What’s in a Name?
by Mark Futato
Anybody who has spent any time in the church can tell stories of flat-out ridiculous attitudes and actions they have seen in the lives of God’s people. There is nothing new under the sun. The book of Jonah exposes in a sometimes humorous way the foibles of the faithful in ancient Israel. Against the backdrop of human folly shines the brilliance of divine faithfulness. Such is the message of the book of Jonah. We need not, however, study the whole book to get this message. It is found in Jonah’s name.
Some scholars are hesitant to see any significance in Jonah’s name. In brief, three reasons should suffice to overcome this hesitancy. One, the author of the book of Jonah uses a variety of names for God in a way that is theologically significant. Two, the book of Jonah is fi lled with rhetorical devices, so we should not be surprised if the name of one of the chief characters plays into the storyline. Three, naming is signifi cant in many other Old Testament narratives. I will mention just a few from the early chapters of Genesis.
Adam (1:26) means “humanity,” and he is the representative of the human race. Eve (3:20) means “living” because she will be the mother of all of the living. Cain (4:1) sounds like the word for “acquired,” and Eve said she acquired a male child with the help of the Lord. Abel (v. 2) means “vanity” because his life was in vain, having been snuffed out in its prime. Seth (v. 25) means “replacement” because he was a replacement for the son that Eve lost.
Examples could be multiplied, but suffice to say that it is common for personal names to have theological significance in Hebrew narratives.
The author of the book of Jonah tells us that the word of the Lord came to “Jonah the son of Amittai” (v. 1). With this naming, the author identifies the Jonah of our story with the Jonah known from the history of the kings, who prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (see 2 Kings 14:25). The reign of Jeroboam II was characterized by two things: human waywardness and divine blessing. In spite of Israel’s waywardness, she experienced the blessing of God in a way that was reminiscent of the glory days of David and Solomon (vv. 23–29). As we will see, Jonah also experiences the blessing of God in spite of his waywardness, and in this way he serves as a representative of the nation.
In addition to this straightforward use of the name “Jonah the son of Amittai” that identifies him with the historical prophet, I think the author also uses the name in a way that is theologically significant, especially since the author uses the naming of God in a way that is theologically significant.
In addition to being a proper noun, the Hebrew word for “Jonah” is also a common noun that means “dove.” In American culture, the word dove can be used symbolically to refer to a variety of things, including “peace” and the “Holy Spirit.” In a similar way, the Hebrew word for “dove” can be used symbolically in a variety of ways. Of particular interest is its use in Hosea 7:11, where we read, “Ephraim is like a dove, silly and without sense.” From the beginning of the story to its end, Jonah will show himself to be true to his name “silly and without sense.”
But the author does not simply give us Jonah’s “first” name. He goes on to give us his “last” name. Is there significance here?
Since there were numerous people with the same names in ancient Israel, Hebrew tradition specified individuals in reference to their fathers. So Jonah is called “the son of Amittai.” The Hebrew noun translated “Amittai” is made up of two parts. The first part comes from a noun that means, among other things, “reliability, dependability, trustworthiness, faithfulness, constancy.” The second part of the name is the personal pronoun “my.” So when hearing Jonah’s full name in the story, ancient Israelites would have easily heard “Dove, the son of my faithfulness.” And that he was! From the beginning of the book to its end, Jonah not only shows himself to be “silly and without sense,” but he ever remains the son of God’s “faithfulness.”
In the book of Jonah, the primary way in which God’s faithfulness manifests itself is in compassion. Even when God disciplines Jonah in the story, this discipline is from God’s compassionate heart and for Jonah’s good. God never gives up on Jonah but remains faithful to him throughout the story. Jonah is one who repeatedly experiences God’s faithful compassion.
In short, therefore, the story of Jonah has a twofold focus: Jonah’s silly and senseless waywardness and God’s faithful compassion. This twofold focus is why the story of Jonah has touched the hearts of God’s people throughout the generations. From the time when the story was first told until the present day, it speaks to God’s people about the ways in which we, like Jonah, are silly and senseless at times and yet always remain the objects of God’s faithful compassion.