Ten years ago I read a commentary on Jonah, that stated that the phrase "persons who do not know their right hand from their left" (ESV) in Jonah 4:11 was a joke from the Hebrew author exploiting the fact that in the Assyrian language there was no word for left hand or right hand.

I have long since forgotten that name of the commentary, and cannot for the life of me find any commentary today that states that particular interpretation. Most commentators I have read interpret the phrase as either referring to the Ninevites ignorance of good and evil, or the number of children in the city.

Is anyone aware of this interpretation, or any other interpretations that emphasise that this is a joke or pun?

  • 1
    I don't speak Assyrian, but just from a dictionary it was easy to find words for right hand and left hand, so the first interpretation strikes me as strange
    – b a
    Aug 9, 2018 at 7:39
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    The Akkadian words for right and left are similar to the Hebrew words. A dictionary is at this link: assyrianlanguages.org/akkadian/index_en.php
    – Perry Webb
    Aug 9, 2018 at 8:14
  • If this were the spirit of the thing, I guess the Assyrians might have replied that the Israelites don't know their palms from their soles (כף kaf)... But no, I don't think this is it. Neither Hebrew nor English has dedicated words for "right hand" and "left hand", after all, and moreover, when you say that someone "doesn't know their ass from their elbow", you don't do so because they lack the vocabulary to distinguish them... Aug 9, 2018 at 13:26
  • @LukeSawczak When it comes to Greek, οι περισσότεροι άνθρωποι δεν ξέρουν τον κώλο από τον αγκώνα τους
    – Ruminator
    Aug 9, 2018 at 15:07
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    I don't think deleting the question is appropriate, as that will delete the useful comments above. I'll see if I can find the reference in the bookshelf of the friend who I likely borrowed the commentary from.
    – Peter
    Aug 9, 2018 at 22:34

4 Answers 4


One obvious reason for this particular idiom: according to Wikipedia, the Assyrian language was a dialect of Akkadian. Thus (and I stand to be corrected) Assyrian would presumably have been written from left to right, unlike Hebrew. So the joke might be that those Assyrians even write backwards!

  • Hi Robert Dawson, welcome! Can you provide the link for reference? Feb 5, 2021 at 17:02
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    @RobertDawson You are right it is written left to right (I just consulted my Akkadian textbook) - something I had completely forgotten. I think my mind actually mashed the quote up, and what you have stated is what was actually in the commentary. Thank you very much, you have solved a riddle that has bugged me for years!
    – Peter
    Feb 6, 2021 at 18:46

I have my doubts about the ‘commentary’ Peter cited, for the simple reason (a thing yet mentioned by Perry Webb) Assyrian dialect (a form of Akkadian language) did possess these specific words. For ‘right’ they had IMNU (also IMITTU); for ‘left’ thay had ŠUMELU (compare also šamal [Arabic], semala [Syrian], and ŠMAL [Ugaritic]).

In every case, getting to the heart of the matter, the expression’s understanding at issue doesn’t refer to children or babies, possessing no life experience, but, more probable, to persons in general that had no knowledge between good (right) and evil (left), from God’s viewpoint.

The Bible itself guide us to understand so.

In fact, in Qoeleth 10:2 we read: “A wise man’s understanding is at his right hand; but a fool’s understanding at his left.” (Jewish Publication Society). Contemporary English Version also grasps the concept inside the expression, reading: “Sensible thoughts lead you to do right; foolish thoughts lead you to do wrong”.

In other words, the Ninivites had no knowledge on the manner to decide on the basis of the God’s law. This expression (לשׂמאל ימין בין) suggests their childlike crass ignorance of divine rules.

John Gill (Exposition of the Bible, on Qoe 10:2) wrote (bold is mine): “The Targum is, ‘the heart of a wise man is to get the law, which was given by the right hand of the Lord; and the heart of a fool to get the goods of gold and silver:'’. So Jarchi, ‘his wisdom is ready to incline him (the wise man) to the right hand way for his good; but the heart of a fool to pervert him from it.'’ The ancients [Suidas in voce δεξια] used to call things wise and prudent the right hand and things foolish the left hand.”

Interestingly, In English language, too, is used the expression ‘not to know where to turn’, or, ‘which way to turn’, where the force of the metaphor (to be – undecidedly - at a crossroads, figuratively) is remained inalterated through the ages.

Contemporary English Version grasps again the concept inside the expression, reading: “In that city of Nineveh there are more than a hundred twenty thousand people who cannot tell right from wrong, and many cattle are also there. Don't you think I should be concerned about that big city?” (Jon 4:11, CEV [bold is mine])

Really, if we taking no account of God in our life, we become like people prophet Jeremiah described in his book (Jer 10:23): “I know, Jehovah, that the way of man is not his own; it is not in a man that walketh to direct his steps.” (Darby)

  • Sorry for the Hebrew words inversion. The right sequence is BIN IMIN LSMAUL. Aug 30, 2018 at 13:39
  • Isn't the knowledge of good and evil the very thing that mankind has from the moment of the fall? The above points are good, but it also seems to me that there is a complete ignorance of morality among the very young and the mentally handicapped than is not found in adults with knowledge and consciences.
    – jdurham
    Feb 6, 2019 at 16:54

Maybe it's not hyperbole. The year is 2021, it's estimated that 1% of the Western population does not know that they are the male sex or female sex and persuaded 80% of the population this is not insanity. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to believe Ninevites did not know their left from their left hand.

Likewise, in 1 Samuel 21, King David feigned insanity to take refuge with his enemy (King of Gath). Because insanity identified a person as a prophet, "He (David) changed his behaviour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard"

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    – agarza
    Aug 16, 2021 at 17:32

Right hand was used for eating. Left hand was used for wiping your ass.

There is another joke in there about the "animals", but I'm not getting it yet.


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