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The Cliffs of דֹּבֵר: Steep Interpretive Differences in the Book of Jonah

by Philip Morrow

Many of us know Jonah as the story of a rebellious prophet and a repentant people. We know its protagonist is no hero, acting in defiance of God’s will. Looking closer, even the pagan characters appear more devoted to Israel’s God than His own messenger. But each reader of this story will walk away with a different impression of just how stark these contrasts are. There are just enough gaps in the story to make it a dangerous one, as the interpreter is tempted to retell it with commentary on Jonah’s psychology. For many, Jonah seems to rebel in fear (1:3), repent under distress (2:2–9), and eventually relapse into unjust anger (4:1). For others, he is obstinately merciless all the way through (4:2–3) and even the sincerity of his prayer is questionable (2:10).1

Both of these inferences (and the many shades of interpretation between them) are influenced as much by silence as by textual evidence. Readers are not privy to the full conversation between God and Jonah in chapter 1, but the inferred details of that conversation inform differing views of how God and His errant prophet relate. Luckily, God’s second call to Jonah in chapter 3 provides us an opportunity to explore these paradigms by means of the ambiguous temporal nuance of the participle דֹּבֵר.

Jonah 3:2 reads, in Hebrew, קוּם לֵךְ אֶל־נִֽינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה וִּקְרָא אֵלֶיהָ אֶת־הַקְּרִיאָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר אֵלֶֽיךָ׃ Accordingly, most translations have no trouble reproducing the first half, in English, “Arise! Go to Nineveh––that great city––and proclaim against it the proclamation…” But a quick glance across translations show frequent disagreement on the temporal aspect of the participle in the concluding relative clause. They can be generally divided into the two following camps:

  1. Present or Immediate Futuristic: “…which I am speaking/going to speak to you” (taken by NIV, ESV, KJV, CSB, ISV, NASB, ERV, WEB, and Young’s Literal)
  2. Simple Past or Perfective: “…which I spoke/have spoken to you” (taken by NLT, GNT, God’s Word® Translation, and Brenton Septuagint Translation)

The Qal singular masculine דֹּבֶר, following אֲשֶׁר, functions as a predicate participle qualifying אָנֹכִי and thus holds no inherent tense of its own.2 In most situations, these participles mimic the tense of the nearest finite verb. However, this verse holds no finite verb, and this participle acts as a transitive verb in its own relative clause (“…proclaim against it the proclamation––which proclamation?––the proclamation which I דֹּבֶר [it] to you…”). So we are forced to ascribe a tense value to דֹּבֶר here, as the usually faithful ambiguity of adding “-ing” will not suffice. Each translation arrives at its rendering by deciding whether דֹּבֶר is governed by the nearest verb וִּקְרָא, or by shared knowledge of a prior declaration.

Those who take a present or immediate futuristic reading of דֹּבֶר likely draw from the context of the current call, and infer וִּקְרָא to govern the tense value of דֹּבֶר. By logical necessity, imperatives imply an expectation of a future event––no one commands something that has already happened. So if Jonah is called on to “Arise! Go to Nineveh…and proclaim against it…,” it is no logical leap to assume the content of the proclamation might very soon be provided. For this reason, many translators have no problem safely assuming that God is either going to provide the content of the proclamation in this same speech act, or that He will do so at a later date. Many of the former translations opt for the ambiguous “which I tell you,” presumably because the English imperative (“Proclaim…”) followed by a relativized clause (“…[that] which…”) with a present-tense verb (“…I tell you.”) can either be contemporaneous or futuristic, just like their reading of דֹּבֶר.33

If this reading is taken, God likely did not provide an initial proclamation with the first call, or at least His statement in 3:2 blatantly ignores it. Jonah then seems exceptionally rash in his rebellion, fleeing the call irrespective of the prophetic message. His prayer in 4:2-3 then reveals that he made his decision on a hunch. “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (ESV) In this reading, a patient––almost impassable––God leads a presumptive Jonah one step at a time through his prophetic mission, without making mention of Jonah’s errantry at all.

