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If your upbringing was anything like mine, every Sunday morning, come rain or shine (but not blizzards), you were sitting in Sunday school hearing stories from the Bible. One of the many that probably stuck out was that of Jonah and “the whale.” The plot of Jonah’s story is simple: he tried to run from God (Jonah 1:1-16) was swallowed by a big fish (1:17-2:9), was vomited out alive after three days and night (2:10; cf. 1:17), and eventually did as Yahweh commanded (3:1-10), albeit begrudgingly (4:1-11). Most people don’t remember the tale for its beginning or ending. Instead, people remember it for the middle, specifically when Jonah is gobbled up by a “great fish.” But what happened between the moment the fish swallowed Jonah and the moment he spat him out?
The second chapter of the book of Jonah relates a prayer that he purportedly made to his god “from the belly of the fish.” It is an absolutely fascinating piece of poetry that we will dissect shortly. For now, I’d like to draw attention to something Jonah says halfway through the prayer in vv. 5-6: “The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God” (NRSV). The phrase translated “roots of the mountains [lĕqiṣbê hārîm]” is rendered in the NKJV as “the moorings of the mountains,” and in his book Scientific Facts in the Bible, Ray Comfort thinks that there is more than meets the eye going on in this verse. He writes,
When Jonah was in the depths of the ocean, he spoke of going down to the “moorings of the mountains.” Only in recent years has man discovered that there are mountains on the ocean floor. The greatest depth has been sounded in the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench, a distance of 36,070 feet below sea level. Mount Everest, the highest point on earth, is 29,035 feet high.
Comfort is suggesting that the biblical text is referring to underwater mountains, something that undoubtedly exist but probably would not have been known by people at this point in history. Therefore, if Jonah knew about them then the Bible must contain advanced scientific knowledge, thereby bolstering its credibility as a work inspired by the omniscient god of Christianity.
But is the author of the book of Jonah speaking of underwater mountains? Or is he referring to something more in keeping with what would have been his ancient view of the cosmos?
A Whale of a Story
Though purportedly about an Israelite prophet of the eighth century BCE (cf. 2 Kings 14:25), in reality the Jonah of the Minor Prophets is almost certainly legendary and fictional.
The fictional nature of the story of Jonah is indicated not only by the “great fish” that swallows the prophet and after three days vomits him up on dry land or by the exaggerated rhetoric (the word “great” occurs fourteen times), but also by the city’s surprising repentance: the entire population, and the cattle, repent after hearing a five-word (in Hebrew) sermon.
The character of Jonah is presented as something of an antihero, “a prophet who is no prophet,” one who is reluctant to obey the command of Yahweh and throws a tantrum when Nineveh does obey the command of Yahweh. Moreover, while there are a variety of ways to understand the import of the book of Jonah, the work clearly has “elements…that bring it close to classical satire.” For example, while Jonah refers to himself as a worshiper of Yahweh (Jonah 1:9), he seems to be anything but that, doing all he can to flee “from the presence of the LORD” when called upon to do his work (vv. 3, 10). Meanwhile, the pagans in the narrative, both on the ship and in the Assyrian city of Nineveh, end up as worshipers of Yahweh (1:14-16, 3:5-10)! Seeing this motif of pagan repentance and worship of Israel’s god, Norman Gottwald writes that “because those who make the unexpectedly positive response to Yahweh are foreigners, the force of the book is to caution against prejudging and stereotyping Gentiles.”
The plot of the book of Jonah is fairly simple to follow. Having gone “down [yêreḏ] to Joppa” (Jonah 1:3) to escape Yahweh’s call preach to the Assyrian city of Nineveh (v. 2), Jonah boards a foreign ship to go to the western city of Tarshish, the “geographic antipole” of Nineveh. As they sail westward, a great storm erupts, caused when “the LORD hurled [hēṭîl] a great wind upon the sea” (v. 4). Panicked, the sailors “threw [yāṭilū] the cargo in the ship into the sea” (v. 5) while Jonah, suspecting perhaps that the storm was divine in origin, “had gone down [yārad] into the hold of the ship. After casting lots, the sailors figure out that Jonah is the source of the problem and they interrogate him (v. 8). “’I am a Hebrew,’ he replied, ‘I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea [hayyām] and the dry land [hayyabbāšāh]” (v. 9). So, the sailors figure out that it is Jonah’s god that has been angered since the reluctant prophet was on the ship in a bid to flee from Yahweh’s presence (v. 10). When asked how he will fix the predicament they find themselves in (v. 11), Jonah suggests that they toss him overboard, using the same Hebrew verb, tul, that is used in vv. 4 and 5. At first, they are reluctant to sentence Jonah to certain death and they try to row back to shore, but the storm prevented them (v. 13). Finally, they cry out to Yahweh, asking for forgiveness for what they must do (v. 14): “So, they picked Jonah up and threw him [ṭiluhū] into the sea [hayyām]” (v. 15). For the pagan sailors, their cry to Yahweh has resulted in their ordeal being over. For Jonah, the trouble would only continue: “But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (v. 17). And this brings us to the immediate context of Jonah 2:6, the text in question.
