A divine decree once uttered could not be canceled

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A divine decree, once uttered, could not be canceled, but at best postponed or somehow redirected. When Sennacherib destroyed Babylon, we read in an inscription of Esarhaddon, Marduk wrote down seventy years as the term of the city's desolation; later, when he was appeased, the merciful god turned the tablet over which, given the form of cuneiform numerals, made the "70" look like an "11," and Marduk then ordered Babylon's restoration after eleven years. 16 Note how even in his mercy the god's freedom of action is limited by his previous decree; he must resort to a trick to circumvent his own words! In this Marduk's sovereignty over his own words is no greater than that of King Ahasuerus who, in Esther 8:8 found that his decree permitting the slaughter of the Jews could not be simply revoked even though he wished it. While the Bible nowhere considers God to be constrained by His decrees, several passages declare His consistency in executing them. As Bilaam told Balak: God is not man to be capricious, or mortal to renounce His plans ( lehinnahem ). Would He speak and not act, Promise and not fulfill? 17 (Numbers 23:19) More than one repentant sinner in the Bible suffered at least partial punishment because his repentance had come after the divine decree. Indeed, when Saul sought to nullify God's rejec- tion of him by repenting of his sin, Samuel responded that "the Eternal of Israel neither lies nor renounces His plans ( yinnahem ), for He is not a man that he should renounce His plans ( lehinnahem )" (I Samuel 15:29). 18 Yet here is the Book of Jonah proclaiming with the very same Hebrew word ( hinnahem ) that God does indeed renounce His threats! In this the Book of Jonah appears to follow a new idea, expressed most succinctly by the prophet Jeremiah, who quotes God as saying: If any time I declare concerning a nation or kingdom that I shall pluck up and break down and destroy it, and that nation...turns away from its evil, I shall renounce ( venihamti ) the evil I planned against it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation that I shall build and plant it, and it does evil in My sight, not listening to My voice, then I shall renounce ( venihamti ) the good which I planned for it. (Jeremiah 18:7-10) 19 This new idea means that God's threats as well as promises are contingent; prophecy is conditional. Even categorical divine decrees are subject to modification in light of human behavior. This leads to a radical and paradoxical change in the role of the prophet: his greatest success comes in the obviation of his threat! For the prophet is no longer conceived as merely a herald announcing the coming doom, but as a watchman warning of the doom in an effort to avert it. 20
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This is a view of prophecy that Jonah apparently did not share. He was a member of the old school. The Book of Deuteronomy had defined a simple test for the truth of a prophet: If the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously .... (Deuteronomy 18:22)
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