Of Obligation, Brotherhood, and Confusion: Why Did Yonah Run?

In the waning hours of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, the book of Yonah is read. A standard explanation for this practice is that Nineveh’s repentance and subsequent redemption following God’s decree serve as both a critical and timely reminder of the opportunity for repentance. However, while the notion of repentance is obviously a vital theme in the book, many other important lessons and themes can be gleaned from the episodes found therein. Indeed, the diverse narrative of the book of Yonah is singular in a number of ways. For one thing, the seemingly indiscriminate detail of the verses in the first chapter of the book gives rise to many pressing theological questions. For another, the book of Yonah contains the only instance in Tanakh where a navi – a prophet – runs away from an explicit prophetic mission from God, as well as the only instance in Tanakh where a navi demonstrates an overt desire to commit suicide.[1] Further still, Yonah is the only book of the entire Trei Asar (the last 12 books of the Latter Prophets) whose narrative is occupied by the telling of a story rather than solely by descriptions of prophecy. A careful analysis of the opening verses of the first chapter introduces a variety of important messages and themes that are relevant to understanding the entirety of this book.


The Lack of Detail

A cursory reading of the initial verses of the first chapter of the book of Yonah quickly triggers several questions. The first logical narrative subsection of the book encompasses verses 1:1 through 1:3.[2] In the opening verses, the reader immediately learns of God’s command to Yonah to go to Nineveh in order to make a proclamation against their sinful ways:

[1] Now the word of the LORD came unto Yonah the son of Amittai, saying: [2] ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me.’ (Yonah 1:1-2)

These initial verses beg important questions about the author’s literary style.[3] Why, for instance, is there no dating or background provided at the beginning of the book? The reader is left in complete darkness with regard to the historical background of the narrative, remaining ignorant as to where Yonah is from and whether he had other prophecies in his lifetime.[4] Moreover, why does the author choose to omit the content of the proclamation in these verses?[5] And similarly, why do these verses detail neither the sins committed by the inhabitants of Nineveh, nor any reason whatsoever for the relevance of Nineveh’s warning and punishment? Why does God send Yonah to an exclusively Gentile town, failing to relate directly to Benei Yisrael, the Jewish People, at all?[6] After all, as Radak points out, this is the singular instance in Tanakh where a prophet goes to a non-Jewish nation to call for teshuvah, repentance.[7]

The ensuing verse only raises more questions:

[3] And Yonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD; and he went down to Yaffa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish, from the presence of the LORD. (ibid. 1:3)

Why does Yonah run away? Does he really believe that by running away he doesn’t have to fulfill the direct command of God? Why does he choose to run specifically to Tarshish? Furthermore, why does the author make use of the phrase “And Yonah rose up” (“va-yakam Yonah”), mirroring the command of “Arise” (“kum”), thereby producing an expectation that Yonah is actually going to carry out God’s command when, in fact, he is not? It is quite clear that the verses intentionally leave out these seemingly critical details, leaving the reader and commentators to address the ambiguity.


Lack of Background

Several commentators take note of the lack of background at the beginning of the book of Yonah.[8] One primary explanation proposed by a variety of commentators is that historical background is in fact unnecessary because Yonah’s background is already provided in a different book of Tanakh—namely, the book of Kings. The verse in Kings describes Yonah:

[25] He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Ḥamat unto the sea of the Aravah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which He spoke by the hand of His servant Yonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gat-ḥepher. (Kings 2:14:25)

In the context of the narrative of Kings, Yonah is identified as the prophet who prophesied that the wicked king, Yerav’am ben Yoash, would expand the borders of the kingdom of Israel. While the specifics of Yonah’s prophecy there are also important, this approach assumes that it is unnecessary to reintroduce Yonah when the reader ought already to recognize him.