From the Fish’s Belly
If you took out Jonah 2:1-9, the story of Jonah would move along without any hiccup. You would read in 1:17 that “Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” and then go on to, “Then the LORD spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.” But that isn’t what we find in canonical Jonah. Instead, there is a psalm that interrupts the narrative flow. This combined with other evidence has suggested to some scholars that the psalm, a song of thanksgiving, is probably not original to the story. The redaction history of Jonah, however, is not the subject of this piece and so I will leave it to the reader to consult the secondary literature on the subject. Instead, we will turn our attention to the psalm itself and consider briefly the language it uses to communicate Jonah’s unfortunate circumstances.
With vv. 1 and 10 serving as bookends, the psalm itself can be divided into three parts: vv. 2-4, 5-7, and 8-9. We will consider each section in turn.
According to v. 1, Jonah is in the belly of the fish and it is from there he prays. The verse that follows (v. 2) is a classic example of Hebrew parallelism:
A: I called to the LORD out of my distress
B: and he answered me;
A’: out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
B’: and you heard my voice.
Thus, “my distress” and “belly of Sheol” are parallel thoughts. The latter, a “metaphor…unique to Jonah,” employs the transliterated proper noun šĕʾôl, a word that is used throughout the Hebrew scriptures to refer to some kind of underworld. Philip Johnston notes that “[p]eople in the ancient world generally believed in a three-tiered universe. The heavens were for the great gods, the earth for humans, and the underworld for the dead and the chthonic deities.” A survey of the various texts in which Sheol appears reveals that it is a place
- to which one goes down (e.g. Genesis 37:35),
- from which no one may return (e.g. Job 7:9),
- in direct contrast to the abode of Yahweh above (e.g. Isaiah 7:11),
- with gates (e.g. Isaiah 38:10),
and so on. In terms of its placement in the narrative, the words of v. 2 and its invocation of Sheol are an indication that Jonah’s situation is quite dire. “Death is so certain for Jonah,” Philip Jenson writes, “that he can already be considered as in the ‘belly of Sheol.’”
But in what way is Jonah’s situation so dire? Verse 3 provides the answer, employing a number of water-related terms: “the deep,” “the heart of the seas,” “the flood,” and “waves and…billows.” Given how the sea had raged as he was plunged into waters (1:15), it is no surprise that he employs such language here. To put it simply, Jonah is drowning. And in the midst of this situation, what is his primary concern? “Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’” (v. 4) Since “[d]eath is the ultimate separation from God in the biblical worldview,” Jonah’s concern is that upon death he will no longer enjoy Yahweh’s presence, a concern reiterated elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Psalm 115:17; Isaiah 38:18-19).
Verse 5 picks up with the water imagery of v. 3 but the situation has changed. Verse 3 reads as if it was the initial moment Jonah was cast into the sea; verse 5, on the other hand, reads as if he is sinking, unable to stay afloat. The waters are described as closing in and he becomes “surrounded” by the deep. He has sunk so low now that “weeds were wrapped around [his] head” and, according to v. 6, he ends up “at the roots of the mountains,” having gone “down [yāraḏtî] to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.” Peter Southwell notes, “In vv. 3-6 the writer piles metaphor upon metaphor to accentuate the horror and terror of his plight.”
But there is hope! At the end of v. 6, Jonah declares, “[Y]et you brought up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.” He reveals in v. 7 that his dying thoughts were of Yahweh and his temple. Because he has “remembered” Yahweh, Yahweh has remembered him, rescuing him from death.
The psalm closes with anti-pagan rhetoric, with Jonah describing idol worshippers as those who “forsake their true loyalty” (v. 8) and contrasting himself with them by stating that he will instead make sacrifice to Yahweh, the god of Israel (v. 9).
The Roots of the Mountains
Having briefly considered the passage as a whole, we are now better situated to understand the meaning of v. 6 and the phrase “the roots of the mountains.” Let’s begin, not with v. 6, but with a text from the book of Deuteronomy: “For a fire is kindled by my anger, and burns to the depths of Sheol; it devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains” (Deuteronomy 32:22). In context, the passage in Deuteronomy is speaking of the fury of Yahweh’s wrath should Israel apostatize and follow after false gods (e.g. vv. 16-18). The image is vivid, of a fiery anger that is so thorough it reaches even to Sheol. But this text in Deuteronomy also reveals through parallelism where Sheol is in Israelite cosmic geography. Since the statement that God’s fiery fury “burns to the depths of Sheol” is almost certainly meant to convey the thoroughness of his wrath, the second half of v. 22 is intended to expand that idea. Yahweh’s wrath consumes the land and its produce, and it reaches down deep to the foundations of the mountains themselves. In this way, Sheol is set in parallel with “the foundations of the mountains.” To be in Sheol is to be deep within the earth, as deep as the mountains go.
