Old Testament thoughts is a weekly post where we’ll be looking at some interesting aspects of some Scripture from the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament). Right now, we are looking at the literary aspects of the book of Jonah.
Chapter 3 begins the way you would have expected the entire story would have (see the first post below). YHWH tells Jonah to “arise” and he does “arise” to go to Ninevah, instead of “arising” to “go down” to run away from YHWH.
Then he goes to Nineveh and says this, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be haphak.”
I will, for the sake of space and focus, not deal with how unlikely it would have been for the Ninevites to understand Hebrew, the language the Scriptures are written in. That is, what did Jonah really say? And did he say it in Hebrew? Or is what we have a translation? Ah…for another day…
But I do want to simply point out the ambiguity of the term haphak. If God (via Jonah) wanted to proclaim that in 40 days Nineveh would be destroyed there are several other words that would be unambigious. Instead, he uses the ambigious haphak, which could mean either “turned” or “overthrown.” We obviously know which of those Jonah meant, he wanted Nineveh to be “overthrown.”
Instead, verse 5 shows us that the Ninevites “turned” or “were changed,” that is, they repented. Is that what God meant when he said, “40 days and Nineveh will be haphak“?
The interesting thing is that Nineveh wasn’t destroyed. If you remember, in Deuteronomy, the mark of a true prophet is that his/her prophecy comes true. But Nineveh wasn’t destroyed. So if Jonah took haphak to mean “destroy” then he is a false prophet. But as it is, and against Jonah’s own wishes, Nineveh “turns,” so maybe he wasn’t a false prophet after all…
N.B.: Even the people of Nineveh thought (whatever language Jonah used) that God was planning on destroying them – see 3:9.