In addition to the former approach, two alternative explanations can be suggested to address this textual problem. One promising option is to suggest that the author’s goal is to emphasize that these earlier stories and facts are not necessary to understand the primary messages of this book; the messages of this book are relevant anytime and anyplace.[9] In this vein, the reason for the conspicuous absence of detail at the beginning of the book of Yonah may be to amplify the elements of the story which are given: Yonah is a prophet, and he is seemingly disobeying a command from God.[10] Another complementary option is that the author intends for these verses to have a certain effect on the reader. Perhaps the author intends to “sweep the reader off his feet,” rushing him immediately into the story of the boat. If this is in fact the case, the swift pace set by the lack of detail in the opening verses of the book of Yonah may relate to the most obvious question in the narrative—that is, why Yonah runs.[11]


Why Run?

Prior to answering why Yonah ran, an investigation into a secondary question is necessary. His motives notwithstanding, why did Yonah ever think that he could run from God? As Dr. Yonatan Grossman argues, the mere attempt by a man to run away from God is extremely surprising. Doesn’t Yonah know that “melo ḥol ha-arets kevodo”, that God’s presence fills the entire world?[12] Dr. Grossman points out further that the notion of trying to run away from God is already addressed and strongly rebuked by the prophet Jeremiah:

[23] Am I a God near at hand, saith the LORD, and not a God afar off? [24] Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? says the LORD. Do not I fill heaven and earth? says the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:23-24)

Putting aside the halakhic problem of one who is kovesh nevuato, who suppresses his prophecy, what further compounds this issue is that prophets are not ordinary laymen; how, then, could someone with the spiritual stature of a prophet make the foolish mistake of thinking he could run from God?

Many commentaries make note of this troubling issue. The Radak, for one, expresses the problem as follows:

For the prophet was [by definition] a person full of wisdom and understanding—and how could such a person have possibly endeavored to escape from before God? (ad. loc.)

In response to this quandary, the Ibn Ezra makes note of the text’s formulation “mi-lifnei Hashem,” i.e. ‘from before God’, as opposed to “mi-penei Hashem,” i.e. ‘from the face of God’:

And behold, I have not found in the prophecy of Yonah that he fled from the face of God, but rather from before God – [as] it is written, ‘By the life of God, before whom I have stood’. And indeed, all the time that he receives prophecy he is considered to be before God. (ad. loc.)

The Ibn Ezra explains that Yonah isn’t running from God; instead, he is running “mi-lifnei Hashem,” ‘from before God’. Yonah is well aware that he cannot escape from God, and instead intends to run from the mission with which God had commanded him. He doesn’t want to fulfill this mission, and in this sense, he wants to run ‘from before God’, i.e. from being a prophet. Apart from being internally satisfying, this explanation concords with other Biblical verses that describe a prophet as being “lifnei Hashem,” ‘before God’.[13]

An alternative explanation of this puzzling phenomenon[14] is suggested by the commentary Metzudat David. He writes:

[3] “Livroaḥ Tarshishah” (i.e., ‘to flee to Tarshish’) – This is a place outside of the Land of Israel, where prophecy does not rest upon prophets. (ad. loc.)

The Metzudat David explains that Yonah wanted to run outside of the Land of Israel to a place where prophecy does not take place because he simply no longer wanted to prophesize. This explanation is admittedly slightly problematic, given that by the time Yonah flees, he has already received the prophecy of his mission, thereby rendering his subsequent flight both surprising and seemingly unproductive.

Dr. Yonatan Grossman attempts to explain the purpose of Yonah flight in a manner that dovetails with the Ibn Ezra’s explanation of the logic underlying Yonah’s flight. He points out that although the author of the book of Yonah leaves this matter unaddressed in the first chapter, verses in the fourth chapter following the repentance of Nineveh relate directly to this very issue:

[1] But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. [2] And he prayed unto the LORD, and said: ‘I pray Thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in mine own country? Therefore I fled beforehand unto Tarshish; for I knew that Thou art a gracious God, and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy, and repent Thee of the evil. [3] Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech Thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.’ (Yonah 4:1-3)

From these verses, it seems that Yonah knew that God would accept the repentance of Nineveh, and it was this expectation which caused him to run away from his mission in the first place. This explanation gives rise to another obvious question, however. Why did Yonah take such great issue with calling for a nation to repent? Indeed, as Dr. Grossman contends, such is in fact the essence of a navi’s role![15]

