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Hebrew Corner 15: Nineveh's Response
Jonah 3:5 describes the Ninevite response to the prophet’s oracle of judgment. NASB indicates that the Ninevites "believed in God," yet in many translations the rendering is "believed God" (NIV). Which is correct? What does this phrase convey about the spiritual state of the Ninevites?
It is not going to work to ask simply, "Is the Hebrew word for ‘in’ there or not?" The reason for this is that in English the collocation "believe in X" has become an idiomatic expression indicating a significant faith commitment. The same combination would not necessarily convey the same idiomatic force in another language. This is one of the things that makes translation so tricky.
If we want to understand this verse we have to apply two of the principles we have considered in previous entries.
First is that we have to consider meaning in light of other occurrences of the same collocation (this verb + this preposition). Secondly, we have to limit our database to verbs in the same stem (here the verb is in the hiphil stem). The root is ‘aman. So we need to look at occurrences of the hiphil of ‘aman with the object introduced by the preposition b… We will find that when we compile this list (about 2 dozen occurrences), the conclusion is clear that this combination does not specifically refer to a faith commitment in general but to the act of believing that which was said. For example, one of the places where we find the combination is in Numbers 20:12 where Moses is the subject. We could not conclude that this concerns the question of Moses faith (the term is negated in this passage). He simply had failed to believe what God had said. This study also has some impact on Genesis 15:6 where the same combination is used, indicating that Abraham took God at his word.
With regard to the Ninevites, we find that the text indicates that they believed that the judgment pronounced on them by God through Jonah posed a credible threat and they responded through repentance. The language falls short of suggesting a conversion experience. The text gives no indication that they recognized the claims of Yahweh, discard their idols, proclaimed themselves monotheists and signed on as circumcised members of the covenant.
A final technical note: Even though the Hebrew preposition b is often translated "in," the preposition can (and here does) simply introduce the direct object of the verb. As such it is in the same category as the direct object marker ‘et and should not be translated.
For more information about the implications of this interpretation see J. Walton, Jonah in the Revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary.
John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).
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