God sent Jonah to prophesy to the Babylonian city of Nineveh, which he did with the greatest of reluctance, thereby effecting the largest mass conversion of a city up to that time.

It's possible that Nineveh was a "random" city, but that's probably not the case, given its size and strategic importance. Instead, what made Nineveh significant enough to be chosen in God's eyes?

Was Nineveh the "second" city of Babylon, after the capital, in the manner of New York City versus Washington D.C.?

Did Nineveh have a "Sodom and Gomorrah" reputation, making it the worst city of Babylon?

Was Nineveh unusually open and "cosmopolitan," thereby making it the easiest city to convert?

Or was there some other reason that I have overlooked?

  • This is four questions by my count. three of them seem to be
    – BYE
    Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 0:41
  • 2
    Why did God send Jonah to Ninevah rather than somewhere else? Because Ninevah was the place he planned on destroying if they didn't repent. I doubt a more insightful answer than that can be given. Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 2:31
  • 1
    I'm voting to leave open. I see this as close to a history question. Basically, "what was significant about Nineveh compared to the other cities?" Correct me if I'm wrong, Tom Au.
    – user3961
    Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 16:25
  • @fredsbend: I was asking what was the significance of Nineveh from a "religious," as opposed to a "historical" point of view.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 16:37
  • @Bye: My intent was to have one question with several branches. That is, multiple choice: a, b,c, or "none of the above." I added a "none of the above" choice to make this clearer.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 16:39

4 Answers 4


Jonah 1:2 says

"Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me." (NIV)

So, we can say from there that they had sinned greatly in the eyes of God, and had they not repented, they would be destroyed (Jonah 3:4 says "...Nineveh will be overthrown"). Of course, your question was "why Nineveh in particular?" I'll elaborate on that.

First, a correction: Nineveh wasn't a Babylonian city, it was one of the largest cities of Assyria, another one of Israel's enemies. I want to say it was also the capital during Jonah's time; at the very least there is a mention of a "king of Nineveh" (Jonah 3:6). Sennacherib lived in Nineveh (see 2 Kings 19:36), though he is a little bit after Jonah's time.1

Using your analogy then, I wouldn't equate Nineveh with New York City, I'd equate it with Washington, D.C., though the Bible does explicitly mention that the city is big

...Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth (Jonah 3:3, ESV)

As far as strategy goes, there's also this to consider: Assyria was the one that conquered Israel (the ten tribes) not long after Jonah went to preach to Nineveh.2

In short, you could single out Nineveh since it was a very important city for one of Israel's enemies, and posed a very real threat to Israel and Judah.

1 My bible has a table of dates putting Jonah in 793-753 BC. Sennacherib attacked Judah during Hezekiah's reign (2 Kings 18:13-19:36), which according to the same table is 727-698 BC. This is also consistent with Wikipedia's pegging of Sennacherib's reign at 705-681 BC.
2 The same table lists the conquering of Israel by Assyria at 722 BC. See also 2 Kings 17:6.

  • Was tempted to also cite the book of Nahum, but given that the table I mention in the footnotes pegs Nahum well after Jonah, I wasn't sure whether the time difference would be a problem. (Though I guess given that the book of Nahum is basically three chapters detailing Nineveh's eventual destruction, you could also argue that it shows exactly how much of a problem the city was) Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 8:35
  • I can come back and potentially add/refine more, but it's really late here, so I won't be around for several hours. Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 8:51
  • You've done a lot already. Upvoted.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 16:40

One of the liveliest stories in the Bible, the Book of Jonah is a favourite of millions. The book is a parable of mercy that not only has God protecting Jonah through miracles on two separate occasions, but allowing the people of Nineveh to live, when they changed their ways. The book also portrays Jonah as narrow-minded and vindictive person whom God must teach his ways.

Jewish tradition says that the author really was Jonah, and until the nineteenth century the book was regarded almost exclusively as historical fact, but was probably written in the post-Exilic period. The Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, page 465, says modern scholars generally agree for a later date, citing evidence that Assyria is only a distant memory to the author:

  • Nineveh “was” (not “is”) an exceedingly great city (Jonah 3:3) ;
  • the legendary size of the city
  • the title ‘King of Nineveh’ (Jonah 3:6) was not used by contemporaries [he was known as king of Assyria];
  • a number of words that show late Hebrew or Aramaic influence.

I can add to this list that there is no evidence that the Assyrians ever worshipped the Israelite God.

At the time in which the story is set, Assyria was the greatest power in the Near East, with Nineveh as its capital, so there was nothing random about the choice of this city. Babylon was merely a regional city under Assyrian dominion. In a story written centuries after the time in which it was set, the author had a choice of cities and naturally chose Nineveh.


Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:23-25 as a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel during the time of the divided kingdom. (After the reign of Solomon, Israel broke up into a northern kingdom of Israel and a southern kingdom of Judah.)

Later, during the reign of King Hoshea of Israel, the northern kingdom was invaded by Assyria and its people (most likely only its upper, educated, and noble classes) deported, which brought the northern kingdom to an end. That story is told in 2 Kings 17, and a thumbnail version in 2 Kings 18:9-12. The king of Assyria at the time was Sennacherib.

At the time of the invasion and captivity of the northern kingdom, Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, where King Sennacherib resided (see 2 Kings 19:36).

Given that Assyria was the arch-enemy of the kingdom of Israel, of which Jonah was a citizen and prophet, it is only natural that its capital city of Nineveh was seen as an exceedingly evil city.

All of this suggests the answer to why, in the book of Jonah, God sends Jonah to Nineveh, of all possible cities--and why Jonah immediately went in the opposite direction, intending to get as far away from Nineveh as possible (see Jonah 1:1-3).

In the minds of an Israelite of that era, Nineveh represented the most hated and most evil city possible. Therefore the story of Jonah is the story of God telling a prophet of Israel to go prophesy to, and potentially save the souls of, the very people that he most hated and most wanted to see destroyed.

That is the drama of the book of Jonah.

The book of Jonah, then, is a story in the late history of ancient Israel in which God is telling the Israelites that they must be concerned even for their most hated enemies, and bring their message of repentance and salvation to them.

Whether this story literally took place as conservative Christians believe, or whether it was a parable written later and set in the time of Jonah, its message is the same, and the reason for the selection of Nineveh as the target city for Jonah's message of repentance was the same.

God sent Jonah to Nineveh because God wanted Jonah to bring a message of salvation to the capital city of his people's most hated enemies.


My simple thought.

God killed two birds with one stone. To bring a city to repentance, as well as give his prophet a heart transplant.

He could have sent anybody!


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