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Meaning and etymology of the name Jonah

Jonah Jonah

Jonah is a son of Amittai and minor prophet who worked during the days of Jeroboam the Second (782-753 BC), just after Elisha and just before Amos and Hosea. God sends Jonah to Nineveh but he flees to Tarshish. During the journey, a storm compels Jonah's shipmates to throw him overboard and he is swallowed up by a great fish (which was not a whale; something that is made very clear by the Hebrew wording of the story). In Matthew 12:40, Jesus compares His three day stay in the grave with Jonah's famous three-day stay in the great fish.

Another connection between Jonah and Jesus occurs when the Pharisees state that 'no prophet arises out of Galilee' (John 7:52). They were wrong because 2 Kings 14:25 states that Jonah was from Gath-hepher, which is a town in Galilee, in between the Sea of Galilee and Mount Carmel on the Mediterranean coast.

There's something deeply peculiar about the name Jonah. Pretty much all sources derive it of the root Javan , and render the name Dove (we'll get to that). Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names, however, seems to make a curious error. Jones suggests that the Hebrew word for Dove comes from the verb yana (yana), meaning to oppress, vex, do wrong. In Leviticus 19:33 the verb yana stand opposite the phrase "love him as yourself." In that way the name Jonah would interestedly mean Vexer, Wrongdoer.

Traditionally however, the name Jonah is understood to come from the root group Javan, which consists of two identical but unused and therefore untranslatable roots:

First there is root Javan (ywn). It yields the masculine noun Javan (ywn), meaning mire, which is wet or soft mud (Psalm 40:3, 69:3).

Then there is root Javan (ywn II). It yields the feminine noun yona (yona), which is identical to the name Jonah and means dove (Leviticus 1:14, Isaiah 38:14). Note the striking similarity between the words yana (yana) and yona. The difference is only the letter waw, which, when used as a vowel, doesn't change the meaning all that much. By some twist of fate, a dove was known by a word that also means to vex. In practical life the dove wouldn't be known as a vexer, but in the story of Jonah, when it's by no means certain what the name Jonah means, any Hebrew audience would have understood the name Jonah as a pun.

There is no obvious relation between these two words Javan, meaning mire, and yona meaning dove, except for the contexts. In the meaning of mire the word appears two times, in Psalm 40:2 and 69:2. On both accounts the mire is a substance that yields no foothold. This in contrast to a rock (Ps 40:2; also see Matthew 7:24-27). When Noah releases a dove from the ark, she too finds no foothold (Genesis 8:9). Perhaps the flight of the dove - rather erratic and not very vigorous - reminded the Hebrews of the mire in which no foothold is found. Hosea likens Ephraim to a silly dove (7:11) because this group runs after Egypt, then after Assyria. Even the prophet Jonah vacillates between Tarshish and Nineveh after God has called him (Jonah 1:2-3).

Solomon likens the eyes of the bride with doves (Song of Solomon 1:15), and that is curious because Jesus besmirches the eyes of the blind man with mud (Joh 9:6). In addition Paul writes that God's works can be clearly understood by what can be seen (Rom 1:20). By Law of Moses, people who could not afford a lamb were allowed to offer two doves for purification (Leviticus 5:7). But the grand finale of this name is the dissension of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus; in the form of a dove (Mat 3:16).

The functions of the Holy Spirit are legion of course but possibly He chose the appearance of a dove to indicate that God brings people together by their weaknesses and not by their strengths, and the fabric of Truth is uncertainty, contrary to deterministic certainty. The mind of Christ is not about knowing all things down to the most minute facts, but being alive in a whole new way. Being able to waver is a quality of life; lifeless objects travel by straight, predictable lines. But since Javan (or at least his father Japheth) is living in the tents of Shem, uncertainty without a fundament of the Rock is fatal. In an odd and almost paradoxical sense can a human being be somewhat of a saved Christian without having been endowed with the Holy Spirit (the disciples between ascension and Pentecost; but also Acts 8:14-17), but can not be saved by being endowed by the Holy Spirit without having been set upon Christ.

For a meaning of the name Jonah, all sources go with Dove.



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