How Big Was Nineveh? Literal versus Figurative Interpretation of City Size -- By: Charles Halton
BBR 18:2 (2008) p. 193
How Big Was Nineveh?
Literal versus Figurative Interpretation
of City Size
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
This article examines the incongruity between most modern translations of Jonah 3:3 and ancient textual and archaeological evidence concerning the size of Nineveh. Every modern solution intended to reconcile a literal rendering of the description in Jonah 3:3 with ancient evidence fails. However, reading Jonah 3:3 as a figure of speech perfectly conveys the author’s intention of representing Nineveh as a very large city.
Key Words: Jonah 3:3, Nineveh, Babylon, literal, figurative, idiom, hermeneutics, Herodotus, Sennacherib, journey, prophet
On the face of it, “Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey” (Jonah 3:3b, KJV) is quite an innocuous statement. It seems like a straightforward description of size measured by means of an average day’s walk. Many modern translations render this phrase in a similar manner:
Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth (ESV).1
Now Nineveh was an extremely large city, a three-day walk (HCSV).2
Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk (NASB).3
Now Nineveh was a very important city—a visit required three days (NIV).
Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey across (NJB).
Author’s note: I dedicate this article to Professor Edwin Yamauchi and John Charles Halton III—two individuals who combine a sharp mind with a tender heart. May this young scholar follow in your footsteps. Furthermore, I extend my deep appreciation to them both for their insights in an earlier draft of this essay.
BBR 18:2 (2008) p. 194
Nineveh was an enormously large city a three days’ walk across (NJPSV).4
[A] city so large that it took three days to see it all (NLT).
Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across (NRSV).
Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it (TNIV).
However, once one begins to ponder the rela...
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