Was Nineveh in Jonah's Day Much Larger
than Major Modern-Day Cities?
An example of disputed numerical accuracy in scripture is the size of the city Nineveh
in the book of Jonah. Modern scholars offer a variety of suggestions on the sense of meaning of the basic passage in verses 3:3 & 3:4, all of which prove to be erroneous.
Jonah 3:3 4 KJV
3:3 So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days journey.
3:4 And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried and said, Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
4:11…Nineveh that great city wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons…
Some modern translators say the 3 days journey refers to Nineveh’s size, its breadth being so great 3 days would be needed to walk across it. But it’s never been logical to describe city size in terms of the number of days needed to cross it, the lay-out always being irregular and varying with the direction traveled. Further, even very large modern cities would be just a little more than a one-day walk in breadth if the layout were regular, and ancient cities have not been anywhere near this large. One of the great cities today, London England, covers an area of ~610 square miles, which for a circular lay-out would apply to a city ~28 miles in breadth (a little less than 25 miles for a square lay-out). A one-day walk is normally considered as covering 20-25 miles. A city as large as the Nineveh of modern translators would be 60-75 miles wide, and Nineveh's population was 120,000, while London's population is over 8,000,000. Some scholars suggest the 3 days journey refers to the time to traverse the perimeter of the city, which would apply to a city the size of London if it’s lay-out were circular, but Nineveh was much smaller than London is.
Nineveh, like many other ancient cities, was bounded by great walls for the sake of protection against enemies, and archaeological studies have shown that city walls of Nineveh were only ~7.5 mi. in perimeter, with the longest being ~3 mi. long, and an adjacent wall being less than 1 & ½ mi. long. Clearly, a journey across Nineveh would take no more than a few hours, and even its perimeter could be traversed in ~9 hrs., or slightly more than 1/3 of one day at a walking rate of 20 miles/day.
Scholars keep trying to interpret the meaning of the 3-day journey; they end up proposing all manner of suggestions, such as the notion that the 120,000 refers to children since they are said to be unable to discern between their left hand & their right hand, so that the estimated total population would be ~600,000. However, that would require most of the population to live outside the protective walls, which is most unlikely due to a threat of warfare by enemies seeking revenge for the cruelty that the Ninevites practiced against other people groups. Actually, the left-hand & right-hand language here is idiomatic Hebrew referring to people who live on the left-hand or right-hand side of life, the former signifying uncivilized people who don’t know right from wrong, while the latter refers to those wise enough to live in accord with God’s will. History tells us the Assyrians, which included the residents of Nineveh, were barbaric, living on the left-hand side of life, oblivious to their need for God, a need that that was met for all who lived on the right-hand side of life.*
*Ecc.10:2 says, A wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart at his left.
Now the scholars keep rationalizing on the meaning of the 3-day journey, and some suggest Nineveh in the text refers, not just to Nineveh proper, but to a network that included 3 other cities that all functioned in cooperation with each other, and the time needed to traverse the ~ 60 mile perimeter of this group would be ~3 days. But history tells us the second-largest city of the 4 had a population of 65-70,000 people, and archaeology tells us this city was about half the size of Nineveh proper, so the 120,000 population of Nineveh in the text obviously refers only to Nineveh proper.
It's also been suggested that the 3-day journey is figurative language, but that tells us nothing about the meaning of the 3 days.
Some commentators suggest the 3 days refer to a time of diplomatic interaction for a lone prophet like Jonah, which is absurd since the eager response of Nineveh and its king to Jonah indicates God had prepared them for the message. Indeed, if God had not prepared the city to repent, Jonah would be treated in the uncivilized barbaric way that Assyrians treated all persons outside their culture.
say the 3 days is the time it took Jonah to traverse the city to
preach to all, but the entire city circumference would be ~7.5 miles, and Jonah wouldn’t be the only messenger since the king of
the city compelled the repentance, and his soldiers would spread the
message in the city quickly since he was urgent over the matter. It's also been suggested that the size of a city extended beyond the walls, but that's not what the Bible teaches.*
*Lev.25 29,30…if a man seek a dwelling place in a walled city…the house…in the walled city…
Num.13:28…the cities are walled and very great:
cities are great and walled up…
the land of unwalled
villages…that dwell safely...having neither bars nor gates. Walls are for protection from enemies, small villages not needing them due to the lack of interest by invaders in small villages with no significant wealth.
It's been calculated that if 50
yds. were allocated to each resident within the walls, 170,000 persons could be accommodated, which is notably more than the 120,000+ indicated by the text. These would be largely soldiers in this capital city of the militaristic Assyrian empire, and they would have notably less than 50 sq. yds each, soldiers being housed in large barracks- type buildings or tents, and many families would be expected to live in the city, all family members sharing a given space. Thus the number that could be housed within the city walls would be considerably more than 170,000.
