Playing with Hebrew Word Usage


Last month I examined the usage of the Greek verb “to glorify” (δοξάζω) in the New Testament. This month I want to do something similar with Hebrew. But I am not going to take one particular Hebrew word and see how it occurs with different meanings in various contexts in the Hebrew Bible. Rather, I am going to take one small book of the Old Testament and show how several different words are woven into the story to craft the story in a most remarkable way.

The book is the book of Jonah. I am not going to claim that I have, through a thorough examination of this four-chapter book, discovered these intricacies of word usage on my own. I have just finished editing at Zondervan a commentary on Jonah done by Kevin Youngblood, a young scholar with a remarkable eye for Hebrew word usage. The way in which the narrator of the Jonah story has crafted this book is indeed exciting. A variety of words are sprinkled throughout the book to give it a hidden and enriching unity. I can only give a couple of examples.

I begin with Jonah’s resistance to God’s initial command to go to Nineveh. It is not unusual for a prophet to resist God’s call to be his spokesman. Moses certainly did (Exod 3–4), as did Jeremiah (Jer 1). Jonah, however, did not object verbally; rather, he simply decided to flee in the opposite direction. As a result, God could not respond to Jonah’s resistance with words, as he did with Moses; rather, he decides to “send a great wind on the sea.” The verb used for “send” here is the Hebrew verb טול, which means “to fling,” as in “to fling a sword” (1 Sam 18:11). In other words, Yahweh becomes a divine warrior against Jonah. As a result of the storm, the sailors start to “fling [יטלו] the cargo” (1:5) into the sea. And after the storm gets worse and Jonah finally admits why this storm has come, he tells the sailors to “fling him” (same verb) into the sea (1:12), which they finally did (1:15). (By the way, have you ever wondered why Jonah didn’t just jump into the sea?) So this particular Hebrew verb (טול) gives an interesting unity to what happens in Jonah 1. Notice, however, while we in the NIV read the verbs “send” and “throw,” the Hebrew reader hears only one verb.

Or take the Hebrew verb קרא, which is often translated “to cry out.” This is another word that the narrator of Jonah plays with, this time throughout much of the book. God’s instruction to Jonah is to “cry out against” (1:2) the great city of Nineveh as the mouthpiece of Yahweh. Jonah, as we know, refuses, but when the storm comes, the sailors urge Jonah to “cry out” to his God (1:6; by the way, we don’t know if Jonah ever does at this point, partly because he already knows why the storm has come, and partly because he had earlier refused to cry out for his God, so how could he cry out to him now?). When the sailors finally realize why the storm has developed and that the only way to calm the storm is to throw Jonah in the water, the sailors, of all people, “cry out to the LORD” (1:14). Then, when the fish swallows Jonah, who then realizes God has spared him, Jonah finally does “cry out” to the Lord (2:2). Then in 3:2, the Lord again comes to Jonah and commands him to “cry out” to the city of Nineveh, and this time he obeys. And when he does “cry out” against the city (3:4), the people “cried out for [NIV proclaimed] a fast” (3:5). And when the king hears about Jonah’s message, he issues a proclamation, part of which is an instruction to “cry out” to God (3:8) and plead for his mercy.

Note, again, that the NIV uses different words to translate these words: “preach against it” (1:2), “call on” (1:6; 3:8), “cried out” (1:14), “called” (2:2), “proclaim” (3:2, 4, 5). But the Hebrew listeners will not hear five different verbs; they will hear one verb, the verb קרא. This word ties all of these various nuances together in the narrative. We as English interpreters can only discover that linkage when we study the Hebrew text.

I have only traced two words. We could do a similar analysis with the verb ירא (“fear”: 1:5, 9, 10, 16), the adjective גדול (“great”: 1:2, 4 [2x], 10, 12, 16, 17; 3:2, 3, 5, 7; 4:1, 6, 11), and the adjective/noun רע / רעה (“evil, disaster”: רע, 3:8, 10; רעה, 1:2, 7, 8; 3:10; 4:1, 2, 6). Another interesting exercise is to chart out the use of יהוה  (YHWH) and אל / אלהימ (El / Elohim) by a variety of people in the book of Jonah: the narrator of the book, Jonah himself, the sailors, the people of Nineveh, and the king of Nineveh (you can do this using an English Bible). Not only is the artistry of the narrator amazing for such a short book, but such words as these give interpretive clues as to the messages that the narrator is trying to communicate. The book is far more than just an interesting story of a prophet being swallowed by “a huge [גדול] fish.”