Dr. Grossman argues that it is necessary to understand the historical background of this book in order to adequately explain Yonah’s mindset in this circumstance. When Yonah is first introduced in the book of Melachim (2:14:25), the verses mention another prophecy attributed to him: Yonah prophesizes that the period of Yerav’am ben Yo’ash will be a successful one for the kingdom of Israel, and the people of his kingdom will thereby be redeemed. While, as the book of Melachim details, the people of the kingdom of Israel were indeed successful in the days of Yerav’am ben Yoash, it is nevertheless clear that the success they experienced was not a result of their meritorious actions. One need look no further than the ensuing verses (2:14:26-27) for proof to this end: God sees the bleak state of the people of the kingdom of Israel, and only saves them because He does not want to wipe them out entirely. Additionally, the prophecies of Hoshe’a and Amos emphasize that the People of Israel were serving idolatry and committing many social injustices during that very time. Based upon this background, the Abarbanel insightfully explains the difficulty Yonah had with his mission:

… And for this reason, the Blessed One endeavored to save Assyria from the future evil incumbent upon them due to the iniquity of their hands: in order that Assyria be saved from destruction, and that it should be the tool of God’s wrath whereby to destroy Israel – and as it is said, ‘Lo Assyria, the staff of My wrath, etc.” And due to this, the Holy One Blessed be He wanted to straighten out Nineveh, the royal capitol. And this was the reason for Yonah’s mission to Nineveh to call to her that her evil had arisen before God: not out of God’s love of [its inhabitants], nor out of desire for them, but rather in order to save them from harm in order that they should be ready in the future for the appointed time of [destruction and exile of] Israel… which is the truth of this matter. And therefore, [Yonah] concluded in his heart not to go to Nineveh, so that the people of Assyria should not be spared from the destruction by his hand – for how could his going be the reason for the saving of the Assyrian People and the destruction of the Jewish People! And how could he bear to see the evil that would befall his nation at the hands of the Assyrians! And because of this, he fled from before God… (ad. loc.)

The Abarbanel writes that Yonah was concerned that if he caused Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, to repent, thereby saving them, Assyria would survive and eventually wipe out the kingdom of Israel. This is, in fact, what historically occurred: within seven months of the death of Yerav’am ben Yo’ash, Assyria began to tax Israel. Twelve years later, they took over northern Israel, exiled its inhabitants, and eventually destroyed and exiled the entire kingdom of Israel.[16] Furthermore, the Abarbanel uses this idea to explain a famous ma’amar Ḥazal, a teaching of the Jewish Sages:

There are, in a sense, three types of sons: one who demands the honor of the father and the honor of the son; and one who demands the honor of the father and not the honor of the son; and one who demands the honor of the son and not the honor of the father. Yirmiyah demanded the honor of the Father and the honor of the son… Eliyahu demanded the honor of the Father and not the honor of the son… [and] Yonah demanded the honor of the son and not the honor of the Father. (Midrash Yalkut Shim’oni, Jeremiah, passage 325)

In light of this midrash, the argument seems to be that Yonah cares more about the Jewish people not being hurt than listening to the Father, i.e. God. Nineveh’s repentance would inevitably cause Benei Yisrael to look worse and ultimately allow Assyria to function as the weapon of Benei Yisrael’s destruction, and Yonah knew this. Thus, Yonah doesn’t go to Nineveh out of Jewish nationalist sentiments.

Several questions can be raised against the Abarbanel’s explanation. How does Yonah know all of this, for one thing? How does Yonah know that all of Assyria will be destroyed if he doesn’t transmit this prophecy to Nineveh? Finally, why does Yonah assume that even if Assyria is destroyed, God wouldn’t have an alternate plan as to who would destroy Benei Yisrael? While these questions are indeed strong ones, it is nonetheless clear that this is the predominant view of the commentaries on the book.[17]

Another explanation for Yonah’s puzzling flight found in the commentaries of both Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel[18] is that Yonah was worried that the people of Nineveh would mock him. His logic was as follows: once the people of Nineveh repented, they would be forgiven and spared punishment, at which point they would accuse Yonah of being a false prophet. The Ibn Ezra writes:

