Why Did Yonah Disobey Hashem?


Flight from Prophecy

The Book of Yonah opens with Hashem instructing Yonah to go to the city of Nineveh and warn its inhabitants of the consequences of their continued wicked behavior.  The text then proceeds to recount how Yonah, ostensibly defying Hashem's command,1 instead flees to Tarshish ("וַיָּקׇם יוֹנָה לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה מִלִּפְנֵי י"י").  This disobedience of Yonah is perplexing on multiple levels:

  • Why was Yonah so opposed to preaching to Nineveh?  Is not the mission of every Divine prophet to spread righteousness in the world?
  • Is it conceivable that a true prophet might simply disregard a command of Hashem?  Why would Hashem select someone like this as His prophet?
  • Did Yonah really think that he could escape his mission or avoid Divine detection simply by boarding a boat to Tarshish?  Did Yonah not anticipate that Hashem would have an adverse reaction to his insubordination?

Yonah appears to attempt to justify his behavior in Chapter 4:


וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אֶל י"י וַיֹּאמַר אָנָּה י"י הֲלוֹא זֶה דְבָרִי עַד הֱיוֹתִי עַל אַדְמָתִי עַל כֵּן קִדַּמְתִּי לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה כִּי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אַתָּה אֵל חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וְנִחָם עַל הָרָעָה.

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 repentest Thee of the evil.

Taken at face value, these words seem to merely amplify the difficulties in understanding Yonah.  Did Yonah really flee because Hashem is merciful and forgiving and overturns punitive decrees?  How does this serve to explain Yonah's actions?

Unique Repentance

In all of Tanakh, Yonah is one of the only prophets who actually manages to convince his audience to change their ways.2  After but five words of warning ("עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת"), the people of Nineveh embark on a comprehensive campaign of repentance, replete with fasting and sack cloth.  All join in, from young to old, even the animals.  At first glance, the scene seems impressive, but on closer look, the reader is jarred.  Why are the animals participating?  Can they, too, truly undergo an internal process of regret or change?  Their wearing external symbols of repentance seems almost farcical, leading the reader to question the entire character of the city's repentance.3

Additionally, despite the fact that in the surrounding narrative Hashem's proper name is used, when discussing Nineveh's actions, the verses employ only the name Elokim. While the sailors had earlier cried out to Hashem ("וַיִּקְרְאוּ אֶל י"י"), the people of Nineveh cry out to Elokim ("וְיִקְרְאוּ אֶל אֱ-לֹהִים").  Is this shift significant, and if so, what does it suggest about the people's cries and return to God?

Symbolism of the "קיקיון"

In Chapter 4, after Yonah completes his mission and we are told that Hashem rescinded His decree, Yonah is distressed and prays to die.  Hashem replies with an enigmatic symbolic action, bringing a "קיקיון" to shield Yonah from the sun, and then drying it up, leading Yonah to once again request death. Hashem then explicates His message:


(י) וַיֹּאמֶר י"י אַתָּה חַסְתָּ עַל הַקִּיקָיוֹן אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָמַלְתָּ בּוֹ וְלֹא גִדַּלְתּוֹ שֶׁבִּן לַיְלָה הָיָה וּבִן לַיְלָה אָבָד. (יא) וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס עַל נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע בֵּין יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ וּבְהֵמָה רַבָּה.

(10) And the Lord said: 'Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night; (11) 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?'

Despite Hashem's explanation, though, the reader is left puzzled by several aspects of the scene:

  • "אַתָּה חַסְתָּ עַל הַקִּיקָיוֹן" – Hashem implies that Yonah had mercy on the plant, while in fact Yonah was only upset about his own personal loss due to its desiccation!4
  • "וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס" – Yonah 3:10 ("וַיַּרְא הָאֱ-לֹהִים אֶת מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם כִּי שָׁבוּ מִדַּרְכָּם הָרָעָה וַיִּנָּחֶם הָאֱ-לֹהִים עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהֶם וְלֹא עָשָׂה") suggests that Hashem overturned the decree of destruction due to the people's change of heart.  In Yonah 4:11, though, Hashem implies that the decision stemmed from mercy.  Which was the real reason for the annulling of the decree?
  • "אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע בֵּין יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ וּבְהֵמָה רַבָּה" – What does it mean that the people "could not differentiate between their right and left", and how did this factor play into Hashem's thinking?  In addition, why was it relevant that there were many animals in the city?
  • Response to Yonah – How does the entire analogy respond to whatever was troubling Yonah?  What is the lesson that Hashem is attempting to teach him?

Philosophical Considerations

The above questions relate to several larger issues that are central to a proper understanding of the book:

  • Prophetic infallibility – Does Hashem choose only messengers that will do His bidding exactly as commanded, or might they commit errors and sins as well? 
  • Repentance – How does repentance work?  Does it serve to erase both sin and punishment, or only the former?  The word "תשובה" implies a return; does this mean a return to Hashem or to one's own pre-sin status? Finally, does repentance that stems from fear of punishment have the same status as that which derives from simple recognition of right and wrong?
  • Forgiveness – What factors play a role in forgiveness?  Must it be a response to change, or might it stem from mercy or love?  Can forgiveness erase the need for any punishment?

In Approaches, we will examine how commentators throughout the generations grappled with both the textual and philosophical issues raised by the story of Yonah.