9 Who knows?[a] Perhaps God might be willing to change his mind and relent[b] and turn from his fierce anger[c] so that we might not die.”[d]
Jonah 3:9sn The king expresses his uncertainty whether Jonah’s message constituted a conditional announcement or an unconditional decree. Jeremiah 18 emphasizes that God sometimes gives people an opportunity to repent when they hear an announcement of judgment. However, as Amos and Isaiah learned, if a people refused to repent over a period of time, the patience of God could be exhausted. The offer of repentance in a conditional announcement of judgment can be withdrawn and in its place an unconditional decree of judgment issued. The initial difficulty, in many cases, of determining whether a prophecy of coming judgment is conditional or unconditional explains the king’s uncertainty.
Jonah 3:9tn “he might turn and relent.” The two verbs יָשׁוּב וְנִחַם (yashub venikham) may function independently (“turn and repent”) or form a verbal hendiadys (“be willing to turn”; see IBHS 540 §32.3b). The imperfect יָשׁוּב and the perfect with prefixed vavוְנִחַם form a future-time narrative sequence. Both verbs function in a modal sense, denoting possibility, as the introductory interrogative suggests (“Who knows…?”). When used in reference to past actions, שׁוּב (shub) can mean “to be sorry” or “to regret” doing something in the past. Regarding the future, it can mean “to change one’s mind” about doing something or “to relent” from sending judgment (BDB 997 s.v. שׁוּב 6). The verb נִחַם (nikham) can mean “to be sorry” about past actions (e.g., Gen 6:6, 7; 1 Sam 15:11, 35) or “to change one’s mind” about future actions (BDB 637 s.v. נחם 2). These two verbs are used together elsewhere in passages that consider whether or not God will change his mind and relent from judgment he has threatened (e.g., Jer 4:28). The verbal root שׁוּב is used four times in vv. 8-10, twice of the Ninevites “repenting” from their moral evil, and twice of God “relenting” from his threatened calamity. This repetition creates a wordplay that emphasizes the appropriateness of God’s response: if the people repent, God might relent.
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