The Literary Complexity of Jonah 1:4c

Yesterday, in my studies, I was struck by the level of complexity present in Jonah 1:4c. The clause reads וְהָ֣אֳנִיָּ֔ה חִשְּׁבָ֖ה לְהִשָּׁבֵֽר, “And the ship considered/thought about breaking apart.” Commentators seemingly across the board make the following claims about this three word clause:

  1. Hebrew is a VSO (Verb-Subject-Object) language; English, in case you were wondering, is an SVO language. When the default subject-predicate order is altered, it is cause for attention. In Jonah 1:4c shifts our attention away from the LORD and the storm that he just hurled onto the ship and the effect that the storm has upon it. The author grabs our attention by fronting the subject.
  2. Now that the author has our attention, he shows off his rhetorical flair. The finite verb חִשְּׁבָ֖ה, “it thought,” and the infinitive לְהִשָּׁבֵֽר, “to break,” have similar sounds. Trible notes that these similar sounding syllables is a literary device known as assonance. For those of you that don’t know Hebrew, here are the words transliterated chiššebâ lehiššābēr. Notice the vowels i, e, and a in chiššebâ are similar to e, i, a in lehiššābēr.
  3. Assonance is not the only literary device here. Sasson notes the presence of onomatopoeia, “the formation of a word according to the sound that it makes.” Sasson writes that chiššebâ lehiššābēr “captures the sound of planks cracking when tortured by raging waters. Such aural bravura must have pleased a listening audience that also included all who sounded their words as they read” (96).
  4. Personification is also employed by the author. The verb חשב, “to think,” is never used in the Hebrew Bible with inanimate subjects except in this instance. That is to say, ships don’t think. When an author attributes human characteristics to non-human entities, he or she is often doing so for some rhetorical purpose.
  5. This brings us to the final literary device present in Jonah 1:4b. The author’s decision to personify the boat’s “reaction” to the Lord’s storm creates irony, “an event characterized by an incongruity, or a contrast, between reality (what is) and appearance (what seems to be).” Jonah, the prophet of the Lord, goes down into the ship. He has, heretofore, ignored his divine commission. In verse five, he goes down even further into the inner parts of the ship, and then he falls asleep. He refuses to engage with the Lord. Everyone else and everything else around him has the proper reaction to the Lord’s storm. The sailors fear, cry out to their gods, and lighten the ship from her cargo. The captain calls upon Jonah to invoke his God for help. And the ship itself thinks about breaking apart. The ship, like the sailors, is afraid of the storm and creaks and moans in the face of assured destruction.

If scholarship is right on these points, it goes to show you how important it is to study the original languages and to do so with great diligence. Careful attention to the details pays great dividends.

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5 Responses to The Literary Complexity of Jonah 1:4c

  1. Dave Black says:


    Well done, well done indeed. Three questions:

    1) Do authors of Scripture ever “show off their literary flair”? I’ve always understood literary artistry in the Bible to have one and only one purpose: to increase the impact and appeal of the audience through the “hitting” and “drawing” created by these devices. In other words, the focus is not on the author (“Look at my ability!”) but on the text and its meaning. Just wondering ….

    2) How much of this was do you think conscious to the author? In other words, did the author intentionally use these devices or did they operate at perhaps a level deeper than consciousness?

    3) Finally, can you recommend to your readers a good book/website that would introduce students of Hebrew to these literary devices?

    Thank you!

