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If Yonah understood that he was being commanded by God, then how could he have possibly thought that he could run away? Did he believe that God was tied to a particular land, the way pagan gods were thought to be tied to theirs, and that if he just got out of Israel he would be ok? But Nineveh is not in Israel either. At the time he ran, did Yonah perhaps not yet understand Who was commanding him?

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I'd like to understand what about the question prompted the downvote so I can do better in the future. –  Monica Cellio Nov 23 '11 at 15:29
    
Sorry, I should have explained my downvote. I like the question, why he ran away, just not the "Did Yonah not understand Who was commanding him?" which struck me as sarcastic (at Yona's expense). –  msh210 Nov 23 '11 at 15:48
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@msh210, thanks. It wasn't meant to be sarcastic; rather, I don't understand how prophecy works enough to know when in the process the prophet really gets it, so maybe he ran away before that happened. Does prophecy entail instant understanding? (Maybe that's a separate question.) –  Monica Cellio Nov 23 '11 at 15:52
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@MonicaCellio, sounds like an interesting and worthwhile question to me. –  Isaac Moses Nov 23 '11 at 15:56
    
@IsaacMoses, done: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/11546/472 –  Monica Cellio Nov 23 '11 at 16:18

5 Answers 5

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Yonah was a navi who was living in the kingdom of Israel before its exile by Sancheriv. God told him to go to Ninveh, which was in Ashur.

In general, God is not concerned enough with the affairs of non jewish nations to send them messages through a navi to repent, which is why they don't have their own prophets to begin with. Yonah concluded that their repentance must be relevant to Israel in some way, particularly to exile them from their land. (Yonah knew that the Jews weren't on the highest spiritual level at that point.)

Therefore, Yonah refused to go, not wanting to play any part in Israel's destruction. He hoped that God would choose another navi in his place, as clearly, if God wanted this done, it must be necessary. But not him. To try and ensure this, Yonah tried to flee to outside of Eretz Yisrael, as he believed that nevua does not exist outside of the land (which is true, with few exceptions). Thus, he thought, God would be forced to send someone else.

See Abarbanel (Yonah 1).

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Yonah figured that if the people of Ninveh would listen to G-d's word and repent, it would make the Jewish people look that much worse for not repenting. He therefore tried to get out of delivering the message to them. (I don't know if it is the Abarbanel who makes this point). –  Menachem Nov 23 '11 at 4:23
    
@Menachem Rashi –  b a Aug 23 '12 at 17:02
    
Didn't non-Jews also have Bilam for a navi? And who's to say there aren't others among the non-Jews? –  Charles Koppelman Sep 4 '12 at 5:09
    
why God isn't concerned with fate of non jewish people considering that many jews would live among them for quite a while. –  Jim Thio Dec 12 '12 at 16:15
    
What is nevuah? –  Jim Thio Sep 13 '13 at 4:13

The answer that Menachem gave is brought up by Rashi on the pasuk. The question still remains, what did he thought he would achieve by running away? This reminds me of the situation in which Moshe Rabenu told Hashem, Shemot 32:32, that if you don't pardon Am Yisrael "omit me" from your book. Out of love to Am Yisrael he didn't want to be part of the punishment. Same here: Yonah, out of love to Am Yisrael, doesn't want to be part of disgracing Am Yisrael, so he uses his Bechira chofshit (free will?) and prefers to die and not be part of the plot.

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I heard an innovative explanation from Rav Meir Spiegelman. Yonah doesn't run away to get to a different place; Yonah sets sail in order to be at sea, and there is no prophecy at sea.

This is related to the idea that the sea is too different from the earth to be involved in earth-based things (e.g. fish are created from the water, but animals from the earth; fish were not punished during the flood; fish are never brought as sacrifices).

Specifically regarding Yonah, this issue is explained by the Malbim:

לכן עלה אל האניה, שחשב שבעת יהיה באניה לא תחול עליו רוח ה', אם מפני שיורדי הים דעתם בלתי מתישבת מצער הים עד בואם ליבשה כמ"ש חז"ל, אם מפני שאז לא יתבודד באשר היו על האניה עובדי אלילים שכ"ז תעכב בל תשרה השכינה עליו.‏

(Therefore he went to the ship, since he thought that when he would be in the ship the Divine Presence would not rest on him, either because those who set sail have unfocused thoughts from the difficulty of the sea until they come to dry land, as our sages have said, or because then he could not be alone, as there were idol worshipers on the ship; that all this would prevent the Divine presence from resting on him.)

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Interesting! I had not previously heard that there is no prophecy at sea. There are still miracles at sea (Noach, Sea of Reeds, and of course Yonah's fish), but not direct divine command? –  Monica Cellio Nov 23 '11 at 23:23
    
@MonicaCellio, note that Noach is spoken to only before the flood starts, and after it all dries out--there is no Divine communication in the ark, even when it's at rest, until the earth is dry. At the Red Sea, the people are on dry land the whole time. –  JXG Nov 27 '11 at 7:44
    
no prophecy at sea? Ra'asa shifcha al hayam ma sh'lora'asah yechezkel ben buzi –  user1668 Aug 23 '12 at 17:09
    
@PM, the Jews were on dry land the whole time! –  JXG Aug 26 '12 at 8:53

The Shechinah doesn't rest outside of Israel, so Yonah hoped to not get nevuah (Rashi and Radak).

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Moderation Notation: This answer was penned to a different version of this question and moved hither. –  Double AA Aug 23 '12 at 17:04

Similar to the Abarbanel brought by @jake, Rashi says that Yonah figured that if the people of Ninveh would listen to G-d's word and repent, it would make the Jewish people look that much worse for not repenting. He therefore tried to get out of delivering the message to them.

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