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Jonah and the Whale

Jonah and the Whale by Peter Peters Lastman, 1621

by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson November 21-27: Jonah; Micah

The story of Jonah and the whale is probably one of the best known of the Bible stories. The book of Jonah in the Old Testament consists of only four very short chapters and takes only about ten minutes to read. In my opinion, those are four very strange chapters. First we are told that,

“Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”1

Over the years, I’ve engaged in many conversations with both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other Christians concerning the nature of prophets. During those conversations, I have expressed my opinion that a prophet is only a prophet when acting as the Lord’s mouthpiece. At all other times, he is a man with his own paradigms and opinions. Many people apparently hold very strong paradigms of their own concerning the infallibility of prophets, even when asking his wife to “please pass the peas.” Under such circumstances, I find it very useful to consider the case of Jonah. I usually ask if they believed that Jonah was a prophet. They typically say yes. I then asked if, being a prophet all the time, Jonah believed he could run away and hide from the Lord. I also ask if Jonah, being a prophet, would make a bower on the hillside to watch the destruction of Nineveh, and was mad at the Lord for not destroying the city. When is a prophet a prophet, and how much, or little does he know?

So, on with the story of Jonah.

“But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep. So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not. And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.”2

In the past, it was a common belief that inclement weather conditions were some god’s doing by way of punishment, in spite of the scripture that God, “…maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”3 It appears that everyone on board the ship was supposed to pray to their various gods for salvation from the wind. Then the mariners rolled dice to see who on board the ship was attracting some god’s displeasure, and they discovered that Jonah was to blame.

The Jonah plot thickens,

“Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou? And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land. Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.”

“Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous. And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you. Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them. Wherefore they cried unto the Lord, and said, We beseech thee, O Lord, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee. So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows.”4

Ever since this story first appeared in print, mariners have used the term “Jonah” for anyone on board a ship that seemed to have constant, otherwise unexplained difficulties. This part of Jonah’s story is decidedly weird. The question arises, who wrote this story? Apparently Jonah is the only person who knew the whole story, but the story is written in second person as if it were a fable. If I were an ancient newspaper reporter, trying to get to the bottom of the story, who might I interview. Jonah, of course would be one candidate. Some of the mariners might also be found, but how does a reporter sort out what actually occurred and what they believed occurred?

Then we read that, “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”5 A “great fish,” not a whale? So much for all the illustrated Bible story books. The Hebrew here is dag gadol (דג גדול), which means “great fish” of unspecified type.6 The concept that this “great fish” was a “whale” didn’t appear until Jerome’s Vulgate Bible (382-405 AD)7 and then only in Matthew 12:40, “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The great fish has never been called a whale in the book of Jonah. The differences are subtle in the Greek Septuagint Old Testament kētei megalōi (a big fish or even a sea monster) and the Greek New Testament kétos (huge fish). Jerome, who would have classified a whale as a fish, left kētei megalōi as great fish in the Old Testament and changed kétos to whale in the New Testament. For Jerome and others, including the translators of the King James Bible (1611), the distinction between a great fish and a whale probably wasn’t what it is today, with our modern classification system. Two early seventeenth century Dutch paintings, one “Jonah Leaving the Whale,” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, and the other, “Jonah and the Whale,” by Pieter Lastman, both depict Jonah emerging from the mouth of a great big grouper-like fish. However, see the further discussion below about whales.

The story continues,

“Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly, And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.”

“And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”8

There are three problems with being swallowed by a great fish: 1. the teeth, 2. the stomach acid, 3. the lack of oxygen. According to Matthew 12:40, Jonah’s three days in the belly of a great fish was a prophecy of Christ’s time in the tomb before his resurrection. None-the-less, the details are pretty scanty. Was this entire experience a metaphor? Jonah said that, “…out of the belly of hell cried I…” What would a reporter standing on the seashore where Jonah was vomited out by the fish see? Was Jonah slimy? Was he even conscious? Did he have a caul? Folklore, especially that of mariners, says that possession of a baby’s caul could protect the possessor from drowning. A caul consists of the membranes enclosing the fetus before birth. The presence of a caul is what was thought to protect the fetus from drowning in the amniotic fluid.9