And [some] interpret that [Yonah] was afraid that [the people of Nineveh] would call him a false prophet when God was appeased from the evil. (ad. loc. 1:2)

An earlier and similar formulation can be found in the Midrash Pirkei de-Rebbi Eliezer.[19] This explanation is conceptually significant in that it makes Yonah’s flight a matter of self-concern rather than a matter of principle. It is, however, problematic for a number of reasons. The Ibn Ezra reasons against this explanation on the grounds that it wouldn’t make sense for a prophet of God to flee from God simply out of self-concern. Additionally, he argues, why would Yonah have been concerned by the criticisms of the people of Nineveh? After all, Yonah did not live amongst them, and would not have even been there to hear their critiques! Finally, he contends, the people of Nineveh wouldn’t be so foolish as to exhibit the faulty logic that this explanation demands of them, and in the event of their salvation would surely presume that the only reason they were spared from punishment was a result of Yonah’s declaration and their subsequent repentance.


Why the Narrative Ambiguity?

The aforementioned answers recognize ambiguity in the narrative and attempt to clarify what really happened. A different way to approach this lack of detail is to look at the purpose of the textual ambiguity itself, attributing a narrative significance to its prominence. He purposely chooses not to let Yonah explain his actions. What does this teach us? Two different approaches can be taken. The first is that of Dr. Grossman, who argues that the lack of an explicit answer in the verses itself possesses great significance. It is as if the moment the prophet refuses to go to Nineveh and declare the message that God had, so to speak, “put in his mouth,” he is muted and not entitled to provide an explanation for his actions. As noted, only when Yonah actually fulfills his mission is his mouth opened again, and only then is he rendered capable of defending his reservations as to God’s command. Dr. Grossman argues that this is the first message of the book of Yonah:

Running from God neutralizes one’s ability to converse with Him. Similarly, if a person has grievances against one sending him on a mission, he is not able to escape from him, and it falls upon him to carry out his mission. (Be’er Miriam, Yom ha-Kippurim)

Rabbi Shalom Carmy offers a second, novel explanation for the author’s literary technique. He bases his explanation on the remarks of R. Eli’ezer of Beaugency in his commentary on Yonah. R. Eli’ezer writes that it is not the case that Yonah ran because he did not want to save the sinful Ninevehites. Instead, he argues:

‘The great city’ – and therefore he fled, for he said: it is a great city, and it is impossible that all of them shall repent, and also God is merciful and will not destroy a great city such as that. ‘And Yonah arose to flee to Tarshish from before Hashem’ – that is, he wanted to remove himself from his mission, that God should send somebody else; for [Yonah] was at that point a frail old man, and if he should go, and – the city being so large – they should fail to repent, and God being merciful should have mercy even upon the sinners, it would turn out that [Yonah] would have broken his body on that long journey for nothing, seeing as they wouldn’t return anyway, and also God would not deliver to them judgement through Yonah anyway. And to refuse outright and say, ‘I shall not go’ – he did not wish to do, so as not to refuse brazenly. Rather, Yonah chose to remove himself, saying as it were ‘send, please, in the hands of somebody else’.

R. Eli’ezer of Beaugency essentially argues that Yonah didn’t go to Nineveh because he thought the whole mission was pointless: he would surely be unsuccessful in causing Nineveh to repent, he would exhaust himself on the mission, and God would surely end up forgiving the people of Nineveh in any case. According to this line of understanding, Yonah wasn’t against Nineveh’s redemption in theory, but rather felt that it would be a waste of his time and energy to go on this mission. This innovative explanation is belied by a few issues. First and foremost, this approach seems to run against the grain of the simple peshat (literal understanding) of the verses in chapter four where Yonah seems distressed by the repentance of the Ninvehites. This issue alone causes R. Eli’ezer to suggest that Yonah did not actually know that Nineveh had been saved, thereby adding to the ḥiddush (novelty) of his approach. A further question one could ask against this approach is how Yonah knows that Nineveh will not repent. This expectation becomes even more surprising considering that Nineveh does in fact repent almost immediately upon receiving Yonah’s proclamation. Finally, the notion of a prophet of God deciding to disobey direct orders from the Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the Universe) out of mere fear of discomfort is at least very creative and at most more than a little unsettling.