The reason this is important is because of how many in the ANE, including the ancient Israelites, conceived of their place in the cosmos. For them, the world floated upon cosmic water (Psalm 24:2; 136:6), the very waters that erupt from the deep in the story of Noah (Genesis 7:11) and that surround the earth (Zechariah 9:10). This is the world of the Priestly author of Genesis 1, a text in which we find a creation narrative “of a flat disk earth topped by a solid and transparent semicircular firmament, with threatening but controlled waters beneath the earth and above the firmament.” The water imagery of Jonah 2 is therefore appropriate because it not only coheres with the narrative of ch. 1, but it also coheres with the imagery of Sheol as being deep within the earth. For Jonah to be at “the roots of the mountains” (2:6) means he is in close proximity to Sheol. In fact, the rest of v. 6 makes that clear: “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.”
In the underwater world [Jonah] touched the very roots of the mountains, the threshold of “the land whose bolts [closed] behind me forever.” He reckoned that he had entered Sheol, the land of the dead, envisaged as a fortress from where there is no escape.
With imagery of gates and bars, Sheol is “portrayed as a city” and “is an inescapable prison.” But its depth within the world as conceived by the ancient biblical authors is communicated through the imagery of the “foundations” or “roots of the mountains.” Therefore, the imagery is in keeping with the worldview of someone living in the ancient Near East and is not a prescient statement about the existence of underwater mountains.
Yet again Comfort has demonstrated his inability to properly read biblical texts, choosing instead to draw out single words and import his modern understanding of the world into them. But by examining the context of Jonah 2:6 – historical, cultural, and literary – we know that the author is describing a vision of the Israelite underworld and Jonah’s escape from it thanks to the graciousness of his god.
 The Hebrew text reads dāḡ gāḏōwl, “a big fish.” Dāḡ is used throughout the Hebrew Bible to generally describe fish and is the term used throughout the book of Jonah to describe it (though the adjective gāḏōwl is used only here to describe the fish).
 Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.
 Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible: Amazing Truths Written Thousands of Years Before Man Discovered Them (Bellflower, CA: Living Waters Publication, 2016), 10.
 Deborah W. Rooke, “Prophecy,” in The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies, J.W. Rogerson and Judith M. Lieu, editors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 391.
 Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 290.
 Amos Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993), 66-67; James L. Crenshaw, “Jonah, The Book of,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, editors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 380; J.P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 231.
 Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History, 68; cf. John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, second edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 438. Collins refers to Jonah as “something of an anti-prophet.”
 See the discussion in Barry L. Bandstra, Reading the Old Testament: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 4th edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2009), 297-298.
 James S. Ackerman, “Jonah,” in The Literary Guide to the Bible, Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, editors (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 234; cf. Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History, 64.
 David M. Carr (An Introduction to the Old Testament: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts of the Hebrew Bible [West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010], 236) writes,
The book of Jonah satirically contrasts Jonah with foreigners like sailors and Assyrians. Jonah repeatedly opposes Yahweh’s wishes, fleeing from Assyria when called to prophesy to it (Jonah 1:3) and angrily rejecting Yahweh’s decision to have mercy on Assyria (4:1-5). In contrast, the foreign sailors and the Assyrians respond piously to Yahweh’s’ actions (1:7-16; 3:5-9). Whether or not the book was originally intended to speak to issues of foreigners in the post-exilic period, its satiric portrait of Jonah and foreigners now balances the perspectives of several other biblical books [e.g. Ezra and Nehemiah].”
 Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Brief Socio-Literary Introduction (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 318.
 Ackerman, “Jonah,” in The Literary Guide to the Bible, 235.
 See James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea-Jonah, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing Inc., 2011), 425, 427; James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), 632; cf. Philip Peter Jenson, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 57-59.
 Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea-Jonah, 427.
 W. Dennis Tucker, Jr., Jonah: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006), 51.
 Philip S. Johnston, Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 69.
 In the Isaiah 38:10 LXX, šĕʾôl is rendered with the Greek word hadou, “Hades.” It is no doubt this imagery that the Matthean Jesus has in mind when he tells Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18; cf. Wisdom 16:13).
 See the discussion in John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 320-321.
 Jenson, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, 62. Joyce Baldwin (“Jonah,” in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, Thomas Edward McComiskey, editor [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998, 569), writes vividly that the phrase “’belly of Sheol’ implies a hopeless situation, for Jonah is not merely in the jaws of death but in its entrails.”
 Robert Alter (The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, vol. 2 – Prophets, 1292) notes that the “vivid image of drowning” in v. 4 is a “conventional trope of the thanksgiving psalm.” E.g., Psalm 69:2, 15; 42:7. See also James Limburg, Jonah: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 63-64.
 Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, vol. 2 – Prophets, 1293.
 James Limburg (Jonah, 68) writes, “With ‘I went down,’ the sequence of Jonah’s ‘going down’ is complete (1:3, twice, 5). Both his horizontal and his vertical distance from the Lord are at the maximum.”
 Peter J.M. Southwell, “Jonah,” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, John Barton and John Muddiman, editors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 594.
 Paul K.-K. Cho, Myth, History, and Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 105-106; Johnston, Shades of Sheol, 115.
 Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible, 276.
 Baldwin, “Jonah,” in The Minor Prophets, 570;
 Jenson, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, 66.