Of course our modern classification system was not used during biblical times, and whales and sharks can’t be excluded from the classification of great fish. Today, many people discussing Jonah, or anyone else for that matter, being swallowed whole by some “fish,” the focus is mostly on sperm whales. Great white sharks also have been candidates, but they apparently don’t swallow prey whole. According to the Encyclopedia of Life, “The gullet of Physeter catodon [or macrocephalus, sperm whale] is the largest among cetaceans; it is in fact the only gullet large enough to swallow a human.10

The stomach contents of thousands of sperm whales have been examined and it turns out that they eat mostly squid and other cephalopods (about 90% of their diet; one whale had 1800 squid beaks in its stomach), but they also eat fish, sharks and rays. They eat other sea invertebrates such as shrimp, crabs, lobsters, krill, tunicates, sponges, jellyfish, and star fish. Occasionally they eat sea birds and seals. Whale stomachs have also been found to contain chunks of drift wood, coconuts, rocks, car parts, a tin plate, plastic bags, the remains of a plastic bucket, and a 43-foot-long section of a shrimp net. And in one whale there was, “…one quite well-documented human corpse.”11

There are several examples of sperm whales swallowing people and then spitting them back out. In an article about Jonah for Salon News, Ben Shattuck stated, “Everyone knows the story of Jonah. But my quest was to find evidence that man, gulped whole, had really survived.” He continued:

“In my initial foray into books about the dangers of the Yankee Whale Fishery, I found a pretty standard account of whalemen entering a whale’s mouth and then quickly being spit out. The whalemen either fell in the mouth from their perches in the whaleboats, or the whale, after smashing the boat with its flukes and snapping randomly at the debris floating in the water, chomped down on an unlucky swimmer. In 1771, for instance, a female sperm whale dragged Marshal Jenkins underwater when he fell from his boat, but she quickly resurfaced to spit him out. Job Sherman fell into a sperm whale’s mouth in 1860, Peleg Nye in 1863, Albert Wood in 1847. A November 1880 issue of New Bedford’s Shipping News tells of Wood, at the bow of a whaleboat floating over an angry whale, losing his balance and tumbling headfirst into the mouth. He landed straddling the lower jaw. The whale clamped down, dragged him underwater while smashing the boat with his fluke — immediately killing the boat steerer — then freed Wood, who bled heavily from his groin into the frothy water.”12

So, it appears that sperm whales can swallow humans and that humans can survive such an encounter as long as the whale spits them back out fairly quickly. But then there is the wild tale of James Bartley. If you just Google his name, you can find numerous versions of his story, which seem to keep resurfacing from time to time. The story was widely circulated in the early twentieth century. A sailor and whaler named James Bartley was allegedly swallowed by a sperm whale in 1891. Bartley and his fellow whalers were hunting whales off the Falkland Islands in their ship the Star of the East. Some of the crew, including Bartley, were in a whaleboat, an open rowing boat, when they were attacked by a sperm whale and Bartley landed in the whale’s mouth. The whale was eventually killed by the crew, brought alongside the Star, and the whalers started cutting it up. During the process, Bartley was discovered inside the whale’s stomach and extricated. The length of time he was in the stomach seems to vary from tale to tale, some claiming he was there for 36 hours. Most accounts state that his skin was bleached white by the whale’s stomach acids and some claim that he also lost his hair. Most accounts claim that he was blind, some say temporarily, some claim permanently. Some claim that the epitaph on his headstone, about 1909, reads, “James Bartley – a modern day Jonah.” One account claims the famous headstone is at his burial site in Gloucester. I searched “Find a Grave,” and found only a James Bartley buried 28 April 1909 in the Cedar Grove Cemetery in Flushing, New York, but, alas, there is no photograph of the headstone and no mention of Jonah.13

Whereas many critics, myself included, wonder how Bartley could have survived for any length of time in a whale’s stomach, one primary criticism of the story centered around the Star of the East, rather than around Bartley himself. One of the most extensive and well-researched accounts of the Bartley story was written in 1991 by Edward Davis, then Associate Professor of Science and History at Messiah College, Grantham, PA.14 Davis concluded that the entire story was probably made up, perhaps by Bartley himself, was published early on in a local paper, and then was picked up, embellished, and widely disseminated, including a 1896 New York Times piece, “‘Whale; man swallowed by ...,’” by numerous other papers and magazines with little or no fact-checking.