    • jacobcerone says:

      1) I think that it would be foolhardy for me to make a broad sweeping statement like “never” since my study of Scripture is in its infancy. However, to make an attempt at answering the question, I think it best to approach it from at least two different angles. First, we need to ask the hermeneutical question, “Which author?” To say that the human author of Scripture employs literary techniques in order to draw attention to himself seems wrongheaded indeed. But if we claim that God himself inspired Scripture, then the discussion shifts. I know that you have written in the past that the Spirit has inspired “every morpheme.” Indeed! He has also inspired the greater discourse and how each literary device contributes to and has a share in that discourse. If this is true, can we not say that God has used those literary devices purely, theoretically speaking, for the purpose of saying, “Look at me!” This is, in part, what has always drawn me to explore the artistic elements of Scripture. God is not just telling us something about himself in terms of the “raw facts”; he is also communicating his beauty. Our perception of the literary artistry allows us to better worship the artist. Second, and more to the point, if literary devices don’t “hit” and “draw” within the context of the discourse, then, I believe, they are out of place. I think that readers are capable of perceiving this fact. We sense when an author is being pretentious. This, ironically, lessens the impact of the device used; the device that was meant to affect the reader lies dead. Third, and closely related to the last point, I think that a literary device finds greater force and impact the more it is integrated into the text and its meaning. Finally, I recall an illustration you have used in class (sadly I don’t remember the text you used). You said that Paul creates a beautifully balanced chiasm only to break it. He does this so that we focus our attention on Christ, not on his own talent. Much agreed. And yet, we are only capable of drawing that conclusion because he led us to it through another “sort” of device; for in breaking established patterns or literary devices, one creates meaning. Completing the chiasm ruins the point that we should pay more attention to Christ than “rhetoric.” Strategically breaking the chiasm at the “rhetorical” level forces us to pay attention to Christ. This brings me full circle in answering your initial question. I think that biblical authors are capable of great rhetorical heights in order to fix our eyes on our great God. I think that they are also capable of great simplicity so that we discard all that is unnecessary and fix our eyes on Christ.

      2) I may be entirely wrong on this point, but can we separate “intent” from “deeper levels of consciousness”? Often, when I teach a lesson and answer questions throughout class, each word is not strategically planned. I’m not always “conscious” of the manner in which I teach or respond, but I would not separate what I say from intent. What I say has been informed by my preparation before teaching (obviously there are differences between writing and teaching, but I think the analogy is still helpful). Removing the question of intent from the equation, I think it is easier to answer the rest of your question regarding Jonah 1:4c out of the order I listed in the original post in order of my certainty.

      #1 WORD ORDER: Most languages have a natural word order. Subject-Verb-Object is the natural word order of the English language. When we want to draw attention to a specific element in the sentence, we alter that natural order (as I did for this sentence). The following sentences serve as an examples. They are taken from Niccaci’s article on marked biblical Greek and Hebrew clauses (You can find the link over at (second link from the top).

      a) Neutral: Joe will milk the goat
      b) Subject: It’s Joe who will milk the goat
      c) Subject: The one who will milk the goat is Joe
      d) Object: It’s the goat that Joe will milk
      e) Object: What Joe will milk is the goat
      f) Verb: What Joe will do to the goat is milk it
      g) Verb/Predicate: What Joe will do is milk the goat

      Each of these sentences places the stress in a different place. Biblical Hebrew is capable of highlighting a specific element in the sentence as well. Niccaci argues that the fronted subject in a biblical Hebrew clause is like example b). The focus is on the subject. This phenomenon happens naturally in language. The unobservant or uneducated use these types of constructions and subconsciously understand their import.

      I think that the author of Jonah, though, was aware of what he is doing at this point. In Jonah 1:4a, we find the same construction. Our focus is drawn away from Jonah’s rebellion (1:3) and towards what God is going to do about his rebellious prophet (1:4a). After God sends his storm, we see how the boat reacts. The narrator zooms inside the boat and finds the sailors feverishly working to stay afloat (1:5a). Then, we find a third clause with a fronted subject. This time we are instructed to focus on Jonah. While the sailors fear and empty the ship’s cargo, we find Jonah hiding out in the ship’s inner recesses sleeping soundly. The author has strategically fronted certain clauses so that we might compare and contrast the actions of God, ship, sailors, captain, and Jonah. If memory serves, this cluster of fronted subjects accounts for 3/5 of all instances of independent, non-negated, narrative clauses.

