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Jonah 3:3 (BHS, ESV):

וְנִֽינְוֵ֗ה הָיְתָ֤ה עִיר־גְּדוֹלָה֙ לֵֽאלֹהִ֔ים
wənînəwēh hāyətâ 'îr gədôlâ l'ēlōhîm
Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city*

ESV footnote:

*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.

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  • This site criticises other translations, saying <<The MT reads "Nineveh was [or became] a great city for God", yet no translation represents this, however no textual evidence is produced to argue for removing it.>> (my emphases) – Dick Harfield Jun 6 '15 at 21:45
  • @DickHarfield What site? (Clearly they've missed what's going on here. Nobody's 'removing' it; they've interpreted it to mean something else.) – Susan Jun 6 '15 at 21:54
  • Apologies for omitting the most important piece of info! The site is bible.gen.nz/jonah/act3.htm I am not in a position to agree or disagree with this claim. – Dick Harfield Jun 6 '15 at 22:12
  • Not in answer to the question posed (which is deflected on p. 194), but of interest all the same: C. Halton, "How Big Was Nineveh? Literal versus Figurative Interpretation of City Size", Bulletin for Biblical Research 18.2 (2008) 193–207. – Dɑvïd Jun 7 '15 at 15:54
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I believe that לֵֽאלֹהִ֔ים was being used as a reference to the Deity, and that the lamed is simply the normal indicator of the possessive. The Book of Jonah itself can actually go a long way to clarify what G'd's opinion of Nineveh was. The final verse of Jonah is very telling, which I reproduce here:

4:11 וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס עַל נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע בֵּין יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ וּבְהֵמָה רַבָּה:

"And should I not take pity on the great city of Nineveh, which has more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their left from their right, as well as a many animals?" (G-d speaking)

It is clear that here G-d Himself is referring to Nineveh as a great city, and it is also clear that He made it a point to mention the great number of people living there. Based on this, I would argue that all four of your bullet points are accurate translations for the meaning of עִיר־גְּדוֹלָה֙ לֵֽאלֹהִ֔ים.

But as to why would G-d hold a city which was on the verge of spiritual and physical ruin in such high regard, we need to dig a bit deeper into the Book of Jonah. After Jonah arrived in Nineveh and delivered his message, the text relates that:

3:5 וַיַּאֲמִינוּ אַנְשֵׁי נִינְוֵה בֵּאלֹהִים וַיִּקְרְאוּ צוֹם וַיִּלְבְּשׁוּ שַׂקִּים מִגְּדוֹלָם וְעַד קְטַנָּם:

"And the people of Nineveh believed in G-d; they proclaimed a fast and wore sackcloth from the greatest to the smallest."

3:6 וַיִּגַּע הַדָּבָר אֶל מֶלֶךְ נִינְוֵה וַיָּקָם מִכִּסְאוֹ וַיַּעֲבֵר אַדַּרְתּוֹ מֵעָלָיו וַיְכַס שַׂק וַיֵּשֶׁב עַל הָאֵפֶר:

"And the word reached the King of Nineveh, and he rose from his throne, removed his royal cloth, wore sackcloth, and sat in ashes."

The people of Nineveh knew what behavior was necessary to repent and supplicate themselves to G-d. I would argue that the people of Nineveh, although in a poor spiritual state when Jonah arrived, had a tradition of believing in G-d. This presents the image of a nation which at one point was close to G-d, but which had drifted away for whatever reason. Since G-d held Nineveh in high regard, he sent Jonah to give them a chance to turn back, which they did.

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  • I am voting for the final two bullet points, but G-d Himself also mentions that the city is large by number. – Tim Biegeleisen Jun 8 '15 at 6:45
  • <Comment removed> Please refrain from personal chatting in comments. If you want to chat, go to Biblical Hermeneutics Chat. – Susan Jun 8 '15 at 7:06

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