How does Hebrew/Aramaic wordplay inform our theology?
Anyone familiar with the story of Jonah knows he was commanded to go to Nineveh. After refusing, he was subsequently swallowed by a great fish (Jonah 1:17). In the Hebrew, Jonah’s name יוֹנָה can be seen/extracted from Nineveh נִינְוֵה. Nineveh essentially means “house of fish” (Tenny 4: 443); so, we can get Jonah out of the fish (or house of fish). The Hebrew word ‘Nineveh’ then, seems like a snapshot of the story of Jonah. The Bible seems replete with wordplay (puns, etc.), especially where names are concerned.
Another example of wordplay--assuming Jesus spoke Aramaic—is when he used a pun to chide the Pharisees that is mostly lost in the Greek and doesn’t register at all in English saying “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel” (Mt. 23:24, KJV) (the words ‘camel’ גָּמָל gamal and ‘gnat’ גָּלמָ galma are similar in the Aramaic) (Stein 13)—(Jesus makes a pun, but this is lost in translation). And while the chiding carries some jocularity in the English, it registers as doubly humorous when you know the wordplay in the Aramaic.
Sometimes wordplay seems to inform the theology of the text. Jesus' pun enhances the chastisement of the Pharisees, for example, to the level of ridicule for practicing useless rituals—i.e. their meticulous cleansing ritual does not necessarily make them “pure” (among other implications).
These are simple, even fun examples of wordplay, but I suspect there are numerous places in the Bible where this sort of wordplay occurs which carries even more theological significance. Where else in scripture do occurrences of wordplay inform or even transform our theology?
Kurt Alland, et. al. The Greek New Testament, Third Edition (New York: United Bible Societies, 1975).
Aron Dotan et. al., Biblia Hebraica Leningradensia, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001).
Holy Bible, King James Version (Camden: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1972).
Robert Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978).
Merrill C. Tenney, et. al. Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (5 Volumes) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976).