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? It’s ambiguous until you know the context. If I say I wanted to make some money from my riverboat so I drove it into the bank, I’ve 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.
In the first chapter of Jonah, there is a lot of going up/going down, standing up/sitting down, and picking up/casting down. The wickedness of the Ninevites has risen up to God, so Jonah is told to get up and go there.
Jonah goes down to Joppa, then down into the ship, and further still into the ship’s hold. The author uses the same Hebrew verb that means “to go down” to connect the three actions into a single act, and to show things ascend toward God, and descend away from Him.
The writer also uses two sides of the same word meaning “fear.” The sailors are at first terrified of the storm. When they ask Jonah which God he worships, he replies that he fears Yahweh. The sailors know that Jonah is running from the presence of God, and they are terrified. After tossing Jonah overboard, they fear Yahweh in a different sense—they make vows and sacrifices. It’s the same word, but with two closely related meanings: terror that accompanies the threat of destruction, and reverence that accompanies worship.
The Hebrew word for “evil” occurs ten times in Jonah in several different ways: wickedness, destruction, the calamity of the storm, and Jonah’s distress at the end of the story. In 3:10, there is a play on the word evil as both wickedness and destruction: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them” (ESV). They stopped their evil, so God stopped His.
In Jonah 3:7, there is a pun: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything” (ESV). The word has two unrelated meanings: the more common meaning is “to taste.” The second meaning is “decree.” What comes out of the king’s mouth keeps the people from putting anything into theirs.
Another word that is explored by the narrative is ‘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 Jonah 3:10, the narrator always refers to the God of Israel as Yahweh. The sailors first pray to their god—‘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.
At critical moments, both the captain of the sailors and the Ninevite king switch from saying “your god” to “the God.” The change in language suggests a change of attitude: “Unlike our other gods, perhaps this god is decent enough to spare us if we repent.” In 3:10, the narrator echoes the king: “When this god saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, this god relented.” By breaking 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, very simple. The plot is not difficult to follow, the characters are engaging, and the issues are clear. But a close look at the text reveals the hand of a subtle artist who knew how to use words for maximum effect.1