Saturday, February 5, 2011

God, Jonah, and the Great City of Nineveh

The book of Jonah describes the city of Nineveh as “a great city.” The phrase a great city occurs once in the book (Jon 3:3), and the phrase the great city three times (Jon 1:2; 3:2; 4:11).

Archaeological research has shown that Nineveh was indeed a great city comparatively speaking. The city enclosed by its walls was roughly rectangular in shape. The four lengths of the city walls were around 2 km, 5 km, 1 km, and 5 km, giving an area of about 8 square km inside the walls. There is also strong evidence of settlement occuring outside of the city walls. The walls included fifteen monumental gates, and inside the city were magnificent temples and a royal palace. Nineveh was definitely a very large city in the timeframe of the eighth century B.C. when Jonah was sent by God to warn the city of his intention to destroy it (2 Kgs 14:25; Jon 3:4).

The size of the city is significant in the narratorial world of the book of Jonah. A narratorial aside at the end of Jon 3:3 tells us that “Nineveh was an extremely large city (עיר־גדולה לאלהים), a journey of three days.” It is interesting that the translations of Jon 3:3 have generally taken the phrase לאלהים as an adverbial intensifier, even though the phrase literally means to God.

So should עיר־גדולה לאלהים be translated as an extremely great city or as a city great in the sight of God? We need to keep in mind at this point that Hebrew is a very contextual language. A lot of exegetical decisions in the Hebrew Bible are decided by context. The focus of the disjunctive clause in Jon 3:3 is on the size of the city. The immediate context suggests, therefore, that it makes sense to translate לאלהים as an adverbial intensifier: Nineveh was “an almighty great city” to put it in more colloquial terms, where the word almighty also captures something of the etymological connotation of strength or importance that the אלהּ root possibly communicates.

But at the same time, the immediate context needs to be viewed in the light of wider contextual considerations, where it is to be noted that the three instances of the phrase the great city in Jonah all occur on the lips of … God! It is also clear from Jon 4:11 that the 120,000 person population of Nineveh, and its many animals, were a key component of the greatness of the city from God’s perspective. The wider context, therefore, pushes us in the direction of the LXX translation: that Nineveh was a great city to (i.e., in the sight of) God.

So how is this to be resolved? I take it that the ideal reader of the text (an orthodox Israelite with an intimate knowledge of ancient Hebrew culture and language) would understand the phrase לאלהים in Jon 3:3 as being a case of double entendre. Nineveh was almighty big, and big to the Almighty! Its large human and animal population meant that God was rightfully concerned about the fate of the city, and that it should rightly experience God’s pity upon the condition of repentance. After all, those people and animals were created by God in the first place (note the logic of God’s argument in Jon 4:10–11).

The effect of the double entendre is to help us to realize that the almighty large cities of our world are important to the Almighty.

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