Sunday, May 6, 2012

Repentance of the Ninevites and Unrepentance of Israel in Matthew 12:41

My plan for the next few months is to write a series of (generally) short pieces on each of the instances in which the words “repent,” “repentance,” or their variants are used in the New Testament, showing the behavioral contents of these words. I will start with instances in Matthew, taking one passage per entry, not necessarily in the order they appear in Matthew. I will then move on to Mark, and so forth throughout the New Testament.

In this entry, I will consider Matthew 12:41

The men of Nineveh will stand up in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for they repented (metenoēsan) at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, someone greater than Jonah is here.

In this verse, the word “repented” is an instance of the stronger verb for the concept, metanoeō, which implies a major change in behavior, as discussed in a previous posting. Yet no specific behavioral change on the part of the Ninevites is mentioned in this verse or its immediate context. However, Jesus’ reference to the Ninevites’ repentance is associated with a specific historical event, recorded in the book of the prophet Jonah, which was familiar to his hearers. The book of Jonah certainly records a major change in the Ninevites’ behavior when they heard the prophet’s prediction of their destruction:

5 The people of Nineveh believed God; and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from their greatest even to their least. 6 The news reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and took off his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 He made a proclamation and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, “Let neither man nor animal, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, nor drink water; 8 but let them be covered with sackcloth, both man and animal, and let them cry mightily to God. Yes, let them turn everyone from his evil way, and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows whether God will not turn and relent, and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we might not perish?” 10 God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way. God relented of the disaster which he said he would do to them, and he didn’t do it.

Jonah 3:5-10 (WEB).

The repentance recorded by Jonah was so complete that God delayed by over a hundred years the announced destruction of Nineveh! And it involved more than a ritual show of humility before God (fasting, sackcloth and ashes), as important as that was. It required the Ninevites to turn from their evil ways, and from the violence that was in their hands.

In its context in Matthew, the verse contrasts the Ninevites’ repentance with the unrepentance of the scribes and Pharisees who came to challenge Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees had asked Jesus for a sign that would demonstrate his authority. (Matt. 12:38). Jesus’ answer was that they would be given no sign except the sign of the prophet Jonah, who was three days and three nights in the belly of a fish. In the same way, Jesus said, he would be three days and nights in the heart of the earth (Matt. 12:39-40)—predicting his death and resurrection.

Matthew 12:41 appears at this point in the context. Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees that the men of violent, pagan Nineveh will be able to accuse the religious leaders of Israel in the day of judgment, because when Jonah preached to them they repented, sought the true God, and put the evil deeds and violence out of their hands. By contrast, when the scribes and Pharisees heard the preaching of Jesus—one greater than Jonah—they would not listen.