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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?

Sources

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).

  • Thank you for your response. With deference, I disagree. For one thing, this fundamentally takes the authority off of scripture and puts the authority on doctrines, traditions, and man… Am I to take my pastor, preacher, minister, father’s, or a theologians word for what the Bible says, or shall I be like the Bereans who “were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 1:17, KJV)? – David Anson May 7 at 19:23
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    I don't know where you got the idea I advocate favoring doctrines of men over Christian doctrine. The virtue of the Bereans wasn't their being critical of the authoritative teaching of the Apostles, but, as is evident from how they are contrasted with those at Thessalonaika who wouldn't even give the Apostles a hearing to begin with, it was their openness to see whether what the Apostles taught was true at all. Were those on the wrong side of the dispute in Acts 15 free to reject the lifting of the obligation to circumcise because 'the Bible doesn't ever lift this obligation?' – Sola Gratia May 7 at 19:29
  • Glad to hear it. On this we are agreed. – David Anson May 7 at 19:34
  • The account of the Bereans demonstrates more than their willingness to hear. They checked Paul against the scriptures they had. They would not have accepted a novel teaching if they did not find that Paul taught from the OT. He taught the same as Jesus did, things that were not easily seen because they were hidden in the mystery; not revealed until the cross. – Bob Jones May 7 at 19:45
  • *Acts 17:11 (not 1:17) sorry... – David Anson May 7 at 19:47
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"Where else in scripture do occurrences of wordplay inform or even transform our theology?" Though some may say "not at all" I would suggest that the question is requesting too large of an answer.

Word play in Hebrew comes in many styles and it all informs good theology as the foundation of symbols used in scripture.

Using Rabbi Eliezer's Rule 30:

  1. Notarikon: Interpretation by dividing a word into two or more parts.

Is Adam coming from the Adamah (the ground) word play or the warp and woof of the formation of Hebrew words? Is it an accident that Adam has blood ('dam')?

Is the Stone 'aben' word play for Father-Son? Does it prophesy the Father leaving the Son on the cross when the indivisible Stone is split?

Using Eliezer's rule 7 puns fall into the homonym category:

  1. Gezerah shawah: Argument from analagy. Biblical passages containing synonyms or homonyms (sounding similar) are subject, however much they differ in other respects, to identical definitions and applications.

The word for 'skin' and 'light' sound similar as puns. If light represents the holiness of God, was Adam given garment 'like' the holiness of God with out it actually being His holiness?

אמר - said, word ... is an identical form, now labeled as Aramaic, to mean Lamb. When John said "Behold the Lamb of God" did some hear him say "Behold the Word of God?

Elohim has three puns 'not dark', 'life' and 'bread'. John is the only one who calls Jesus the light, life and bread. Did he use the puns?

Yeshua sounds like 'God humbled', as a pun. Is this the real fulfillment that he would be called Emmanuel (God with us) as a hint of his incarnation?

If you are truly interested, I would be happy to collaborate and write a book.

The apparent lack of use in the church is easily attributed to the church eliminating everything that looked Jewish by about 400 AD. Augustine said the Septuagint was more reliable than the original Hebrew. The fact that so many of the symbols are still correct by 'tradition' is a testimony that they had a source in the original Hebrew teaching.

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