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In 3:7, there is a pun: “By the decree (‫מטעם‬, mita‘am) of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste (‫יטעמו‬, yit‘amu) anything” (esv). The word ‫( טעם‬ta‘am) has two unrelated meanings: The first, more common, meaning is “to taste” (as a verb) or “flavor” (as a noun). For example, Jonathan tasted (ta‘am) a little honey with the tip of his staff (1 Sam 14:43). This is the meaning used in the phrase “Let neither man nor beast … taste anything” (esv). The second meaning is “decree,” which is borrowed from either Assyrian (which would make sense!) or Aramaic. This rarer meaning occurs only in Jonah 3:7 and in Dan 3:10. The author of Jonah turns this into a witticism: What comes out of the king’s mouth (the decree, ta‘am) keeps the people from putting anything into theirs (tasting food, ta‘am). Another word that is explored by the narrative is ‫אלהים‬ (’elohim). When the God of Israel is referred to by name (Yahweh, “the Lord”), there is no ambiguity. But the word ’elohim can refer to either Yahweh or some other divine being. With the exception of 3:10, the narrator of Jonah always refers to the God of Israel as Yahweh, “the Lord.” The sailors first pray to their individual (unnamed) gods (’elohim), but once the storm is calmed, they call out specifically to Yahweh by name. This is a central issue in the book: The pagans have gods they worship, but they don’t have a relationship with Yahweh, the one true God.

Jonah 1:6 and 3:9–10 are the only places in the book where ’elohim is used with a definite article (“the”), ha-’elohim. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, this means the God, par excellence. The words ha-’elohim occur twice in the phrase “perhaps this god (the God of Jonah) will relent,” spoken by both the captain of the sailors and the Ninevite king. At this critical moment, each leader switches from saying “your god,” or just “god,” to saying “the God.” The change in language is subtle (less so in Hebrew), but it suggests a change of attitude: “Unlike our other gods, perhaps this god (of Jonah’s) is decent enough to spare us if we repent.” In 3:10, the narrator echoes the king: “When ‘this god’ (ha-’elohim) saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, ‘this god’ (ha-’elohim) relented.” By breaking from his regular habit and echoing the words of the king, the narrator tacitly approves of the king’s conclusion. The story of Jonah is, on the one hand, a very simple one. The plot is not difficult to follow, the characters are engaging, and the issues are clear. The author did not indulge himself by using complex grammar or showy turns of phrase. But, a close look at the text reveals the hand of a subtle artist who knew how to use words for maximum effect.

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