      #4 PERSONIFICATION: The unnatural expression of a ship thinking provides almost certain proof that the author was conscious of what he was doing. Though some commentators, Calvin included, believe it is an idiomatic expression, I don’t find any evidence for that. David Freedman, in a JBL article, goes so far as to argue for a textual emendation at this point due to two factors: 1) the difficultly of the expression, and 2) the LXX rendering (ἐκινδύνευεν συντριβῆναι, “the ship was in danger of breaking up” [My understanding of the LXX rendering is the tendency for a translator to render the “sense” of instead of allowing imagery/personification/etc to stand]). The author’s use of personification is, I believe, at the conscious level as it naturally serves one of the author’s themes: Disobedience: Jonah versus repentance: pagans. This point is further developed in my next comments about irony.

      #5 IRONY: The author of Jonah constantly forces us to understand Jonah and his actions in light of the other characters in the story. Jonah disobeys; the sailors obey. Jonah the prophet won’t pray; the captain tells Jonah to pray. The most wicked city, Nineveh, repents; Jonah remains unconvinced by God at the end of the story. The prophet preaches a 5-word sermon of destruction; the king of Nineveh commands city-wide repentance and fasting all on the chance that God will change his mind. Even the beasts of the city put on sackcloth and repent. Jonah has more sympathy for the destruction of a plant that gave him shade than the potential destruction of a whole city. This series of incongruities provides a solid foundation of evidence that allows us to say with great certainty that irony is present.

      #2 and #3 ASSONANCE and ONOMATOPOEIA: Here’s where matters get tricky. Since I believe that personification is the dominate literary device in 1:4c and since the word שבר, “to break,” is a common lexical item in biblical Hebrew (that is to say, he didn’t have to get out his “thesaurus”), it is likely that the presence of assonance and onomatopoeia was a happy coincidence. That does not necessitate the conclusion that it was produced from a deeper level of consciousness. Talented authors often recognize that this takes place and choose to either keep it or alter it. As I wrote this post, I constructed the following sentence, “The sounds of the phrase mimic the sound of creaking planks prone to pop.” As I wrote, the phrase “planks prone to pop” was not planned. Since alliteration is generally frowned upon, I decided to cut it and allow the Sasson quote to speak for me. My inexperienced opinion says that the book of Jonah is a finely tuned narrative with talented authors (both human and divine). Though I am less confident about these two devices than the other three, I believe they operated at the conscious level for the author. Even if this is not the case, I believe intent operates at deeper levels of consciousness and renders the conclusions I’ve drawn here no less certain.

      3) The book that immediately comes to mind is Robert Alter’s “The Art of Biblical Narrative.” My only objection to Alter’s work is that he is unclear as to how he conceives of biblical narrative. At some points he calls it history with a flavor of fiction (historical fiction) and at other points he calls it fiction with a historical flavor (fictional history). I don’t like either classification. I think that all authors of history pick and choose material according to their purposes. This means that an author is capable of constructing accurate history that possess great literary value. This objection aside, Alter’s work is an excellent starting place for any individual looking to study the literary and rhetorical features of biblical Hebrew.

      If you are looking for something specific to Jonah, I have found three works to be indispensable. Phyllis Trible’s “Rhetorical Criticism,” Jack Sasson’s “Jonah,” and Jonathan Magonet’s “Form and Meaning: Studies in Literary Techniques in the Book of Jonah.”

      If you are looking for something on poetry, check out Adele Berlin’s “Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism.”

  2. Dave Black says:

    Thank you. I will read Magonet when I can. Berlin’s writings are classics.

  3. Pingback: Day 268: Jonah 1-4; | Overisel Reformed Church

  4. jdhomie says:

    Thank you for an interesting post, Jacob. When I translated Jonah I thought this passage was odd – I can’t think of other times when Hebrew literature personifies things. Contrast to Old English literature (think Tolkien) where swords, staffs, all manner of weapons have named, heritages, characters.

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