Wordplay in Jonah

Eli T. Evans

How do stories work?

What techniques do authors use to get their point across? And how can we recognize them?

In previous posts, we have looked at the use of: 1 irony, 2 hyperbole and 3 reversal. In this fourth installment of our four-part series, we look at 4 wordplay.

What is a “bank”? Is it the land beside a river? The act of tilting a vehicle or roadway to the side as it turns? A financial institution? Yes, depending. It’s ambiguous until you know the context. Now, if I say I wanted to make some money from my riverboat so I drove it into the bank, I have exploited the ambiguity in meaning to make a (lame) joke. In a similar (but more sophisticated) way, the author of Jonah plays with words for effect.

There is a lot of going up/going down, standing up/sitting down, picking up/casting down in the first half of Jonah. The wickedness of the Ninevites has “risen” up to God, so Jonah is told to “get up” and go there (1:2). Instead, he “goes down” to Joppa, then further down into the ship (1:3), and further still into the ship’s hold (1:5). Each time, the author uses the verb ירד (yarad) to connect the three actions into a single act. Even the word used for Jonah’s deep sleep in 1:5 (וירדם, vayeradam), though derived from a completely different word, sounds like yarad. It connects Jonah’s slumber to his overall descent into disobedience. Later, he’s cast into the depths of the sea. The point is: Things ascend toward God and descend away from Him.

Two sides of the word ירא (yare’), meaning “fear,” are considered in chapter 1: The sailors are at first terrified of the storm (1:5). When they ask Jonah which God he worships, he replies that he “fears” Yahweh, the God of Israel (1:9), whom he is running from. Hearing this, the sailors become very terrified (1:10). After tossing Jonah overboard, they “fear” Yahweh in a whole different sense: They make vows and sacrifices. It’s all the same word, with two closely related meanings: terror that accompanies the threat of destruction, and reverence that accompanies worship.

The Hebrew word רעה (ra‘ah) occurs ten times in Jonah, in several connotations: wickedness (1:2; 3:8, 10); destruction (3:10; 4:2); calamity (of the storm, 1:7, 8); and distress/discomfort (Jonah’s, 4:1, 6). In 3:10, there is a play on both senses of wickedness and destruction: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil (ra‘ah) way, God relented of the disaster (ra‘ah) that he had said he would do to them” (ESV). They stopped their ra‘ah, so God stopped His. Finally, the ra‘ah that Jonah experiences (4:1, 6) has a double meaning. Jonah finds God’s mercy to be upsetting (literally, “it was evil to Jonah, a great evil”), which itself is wicked.

In 3:7, there is a pun: “By the decree (מטעם, mita‘am) of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste (יטעמו, yit‘amu) anything” (ESV). The word טעם (ta‘am) has two unrelated meanings: The first, more common, meaning is “to taste” (as a verb) or “flavor” (as a noun). For example, Jonathan tasted (ta‘am) a little honey with the tip of his staff (1 Sam 14:43). This is the meaning used in the phrase “Let neither man nor beast … taste anything” (ESV). The second meaning is “decree,” which is borrowed from either Assyrian (which would make sense!) or Aramaic. This rarer meaning occurs only in Jonah 3:7 and in Dan 3:10. The author of Jonah turns this into a witticism: What comes out of the king’s mouth (the decree, ta‘am) keeps the people from putting anything into theirs (tasting food, ta‘am).

Another word that is explored by the narrative is אלהים (’elohim). When the God of Israel is referred to by name (Yahweh, “the LORD”), there is no ambiguity. But the word ’elohim can refer to either Yahweh or some other divine being. With the exception of 3:10, the narrator of Jonah always refers to the God of Israel as Yahweh, “the LORD.” The sailors first pray to their individual (unnamed) gods (’elohim), but once the storm is calmed, they call out specifically to Yahweh by name. This is a central issue in the book: The pagans have gods they worship, but they don’t have a relationship with Yahweh, the one true God.

Jonah 1:6 and 3:9–10 are the only places in the book where ’elohim is used with a definite article (“the”), ha-’elohim. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, this means the God, par excellence. The words ha-’elohim occur twice in the phrase “perhaps this god (the God of Jonah) will relent,” spoken by both the captain of the sailors and the Ninevite king. At this critical moment, each leader switches from saying “your god,” or just “god,” to saying “the God.” The change in language is subtle (less so in Hebrew), but it suggests a change of attitude: “Unlike our other gods, perhaps this god (of Jonah’s) is decent enough to spare us if we repent.” In 3:10, the narrator echoes the king: “When ‘this god’ (ha-’elohim) saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, ‘this god’ (ha-’elohim) relented.” By breaking from his regular habit and echoing the words of the king, the narrator tacitly approves of the king’s conclusion.

The story of Jonah is, on the one hand, a very simple one. The plot is not difficult to follow, the characters are engaging, and the issues are clear. The author did not indulge himself by using complex grammar or showy turns of phrase. But, a close look at the text reveals the hand of a subtle artist who knew how to use words for maximum effect.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 2 No. 3.