The only Hebrew word for repentance used in Jonah—to turn (sub)—appears only in this section of Jonah. Twice it describes the Ninevites (Jonah 3:8, 10) who turn away from evil, but twice God is the subject of the verb (Jonah 3:9). God also turns.
Nineveh repented, and—in response–so did God.
From the time Jonah first entered the city, his message was well-received. People “believed God,” and they responded with acts of mourning and repentance. When the news reached the king, he responded in the same way. Jonah 3:7-9 provides a window into the heart of the king (and presumably the people as well) as we see the nature of this repentance and its hope.
We might characterize the repentance as (1) public, (2) communal, (3) radical, (4) demonstrative, and (5) prayerful.
Nineveh’s repentance is no private confession but a public acknowledgment. It comes in the form of a royal proclamation, which applies to the whole city and everything (including the animals) in the city. As such, this is a communal act of repentance as the whole city participates in these acts of repentance.
It is radical in its practice. Fasting comes in many forms. Some fasting is only for a specific part of the day (such as daylight), and other fasting only restricts particular foods or drink. The proclamation enjoins a radical fast: no food, no water, no taste! The exchange of dress is not only radical but demonstrative. Everyone—high and low, the king and his subjects—wore the same clothes. This is radical and demonstrative humility before God, and it symbolized the city’s equal status before God. No one was privileged due to social status.
This repentance is also vocal—the city prayed, they “cried out mightily” (that is, the prayed with vigor, strength and energy). What Jonah refused to do on the ship (Jonah 1:6) and what the sailors themselves did do (Jonah 1:14), Nineveh now does. They cry out to God. Once again, it is the nations who model for Israel how to repent and turn to God rather than vice versa.
The object of their repentance, and thus a confession as well, is their own “evil ways” and “the violence” of their “hands” (Jonah 3:8). Nineveh confesses the “evil” (ra’) that Yahweh saw when Jonah was commissioned (Jonah 1:2). Their confession even particularizes this evil—“violence.” This word often describes the human condition in Scripture from the Noahic world (Genesis 6:11-13) to Israel’s own land (Jeremiah 20:8; Ezekiel 7:23; 8:17; Amos 3:10; Micah 6:12; Habakkuk 1:2). For Assyria it was the sin of their empire, which was well known and feared for its brutal violence.
Despite their history of evil and violence, including the disasters they wrought upon other nations, Jonah’s message offered hope. They repent, confess, and pray for mercy in the light of this hope. Yet, they recognize that their repentance does not obligate God nor does it put God in their debt. If God saves, it is because of God’s mercy and not their repentance. Their repentance does not dictate to God but it opens a door for God’s mercy. “Who knows?” Perhaps God will save. God is sovereign, and it is God’s choice whether God will save or not. Nothing penitent sinners do will ever put God in a box or bound God’s sovereignty.
One of the curious features of this story is the inclusion of the animals in these penitent acts. Herds and flocks are not only to fast along with the Ninevites but they are also to wear sackcloth as well. This is, however, more of a curiosity to modernity than it is to readers of the Hebrew Bible.
The Hebrew Bible consistently includes animals in both the praise of the Creator and the lament for the human condition as well as the environmental devastation humans bring to the world. An example of praise is Psalm 148, a classic text where all creation is called to praise God, and this was popularized by the old hymn “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah.” An example of lament is Joel 1:10 where the “ground mourns” just as the priests do (Joel 1:9). Scripture is filled with images of cosmic praise as well as cosmic groaning.
Given this biblical narrative, it is not surprising animals are included. They, too, participate Nineveh’s mourning over the violence of their culture. Creation groans over human evil, and it mourns over human violence because creation is devastated by that violence. The earth perishes because of what humans do (Hosea 4:1-3).
Consequently, the animals fast and wear sackcloth along with the Ninevites.
God repents (turns, sub).
Nineveh hopes God may “turn and change his mind” (Jonah 3:9)
Nineveh hopes God “may turn from his fierce anger” (Jonah 3:9)
Further, God not only “turns,” but “changes his mind” (nacham). This is affirmed twice as well.
Nineveh hoped God might “change his mind” (Jonah 3:9).
And, in fact, “God changed his mind” (Jonah 3:10).
Of course, none of this language entails a “repentance” which involves a turning away from some moral evil as if God had sinned. It is not “sorrow for sin.” Rather, it describes how God “turned” from one course of action to another course of action. In this sense, God “changed his mind.” God decided to do something different due to changing circumstances than what God was previously going to do if the circumstances remained the same.
“Repent,” then, is a misleading term when applied to God. God neither turns away from committing sin nor does God “change his mind” about sin. Rather, God turns away from judgment upon sin, which comes in the form of a “calamity” or “disaster” God might bring upon a sinful, rebellious people. Literally, “calamity” is a Hebrew word often translated “evil” (ra’) but the word has a broad meaning of anything disastrous, tragic, or catastrophic. Often the word is simply translated “trouble.”
Consequently, many translations use the concept of “relent” rather than “repent” when talking about God. Given a rebellious, obstinate people, God intends to bring upon them calamitous events (“evil”) as a matter of divine judgment. However, when the people repent—like Nineveh—God relents. Instead of judgment, God shows mercy.