Clearly, scholars have no idea of the sense of meaning of the 3-day journey.
Determining the proper meaning of the text
The word great in the text doesn’t refer to the city’s size, for a Hebrew disjunctive accent marker signifies a pause after great city, and while it’s not necessary to recognize this in translation, it makes this term an interjected supplemental thought so that the following three days journey doesn't relate to the city’s size. Actually, the Hebrew literally says Nineveh was a city great to God, which is the Hebrew way to describe all that is important, and great refers to importance, not size. God, who created the infinite universe, and speaks of earth as His footstool (Isa.66:1) won’t view the size of Nineveh as great. He would consider Nineveh, a city of military might & commerce, as very important in His future plans, especially His plan to impose the Assyrian Captivity on the 10 northern tribes of Israel as chastisement for their blatant idolatry, and Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire.
Now in Hebrew language the sense of a passage meaning is highly dependent on context, and the one contextual reference to a journey is that of verse 3 on Jonah’s travel to Nineveh from the Mediterranean seashore where the whale disgorged him. It’s as if God is saying, in verse 3, that Nineveh was a city important to Him, and thus must soon repent, and the repentance will occur only after a trip by Jonah that usually would require 3 days of travel time from the place where it begins.
The expression three days journey refers to the travel time involved by means of the available mode of travel in that part of the world over a distance too far to cover by walking. An Arabian camel can carry one man over 80-120 miles/day, and the closest point to Nineveh on the Mediterranean shore at which the whale could dis- gorge Jonah would be ~350 miles from the city. A travel rate of ~117 miles per day for a 3-day trip, is in accord with the travel rate of the camel.
In verse 3:2 God commands Jonah, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city..., and here the contextual journey indicated by go unto Nineveh, has no relationship to the terminology that great city; the latter phrase is set off by a disjunctive accent marker, indicating an interjected supplemental thought so that grammar separates the two phrases. In verse 3:3 the importance of the city is being emphasized, and the 3-day journey is a supplemental thought, so the sense of the supplemental portion in its literal sense says, Nineveh she was city, journey of three days, or as expressed in better English, Nineveh was a city of 3 days journey, plainly referring to the time it would normally take for Jonah to travel from the seaside to Nineveh on the camel.
Further, the journey noted in verse 3:4 logically continues the link to Jonah’s trip to Nineveh, and began to enter into the city a day’s journey, means he began to enter after a day’s journey. A disjunctive accent marker creates another pause after the city here that hinders any link to the following a days journey, so this journey is not a distance Jonah traveled through the city.* Grammar & context require began to enter on arrival after a very rapid Providentially-empowered 1-day journey over a distance normally requiring 3 days by the available mode of travel, one not available to Jonah at the seashore so that he walked in the power of God.
*Translators who render the Hebrew literally can’t add implied information that would pre- sume upon what God says, so evidently God wants commentators & readers to study to show thyself approved unto God (2 Tim.2:15 ) rather than leap to conclusions as translators do today. The KJV presents the matter in the way that allows deduction of the true sense of the teaching.
Modern translators suggest Jonah started into a day’s journey through this very large city, but the 3-day period is contrasted with Jonah’s 1-day journey to emphasize the rapid travel, and to show that God’s timetable for repentance of Nineveh won’t be altered by Jonah’s disobedience. If Jonah had walked to Nineveh at a typical rate of 20 miles/day, ~17.5 days would be required to reach Nineveh, and by that time the king of Nineveh would have lost the sense of urgency over repentance. Further, the rapid travel seems meant to portray Jonah’s repentance after his hell-like experience in the whale stomach, and his desire to avoid further chastisement by God. This providentially-empowered speed was like that of Elijah who ran on foot ahead of king Ahab in a chariot (1 Kgs.18:44-46 – Ahab had to hurry to avoid impending heavy rain that would turn dirt roads of his day into a quagmire of mud).
Scholars distort the translation here, due to their failure to relate journey to language and context. The recently-published ESV typifies various modern versions here.
3:3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days journey in breadth.
3:4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
are rendered for one Hebrew word in trying to justify the notion of 3
days being needed to cross its breadth. Once journey
is rendered, adding breadth
is improper, and breadth
relates poorly to journey.
