Charles Halton was kind enough to send me his fascinating essay entitled:
“How Big Was Nineveh? Literal versus Figurative Interpretation of City Size,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 18 (2008) 193-207. The discussion is packed with interesting references. Its thesis, I think, is persuasive, but if it is, all English translations to date are misleading. Over at Halton's magnificent blog, a pdf of the article is available.
According to Charles, in Jonah 3:3, the expression “a three days’ walk” is a figure of speech. That is, it was not meant to be taken literally, but allusively. Allusive expressions, except among stuffed shirts, are a staple of actual speech. For example, an expression I like to use is: “When I was knee-high to a grasshopper.” Any attempt to reduce this expression to a colorless abstraction misses the point.
But if “a three days’ walk” in Jonah 3:3 is a figure of speech like the example I just gave, then it will not do to translate with a formal equivalent. The only way to convey its sense is to translate along the following lines:
וְנִינְוֵה הָיְתָה עִיר־גְּדוֹלָה לֵאלֹהִים
מַהֲלַךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים
Nineveh was a God-awfully big city, larger than life, the size of Texas.1
1 An awe-inducing description of Nineveh, which was indeed a very large city. More literally, Nineveh was a big city from God’s own point of view; a three days’ walk in size. The author creates an accurate impression of the city’s immense size by language which is allusive in style, just as we say “knee-high to a grasshopper” to indicate young age.
Charles thinks otherwise, but if Jonah 3:3 seeks to create an accurate impression of the city’s immense size by literally inaccurate language, similar to the expression already cited, “when I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” this is probably the case in Jonah 3:4 as well, understood as a continuation of 3:3. It might be translated similarly:
וַיָּחֶל יוֹנָה לָבוֹא בָעִיר
מַהֲלַךְ יוֹם אֶחָד
Jonah began to go into the city, a third of its Texas-like breadth. 2
2 More literally, Jonah began to go into the city, the distance of a day’s walk. The author continues to create an impression of the city’s immense size by allusive language. The city in Jonah 3:3 was said to be a three days’ walk in size. Jonah’s traversed a third of the city’s immensity, “a day’s walk,” before delivering his message of doom.
Halton suggests instead that “a day’s walk” in Jonah 3:4 is idiomatic for “a short ways” (205).
The most compelling parallel cited by Halton to the use of language he sees in Jonah 3:3 is Aristotle’s description of Babylon, as a “city that has the circuit of a nation rather than a city, for it is said that when it was captured, a considerable part of it was not aware of it until three days later” (Politics 3.1.12).
To be sure, it might be argued that Aristotle actually thought Babylon was so big it could have been captured without knowledge of the fact reaching all quarters until three days later. In the same way, it might be argued that the author of Jonah actually thought that Nineveh was a three days’ walk in breadth. I for one would not hold it against the author – or Aristotle with respect to Babylon – if he so thought. Personally, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the size of a city like Tokyo, Mexico City, or Los Angeles.
What’s the problem with formally equivalent (FE) translations of Jonah 3:3-4? There is no problem, if the author thought that Nineveh really was three day’s walk in size. But if instead he was speaking figuratively and allusively, as Halton contends, an FE translation of the verses misleads the reader. The allusive, figurative intent will go unnoticed.
Halton also empathetically but persuasively critiques the “creatively literal” translations of these verses in NIV, TNIV, and NLT. But that is another story, outside the scope of this humble post.
BTW, I uphold the use of the language of inerrancy applied to scripture. As a Reformer like Zwingli used it and as the current Catechism of the Catholic Church uses it, the language expresses truths that are undeniable to the believer but unconscionable by definition to the non-believer. Such an understanding of inerrancy does not require that God intervened with the author of book of Jonah in order to ensure that he accurately represented the size of Nineveh if it was the author’s impression that the city, which he may have known only by report, was bigger than it actually was. It is my understanding that the authors of the Bible were allowed to get details of this kind wrong. And why not? If indeed Aristotle and the author of the book of Jonah had inexact notions about the size of Babylon and Nineveh, respectively, paradoxically the inexactness merely and simply serves to make their points – true in and of themselves – more exactly.