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Jonah 1:3

But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.

Did Jonah really think that he could flee from the Lord by heading to Tarshish? Didn't he know that there's no place to hide? He even prayed from the inside of the great fish.

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    Thank you for sharing an interesting question regarding Yonah (יוֹנָ֥ה). - Perhaps focus your question : WHY did Yonah avoid the orders sent by Devar-YHVH ( דְּבַר־יְהֹוָ֔ה). – חִידָה Oct 29 '20 at 11:58
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    Yes, it would be better to focus on Jonah's obvious motivation (which can be explained from the book of Jonah and the subsequent events) rather than attempt an opinionated debate about his thoughts as he fled. – Nigel J Oct 29 '20 at 12:50
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For a person in Israel, geographically, Tarshish is in the opposite direction from Nineveh. Ellicot correctly observes:

Tarshish.—This can hardly be any other than Tartessus, an ancient Phœnician colony on the river Guadalquivir, in the south-west of Spain. (See Genesis 10:4; 1Chronicles 1:7.)

However, I do not believe that Jonah's "fleeing from the LORD" should be understood geographically. Jonah's own actions clearly show that we are all in the presence of the LORD because he would have also known:

Ps 139:7-12 - Where can I go to escape Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle by the farthest sea, even there Your hand will guide me; Your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me”— even the darkness is not dark to You, but the night shines like the day, for darkness is as light to You.

In modern theological techno-speak we say God is "omnipresent". Jonah's own actions also betray this when he prayed to the LORD from beneath the waves in the belly of the fish! (as pointed out in the OP) Jonah knew he could NOT escape from the presence of the LORD.

So why did Jonah sail for Tarshish? There are several possibilities:

  • Jonah thought that a simple "no" to God was not enough and had to move himself geographically to reinforce the point
  • He was effectively renouncing his prophetic office and leaving the land of Israel to go to a pagan country
  • He wanted to move himself away from the Temple dedicated to God and the visible presence in the Holy of Holies in the hope that God would find someone else in Israel
  • He knew God was gracious and that when the Ninevites repented his prophetic reputation would be tarnished (Jonah 4:2)

... and so forth. It may have been a combination of all of these. Note that the literal Hebrew in Jonah 1:3 says that Jonah "fled from the face of the LORD". That is, Jonah did not want to stand in before (= in the face of) the LORD.

Several commentators reach the same conclusion. The Pulpit commentary has this:

From the presence of the Lord; literally, from the face of Jehovah. This may mean, from God s special presence in Jerusalem or the Holy Land, as banishment from Cannaan is called "casting out of his sight" (2 Kings 17:20, 23; 2 Kings 23:27); or, from serving the Lord as his minister (Deuteronomy 10:8), Jonah preferring to renounce his office as prophet rather than execute his mission. The former seems the most natural explanation of the phrase.

Ellicott has:

From the presence of the Lord.—Rather, from before the face of Jehovah. The words may imply (1) the belief in a possibility of hiding from the sight of God (as in Genesis 3:8), a belief which, as we gather from the insistence on its opposite in Psalms 139, lingered late in the popular conception; (2) a renunciation of the prophetic office. (Comp. Deuteronomy 10:8; 1Kings 17:1); (3) Flight from the Holy Land, where the Divine presence was understood to be especially manifested. Commentators have generally rejected the first of these as implying ignorance unworthy of a prophet; but, on embarking, Jonah went below, as if still more securely to hide, and used the same expression to the mariners, who would certainly take it in its literal and popular sense.

The Cambridge commentary observes:

from the presence of the Lord This may mean from standing before the Lord or being in His presence, as His servant or minister (Deuteronomy 10:8, 1 Kings 17:1, Matthew 18:10, Luke 1:19. See Dr Pusey, Commentary on Jonah, p. 247, note d.); i. e. he renounced his office of prophet rather than obey so unwelcome a command. It may, however, only refer to that special presence of God in the Holy Land, which all Jews recognised. Either view is compatible with a belief on the part of Jonah in the omnipresence of God (Psalms 139). It is said of Cain (Genesis 4:16) that he “went out from the presence of the Lord” (and the Heb. phrase is the same as here), when he forfeited the favourable regard, together possibly with some local manifestation of the presence of the Almighty.

The reason of Jonah’s disobedience is given by himself, ch. Jonah 4:2. Knowing well the lovingkindness of God, he anticipated that He would spare the Ninevites on their repentance, and he could not bring himself to be the messenger of mercy to heathen, much less to heathen who (as the Assyrian inscriptions state) had already made war against his own people, and who as he may have known were destined to be their conquerors. See the statements of his probable contemporary, Hosea 9:3; Hosea 11:5.

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Jonah 2:1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 2He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.

Jonah prayed to the Lord inside the fish and He answered him.

Did Jonah really think that he could flee from the Lord?

No. Fleeing to Tarshish was a reactive and hasty decision.

After the Ninevites repented, the city was saved. Jonah spoke his mind before God in another prayer.

Jonah 4:2 He [Jonah] prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.

Jonah knew that running to Tarshish was only a delay tactic. He knew that God was omnipresent, omniscient and gracious.

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