A similar problem in verse 4 is use of go
two English terms being offered for one Hebrew; to support a
through-the-city concept, going
is improperly added to go;* Further, the Hebrew rendered to
normally means to
another Hebrew word being the usual one for go, so
to go into
imposes private interpretation that suggests starting through the
city, when enter
in the sense of arriving is indicated. Such opinion goes far beyond
translation liberty required at times. Perhaps ESV translators felt Nineveh was too far from the sea to reach in 3 days at ~350 miles
from the closest Mediter- ranean beach Jonah could come from. As noted above, the 3-day journey seems meant to emphasize the great speed of
Jonah's travel, a minimum of 2 weeks (25 mi./day) normally being
required to walk 350 miles, so God's enabling of Jonah in a whirlwind
type journey is the explanation for the one-day travel.
*It’s either journey or going, not both, and going as used in the ESV is in a verbal form, while in the Hebrew the one term is a substantive like journey, further illustrating excessive liberty.
Further, a journey is a trip from one location (seaside) to another (Nineveh). If Jonah began a journey on one side of Nineveh, he would at at his destination ready to preach. The ESV is easily interpreted to mean that Jonah went a full day into the city, passing up many people before beginning to preach, which isn't credible.
And the ESV began to go into the city, going a day's journey doesn’t fit the network concept, however it’s interpreted. He couldn’t have gone into a network city if it took him another day to get to the city. Or it wouldn’t take a full day to travel through a small network city to declare the simple repentance message noted in the account, especially since the other cities would need to hear it quickly, and Nineveh's king, being anxious about the message, would have his many soldiers spread it. And again, going is an added word not in the Hebrew, and it combines with began to go into to suggest a day's movement through the city, contrary to the accurate began to enter (come into). The ESV reading lacks credibility, just supporting a translator through-the-city private interpretation.
The straightforward KJV rendering is correct. Jonah began preaching immediately on reaching the city after providentially-empowered rapid travel reflecting God’s time- table and Jonah’s desire to avoid further chastisement. Quick correction of disobed- ience to God is important, and scripture indirectly teaches that here. There are many subtle teaching aspects of the Word of God, and it has manifold purposes & wisdom in its pages. Modern versions rob the reader of this teaching.
The KJV reference to Nineveh as an exceeding great city clearly is a reference to its importance as an influential city of military might and commerce. NIV translators (1984 ed.) seem to realize this, judging by their rendering, and they seem to know the suggested size of the city can’t be right. But they offer something no more credible than the ESV rendering here, and eliminate the crucial lesson for the reader on the need for haste in correcting disobedience to God.
3:3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city - a visit required three days.
3:4 On the first day Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed...
The NIV (1984 ed.) correctly renders the clause on the city's importance. (the 2011 ed. agrees with most other modern versions). Required isn’t in the Hebrew (the NIV has no italics), and without it the rendering makes no sense. Journey, not visit, is indicated, and the translators ignored the same Hebrew term in verse 4 that must be rendered journey (to render journey right after rendering visit would reflect poorly on visit). And the NIV verse-4 opening clause is inaccurate paraphrase, the meaning of the one-day period being lost in the paraphrase, On the first day Jonah started into the city. This is private opinion offered to support the through-the-city concept.
Supposedly, the 3 days refers to the time needed to visit Nineveh, the city being so important that 3 days were needed to see everything. This is meaningless paraphrase without relation to the context. The context speaks of Nineveh's need to repent to avoid God’s judgment and Jonah's responsibility to preach it. The city, an important center of military might & commerce, will perish if repentance doesn't occur. Jonah would have no inclination or time to visit Nineveh, only tourists (like ecumenists of modern times enjoying the false idol gods) being inclined toward that sort of thing.
KJV translators alone properly rendered the subject passage, while translators today have failed badly, distorting the text badly in trying to make sense of it.
Other comments: In closing our discussion, we note that, despite a desire to avoid further chastisement from God, Jonah was displeased by Nineveh's deliverance from destruction. (Indeed, Jonah preferred to die rather than preach repentance to Nine- veh, as seen when he fled from God on a ship across the Mediterranean Sea, and told the crew to throw him overboard if they were to survive a fierce storm that God sent upon the ship). Moderns accuse Jonah of ethnic prejudice over the fate of an entire city, but he had powerful reasons for not wanting Nineveh to awaken to the danger. The Assyrian empire, of which Nineveh was the capital city, later would kill & deport many among the ten northern tribes where Jonah ministered, and where his family & friends would dwell. As a prophet, Jonah must have known of this future event that would be so destructive to his own people, as a weeping Elisha knew the future as he spoke to Hazael of Syria who would later kill many in Israel (2 Kings 8:7-13). We note in studying the book that there’s no indication of God’s displeasure with Jonah's unhappiness when Nineveh had repented, doubtless due to the extreme challenge to personal interest. But God requires of His ministers that they minister even to their worst enemies, and even at great personal cost. Both the Old & New Testaments teach this principle that is challenging in the extreme (see Mt.5:44).