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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.