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There are various biblical references to fish: the OT uses the word as a figure to point to man's helplessness (Eccl. 9:12; Hab. 1:14); Matthew (13:47f.) lets the variety of fish caught characterize the kingdom of heaven. In biblical material, however, the fish is not a primary symbol. In Christian art and literature, on the other hand, ichthus (“fish” in Greek), has basically been a symbol of Christ. The Greek letters form an acrostic (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior), but it is not known whether the acrostic preceded the symbol or vice versa. Neither is it known how early this usage developed. In addition, the term has been used to refer to neophytes (Tertullian, De Baptismo) and to the Eucharist (as in the paintings made inside the catacombs). From early times fish has been substituted for meat on days when fasting is observed.

FISH, FISHING (דָּאג, H1794; fish, all Eng. VSS; ιχθύς; fish, all Eng. VSS; Gr. ιχθύδιον; ὀψάριον, G4066, fish; small fishes; little fishes; variously in Eng. VSS. The two latter are non-specific and refer to small fishes generally. ὀψάριον, G4066, is found only in John; only used for fish about to be or already cooked. This is consistent with its use in classical Gr., where it may also mean food in some contexts).

Species available

The two Heb. words are always tr. “fish” but may also cover shellfish, crustaceans, etc., and sea mammals. The word “fish” is not used in the food laws of Leviticus 11:9 and Deuteronomy 14:9, 10. The latter is more concise, “Whatever has fins and scales you may eat. Whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat.” This rule excludes all aquatic invertebrates, some of which are tasty and nutritious, but can easily cause food poisoning, also marine mammals, of which the dugong was once common in the Red Sea and the Monk Seal rare in the Mediterranean. Also the sharks, which are cartilaginous fish with rough skin but no scales; and eels, including Moray Eel, which was later a favorite Rom. food. The Catfish (Clarias lazera) of Galilee might also have been avoided, but this still left several excellent eating lake fishes, in particular Tilapia species. Known as St. Peter’s fish it is now too expensive for any but the luxury trade. These fish are mouth-breeders, of a family well known to aquarists—Cichlidae. The Barbels (Barbus canis and longiceps) are also native to these waters. In recent years the Gray Mullet (Mugil cephalus) from the brackish estuary waters of the Mediterranean has been successfully introduced. The small fishes of Matthew 14:17 and 15:36 cannot be identified but can be assumed to have come from the lake. Many small fish are salted and dried, and either stored for future use or used for eating as described. The most common is the Lake Sardine, or Belak (Acanthobrama terrae sanctae) of which large quantities are canned.

Fishing method


Cast net.

(ἀμφίβληστρον, G312; Matt 4:18) is taken to be the net thrown by hand. This is circular, with small weights around the perimeter, and thrown so as to fall flat on the surface, enclosing a shoal. It is still used widely in Africa and parts of Asia; also occasionally on the lake for benefit of tourists! It is uneconomical where labor is expensive.

Gill net.

This is perhaps the best modern equivalent of δίκτυον, G1473, (Matt 4:30), and is still used for catching medium-sized Tilapia and other species. Long nets, supported on floats, hang near the surface, usually through the night, and are hauled up the following day. This net is used in a passive way and takes fish only of one approximate size; the smaller pass through and the larger cannot insert their heads. This is mostly used well out in the lake, and at sea, and fish are brought ashore by boat.

Drag net

(σαγήνη, G4880). As described fig. in Matthew 13:47, 48 this would better fit a modern seine net several hundred yards long, which is taken by boat around a semicircle and then both ends are hauled in to the shore. All kinds and sizes of fish were taken and then sorted. Much time ashore was occupied with net maintenance including washing (Luke 5:2), spreading and drying (Ezek 47:10) and mending (Matt 4:21). Fishermen also made them in the first case. Much of this work is now greatly lightened by using artificial (dripdry) filaments and machine-made nets.

Hook and line.

Fish spear.

Job 41:7 trs. two words: “harpoons” and “fishing spears” (RSV) and “barbed irons” and “fish spears” (KJV). The target in this v. is a crocodile but this method was more often used in shallow water for taking fish. Fish-spearing from a papyrus raft is illustrated in a painting in the tomb of Simut at Thebes c. 1500 b.c. In spring the large Tilapia are vulnerable to such weapons when they enter the reed beds to spawn, but in such areas they are usually taken undamaged in trammel nets.

