Fish – דָּגָה (dagah); דָּג (dag); ἰχθύς (ichthus); ὀψάριον (opsarion)
Another image that can capture the delights being outside on a slow summer’s day is sitting beside a flowing stream and catching the flash of light and plop of water as the surface is disturbed by flick of a fish’s tail. It is a great reminder of those completely different, almost alien, and often hidden, habitats populated by life and character that can lie just feet away from us.
The presence of fish in biblical literature raise a number of really interesting questions. First of all, for those familiar with the Gospels and the fishermen disciples, you won’t be at all surprised to know that the Bible mentions ‘fish’ lots of times. Goodfellow (2015:139) estimates that they occur around 70 times. However, what is really surprising is that there is not one single reference to any individual species. Fish are simply referred to generically as ‘fish’; דָּג (dag) and דָּגָה (dagah) in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament in the Christian tradition) and ἰχθύς (ichthus), and a couple of times in John’s Gospel of ὀψάριον (opsarion), in the New Testament.
Earlier posts in this series have frequently referred to the long lists of animals, birds and plant species – particularly in relation to the dietary regulations. One might assume that these would make an ideal source to find lots of examples of edible and taboo fish. However, they turn out to be a little disappointing.
These you may eat, of all that are in the waters. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the streams—such you may eat. 10 But anything in the seas or the streams that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and among all the other living creatures that are in the waters—they are detestable to you 11 and detestable they shall remain. Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall regard as detestable. 12 Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable to you.Leviticus 11:9-12 (NRSV) // Deuteronomy 14:9-10
Slifkin (2009:314) notes that there is a rather unusual, but perhaps suggestive, reference to fish in Genesis. Here Joseph, having been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers has now reunited with them in Egypt. Fractured relationships have been healed and he is now blessing them. When Joseph comes to his brothers Ephraim and Manessah he says:
16 the angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the boys;Genesis 48:16 (NRSV) emphasis added
and in them let my name be perpetuated, and the name of my ancestors Abraham and Isaac;
and let them grow into a multitude on the earth.’
What is unusual is the wording used towards then end. The word translated here as ‘grow’ is וְיִדְגּוּ from דָּגָה (dagah). It is only used in this sense once. Slifkin translates it as:
The shall grow fish-like in the midst of the landGenesis 48:16b (translation cited by Slifkin, 2009:314) emphasis added
The Jerusalem Bible gets close to this sense, rendering this verse as:
they grow into teeming multitudes on earthGenesis 48:16b (Jerusalem Bible) emphasis added
I have to admit I like this reading of it. It’s vibrant and full of energy, offering a really effective image of teeming life and prolificity.
The most famous biblical fish… possibly
Possibly the most famous biblical fish would be the one that swallowed hapless Jonah.
But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.Jonah 1:17 (NRSV)
Here again, the Bible is singularly unhelpful in offering clues as to what type of fish we should be picturing. It is a fish, דָּג (dag), and not a whale as is commonly believed – although Rata and Wilson (2015:294) are correct in warning us that dagah and dag have a very wide semantic range that encompass many things we do not necessarily associate with fishes (for example, crustaceans and sea mammals).* Matthew (12:40) uses the Greek word κῆτος (kētos), ‘sea monster,’ instead. One possible explanation might be that the author is being purposefully vague. Specificities can distract attention. The point of this part of the story is the (possibly comical) absurdity of the image, not whether it is possible. To be concerned about exactly what ‘fish’ it was or how it could swallow a whole man (and for him to remain alive) would be to spectacularly miss the point of this acerbic and ruthless satirical attack on a particular theology that was becoming increasingly popular at the time. I get the feeling if the author was here, he’d respond by saying, “You really want to know what type of fish it was? It was a גָּדוֹל (BIG) one!”