Those who take a simple past or perfective reading of דֹּבֶר will have a slightly different story, and they come to it by context and inference just like their counterparts. Since this predicate participle acts like the main verb of the relative clause, it benefits from the malleability to express any time and any aspect that properly fits the logic of the discourse in which it occurs.4 Since the same discussants are present (God and Jonah), דֹּבֶר can reference anything spoken in prior, even if we do not know of it. And while we are not privy to the full contents of Jonah’s first call, Jonah’s prayer in 4:2–3 proves we missed something the first time. That omitted material may very easily include an initial proclamation that Jonah deliberately rejected.

If God had provided an initial proclamation, it should more likely be referenced––rather than introduced––in 3:2. The use of emphatic אָנֹכִי, paired with the direct symmetry of wording between 3:2 and 1:2 might lend credence to a more intensive reading: “…proclaim against it the proclamation which I [already] spoke to you.” In direct agreement with this, the Septuagint translates 3:2b as “ὃ ἐγὼ ἐλάλησα πρὸς σέ,” with an overt ἐγὼ and an aorist ἐλάλησα here, and all English translations that rely on it preserve a past-tense reading.5 (This may be a mistaken reading of the aorist, which could have been chosen primarily to mimic the participle’s indefinite aspect, not any past-tense value; still, an aorist indicative was chosen––not an aorist participle––suggesting that tense was important.) When read with a reminder of the initial proclamation, this confrontation is a bit more tense than that of the first paradigm, as God gave Jonah his full mission upfront, and Jonah deliberately rebelled against both the call and the message.

So is God just repetitive in 3:2, or has His message changed? In Jonah 3:4 we see the proclamation as Jonah relates it: “עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִֽינְוֵה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת” (“Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!”). Are we to presume that God included an addendum for repentance? And if so, did Jonah ever announce it, or did the people of Nineveh repent in spite of the prophet’s thoroughly bleak message? Was Jonah’s initial flight in response to this early addendum, or only to an inference––a hunch––that God would relent? The answers to these questions shape our mental picture of Jonah, the severity of his rebellion, the integrity of his repentance, the depth of his anger, and thus the dynamics of his character. They also shape our view of God, His mercy, and His relationship to wayward prophets. No matter where we land on any of these issues, it is humbling to consider our mental paradigms influenced by the subtlest of elements, even the temporal nuance of a participle.

Philip Twain Morrow (M.A. Biblical Languages) is a licensed minister from Houston, TX, and Worship Coordinator for Passages Israel. With a love for sociolinguistics and interfaith dialogue, he works with the Philos Project to revitalize Classical Syriac among Aramean Christians in the Middle East.

Resources pertinent to this article:

An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax,
Bruce K. Waltke & Michael Patrick O’Connor

ESV Study Bible

Time and the Biblical Hebrew Verb: The Expression of Tense, Aspect, and Modality in Biblical Hebrew

Lexham Research Commentary: Jonah

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  1. The ESV Study Bible notes this as one interpretation of the fish vomiting Jonah up.
  2. Though “tense” is rarely employed in Hebrew studies, it is used here to compare the temporal nuances that participles may show in context. More strictly, this is a discussion of aspect, which will be addressed.
  3. The English imperative-plus-present tense formula can also be gnomic, but that is likely not an option here.
  4. Waltke-O’Connor §37.6.c-f present various examples of predicate participles adopting whatever tense value best fits the context, including simple past and perfective tenses. In this speech act, God could easily condition the contents of the proclamation on what He will soon say; He could just as easily condition them on what He already did say.
  5. While the use of an aorist does not necessitate a past-time framing of the action, it does reenforce the indefinite aspect of the verbal action and suggests that its translator inferred neither contemporaneous nor futuristic nuances in the participle.
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