Jonah is probably the most accessible book in the Hebrew Bible for those new to the Hebrew language. Though it of course has some unique words, it also tells a story using simple language that manages to engage and even move the reader. As usual, our goal in studying Jonah is to use the words in the text as springboards for our investigation of the language.
In the opening lines, we have God instructing Jonah to go to Ninevah, that “great city” (iyr gadolah) and “call/proclaim” (qara) to it that its “evil” (ra’) has “risen/come up” (alah) before God (1:2). The word ra’ not only means “wickedness” but can refer to something that is “wild” or “savage,” as Gen. 37:33 shows. In that passage, the brothers of Joseph bring his tattered coat to father Jacob. “And he recognized (נָכַר, nakar) it and said, ‘It is the robe (כְּתֹנֶת, kethonah) of my son (ben). A wild (ra’) beast has torn him in pieces (טָרַף, taraph).’” The noun form of taraph is tereph (טֶרֶף, “prey”). In the beautiful poem of Gen. 49, Benjamin is described as a “ravenous (taraph) wolf” (זְאֵב, zeeb). This is the same animal which will “dwell/abide/sojourn” (גּוּר, gur) with the “lamb” (כֶּבֶשׂ, kebes) when the “leopard” (נָמֵר, nemer) “lies down” (rabats) with the “young goat” (גְּדִי, gedi; Is. 11:6). Nine beautiful words in this paragraph alone, words that should make us pause and study closely. The wonderful thing about learning Biblical Hebrew is that even though the words can sometimes feel unlimited, they are finite, and they are often not that complicated. Nothing like trying to learn ineluctabile in Latin, for example. Then, upon learning them and a few tricks of translation, one can begin to put the sentences together.
Well, let’s return to Jonah and pick up another word. Their “wickedness” (ra’) has "risen up” (alah) to God. Alah is a term that can describe movement in travel (“Abram went up from Egypt”) or motion of God (“God went up (alah) from Abraham,” Gen. 17:22). But it can also be used to describe sacrifices that are offered on an altar (mizbach). Noah “built” (banah) a mizbach and “took” (laqach) from “every” (kol) “animal” (בְּהֵמָה, behemah) that was “clean” (טָהוֹר, tahor) and every bird (uph, which we have seen) and he offered up (alah) “burnt offerings” (עֹלָה, olah) on the mizbach. The verb for “being clean/pure” is taher (טָהֵר), an enormously important concept in Biblical and post-Biblical thought. In one instance we are told that people should “purify” (taher) themselves and “change” (חָלַף, chalaph) their “garments” (simlah). Another word for “garments/clothes” is beged (בֶּגֶד). When a person is purified, he is to “wash”(כָּבַס, kabas) his garments and taher or “be clean.”
Let’s move to another verse of Jonah. Jonah 1:3-4 says, “But Jonah arose (qum) to flee (בָּרַח, barach) to Tarshish (תַּרְשִׁישׁ) away from the presence of Yahweh. He went down (yarad) to Joppa and found (matsa) a “ship” (אֱנִיָּה, oniyyah) going (bo) to Tarshish. And he gave (them) the “fare” (שָׂכָר, sakar) and went down (yarad) into it to go (bo) with them to Tarshish away from the presence of Yahweh.”
We see the pleasant repetitions, the simplicity of the story, and the presentation of Jonah’s disobedience without calling it disobedience. It is a great story of a reluctant prophet who, perhaps because he is conflict-avoidant, or perhaps because he doesn’t really want to deal with all the problems that a trip to Nineveh entails, decides to head West when he is supposed to go East. Let’s explore “flee” (barach). When Laban is chasing after Jacob, he accosts him and says “Why did you hide (חָבָא, chaba) by fleeing (barach) and steal away from (ganab) me and didn’t tell (nagad) me?” (Gen. 31:27). Then, he adds a statement that makes us chuckle a bit: “For I would have sent you (shalach) away with joy (שִׂמְחָה, simchah) and singing (shiyr) with timbrel/tamborines (תֹּף, toph) and harp/lyre (kinnor)?” Right.
The word translated “fare” or “hire” (sakar) can also be rendered “wages.” It is derived from the verb שָׂכַר, sakar (“to hire”). An early passage (Gen. 30) which uses the noun sakar is filled with all kinds of adjectives describing spotted or speckled things, and I thought I would spare us at this point from learning them. So, let’s move to Ex. 2:9 where wages are being negotiated for nursing the child Moses. The verse ends with, “The woman (ishshah) took (laqach) the child (יֶלֶד, yeled) and nursed (נוּק, nuq, a hapax). The usual verb for “suckling/nursing” is יָנַק, yanaq. In fact this word appears just two verses previously, where Pharaoh’s (פַרְעֹה) daughter is urged to “call a nurse” (yanaq) from the Hebrew (עִבְרִי, Ibri).
So, we began with Jonah deciding to head to Joppa instead of heading East to Nineveh, and though the words in Jonah are, so far, simple, they have implicated several words from other texts. And the result is that we now have thirty more beautiful Hebrew words. As you study a word, pause on it and perhaps look at how it is used in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, and see if you can make your way with the words. The adventure is just beginning.
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