Arise and go to Nineveh, the great city and call out against it for
their wickedness has come up before me (1,2).
Yonah was commanded to go to Nineveh for it has sinned grievously against
the L-rd. Truly Nineveh was a great city from its very inception (Genesis
10, 11-12). A capital of the rising great imperial power of Assyria, it is
well attested to in the Tanach for its inexorable might, its cruelty and
its inhumane policy of exiling the populations of recalcitrant opponents
and bothersome vassal states. It conquered and emptied out the Kingdom of
Israel, the Jewish tribes of the trans-Jordan and most of Judea; Jerusalem
alone was miraculously saved. An enemy, that's what it was, a feared and
hated enemy of Israel. It is surprising then, that this essential
background is avoided in our Book, not even that Nineveh was the capital
of Assyria. A very different characterization of this city arises form
the words of another prophet: Woe to the bloody city! It is all full of
lies and rapine; the prey departeth not….
Because of the multitude of the harlotries of the well-favoured harlot,
the mistress of witchcrafts, that selleth nations through her harlotries,
and families through her witchcrafts...
Behold, I am against thee, saith HaShem of hosts… (Nachum 3, 1-5)
Why is this information deliberately witheld? Even more surprisingly, what
was it about Nineveh that warranted reaching out to it with the call to
repentance, with the message of forgiveness to its inhabitants. After all,
human history does not lack for cities of great wickedness that neither
deserved nor received a second chance. Witness the very different
treatment accorded Babylonia by the prophet Ishaia, Ch. 13 and 14.
This question is a very important one inasmuch as it guides our
understanding of the entire book. Some have suggested that Ninevites were
righthouse from time immemorial and only recently had turned to evil; they
consequently deserved a chance that other cities, wicked to the core, did
not get (Ibn Ezra). Others saw in it a reflection of G-d's working to
purify this "staff of My wrath (Ishaia 10,5)", so that it become a worthy
vessel for His judgment against Israel (Radak, Abarabanel).
We will approach this question by noting the significance of Nineveh being
called "a great city". Now, undoubtedly it was a large city of unusually
grand dimensions, containing within it some "more than 12 myriad (
120000.00) persons (4,11)". "Nineveh was a great city unto the L-rd, a
walk of 3 days (3,3)". The ruins of ancient Nineveh near Mosul, Iraq, are
clearly visible in our day; its walls are 12 kilometers long and its
maximal width is 5 kilometers; the extent of the settlement beyond the
walls is likely to have been even greater. Yet, it seems that it is not
the size alone that made Nineveh great for this appellation appears even
at the time that it had just been built and it was likely much smaller
(Genesis 10, 11-12). . Whatever the reason, the fact remains that being a
great city seems to be a integrally associated with it, sort of as New
York City is known as the Great Apple - "Nineveh, the Great City".
The suggestion that there is unique significance in Nineveh- the Great
City as the setting for Yonah's message of repentance to the nations may
explain the special use of the word "great (gadol)". It occurs 14 times in
this short book (if you exclude 3,5 where it means mature rather than
great). The frequent use of the word communicates an important point.
The concept of the "key word" has become widely accepted as a guide to
interpretation since it was enunciated some 80 years ago. In brief, it
proposes that in Tanach "key words" are used and frequently repeated in a
unit of meaning, often in complements of 7 or 14, to encode the
interpretive "key" for the careful reader as well as to subliminally
affect even a superficial reader. The "great city" is echoed by great
wind, great cry, great fear and, of course, the great fish that swallowed
Yonah. The latter is particularly interesting for the Semitic word Nineveh
in itself, sounds something like " abode of the fish" (naveh nun, Daas
Mikra n. 7) and the cuneiform symbol for Nineveh is in fact, a fish within
a house. The overall effect of such foreshadowing and characterization is
to draw our attention to the great and weighty matters with which this
book deals - prophecy, repentance, rebellion and redemption. This key word
cues us to the cosmic significance of events it recounts and helps shape
our response to the message that it delivers.