I was doing a little Bible reading the other day (yes, I know that’s unusual, since I’m Catholic), and I stumbled across the following verse in the book of Jonah: “When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, He repented of the evil He had threatened to do to them; He did not carry it out” (Jonah 3:10).
Whoa, wait a minute. These words clearly say that God repented of the evil He planned to do to the city of Nineveh. What gives here? Is it possible that God Almighty (1) planned to do evil to a group of people, and then (2) repented of His evil plans?
That doesn’t sound like God. That sounds more like a crime boss who had a change of heart just before giving the order to have his rivals murdered.
Well, let’s see if we can figure this out. First, as Catholics, we believe what the Catechism says about the Word of God, that is, the Bible is divinely inspired and everything in it teaches important truths about God and humanity. So, we have to accept that every word of the Bible, including Jonah 3:10, teaches an important theological truth.
Many people conclude that God Almighty must have changed over time. Thousands of years ago, as recorded in the early books of the Old Testament, God was often in a bad mood, and would do things like strike people dead, drown Pharoah’s entire army in the Red Sea, destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone, and threaten to crush Nineveh if it’s citizens did not repent. But over the centuries, God kind of mellowed and, in the person of Jesus Christ, told everyone to chill out. The new message was all about love and forgiveness, for example, when Jesus told the adulterous woman, “Neither do I condemn you.”
If God’s personality changed over the years, if He mellowed out and lightened up after going through His rambunctious “fire and brimstone period,” then He wouldn’t be God. One of the basic definitions of the Almighty Creator is that He is eternal and unchanging. God is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
It’s not that God has changed; it’s that the literary styles of chronicling God’s actions have changed. As Catholics, we believe the authors of Scripture were definitely under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The biblical writings are true. But we believe the authors employed their own particular writing styles, abilities, and cultural understandings when crafting the documents that later were included in the Holy Bible. The authors were not merely stenographers, writing down word-for-word what God was dictating to them. They recorded accurate theological truths, often while using literary styles that were popular in their day and age. Some of these literary styles included allegories, parables, apocalyptic visions, and attributing human characteristics to God. I think that might have been at play when the prophet Jonah’s adventures were written down.
Almighty God is all loving and merciful, and at the same time He is all just and righteous. When the Bible says He “threatened” to do “evil” to the city of Nineveh if they did not repent, that simply may have been a literary technique to describe God’s righteousness and the city’s sinfulness. And when it says God “repented” of the “evil” He planned to do, that also may be a way of describing God’s mercy.
Please don’t fret. God does not plan evil, as He is 100% holy and good. And He doesn’t need to repent of His plans or actions, because being 100% holy and good means He’s never thought or done anything bad.
So, feel free to continue reading your Bible, even if you’re a fellow Catholic, like me, and people are surprised to learn that you to read Scripture. But watch out for those quirky literary techniques.