Comparison of Versions Jon 4:6ad,7b,9b,10b).

  • It may be some type of climbing gourd (e.g., bryonia cretica). This is supported by G, Vetus Itala, and S (cf. Wolff 1986, 170–171).

  • It may be a climbing ivy, as in V and Symmachus (Ziegler 1984, ad loc.; cf. History of Translations Jon 4:6ad,7b,9b,10b).

  • Finally, it could be the castor-oil plant—ricinus communis—which grows rapidly, has broad leaves, and provides excellent shade (first identified as such by R. Samuel ben Hofni; see also Kimchi Comm.). On the other hand, the plant is rather small.


Comparison of Versions

6ad,7b,9b,10b qîqāyôn The Identity of the Plant in the Versions While the precise identity of the plant in M remains unknown (Historical and Geographical Notes Jon 4:6ad,7b,9b,10b), the versions all identify it as some type of vine plant.

  • G: kolokuntha (“gourd-vine”);
  • Vetus Latina: cucurbita (“gourd-vine”);
  • V: hedera (“ivy”);
  • S: bašrurā dᵉqar’ā (“tendril of a gourd-vine”).

Jerome Ep. 112.22 cites his Jewish teachers when he asserts that the plant is a type of ivy and not a fruit-bearing gourd-plant (History of Translations Jon 4:6ad,7b,9b,10b). S offers a periphrastic translation that identifies more specifically the part of the plant affected. It is possible that the translator was thinking of a kind of melon-plant that was particularly vunerable to sun damage (cf. CAD 17.2, s.v. šarūru).

Jewish Tradition

6–11 The Lesson of the Qîqāyôn-Plant In this final episode of the book, Jonah sits outside the city in a sūkkâ, waiting to see what happens. Will God finally smite the Ninevites? God uses this opportunity to teach a lesson about his mercy.

The rabbis first draw a contrast between Jonah’s own man-made hut and the qîqāyôn that grows at God’s command (Zlotowitz and Scherman 1978, 139).

  • Altschuler and Altschuler Metzudah note that the qîqāyôn is sturdier than the hut, being nourished by the sun and the earth—whereas the hut withers in the heat of the sun.

  • Malbim Gé’ ḥizzāyôn remarks that the qîqāyôn provides much greater shade than Jonah’s hut, which only provided a modicum of shade. Malbim notes further that while Jonah may have first rejoiced in the plant—thinking it a sign that God approved of his interpretation of the prophecy and would destroy Nineveh—the next day God sends a worm to kill the qîqāyôn.

Christian Tradition

6ad,7b,9b,10b ivy (V) The Ivy as Israel

  • Gloss. ord. "Gourd (cucurbita) or ivy (hedera) is a kind of brushwood or shrub that has broad leaves and supports a very dense canopy, which creeps along the ground, and without props to lean on it does not seek higher parts. But God prepared this so that it might provide for the prophet a bower suddenly rising into the sky without any supports—in which God’s power was shown. Israel is compared to this ivy or gourd. Israel once protected Jonah under its own shade—that is, Christ—awaiting the conversion of the nations. The vine provided no small joy, making for him a bower, which has the appearance of a house but is not one, because it does not have foundations."


6ad,7b,9b,10b qîqāyôn The Plant in Children's Stories The plant of Jon 4:6–7 is frequently omitted in retellings for children, for the focus is almost exclusively on the whale (→Introduction §3.14). It does occasionally appear:

  • Marzollo 2004: While sitting in the shade, Jonah comically summarizes his motivations by saying, “Thank you, God. The vine makes waiting for the destruction of Nineveh much easier!”

Suggestions for Reading

9ff Divine Lesson in Mercy God repeats the question posed in v. 4, thereby forming a narrative frame that encapsulates the object lesson of the plant and worm. Whereas Jonah previously remained silent, here he answers, repeating his desire for death. As the book concludes with a final poignant question regarding the welfare of 120,000 ignorant persons as well as many animals, the narrative is left unresolved; there is no tying up of loose ends, no response from Jonah, and no indication of how the prophet’s story ended. Why would the author leave the audience with such an unsatisfying ending? Perhaps it is because the purpose of the book is not so much to tell the story of an 8th c. prophet as it is to examine a theological topic: God’s mercy. On the one hand, the interrelationship of knowledge and culpability underlies God’s final question. God’s mercy toward the Ninevites has to do with their lack of knowledge; compared to Jonah (and, by extension, Israel), who has the privilege of divine revelation, they might as well be ignorant of right and left. Moreover, the narrative implies that Jonah has never considered their position. It is therefore possible that Jonah receives new knowledge about God’s mercy, namely that God has special care for those who are ignorant of him.

This message, however, seems to contradict that of many other biblical prophets, such as Amos and Jeremiah. For them, ignorance is a sign of idolatrous pride, not a reason for mercy. As usual with the Bible, paradoxical contradictions are to be held together. God is compassionate towards the ignorant yet will bring judgment to the idolatrous. Is it possible, then, that the author of Jonah seeks to direct the book’s final question to his contemporary audience—Jewish(?) readers who might have a one-sided understanding of the extent and meaning of God’s mercy? In order to be thoughtfully provocative in this manner, the author places the reader in a position of knowledge that is greater than that of Jonah, since this enables the reader to make judgments about Jonah’s attitudes and behaviors.

Structure of Qal Waḥomer Argument

The placement and structure of God’s repeated question (Jon 4:4,9) aids the reader in deciphering the elements of God’s rhetorical argument. 

  • The plant corresponds to the city, Jonah to God, and the destruction wrought by the worm and scorching wind to the potential destruction of Nineveh.
  • If Jonah, who had nothing to do with the creation of the qîqāyôn-plant, was so distressed about its destruction, how much more would God, who did in fact create Nineveh as well as every person and animal within it, be distressed about its destruction?

Within the argument, it is important to note the subtle insinuation that Nineveh is like the plant, not only because it is created by God but also because it is ignorant or not guilty, a quality that is explicitly mentioned in God’s final question to Jonah.

Contrast with Usual Happy Endings

Other short narrative portions of the Bible (e.g., Tobit, Judith, Esther, Job’s frame narrative, and Daniel) typically end with accounts of the protagonists living to old age, having families, and being blessed by God. 

  • For example, the conclusion to Judith relates that no one attacked Israel again during her lifetime, or for long after her death (Jdt 16:30 [G-16:25]). 

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Book of Jonah is that it does not conclude with any information about the rest of the prophet’s life, the later fate of Nineveh, or any kind of concluding note such as “Jonah agreed with God.” Though purposeful, such an ending can seem unsatisfying to a reader, and this is likely why in the course of reception history, one encounters various attempts to complete the story.


Textual Criticism

10c overnight Orthographic Variant or Scribal Mistake in 4Q82?

  • 4Q82 f88-91i:10 (4QXIIg) reads lyly (masc. pl. cstr.?; →DJD XV, 312).
  • M and Mur88 11:27 (MurXII) read lylh (masc. sg. abs.; →DJD II, 191).

Literary Devices

10f Qal Waḥomer (a fortiori Argument) God’s response to Jonah employs an a fortiori or qal waḥomer (“light and heavy”) argument. This is the technique of making a small point and using it to illustrate a larger one. That is, the city is greater than the plant, and so anything that applies to the plant will apply a fortiori to the city. Moses argues with God in this way (Ex 6) when he protests that if his own people will not listen to him, then surely Pharaoh would not either.