Questions From Readers
● What did God mean when he told Jonah that there were in the city of Nineveh more than 120,000 persons “who do not at all know the difference between their right hand and their left”?
Jehovah God sent the prophet Jonah to Nineveh to announce its impending doom. The entire populace then repented, so God chose to spare the city. Jonah reacted poorly to that development, and God said to him: “Ought I not to feel sorry for Nineveh the great city, in which there exist more than one hundred and twenty thousand men who do not at all know the difference between their right hand and their left, besides many domestic animals?”—Jonah 4:11.
Some commentators have understood from this that there were 120,000 youths (perhaps under the age of five or seven) in the city, so they estimate its total population to have been 600,000. Such commentators refer to the time when God told Moses that the only ones to enter the Promised Land would be the “little ones” or “your sons who today do not know good or bad.” (Deut. 1:39) Also, it has been said that if Jehovah was willing to spare Sodom had there been just ten righteous ones in it, his mercy certainly would move him to spare a large city having 120,000 young ones who had not even learned one hand from the other.—Gen. 18:22-32.
However, it is of interest that the “little ones” in Deuteronomy 1:39 evidently included those up to nineteen years of age. (Num. 14:29) Further, in Jonah 4:11 the 120,000 persons were not called “little ones” but adam, the Hebrew word meaning “men” or “humans.” Also, there surely must have been more than ten young children in Sodom; hence, what God was talking about there were ten responsible, righteous adults. Jehovah thus could have been referring in Jonah 4:11 to the overall population of Nineveh as being 120,000 humans who, in effect, did not know their right hand from their left.
By this description God obviously did not mean that they were so ignorant mentally that they could not tell one of their hands from the other, for archaeological evidence testifies to the technical accomplishments of the Ninevites. Rather, God’s point was that essentially the Ninevites did not have any sound standard for judging what was proper or improper from God’s standpoint. When Jonah delivered God’s message they could then distinguish the good from the bad and they repented, they turned from the bad.