Davis’ entire article is well worth reading and I cannot cover all of his extensive research in this essey, so I highly recommend anyone who wants to ponder the story of Jonah to read it in its entirety.15 However, in my own research, I have uncovered one piece of information that Davis missed – simply because the source I used was not available when Davis wrote his paper in 1991. Davis made,

“…inquiry to the Maritime History Archive at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland, where the Lloyd's Register is now kept. Their records show three vessels under British registry bearing the name Star of the East that could have been in service in 1891: a 734 ton barque (mentioned above), and two other boats, each less than 20 tons, that could not possibly have been whalers. No log book for the barque was found, but the crew agreement showed that in February 1891 she was on route from London to Wellington via New York, a finding that impressed me since it was not inconsistent with the claim that she was off the Falkland Islands. However, I was advised by an archivist that, ‘whaling in the Falkland Islands did not commence until 1909, and I have not been able to locate a whaling vessel named Star of the East.’ A subsequent inquiry, as we shall see, proved even more enlightening.”

“…[a man named Williams reported] the results of inquiries he had made at Lloyds. He included transcriptions of two letters, one from Lloyds and one from Mrs. John Killam, wife of the captain of the Star of the East. The letter from Lloyds simply provided a few particulars about the vessel named in the Bartley story, including the fact that she left Auckland on 27 December 1890, bound for New York, where she arrived on 17 April 1891--which could indeed have placed her off the Falkland Islands in February. In her letter, however, Mrs. Kellam stated flatly that ‘[t]here is not one word of truth in the whale story. I was with my husband all the years he was in the Star of the East. There was never a man lost overboard while my husband was in her. The sailor has told a great sea yarn.’”

“This was a very interesting revelation, to say the least. I wrote again to the Maritime Archives, asking for copies of any documents they might have, and received the crew agreement from the Star of the East for the voyage described above. She had been a barque of 733 net tonnage, owned by Sir Roderick Cameron of London and registered in that port. She left New York on 25 June 1890 bound for Wellington with a crew of thirteen officers and men under the command of captain John Killam of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia...The agreement lists every member of the crew…and there is no James Bartley on the list, nor anyone of similar name, either for the entire voyage or any part thereof!14

It is my opinion that Davis has done a masterful job researching the Bartley story, and I largely agree with his conclusions. However, my own, very superficial research does introduce one question concerning his conclusions about the Star of the East. I simply did a Google image search for the Star of the East and came up with one engraving, three paintings, and one photograph of two very different ships, each named Star of the East. The engraving is entitled “Clipper Ship ‘Star of the East,’” created in 1853 by N.B. St John, and the original is in the National Library of Australia. It is listed as the Star of the East, belonging to the Golden Line of Australia. One painting, which appears to be of the same ship is entitled, “The Clipper 'Star of the East' in Australia.” The photograph, entitled Star of the East, is of a ship anchored with sails furled, apparently in Australia, with an essentially identical hull to that shown in the engraving and painting.

The remaining three paintings are of what appears to be an entirely different ship. The gunnels are much higher above the water than shown for the other ship, and there is a white stripe painted along the side of the hull sporting gun ports, typical of what is seen in a nineteenth century frigate. One painting is of “the Packet Ship Star of the East,” about 1855 by George Stanfield Walters, or perhaps an associate named James Harris. The text accompanying that painting states,

“The Star of the East was built in St. John, New Brunswick by W. & R. Wright. It measured 202 feet long and 1,219 tons. It traded between England, Australia, India and China. It took only 76 days to make its first trip from Liverpool to Melbourne. Star of the East was later bought by James Beazley for transporting British emigrants to Australia. It wrecked at Storing Bay, Africa in 1861. The painting is a starboard view of Star of the East as it is headed inward from the Mersey River to Liverpool harbor. Several other ships are visible in the distance. In the background the north docks are visible with the Muspratt chimney and Victoria tower. Two pillars in the background are Bootle landmarks, used for navigation.”16

Another painting of what appears to be a very similar if not the same ship, is attributed to the artist W.M. Ritson in 1864. This painting is also labeled the Star of the East (1853) 1219 tons, a wooden barque, 164’ long, 30’ beam, 680 tons, broken up in 1905.17 I don’t know why two different tonnages are listed for this ship.