This, according to the narrative, constitutes a “change of mind,” which is the basic meaning of the Hebrew verb nacham. God has a change of mind in response to a new situation. Given Nineveh’s repentance, God shows mercy whereas previously God was determined to “overthrow” Nineveh if they persisted in their sin.
Prophetic preaching is often conditioned upon the response of the people. The classic example of this is Jeremiah 18:5-11 (NRSV; see also Jeremiah 26:3, 13, 16):
Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
This, we might say, is God’s modus operandi, that is, the way God engages the nations. How God treats a nation is conditioned, in part, on how that nation responds to God’s prophets.
The divine “turning” (“repentance”) or “change of mind” is a function of God’s relational nature; God responds to humanity as God lives in relationship with humanity.
However one construes the theological point regarding God’s “change,” the narrative emphasizes God’s response. God “did not do it”! God showed mercy rather than judgment. God rescued Nineveh, just as God had rescued Jonah.
In recent Evangelical theology, this text—as one among many such texts—has become the focus of some discussion as “open theists,” “classic Arminians,” and “Reformed theologians” debate the nature of God’s relationship to contingent events (events like Nineveh’s repentance and God’s response to it).
Open theism claims to take this language seriously and suggests the language is “plain and straightforward”—God “changed his mind.” God is interactive with the situation and God’s plan changes as the situation changes. In this sense, God faces “a partly open future.” God “does not control and/or foreknow exactly what is going to happen” (Greg Boyd, God of the Possible, pp. 14, 85). To say the future is open is to say the Ninevites had a choice of whether they would repent or stubbornly refuse, and God, in response, had options from which to choose as well. The future was not determined, but open. In other words, God had not foreordained Nineveh would repent or not repent. When Jonah entered Nineveh, even God did not know how the Ninevites would respond.
Reformed theology regards this language as accommodative such that God does not literally “change his mind” but only appears to “change his mind” from our situated, finite perspective. Ultimately, for Reformed theology, God has already predetermined and decreed what was going to happen in this situation and, consequently, God did not literally “change his mind” but executed the plan as God had previously determined. When Jonah entered Nineveh, God not only knew how the Ninevites would respond, God had actually decided how they would respond.
On the one hand, Reformed Theology has a point. All language about God is accommodative since nothing within human language can fully and comprehensively tell us what is actually happening within God’s own mind or life. That God “changed his mind” or “relented” from a prior purpose may be as accommodative as the “Lord came down to see the city and the tower” (Genesis 11:5). The former may no more mean that God was surprised by nor did not know how the Ninevites would respond than the Lord did not know what Babel was doing when they were building tower. God did not literally have to “come down” to see the tower and neither does it necessarily mean that God literally “changed his mind.” The language does not mean God did not know how the Ninevites would respond; it only indicates how God responded to their repentance.
On the other hand, the function of the narrative is to affirm God’s authentic response to Nineveh’s repentance. It affirms God’s relational nature and illustrates how God engages humanity within history. Jonah’s preaching, Nineveh’s repentance, and God’s mercy do not appear predetermined. On the contrary, the narrative highlights the relational engagement of the parties within the story, and it does so emphatically by repeating language for that emphasis.
Open theism assumes divine foreknowledge precludes authentic relational engagement, and Reformed theology excludes authentic contingency (freedom) because it is deterministic (in the sense that God had decreed all events). I think we can shoot the horns of that dilemma by affirming contingency and divine foreknowledge (which is what classic Arminianism does).
Though God knew how the Ninevites would respond, it was the Ninevites who actually responded (God did not determine it). When the Ninevites responded appropriately, the circumstance changed and thus God “changed his mind” and “turned” from judgment to mercy. The change of mind reflects a different situation, which is part of the divine intent embedded in the narrative and in the story of God, even in the “mind” of God. This is part of God’s character, and it is exactly what God knew God would do if the Ninevites responded in repentance.
Even if God knew what the Ninevites would do before they did it (which is the nature of divine knowledge), God knew it because the Ninevites did it. God did not determine they would do it. And God knew what God would do if the Ninevites repented.
Thus, in one sense, the future was open. The Ninevites had a choice. When the Ninevites changed their mind, God had a change of min in response.
In another sense, the future was not open. God responded to their choice consistent with God’s own character. God’s character does not change, and in this sense the mind of God does not change like human beings “change their mind” (cf. Numbers 12:19; 1 Samuel 15:29).
In one sense, the narrative is accommodative. God is described from within the horizon of the narrative itself. God is not described from the perspective of divine eternality or infinitude. In other words, this text is about relationality rather than foreknowledge. It does not deny foreknowledge or God’s transcendent qualities. Rather, it simply operates within a narrative frame that describes how God responds to human beings.
In this way, the narrative says something true (in an analogous way) about God. God authentically and truly engages human beings in their contingency as one who lives in relationship with others. God responds to human choices, and these choices make a real difference in how God responds.
Whether God foreknows these choices is immaterial to the point of the text. If one, however, decides—philosophically or theologically—that foreknowledge entails determinism (as both open theists and Reformed theologians do), then we must move the discussion to another level. I don’t think it does entail such, but that debate has a long and stormy history through the centuries.
As far as the text before us, however, it affirms “God changed his mind.” This does not deny foreknowledge but it does affirm divine relationality. God responds to human choices out of God’s own character and sovereignty.