Rabbi Carmy therefore decides to take this difficult peshat and adapt it to what he considers to be a much more conceivable explanation, thereby alleviating some of the natural discomfort of the assertion that Yonah was in some way guilty of fault. Yonah was indeed an old man, and he didn’t want to take a long ride on a donkey; thinking that a sea voyage would be more comfortable, he decided to take a ship to Nineveh instead. All of the aforementioned suggestions for why Yonah ran are good possibilities regarding parshanut, Biblical commentary. Yet Rabbi Carmy believes that far more important than what we hold to be true is the question of what Yonah himself held to be true. Rabbi Carmy suggests that it is possible that Yonah would not have thought or acted along the lines of any of the possibilities suggested earlier. He argues that we are making the assumption that people always know why they do what they are doing, but in reality people don’t always have all of their opinions worked out. In real life, people don’t always know exactly why they are doing what they are doing, or what will become of their actions.[20]

Rabbi Carmy therefore argues that if, in the heat of the moment, one would ask Yonah whether or not he is refusing to do what God asked him to do, it is not clear whether Yonah would say that he is. If Yonah is saying that he did refuse to do what God asked him to do, then he would have to supply a reason.  However, if he does not yet know that he is rebelling at this point in the narrative, then he may not feel the urgency to justify his activities. All Yonah knows is that he feels uncomfortable with the command. Rabbi Carmy believes this is a deeper take of R. Eliezer of Beaugance. He suggests that, as responsible readers of the Biblical narrative, it could be that we should suspend judgment at this point in the narrative. Yonah knows that he does not want to go, but as far as he is concerned, he has no fully-developed doctrine or opinion. This is an important approach because of its relevant methodological considerations, as well as for its insight into the human personality.


How Much Did Yonah Pay

An interesting debate surrounds the words “va-yitein sekharah,” ‘and he paid its fare’, found in chapter 1, verse 3. The Ibn Ezra argues that these words mean that Yonah paid exclusively for his fare:

‘And he paid its fare’ – not all its fare, i.e. so as to finance the entire voyage, but rather, only that which he was obligated to pay on his own behalf. (ad. loc.)

An alternative explanation can be found in the Midrash Pirkei de-Rebbi Eli’ezer, and is also proposed by Rashi in his commentary to this verse:

‘And he paid its fare’ – that is, [Yonah] paid his fare in advance. [I]t is not the usual way of those who travel by sea to pay the fare of their journey until the moment of their departure, but he paid in advance – and not only that, but he even financed the entire voyage. (Rashi, ad. loc.; Pirkei de-Rebbi Eli’ezer, ch. 5)

Rashi believes that Yonah not only paid for his fare but also paid the fare for the entire ship. Additionally, Rashi argues that Yonah paid his fare unusually early on: whereas generally travelers paid their fares at the end of a sea journey, Yonah paid at the beginning. This explanation of Rashi and the Midrash fits plausibly with the understanding that the author’s purpose at the outset of the book of Yonah is to emphasize the urgency with which Yonah wanted to leave. The swift pace of the opening verses mirrors this point, as the author wants to emphasize how Yonah’s actions occur quickly and not over an extended period of time.[21] Furthermore, Rashi’s interpretation here may help clarify why it is that, when Yonah asks to be thrown overboard later on in the narrative, the sailors do not immediately oblige: seeing as Yonah had already paid his fare, perhaps the sailors were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and try to spare his life.



The opening verses of the first chapter of the book of Yonah do much to set up the rest of the book by foreshadowing questions about Yonah’s intentions that arise and are examined throughout the rest of the narrative. Yet these verses themselves also contain significant messages about obligation to God, the nature of prophecy and the human personality. As such, a careful reading of opening verses of this book is critical in order to uncover the wealth of meaning couched therein.