The point here is that there may have been several Stars of the East in the nineteenth century. The term “packet ship” refers to a ship carrying “packets” of mail and does not refer to any particular ship design. The term “barque” refers to the sail configuration of a ship, being three masts, “in which the foremast and mainmast are square-rigged and the mizzenmast is rigged fore-and-aft.”18 This term, again, does not refer to any specific hull design. A “frigate” was a military vessel, with high gunnels and gun ports; lighter, faster, and with fewer guns than a ship of the line. A “clipper” was a very fast sailing ship, with a fast, low hull, not particularly useful for hauling dead whales alongside.

Interestingly, the 1852 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, of Currier and Ives fame, entitled, “The Sperm Whale in a Furry,” shows a ship in the background with the hull of a frigate and barque rigging, almost identical to the Walters and Ritson paintings of the Star of the East. Obviously this type of ship was well suited for whaling. These findings may negate the argument that James Bartley was not on the Star of the East. Therefore, it is still possible that the story of James Bartley may have some basis in truth, albeit highly embellished.

There are two possible explanations for Bartley, or Jonah, for that matter, surviving for 36 hours in the belly of the whale. First, it is likely that when a whale breaks the surface of the ocean to swallow a mariner, she (most likely a female, being much larger than males) also swallows large quantities of air. Human babies, for example, often swallow air while nursing, making it necessary to rub or pat their backs causing them to burp up the swallowed gas.19 The amount of air swallowed by a whale may be small compared to its size but might be significant to a person inside the first stomach. Such air would likely not be found during necropsy of a dead whale. But in a living animal, air bubbles could theoretically allow a person to survive for some time. The second, more likely explanation (although the two are not mutually exclusive) is that the time spent in the belly of the whale was exaggerated.

“The [mortally wounded] whale struck it [the small whaleboat] with his nose and upset it. The men were thrown into the water, and before the crew of the other boat could pick them up one man drowned and James Bartley had disappeared. When the whale became quiet from exhaustion the waters were searched for Bartley, but [he] could not be found; and under the impression that he had been struck by the whale's tail and sunk to the bottom, the survivors rowed back to the ship. The whale was dead, and in a few hours the great body was lying by the ship's side, and the men were busy with axes and spades cutting through the flesh to secure the fat. They worked all day and part of the night. They resumed operations the next forenoon, and were soon down to the stomach, which was to be hoisted to the deck.”14

If the whalers killed the whale in the morning, then, “…worked all day and part of the night. They resumed operations the next forenoon, and were soon down to the stomach…” Bartley may have been in the stomach for 24 hours, not 36. Still, that’s a long time to be in a whale’s stomach.

Now, back to Jonah. We read in the book of Jonah that he prayed all through chapter 2, while in the belly of the whale. One part of James Bartley’s story that lends some credence to its veracity is that, “…he must have fainted, for the next he remembered was being in the captain's cabin.”14 It does not seem feasible that someone, anyone trapped in a whale’s stomach could spend nine verses giving a very ritualized prayer. I can see someone saying “Lord please help me out of this mess I’ve gotten myself into,” just before losing consciousness, but praying on and on, still quite conscious, doesn’t seem likely.

“And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”20 If Jonah was by himself in the stomach of the whale and no one was standing in the beach to greet him, how did he know how long he had been in the whale’s stomach? We are told that, “…Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”21 Three days and three nights is not just 36 hours. If Jonah were swallowed in the late afternoon of the first day he would have to be vomited up onto the land before dawn of the fourth day to give three days and three nights – say five pm on Friday to 5 am on Monday morning: that’s a total of 60 hours, not 36 hours. That term “and nights” makes a huge difference in the time-frame of this story. If Jonah was unconscious most if not all of that time, who kept track of the passage of days? How did Jonah know he had indeed been in the whale “three days and three nights?”

