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Sefer Yona 4:11 reads:

וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס עַל נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע בֵּין יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ וּבְהֵמָה רַבָּה

In the JPS translation:

and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?

Two questions:

  1. If God is trying to explain why he had mercy on Ninveh, why not simply state the obvious, that they did teshuva?
  2. What does the above explanation for why he had mercy on Ninveh mean?
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Yona's problem is why He gave them a chance to do Teshuva. Yona understood that they did Teshuva, but he would have rather they not have the opportunity (rather like אין מספיקים בידו לעשות תשובה - One who says I will sin and repent will not be given the opportunity to repent Yoma 8:9 - or as was done to Pharoh where his heart was hardened).

Hashem answers by showing Yona that they serve a purpose in creation just like the carob tree served a purpose for Yona and their destruction would prevent them serving their purpose.

  • 1. where do we see that the people of Ninveh said they would sin and repent? 2. How do we know that concept applies to non-Jews? 3. It is still unclear from the text what purpose the people of Ninveh would serve 4. Is it so difficult for God to find others to fulfill that purpose? – user1668 Aug 23 '12 at 19:58
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    @PM, you miss the point. I'm not saying they said they would sin and repent. I'm saying that Yona wanted them not be given the opportunity to do Teshuva, like someone who says that they will sin and repent. As to your last question, Yona could go find himself another tree was well. – Yishai Aug 23 '12 at 20:09
  • Sources? [15 char]. – mevaqesh May 30 '17 at 18:00
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Radak (there), follows Rashi (there) in explaining that that אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע בֵּין יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ refers to the children. This being the case, the question basically disappears; the point is that children have intrinsic value; much more than the kikayon; not that they sinned. After all, children are not generally held responsible for their actions.

Additionally, Radak (followed by Metsudat David (there)) elaborates that repentance was actually part of God's point. The only reason to kill them (the children) would be because of their parents' sins. Once the parents repented, there is no reason to punish the children.

Malbim (there), following the implication of Rashi (there) explains that not everyone repented properly. God's response was specifically regarding those who still worshiped idols, but didn't know any better.

  • Were there no children in S'dom and the other four cities, which were wiped out (less Lot's family) on account of the sins of adults? Yet children are enough to spare Nineveh? – Monica Cellio Jun 2 '17 at 2:05
  • @MonicaCellio First of all that is an interesting question, but it seems distinct from the OP's question. I quoted the approach that numerous classical commentators take the OP's question. Indeed, regardless of this answer we could generalise your question slightly: is the innocent arent punished, why was Sodom destroyed; didnt they have innocent children? The same question could be asked about the Ir HaNidahat assuming its children were to be killed, along with Amalek, and the seven nations. This is a perfectly acceptable question, and my answer may remind us the question, but the – mevaqesh Jun 2 '17 at 2:12
  • @MonicaCellio [cont.] the question in no way depends on my answer. That being said, I would note that assuming that children count as people, then the conversation between Abraham and God regarding the limited number of innocent people in the city, indicated that in reality there were few innocent children. How this could be, given children's general innocence, would make for a fine question in and of itself, but again, is not a problem with this post. – mevaqesh Jun 2 '17 at 2:14
  • @MonicaCellio Additionally, I would note that besides for Malbim following the implication of Rashi, (who don't understand the verse to be referring to children in particular) even if it were, it is not 100% clear according to the commentators who do understand it to be children that God's response explained destruction of the whole city, rather than the children he was talking about exclusively. – mevaqesh Jun 2 '17 at 2:20

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