Avraham Wein is a third-year student at Yeshiva University studying Jewish Philosophy, Psychology, and Tractate Kiddushin.


[1] See Rabbi Amnon Bazak’s lecture on Yonah, available at http://www.hatanakh.com/tanach/18.0.2.

[2] See the commentary of the Da’at Mikra, page 2.

[3] Owing to word and space constraints, not all of these questions will be addressed in the continuation of the article. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to raise them here so as to emphasize the confusing and problematic nature of the verses.

[4] This question is sharpened especially when Yonah is contrasted against other nevi’im. For example, see Isaiah 1:1, where the verse details that Isaiah prophesied during the reign of King Uziyahu.

[5] A discussion of this issue by modern Biblical commentators demonstrates this point. Dr. Yonaton Grossman argues that it is probable that the proclamation found in the third chapter, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4), is the same content of the original proclamation Yonah was supposed to transmit. Rabbi Shalom Carmy points out that it is unclear from the word “ki” in the verse whether Yonah is supposed to speak to them because they have sinned or that Yonah is supposed to tell them that they have sinned. Rabbi Carmy argues that this indicates some freedom regarding what Yonah should say.

[6] For an inquiry into the messages of the universal dimension of the book of Yonah see Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s analysis in his lecture, “The Haftarah of Jonah on Yom Kippur” in Abraham R. Besdin, “Reflections of the Rav, volume 2.”

[7] A contrasting view can be found in the Da’at Mikra commentary, which argues that there were other prophets who went to prophesize to other nations. See the Da’at Mikra commentary, pgs. 4-5.

[8] See for example the comments of the Ibn Ezra and Radak ad. loc.

[9] See footnote 4b in the Da’at Mikra commentary on Yonah.

[10] I think this suggestion flows well with Dr. Grossman’s approach.

[11] I think this idea meshes well with a suggestion made by Rabbi Shalom Carmy, as will be discussed in the continuation of this paper.

[12] Another problem is that from verse 1:10 it seems abundantly clear that Yonah is well aware that God “hath made the sea and the dry land.’’

[13] For example, see Kings 1:17:1.

[14] The two proposed explanations might well be understood as complementary. One can suggest that Yonah wanted to run from his mission and therefore went to Ḥutz La-Aretz, i.e. outside the Land of Israel, where there is no prophecy.

[15] Dr. Grossman points to several verses in Yirmiyahu to emphasize this point. See Jeremiah 1:10, 17:7-8.

[16] For an earlier formulation of this type of idea in Hazal, see Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 11:5.

[17] See the commentaries of Rashi, Radak, Ibn Ezra, and the Mahari Kara for either the same or very similar answers.

[18] It should be noted that both end up rejecting this answer.

[19] On the fifth day, Yonah fled from before his God. And why did he flee? Because one time, God sent him to restore the border of Israel and his words held, as it says “He restored the border of Israel”; then a second time, God sent him to Jerusalem [to announce] its destruction, and the Holy One Blessed be He acted in accordance with His abundant mercy and was appeased from the evil and did not destroy it, and they called him a false prophet. Then a third time, God sent him upon Nineveh to destroy it; thereupon Yonah made a personal calculation, and said: ‘I know that the gentiles are wont to do repentance – now they shall repent, and God will send His wrath upon Israel! And not only this, but also: is it not enough that Israel calls me a false prophet, that the gentile nations of the world should also do so? I shall therefore flee from before God, to a place where His Honor is not seen… (“Horeb” ed., Ch. 9)

[20]An example of this phenomenon is that on a cold winter morning, a person might wake up at 6:30, look at his alarm clock and say, “I won’t get up now; I’ll go later to the 7:30 minyan.” At that point, the person may wake up an hour later and say he’ll go to the 8:30 minyan, etc. If you ask the person why he didn’t get up at 6:30, he may simply say “don’t bother me.” There isn’t necessarily a clearly worked out doctrine as to how things are going to end up.

[21] Another possibility is to understand this unusual act in its historical context. At that time, boats weren’t commonly used for transporting passengers, but rather for trade, and as such simply left port when they needed to go.