We are told in Matthew 12,

“Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.”22

The problem here is that Christ was not in the earth for three days and three nights. He arose early in the morning of the third day, not the fourth day, as would be the case if he had been in the tomb three nights. Matthew’s gospel is very particular about pointing out how Christ’s ministry fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and the story of Jonah would have been well known to the scholars of his time. In the verses above, Christ was addressing the scholars, the scribes and Pharisees. If Christ said to them, “…there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas…” they would have known exactly what he was saying. His apostles and other disciples, on the other hand, were common people and may not have been as familiar with the story as we are today. We read in the gospel of Luke, for example,

“Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:”23

Furthermore, we read in John’s account, “For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.”24 Remember, to these disciples, what we now call the Old Testament was the only scripture they knew.

The only other Old Testament scripture that prophesies of Christ’s resurrection after three days is found in Hosea.

“Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up. After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight. Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth.”25

The only recorded reference to Hosea was indirectly through Christ’s reference to the temple,

“Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body. When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.”26

It is clear here that John recorded Christ’s interaction with the Jews (vs 18-20), and then, added the explanation (vs 21-22). This may also have been the case in Matthew’s account. Christ may have said only to the scribes and Pharisees, “…there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.” Then, in writing the account, Matthew may have added the explanatory phrase, for his less learned readers, “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”27 Matthew was writing what was recorded in the book of Jonah, not what actually happened at Christ’s resurrection. It may have been that Christ knew full well that Jonah was not in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, but that was the only “sign” given in the Old Testament to which He could refer, flawed as it was. The prophecy in Hosea certainly was not a “sign.”

So, in conclusion, it is not clear how the term “three days and three nights” was included in the account of Jonah. The time he was in the whale’s belly would have been insignificant if not for Christ’s reference to it as a sign of his resurrection. The three day part, therefore appears to be important in the story. The three nights might be hyperbole. Given Christ’s reference to Jonah, it appears that the story is real and not just allegorical – although the prayer in the whale’s belly might be. Therefore, unlikely as it appears, Jonah may have survived 32 hours or so inside a whale before being vomited up onto dry land. Then he went stumbling into Nineveh, bleached white by whale stomach acid, nearly hairless, and partially blind – no wonder the people of the city listened to his message.

Aside from Christ’s using this incident as a portent of his resurrection, Jonah’s story can be used to discuss the nature of prophets. If Jonah were a true prophet, shouldn’t he have known that he couldn’t run away from God? Apparently not. This story tells us that our standard paradigm that prophets are all-knowing is incorrect. A prophet is a prophet when he is speaking what God has told him to speak, and probably not when he says, “Please pass the peas.” He still remains both a person and a prophet after dinner.

The rest of Jonah’s story is also decidedly odd. Chapter 3 of Jonah tells us that after Jonah was cast up onto dry land, he, indeed went to Nineveh and prophesied that, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”28 As God intended, the citizens of Nineveh believed Jonah and repented of their sins. We read in the King James version of the Bible that, “…God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.”29 This seems like a very odd scripture: God repented? No he did not. That verse was mis-translated. The Joseph Smith Translation states, “…God saw that their works that they turned from their evil way and repented; and God turned away the evil that he had said he would bring upon them.”30 That translation makes far more sense.

In the final chapter we learn that God’s prophet, Jonah, was exceedingly displeased and very angry with God. Does this fit most people’s paradigm of a prophet?31 “So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.”32 Apparently, Jonah was still convinced that Nineveh was going to be destroyed and wanted a shady, ring-side seat to watch. Now the weirdness of Jonah becomes even weirder:

“And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.”33

And this gourd grew up in one night.34 That is one very fast growing plant. The Hebrew word translated here as “gourd” is kikayon35 and this is the only place in the Bible where this word appears. According to Smith's Bible Dictionary,

“The plant which is intended by this word, and which afforded shade to the prophet Jonah before Nineveh, is the Ricinus commnunis , or castor-oil plant, which, a native of Asia, is now naturalized in America, Africa and the south of Europe. This plant varies considerably in size, being in India a tree, but in England seldom attaining a greater height than three or four feet. The leaves are large and palmate, with serrated lobes, and would form an excellent shelter for the sun-stroken prophet. The seeds contain the oil so well known under the name of ‘castor oil,’ which has for ages been in high repute as a medicine. It is now thought by many that the plant meant is a vine of the cucumber family, a gemline gourd, which is much used for shade in the East.”36

