I wanted this to be longer, but life intervened. You know how it is.
Of the many funny things in the Book of Jonah, this is one of the funniest. Believe it or not, this prophecy is even shorter in the original Hebrew: 'od arba'im yom v'ninveh nehepakhet, five lousy words. I'm told that nehepakhet isn't quite overthrown, that it's more like overturned. So this is an even vaguer prophecy than it appears to be in the King James translation: "Nineveh will change in forty days." On the other hand, the use of the number forty suggests that there's a lot at stake. Forty is the biblical number of repentance and trial: forty years in the desert, forty days and nights of rain, forty days of being tempted by Satan. When forty is involved, you have to prove yourself or something bad will happen. I don't know if the Ninevites could have been expected to know this, but I think the reader is supposed to. So a better translation might be "Nineveh is on probation." That's only four words! Clearly I missed my calling as an unwilling prophet.
Bonus: Gustave Doré's illustration of the same scene. I like this illustration not only because I love Doré just in general, but also because I can see that here he went through the same thought process I did. My initial thought was to draw Jonah standing on one of those super-Assyrian winged lion-men, which are called lamassu. But the Assyrians put lamassu at gates and other entrances, facing outward, so what was I going to do, draw Jonah standing on a lamassu ass? My solution was to forgo the lamassu and put him instead on a stele of Hammurabi, another piece of public art; Doré's solution was to put him just inside an entrance to Nineveh and draw him at an angle so we can see the lamassu across the way. But we asked ourselves the same questions, because we're artists telling the same story. And because the past is real.