Jonah: a Children’s Story of Verbs

Jonah-boat-comicMy Hebrew class has moved from learning grammar to the actual process of translation and interpretation. To do this, we’re going through the book of Jonah. Our first interpretive assignment was to look at all the Jonah-related verbs in the first six verses and draw some theological conclusions. Here was my contribution.

But first, my incredibly literal and somewhat stilted translation of the opening verses [Jonah 1.1-6], including all the odd word order and idioms of Hebrew:

(1) And the word of the LORD was to Jonah son of Amittai, in order to say, (2) “Rise, go to Ninevah, the large city, and cry out against her because their evil arose to my face.” (3)And Jonah rose in order to flee in the direction of Tarshish from the toward-facing faces [Hebrew idiom for “Presence”] of the LORD and went down to Joppa and he reached a ship going to Tarshish and he gave its fare and went down in it in order to enter with them to Tarshish away from the toward-facing faces of the Lord. (4) And the LORD hurled a large wind upon the sea and it manifested as a large storm among the sea and the ship thought to shatter towards itself. (5) And the sailors were afraid and they cried out, man to his God, and they were made to throw the receptacles which were in the ship into the sea away from them towards making themselves small and Jonah had gone down into the rear of the vessel and had laid down and slept heavily. (6) And the chief sailor came to him and said to him, “Why are you sleeping? Arise! Cry out towards your gods! Perhaps the god of you will bear us in mind and we will not perish.”

And now for some lessons we can draw…

In Jonah 1:1-6, here are the verbs of which Jonah is the subject: Rose, fled, went down, found (a ship), gave (the fare), went down, (in order to) enter, went down, laid down, slept (or as I like to translate, “descended into himself”).

My favorite text critical theory concerning the book of Jonah is that it was a children’s story to teach kids during the Exile about what it means to be forcibly brought by God to Gentile territory and how God intends for them to live there. One of the reasons we’d come to this conclusion about the book is not only its simple vocabulary, but the syntactical humor throughout and how its form expresses its themes. This is especially evident in these opening verses of the book.

(On a side note, this is not to speak of Jonah’s historicity, if that’s a concern for you. We have lots of children’s stories based off historical events. That’s just not what textual criticism tries to answer.)

So in my opinion, this book is trying to playfully convey a deathly serious matter—rebellion that leads to exile. To this end, this is what we learn about this when we look at the verbs.

First, God gives Jonah three verbal commands: arise, go, and cry out. Jonah actual obeys the first two commands—he arises and goes. This shows that even one’s eventual rebellion can start off in obedience.

Jonah indeed “goes”, but he then flees and goes away from the presence of God. In this, we see that his “exile” begins long before God ever brings him in Ninevah. The text is hinting at us how God’s exile is where one finds themselves fully in the view of the “faces” (Presence) of God, and our attempt to escape what feels like Exile is actually an escape from God Himself. It is in foreign, unknown territory that God’s gaze is seen and felt.

In a sense, for God’s people, Exile is Home.

Further, the text is over-the-top in the “directionality” of fleeing God’s face: downward. Jonah goes down, he descends into the deepest, furthest, depth of the ship, lays down, and falls into a deep slumber–literally, the word means “descend to himself”. Hence why the captain’s first word to Jonah had to be “Arise!”, and not simply “Wake up!” (ironically, also mirroring God’s original command–Jonah can’t escape!).

There’s one more lesson I’ll pull from this. Right after Jonah’s “descent” begins, the two things he does is “find” a ship and “give” (or “pay”) the fare. This reminds God’s people that following what God has for them is to move forward in confidence and security in where they are going. But, to rebel is to resign ourselves to searching, wandering, and “finding”. Also, it has a cost—in Jonah’s case, financial–but to all of us it can cost is our very souls. To descend away from God is to go on searching and giving of yourself and your resources, to the point that you fall into yourself and sleep.

Until a voice cries out from the midst of our darkness and slumber and commands us: “Rise!”



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