The meanings of names in the Bible can provide us with insight into the fate or behavior of biblical figures. For instance, since Abel (הבל; hevel) means “vapor”—something that’s here one minute and gone the next—readers of Genesis 4 can intuit that he will not last long. Likewise, knowing the meaning of Jonah’s name offers a window into how he will behave as a reluctant prophet; or, more precisely, Jonah’s name highlights his underwhelming prophetic performance at the outset of his narrative.
The Hebrew name Jonah (יונה; yonah) means “dove.” Thus, when God tells the prophet to travel from Israel to Nineveh, the reader expects that Jonah will be a dove-like messenger to the people of Assyria—of course, this is not what happens: “The word of the Lord was to Jonah (יונה; yonah) son of Amittai, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh’… but Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jon 1:1-3). In light of the fact that the rest of Israel’s prophets do what they’re told when God gives a command, we can see that something is awry with Jonah from the word “go”!
Making Jonah’s refusal to go to Nineveh even more ironic, there is a well-known story of another dove prior to Jonah; namely, the dove that Noah sends out of the ark. When Noah sends a dove to scout the land after the flood, the bird embarks willfully and then returns dutifully with proof that the waters have subsided: “[Noah] sent forth the dove (יונה; yonah) out of the ark, and the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in its mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. And Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the land” (Gen 8:10-11).
For anyone familiar with the story of Noah’s ark, Jonah’s rejection of God’s command is doubly ironic: as a “dove,” Jonah should leave for Assyria just as Noah’s dove left from the ark! Unfortunately for Jonah, this first attempt to turn from God’s call will be the beginning of several blunders that the prophet will make. Thankfully, God will accomplish the divine goal and, in the end, Nineveh will repent at Jonah’s word.