Geography and archaeology
This lack of specificity cannot easily be explained by a lack of knowledge. As Oded Borowski (1998:167) argues, while it is true that “Israel is not rich in bodies of water that can support fish and other water fauna”, there are, nevertheless, a number of adequate locations, such as, lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), lake Huleh (to the north of Kinneret), and the Mediterranean sea. Moreover, there numerous brooks, streams and rivers that thread the area also can support quantities of fish.
Kinneret/Galilee was an important source for fish. Borowski (1998:170) states that it supports 18 species of which 10 are commercially important: The two most common being the barbel group (carps, etc.) and the musht or ‘St Peter’s fish’ (Talapia galilea).
This seems to be supported by one of our early historical witnesses, Flavius Josephus, who was writing in the first century CE. We have to be a little cautious as he is prone to exaggeration and bending information to suit his particular agenda. Nevertheless, in his Wars of the Jews (JW) he presents an informative (if idealised) record of Galilee (referred here as Gennesareth).
Now this lake of Gennesareth is so called from the country adjoining to it. Its breadth is forty furlongs, and its length one hundred and forty; its waters are sweet, and very agreeable for drinking, for they are finer than the thick waters of other fens; the lake is also pure, and on every side ends directly at the shores, and at the sand […] There are several kinds of fish in it, different both to the taste and the sight from those elsewhere.Josephus, JW 3.206
Furthermore, biblical literature supplies us with a number of terms related to fishing practices and the processing of fish. In fact, we have more terms for the different types of implements used to catch fish than we have for actual fish species!
Archaeology provides further evidence that fish was fairly widely eaten in this area. Use of salting, smoking and drying techniques meant that processed food could be transported and, therefore, consumption of fish was not dependent on a proximity to water or sea (see Borowski, 1998:170-172; Rata and Wilson, 2015:294-303).
Excavations at Jerusalem (the Ophel and City of David), dating to around Iron Age II, have provided a large numbers of fish bones (see Borowski, 1998:172-174). Fish found at the Ophel were identified as comprising three families of marine fish (originating from the Mediterranean) and four from freshwater, which included quantities of Nile perch (Lates niloticus). It is unclear whether this fish was resident in the region at this period. If it had to be imported from Egypt, Borowski (ibid) suggests that it might explain why the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel were “so familiar with Egyptian fishing practices and metaphors.”
Those who fish will mourn;Isaiah 19:8 (NRSV)
all who cast hooks in the Nile will lament,
and those who spread nets on the water will languish.
Thus says the Lord God:Ezekiel 32:3 (NRSV)
In an assembly of many peoples
I will throw my net over you;
and I will haul you up in my dragnet.
The City of David excavations also yielded a larger number of marine fish – a little less than two-thirds. Borowski (ibid) lists identified species as:
- gilt-head sea bream
- white grouper
- Nile perch
- Nile catfish
- flat-headed grey mullet
Borowski (ibid) notes that the presence of such large quantities of catfish remains in Iron Age II Jerusalem is particularly surprising as it was considered non-kosher because of its lack of scales.
The freshwater fish is most likely to have come from the Yarkon river or other rivers on the coastal plain. Whilst biblical texts might be rather vague about the different species of fish, this should not be taken as ignorance of them – or that they were viewed as unsuitable sources of food. As Borowski (1998) concludes:
While the Hebrew Scriptures have meagre information concerning fish and their consumption… [use of precise fishing terminology] together with the abundance of fish bones at sites close to and far from fishing sources, it is safe to assume not only that the Israelites consumed a variety of fish. […] The variety of fish represented in the archaeological record is indicative of a lively trade in this commodity reaching as far as Egypt.Borowski (1998:175-176)
The biblical writers also provide clues of such an awareness of the diversity of aquatic fauna. The writer of 1 Kings listing the attributes of King Solomon adds a reference to his knowledge of flora and fauna of the region, which includes fish.
33 He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish.1 Kings 4:33 (NRSV)
Fishers of men
I would imagine, when discussing fish and the Bible, Jonah aside, most people would be thinking about the New Testament and its depiction of the disciples as fishermen. Here the lack of reference to specific types is a bit more surprising.
