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The Book of Jonah begins with God's call to the famous reluctant prophet:

“Arise, go to Nin′eveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

As far as I can tell the nature of this wickedness is not specified in the text. Are there clues? It does state that the reason Jonah fled was because he did not want Nineveh to receive God's mercy. Was their wickedness that they were Israel's enemy, that they worshiped other gods, that they had made an alliance with northern Israel when God favored Southern Judah? Was it that they were sexual sinners like Sodom, that they oppressed widows and orphans, "all of the above," or what? If there are no good clues in the immediate text, what do other biblical references to the city tell us? What do ancient and modern commentators suggest that would help us know what exactly Nineveh repented for?

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  • researching this myself after posing the question, I think part of the answer may lie in the political situation. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire that had destroyed Israel and nearly conquered Judah as well. Two other prophets spoke against it to predict desolation and destruction. - Nahum and Zephaniah. Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 14:48
  • However, if he is the same Jonah mentioned in 2 Kings 14, Assyria was not yet a great empire. Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 15:01
  • This is something I have wondered before. Nice to have stumbled upon it!
    – Jason_
    Commented Apr 2 at 4:16

4 Answers 4

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The text and story of Jonah is very careful not to dwell much on the specific sins of the great city of Nineveh. However, we are given some strong pointers, the best is found in Jonah 3:4

Let each one turn from his evil ways and from the violence in his hands.

Thus, we are told that the greatest sin Nineveh was that of violence, which in turn, is most often a by-product of godlessness, idolatry and perverted, illicit sex as exemplified in Sodom (Gen 19:4, 5).

Violence was not unique to Nineveh, it was (and still is) a very common sin. (Today as then, violence was a source of amusement and entertainment!!) See Gen 6:11, Hab 1:2, 2:17, Jer 6:7, 20:8, Isa 60:18, Ps 11:5, 55:9, 58:2, Eze 7:23, 8:17, 28:16, 45:9, Prov 4:17, Micah 6:12, etc. Allow me to quote a single sample:

Ps 11:5 (NIV) - The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion.

Ps 11:5 (CEV) - The LORD tests honest people, but despises those who are cruel and love violence.

This conclusion appears to be confirmed by the prophecy of Nahum in Nah 3 against the great sinfulness of Nineveh:

  • V1 - Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without prey.
  • V19 - There is no healing for your injury; your wound is severe. All who hear the news of you applaud your downfall, for who has not experienced your constant cruelty?

However, Nineveh was also accused of other sins as well in Nah 3 such as:

  • V4 - because of the many harlotries of the harlot, the seductive mistress of sorcery, who betrays nations by her prostitution and clans by her witchcraft.
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Aside from the references in the other answer by @Dottard, we do get one other hint in scripture.

2 Kings 19 tells of the worship of at least one other god in "Nineveh", which may have been part of the consideration, by mentioning this city was the seat of the "house"/"temple" of "Nisroch":

2 Kings 19:36 (KJV)

So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelt at Nineveh.

2 Kings 19:37 (KJV)

And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword: and they escaped into the land of Armenia. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.

It's also noteworthy that this passage depicts son-on-father violence taking place in "Nineveh", though it is presented as a single incident, so taken alone it is not presented as a consistent pattern of violent behavior in that city.

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  • I see there's also evidence in the archaeological record of a major temple of Ishtar there. But would God punish other cultures for worshiping other gods? Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 14:54
  • I'm not prepared to confidently answer that question at this point (there's a lot I still need to untangle from anachronistic theology before I really feel I understand the God of the Bible), but there is this statement (not related to "Nineveh") in which God urges Israel not to worship as the other nations worship their gods, because God finds those acts abominable. Again, it's not directly related to "Nineveh" but it is at least an example of how worship of other gods, even by other cultures, might kindle God's anger/judgment.
    – retrace
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 15:53
  • Yes but that refers to what the Israelites must do. Is there evidence that God expected other people to repent for worshiping their own deities. Israel made a covenant with the God of Israel, the others did not. Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 18:09
  • I'm not prepared to confidently answer that question at this point. I'd certainly be interested if anyone knows of further references in the Hebrew Bible that could facilitate a definitive answer.
    – retrace
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 19:57
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Amongst the many sins of Nineveh was one which is dehumanising. They practised torture on their prisoners.

After defeating you in battle, they take those who are living as slaves and this is what they did to the slaves: take out your eye, cut your ears, eyes, feet, fingernails, fingers, and tongue, and peel your skin. They were known for burning boys and girls alive. They torture others by tearing the skin from their bodies and leaving them to die in the scorching sun and they celebrate it.

The nobles and elders of the city lie at the feet of the Assyrian king to say, "if it pleases you kill me, if it pleases you spare my life". If it pleases you do, what you will.

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Amos 3:1-2 KJV

Hear this word that the LORD hath spoken against you, O children of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up from the land of Egypt, saying, You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.

Why would The Most High even be concerned with what another nation was doing because he is married to Israel only? The people of Ninevah were Israelites from the Northern kingdom of Israel. This is the most logical answer to the question of who the people of Nineveh were.

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