Jonah 3:3 (BHS, ESV):
וְנִֽינְוֵ֗ה הָיְתָ֤ה עִיר־גְּדוֹלָה֙ לֵֽאלֹהִ֔ים
wənînəwēh hāyətâ 'îr gədôlâ l'ēlōhîm
Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city*
*Hebrew: A great city to God
At issue is whether the word God (elohim) is being used as a superlative ("exceedingly great city") or as a reference to deity. This was brought up in an answer to another question of mine in discussion of yah, (arguably) the abbreviated tetragrammaton which may (arguably) also carry this sense. One article referenced there by D.W. Thomas argues that such constructions are not merely intensifying epithets.1,2 Instead, the divine name
raises a person or object to a pre-eminent degree by virtue of the fact that the person or object in question is brought into relationship with God.
With regard to Jonah 3:3:
It can equally well be argued that the city of Nineveh was "great to God", that is, even to God, who has a different standard of greatness from men. Anything that is great even in God's estimation must of necessity be of extraordinary dimensions.
I like this idea because it seems to combine the elative sense and the reference to God. However, I’m not sure I follow how it works.
If I understand correctly, in Thomas’s interpretation "to God" is modifying "great" ("great even in God’s estimation") rather than "city" ("city [?dedicated] to God") as in the ESV footnote. The latter is reflects a normal meaning of the preposition lamed, as does the idea of possession that has been suggested by others ("God's great city"). I'm not accustomed to lamed carrying the idea of "in the estimation of".3
The choices then seem to be:
- a very large [also: great, enormous] city (nearly every published translation)
- a great city [?dedicated] to God (ESV footnote, etc.)
- God’s great city (people say this)
- a city great in God’s estimation (Thomas)
Despite the apparent consensus of translators, it seems like at least some scholars disagree with the exclusion of a reference to God. Is Thomas’s proposal a likely possibility? Or is it possible to know what the intended meaning was?
1. D. Winton Thomas, “A Consideration of Some Unusual Ways of Expressing the Superlative in Hebrew", Vetus Testamentum 3 (1953): 209-224.
2. The examples provided are those translated by the AV as superlatives: Gen 23:6 ("a mighty prince"), Gen 30:8 ("great wrestlings"), Ex 9:28 ("mighty thunderings"), 1 Sam 14:15 "a very great trembling", Jon 3:5 ("an exceeding great city", Ps 36:7 ("the great mountains"), Ps 80:11 ("the goodly cedars"), Job 1:16 ("a great fire” - here a marginal note).
3. Except maybe x לִפְנֵי and x לְעֵינֵי but my sense is that the idea of perspective or estimation arises from pənê / ʿênê (face(s) of / eyes of) by metonymy rather than from the preposition.