Recent research on the Galilean fishing industry during the Roman period describes a developed ‘industry’ – see Hanson’s (1997) seminal paper on the Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition. Josephus (JW 2.635) states that the lake was currently (first-century CE) supporting a total of 230 boats.
With any advanced economy comes the development of an associated vocabulary of terminology (jargon) that helps to provide a more precise way of communicating. For example, within Bronze Age Babylonia, the sheep economy had developed to such an extent that Robert Lau (1966:25) observes that specific terms are used to differentiate between; male lamb, female lamb, large sheep (perhaps ram), fat sheep, ram at age of puberty, pregnant ewe (although this is unsure), pubescent sheep, full-grown tupped ewe, full-grown pubescent – but perhaps not yet tupped – ewe. To a lesser extent we see this type of language within the biblical writings in relation to sheep. The terminology might not be so exact, but we would not expect it in these types of texts. After all, Lau was examining invoices and records of ownership where precision was essential. Nevertheless, a range of terms are used in Hebrew and Greek that reflect a developed sheep (and goat) economy. However, we are not seeing it in relation to fish.
This is particularly puzzling as the Gospel records suggest that those involved in leading the early Church were involved in this industry. There are also instances when the use of more specific terminology would have been helpful (Matthew 13:48).
Now the ‘fish’ remains but where are the ‘fishermen’?
But the questions don’t remain with the problem of terms (or lack of them) for fish. The use of the fish symbol by early Christians is fairly well known and continues to be practiced today (usually as ‘bumper stickers’ on cars). The word fish, ἰχθύς (ichthus) lent itself as a useful mnemonic. Each of its letters standing for Ἰησοῦς (Jesus) Χριστός (Christ) Θεοῦ (God’s) Yἱός (Son) Σωτήρ (Saviour).
It was once assumed that the ‘ichthus sign’ was developed by Christians as a secret sign to help identify other Christians during the time of the Roman persecutions. This theory has pretty much been debunked. We have very little evidence of early Christians adopting these strategies. Although we need to be a little cautious, early Christian writings seem to suggest the exact opposite; early Christians seemed to go out of their way to proclaim their faith and to personally be identified with it. For a brief but helpful summary see Larry Hurtado’s ‘Was early Christianity secretive?‘ blog.
However, the continued use of the fish in this way appears to be the only real legacy of the rather ‘fish-centric’ environment in which Christianity emerged. Even today, clerical and ecclesiological language is replete with shepherding terminology. We still talk of ‘pastors’, ‘pastoral’, the ‘flock’, etc.. Bishops still hold the crook-shaped crozier as a sign of office and role. The symbols and vocabulary of fish and fishing don’t seem to have survived quite so well. This is striking, particularly when Matthew (4:19) records Jesus explicitly promising to make the disciples ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων (halieis anthrōpōn), fishers of men.
*For a brief overview of the debate concerning the meaning of dag within rabbinic tradition, see Slifkin (2009:315).
Borowski, O. (1998) Every living Thing: Daily use of animals in ancient Israel. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.
Goodfellow, P. (2015) Flora and Fauna of the Bible: A guide for Bible readers and naturalists. Oxford: John Beaufoy.
Hanson, K.C. (1997) ‘Galilean fishing economy and the Jesus tradition‘. Biblical Theology Bulletin 27 99-111
Lau, R.J. (1966) Old Babylonian Temple Records. Oriental Studies. Volume 3. Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania State University.
Rata, T. and Wilson, M.R. (2015) ‘Fish and fishing’. in. Yamauchi, E.M. and Wilson, M.R. (eds.) Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-biblical Antiquity: Volume II, De-H. Peabody, Massachusetts. Hendrickson Publishers. pp.294-303.
Slifkin, N. (2009) Perek Shirah: Nature’s song. 2nd edn. Jerusalem: Zoo Torah.