While studying introductory material for a sermon series I’ll begin this week with Jonah, a Bible teacher from a past generation (James M. Gray) made this comment:
To grasp the significance of the events in this chapter it is necessary to know that the Ninevites worshiped the fish God, Dagon, part human and part fish. They believed he came up out of the sea and founded their nation, and also that messengers came to them from the sea from time to time. If, therefore, God should send a preacher to them, what more likely than that He should bring His plan down to their level and send a real messenger from the sea? Doubtless great numbers saw Jonah cast up by the fish, and accompanied him to Nineveh as his witnesses and credentials (Christian Worker’s Commentary, p. 283).
The older edition of ISBE held this view as well (2:776-77).
The identification of the Assyrian’s god has changed since the 1900s. Earlier biblical scholars identified their God, ÷/gD;, as part human and part fish, deriving Dagon from gD:, meaning fish. Most scholars since that time (see below) understand Dagon as a derivative of ÷g:D:, meaning grain, thus identifying the Assyrian (as well as Philistine) god as a grain or fertility god. Lexically, this seems more likely.
An additional reason for rejecting Gray’s & the older ISBE‘s interpretation and application is Jonah’s geographic location: he took a ship from Joppa down to Tarshish; was thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish; the fish then vomited Jonah up onto the dry land. Nineveh is nowhere near the Mediterranean Sea! For the fish to spit Jonah out on the shores near Nineveh would have required circumnavigating the African continent, coming up the Persian Gulf, and then up the Tigris River. While not impossible, this is not demanded by the text.
So Gray’s comment sounded a little too–um–fishy, to me. It sure would have preached well though!
- ISBE (rev), 1:851
- TWOT, s.v. “÷gd,” 1:182-83