If I haven’t learned anything else from taking a Bible as Literature class, the one thing I know is the more I read the Bible, the more questions I have. Sometimes I sit down and read several chapters about a character that I did not know was so important in scripture. Other times I find the actual meaning of a certain word as I dive deeper into a topic to find research about it. Many times, however, I will read a story for what seems like the thousandth time that I am quite frankly tempted to skip over because of my familiarity with it and realize the depth of the verses that I never noticed before. I have discovered that the small details that I have always overlooked are packed with more meaning than I could have imagined.
This week, for example, I was assigned to read several books including the book of Jonah that I have read or heard so many times during the course of my life. Through all of Jonah’s narrative, his reluctance and sheer defiance to God’s instruction gets him into some trouble with the protagonist along the way. Although I was convinced that I was well versed in the Jonah narrative, as usual, I was still able to find a plethora of details that I had never questioned prior to this reading of the text. After Jonah was thrown off the ship to Tarshish, spit out of a fish that he survived in for three days, went to Nineveh, told the people a message from God, and made his way to the outskirts of the city, he was subjected to an odd series of events.
In Chapter 4, Jonah, who had just experienced a traumatic sequence of events, was hot and tired and needed to rest. The protagonist miraculously provided a plant large enough to guard him from the sun. Then, while Jonah was sleeping the protagonist sent a worm to destroy the plan which took Jonah’s happiness upon his wakening. My experience with finding details in the text and researching them for a greater significance led me to ask why the protagonist would destroy the plant that caused Jonah so much happiness. With a little research on the question at hand, I was able to find three direct reasons along with a symbolic explanation of why God would send a worm to eat the plant that provided Jonah with shelter and happiness.
First, the three direct reasons that a worm was appointed to devour the plant that sheltered Jonah all stem back to the same theme: God wanted the plant to be gone. The first reason that this happened is so the protagonist could teach Jonah a lesson. Jonah was angry that God had spared the sinful people of Nineveh and wished that it would be destroyed. When the protagonist sent the plant and then destroyed it using a worm, Jonah went from being “exceedingly happy” to saying that “it is better to die than to live” at that point in his live because he was so miserable. The protagonist did not let that statement by Jonah go. He took it as an opportunity to teach Jonah a lesson and change his perspective. An encyclopedia hit the nail on the head as it described the lesson that God taught Jonah through the worm destroying the plant that gave him such delight in an emotional and tiring time in his life. It states,
“Yahweh scolded him for taking pity on a plant that he did not make grow, while feeling no sorrow for thousands of people in Nineveh.”
Jonah’s perspective was completely backwards, according to one scholar. He had a perspective that was totally self-centered. We can see from his strong focus on the plant that shaded him from the sun and caused him much happiness, that his heart was focused on himself, not the thousands of Ninevites who needed redemption from God. The lesson for Jonah was to teach him to be less self-centered and focus more on the common good, especially if it is an advancement for God.
Secondly, the protagonist wanted the worm to eat the plant because it provides an example of a miracle. Although Jonah did not see it at the time, the plant growing and being eaten as quickly as it did is nothing short of a miracle. Previous research indicates that the plant that God appointed to shade and protect Jonah was between eight and ten feet tall. While it is true that these plants grow extremely quickly in comparison to other plants of that height, it is still physically impossible for one to grow in a matter of minutes. Likewise, with a plant that tall and large enough to shade a man from the sun, how could one worm eat it overnight? Whether or not the worm actually ate the entire plant or consumed just enough to somehow kill it so that the wind could sweep it up the next day, the entire incident was miraculous. The purpose of these miracles can seem a little ambiguous because the story ends so abruptly. However, through the rapid growth of the plant to its equally quick destruction, one source states that in the events that were prepared by God with a plant and a worm that were both appointed by God, Jonah was able to become aware of the protagonist’s concern and power for him and his immediate needs as well as for the rest of humanity.
Next, another reason that the worm was appointed to eat the plant is strictly to take the plant away from Jonah. The obliteration of the plant temporarily destroys Jonah’s happiness. When I was researching, the question of why the destruction of the plant took Jonah’s happiness came to mind. Of course, it could be that it creates a good story. As I mentioned before, the event was used by God to teach Jonah a lesson. With both of those answers in mind, the question still stands. One commentary led me to the conclusion that it was as if Jonah idolized the plant. He acquired all of his happiness in the sudden creation of the plant. Once it was taken away, he said he would rather die than be that miserable. All of his happiness was created by a single circumstance that had no greater significance, so God took it away. This event exposes Jonah’s flaw in a new light that is strikingly similar to how the people of Nineveh were behaving. The parallel between the two entities was highlighted when the worm ate the plant and robbed Jonah of his happiness.
Lastly, the final reason that the worm was appointed to eat the plant is symbolic. One website that I found during my research on this topic thoroughly explains how the plant, worm, and Jonah are all a symbolic representation of Jesus’ death and resurrection. According to the article, the plant that was created by God and destroyed by God through the worm represents the Mosaic Law. By this time in history, the Jewish population was comfortable in the religious system that was set up with the standards of the Mosaic Law. Just when Jonah was getting comfortable under the plant, God sent a worm to destroy it. The worm in the story represents Jesus Christ. The Son of God was appointed to nullify the law and make a way for truth, just the worm eliminated the plant and provided a way for the protagonist to teach Jonah a lesson. An interesting piece of information that the article points out is the Hebrew meaning of the word “worm.” The Hebrew word towla means “a crimson grub, a scarlet worm.” As we know, red represents the blood of Christ, but it is also used to color the curtains in the tabernacle and the clothing of the high priest. Overall, the depiction of the plant and the worm can be summed up in the words of the writer of the article,
“As the worm destroyed the gourd, so the work of Jesus Christ destroyed the Mosaic Law from having any authority over us. The work of Jesus Christ is death to all efforts to be saved or be spiritual by the works of the law.”