In writing the Vulgate Bible, Jerome and Augustine discussed what word to use in this context. In 404 AD, Jerome wrote to Augustine explaining why he chose the word ivy here:

“I have already given a sufficient answer to this in my commentary on Jonah. At present, I deem it enough to say that in that passage, where the Septuagint has gourd, and Aquila and the others have rendered the word ivy (κίσσος), the Hebrew manuscript has ciceion [kikayon], which is in the Syriac tongue, as now spoken, ciceia. It is a kind of shrub having large leaves like a vine, and when planted it quickly springs up to the size of a small tree, standing upright by its own stem, without requiring any support of canes or poles, as both gourds and ivy do. If, therefore, in translating word for word, I had put the word ciceia [kikayon], no one would know what it meant; if I had used the word gourd, I would have said what is not found in the Hebrew. I therefore put down ivy, that I might not differ from all other translators.37

I greatly admire both Jerome and Augustine for their amazing scholarship, even though they were often wrong in their conclusions. This letter quoted above gives just a glimpse into how carefully they made their translation considerations. They were, however, both men of their age, an era when little science or modern revelation was available to aid them.

There are several businesses around Pocatello, Idaho, where one can see Ricinus commnunis, castor bean plants, growing. It does seem that you drive by one day and there is nothing in the planting area; then the next time you drive by, it seems like the next day, there are full-grown caster bean plants.

Then we read in Jonah that,

“But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.”38

With the “gourd” withered, Jonah fainted from the sun and a “vehement east wind.” God asked Jonah if it was good to be angry at the gourd and Jonah answered you bet it’s good for me to be angry.39 Then the Lord said that Jonah “had pity on the gourd,” or ivy, or caster bean plant, which can grow up in one night and die off in another night, but didn’t want God to spare Nineveh, where 120,000 innocent people lived, along with their cattle.40 Verses 6-8 of chapter 4 are very strange indeed, unless this whole section is considered to be allegorical. Maybe verse 6 could begin, “And the Lord God said to Jonah what if I prepared a gourd…” The whole point of Jonah 4:6-11 is that the people of Nineveh were more important than all the gourds, or ivy, or caster bean plants on earth.


1. Jonah 1:1-3

2. Jonah 1:4-7

3. Matthew 5:45

4. Jonah 1:8-16

5. Jonah 1:17

6. Blue Letter Bible,

7. Parris, David Paul, Reading the Bible with Giants. How 2000 Years of Biblical Interpretation Can Shed New Light on Old Texts, second edition, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, 2015

8. Jonah 2:1-10

9. Oliver, Harry, Black Cats & Four-Leaf Clovers, Penguin Books, New York, 2006.

10. Physeter macrocephalus: Sperm Whale, Encyclopedia of Life,

11. Whitehead, Hal, Sperm Whales: Social Evolution in the Ocean, Univ. Chicago Press, 2003; Malik, Wajeeha, Sperm Whales Found Full of Car Parts and Plastics, National Geographic News,, 31 March 2016.

12. Shattuck, Ben, Swallowed by a whale — a true tale?, Salon,, 15 Jan 2012.

13. main source:; I have followed the citations and read many of the original stories

14. Davis, Edward B., A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith,43:224-237, 1991.

16. National Museum of American History;




20. Jonah 2:10

21. Jonah 1:17

22. Matthew 12:38-41

23. Luke 24:45-46

24. John 20:9

25. Hosea 6:1-3

26. John 2:18-22

27. Matthew 12:40

28. Jonah 3:4

29. Jonah 3:10

30. Joseph Smith Translation, Jonah 3:10; (Joseph Smith Translation,

31. Jonah 4:1

32. Jonah 4:5

33. Jonah 4:6

34. Jonah 4:10

35. Complete Jewish Bible

36. Smith's Bible Dictionary,

37. Letter from Jerome to Augustine, dated 404;

38. Jonah 4:7

39. Jonah 4:8-9

40. Jonah 4:10-11

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