Perhaps in some of your studies you have found, probably through the help of commentaries, how a Hebrew prophet plays with words in order to communicate his message. Can you share any of those passages with us?

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I'm not a pastor so someone please explain to me how this texual analysis verifies the hypothesis that the Bible is self-explaining and sufficient to instruct in all matters theological and all matters of civil law and social relationships to the majority of Americans who are hard pressed to understand the language of the simplified NIV?

Moses and Jesus taught that the "real LAW" was to "love God and be a good neighbor." and all the rest is simply commentary. Our creeds and catechisms are commentary on the commentary, yes? We have ours, dispensationalists have Scofield's Notes, and the Catholics have their Catechism. We don't need to understand any of the commentaries as long as we believe (in) them? (Whatever "in" means.)  


The Christian Reformed Church has always held to the importance of an educated clergy. That's why we have a seminary, where biblical languages and systematic theology and apologetics are taught. Just as I want a trained mechanic to work on my car because he understands things I don't (although I know enough about its functioning to drive from point A to point B), so we want preachers who can delve into the riches of God's word.

Yes, we believe in the perspecuity (plainness and clarity) of Scripture, but this does not mean that everything in Scripture is clear and plain. It means, rather, that God's plan of salvation and description of the way to eternal life (how to get from point A to point B) is so plain in Scripture that anyone, through reading and hearing the Scriptures, can understand it. Moreover, the basics of how to live our lives for Jesus are also clearly taught.

No one will never fully understand the full riches of God's Word. But preachers and teachers are trained to draw out of the Scriptures old things and new.

It's true, Verlyn that  educated preaching is useful and beneficial.   And I really appreciated your vignettes on various words and phrases.   But sometimes the education doesn't seem to help because even the plain reading of scripture is ignored by the supposedly educated.   We had a sermon not long ago on Galatians 5:16 to 6:5 (which is a beautiful passage).  In the exposition the preacher ignored verse 19-21 and concentrated on 22.   Then he threw in a statement to the effect, "don't judge", more or less without explaining it.  So, he probably knows greek.   But here we have a passage that distinguishes between acts of sinful nature and fruit of the spirit, and he says, "don't judge".   The passage says to restore one caught in a sin,  gently, but why would you restore him if you cannot first judge whether he is caught in a sin?   So he didn't put "judging" into context, didn't explain how the apostle Peter basically condemned Annanias and Sapphira to death for lying, or how Paul constantly was advising, rebuking, admonishing, warning.  "Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature" scripture says.  (Paul wrote it).  So this educated preacher did not distinguish between the judgement of discernment and the judgement of condemnation.  Did he then ignore his Greek?   or did he ignore the context? 

Hello, John.

I will not comment on the specific message you heard because I wasn't there. I do agree that Galatians 5:19-6:5 is a beautiful passage with lots in it--probably more than can be covered in a single sermon. I will often read a number of verses as my Scripture lesson and then zero in on only a verse or two lest my sermon become a commentary lecture. It is always important, of course, to set things in a context.

I have appreciated the fact that you seem to enjoy reading CRC blogs; I know you have read mine. While may disagree on some of the specifics, there is nothing better to me than church members who love the Scriptures and love to study them. Keep it up.

Verlyn, yes  it is not possible to comment on a sermon you did not hear or read... and I probably worded my concern poorly.  What I was wondering if you would be interested in looking at how the word "judge" or "to judge" is used, including the greek nuances of the english word, as well as the english nuances.  Whether this particular semon misused the word or not, we know that the word is often innappropriately used.   But how do we bring together what Jesus said, "Judge not, lest you be judged..."  with the statement in one of the epistles, "is it for us to judge those outside the church?  No, rather we should judge those inside the church."    The word is used at least 80 times in the New Testament, sometimes in what seems to be completely opposite ways.  In addition, there are passages that don't actually use the word "judge", but are still instances of judging or discernment in the lives of others.  For example, comparisons about those who will not enter heaven (adulterers, idolators, perjurers, etc.),  and those who are chldren of God with the fruits of the spirit (patience, gentle, etc.)  Or the story of Annanias and Sapphira in Acts 5.    Any help you could give in this would be appreciated, especially for elders who must make decisions, or examine life of those who want to make profession of faith, or need to assess a potential pastor or new elder nominee, or a new song, etc.  

Yes, John, I will give that serious consideration. That is an interesting word study that could benefit other people, including elders. Thanks for the suggestion.