God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Fear and Awe in Jonah: A Short Case Study

The first chapter of Jonah contains the verb yarah four times, so we see another example of the tension between local and global translation, or between text and context. What works well verse by verse doesn’t always work to convey a longer passage.

In verse 5, the sailors on Jonah’s boat “yarahed” in response to the storm God sends. Then in verse 9, when the people question Jonah, he identifies himself as “a Hebrew,” who “yarahs Adonai.” In response, in verse 10, the people yarahed greatly (or, as the Hebrew grammar would have it, “yarahed a great yarahing”). Then in verse 16, after the storm subsides, the people “yarahed Adonai greatly” (or “yarahed a great yarahing for/of/toward Adonai”).

The verb yarah and the related noun yir’ah combine “fear” and “awe” in a way that’s hard to express in Modern English. (It’s approximately the feeling one might have for a beautiful lightning storm — it’s awesome, awe-inspiring, scary, etc.) This is why translations vary.

But the running theme of yarah is destroyed in every translation I can find.

Here’s a sampling:

Verse 5 Verse 9 Verse 10 Verse 16
ESV: were afraid fear exceedingly afraid feared the LORD exceedingly
KJV: were afraid fear exceedingly afraid feared the Lord exceedingly
NAB: became frightened worship seized with great fear struck with great fear of the LORD
NIV: were afraid worship [this] terrified them greatly feared the Lord
NLT: fearing for their lives worship were terrified were awestruck with the Lord’s great power
The Message: were terrified worship were frightened, really frightened were … in awe of God
NRSV: were afraid worship were even more afraid feared the LORD even more

In particular, verses 10 and 16 both start with the same four Hebrew words, yet in none of the translations does the English start identically.

(The translation “worship” in verse 9, which is almost certainly wrong, comes from the LXX. But the LXX seems to be working from a different text, as it also has “servant of the Lord” instead of “Hebrew.”)

For all this bickering about which translation approach is best, they all seem to get Jonah wrong.


October 1, 2009 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , ,

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this chart, and most especially for the beautiful thunderstorm illustration. I’ve always lacked a good explanation for the meaning of yirah. Until now, I made a distinction between the fear of God and the fear of Godzilla. While comical, it doesn’t say much.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 5, 2009

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