So, why did Jonah refuse to go to Nineveh?
There are lots of possible reasons. Let's work through a few of them.
The first, and most famous, reason for Jonah to refuse to go to Nineveh is the reason of fear of the Ninevites. This would make perfect sense. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the major power in the region. Assyrian armies were known for bloodthirsty and ruthless tactics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assyria). And on top of that, there is historically little love between the Assyrians and the Israelites (see Nahum).
Jonah's message to Nineveh was neither flattering nor comforting. Given the size, power, and character of the occupants of the city (as well as the violent ethnic tension he could encounter), it would make sense that Jonah refused to go to Nineveh because he was afraid.
This leads us to an interesting place in our study of the story. Although the idea - Jonah's fear may have led to his refusal to go - makes a great deal of logical sense (and may have kept us from going if we had been in Jonah's Birkenstocks), we must ask if this is the conclusion the author intended us to draw. Does this conclusion fit the story?
In my talk, I shared that I didn't think the conclusion that Jonah fled because he was afraid of the Ninevites fit the thrust of the story. My opinion was based both on the evidence against this theory and on the evidence for other theories.
For evidence against this theory, look at the scene of Jonah on the ship in the storm in Chapter 1. Jonah showed no fear of either the storm or the foreign (ie. non-Hebrew) sailors. He also showed no fear either of dying in the sea or dying at the hands of foreign men. In fact, he chooses to sail with foreigners (rather than stay home) and to be cast into the sea (rather than have the sailors try to row it out). The author does not present us with a picture of a coward here. Instead, we see something else...
What that is will have to wait for a later post.