Fishing regions

Inland Palestine.

Through much of its history Israel had control over the whole Lake of Galilee but this has little mention in OT, where nothing is said about its fish. In the gospels, largely because much of the Lord’s ministry was based there, it is important and the word sea was synonymous with it. At least seven disciples were fishermen and lake fishing has special emphasis. Except for the carp (Cyprinus carpio) which may escape from fishponds and reach the lake, where they grow big, and the Gray Mullet (u.s.), the species are the same as when Peter took them. Including those already listed there are at least twenty-five species. Intensive cultivation, with manuring, in parts of the Jordan Valley makes nutrient salts available in the drainage water and fish growth should be faster. Since World War II much research has been done and modern methods introduced, including production of fry. Yield from the Lake of Galilee for 1965 was: Tilapia species, 304 tons; Bleak, 787 tons; Barbel, 123 tons; Gray Mullet, 55 tons; others, 9 tons; total 1278 tons. For much of its passage through Upper Galilee the Jordan is fast-flowing and unsuitable for fishing. The yield from this river and others, subject to rapid rise and fall, would have been very small. Until about 1950 the Lake of Huleh, though partly silted up, was still a useful fishing ground; this is now drained, but the fishponds that ring the reclaimed area much more than make up for the loss.


Varying lengths of the Mediterranean coastline were occupied by the Israelites, but they were never a seafaring people and most maritime shipping mentioned in OT and NT was foreign-owned. Any fishing which they did was prob. close inshore. “Men of Tyre also, who lived in the city, brought in fish...and sold them...in Jerusalem” (Neh 13:16). This was presumably sea fish from the Phoen. coast and because of distance it must have been preserved by salting, drying, smoking, etc. For several reasons, esp. the narrow coastal shelf with shallow water, the Mediterranean is generally poor fishing ground and even with modern methods its potential is low. The catch for 1965 was 2,910 tons, of which half was sardine. At several periods, esp. during the reigns of Solomon and Jehoshaphat, Israel had access to the Red Sea, where a range of tropical fish is found, but these could have been only of local value. The 1965 catch was only 292 tons.


The Israelites looked back from the desert and longed for the fish they had enjoyed in Egypt (Num 11:5). The Nile fish were killed by the first plague and this was enough to pollute even a river of such great volume. The Nile has always been a major source of food and various methods of fishing are illustrated in ancient Egyp. art. The dense population of lower Egypt and its intensive cultivation greatly increased the area of channels available for fish, as well as making the water more fertile. Over 100 species are recorded for lower Nile, many of them edible, including carp, perch and Cichlids. This fauna has changed little since OT times.


One of only two Biblical references is in doubt. Isaiah 19:10, “[who] make sluices and ponds for fish” (KJV); “who work for hire will be grieved,” (RSV). The other is Song of Solomon, “fish pools in Heshbon” (KJV); “pools in Hesbon” (RSV). The old Moabite city of Heshbon is in Trans-Jordan, more or less level with the N point of the Dead Sea, and excavation has revealed remains of pools and conduits, so the Hebrews prob. practiced some form of fish farming. This was known early in other lands; fishponds have been found in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, and they are illustrated in Assyrian reliefs. Romans became experts and developed methods of raising several species of sea fish including mullet, wrasse and, above all, Moray Eels. This work needs a high degree of skill. The Romans also made fresh water ponds in occupied countries and the monks’ “fish-stews” of Europe were their successors. There is no evidence about the fish kept in these ponds in Pal. Within recent years fish-farming has become an important industry in Israel, where the climate allows a fairly long growing season. Over 12,500 acres yield about 10,000 tons per annum (1965), mostly carp and much of it for the Passover market. This is an ideal pond fish, which prob. originated in E Europe, but it was not used extensively for this purpose until the Middle Ages.

Figurative use

Fish in worship

Deuteronomy 4:18 expressly forbids making an image of fish. The fishtailed deity shown on coins found at Ashkelon is identified with Atargitis the fish goddess, whose cult originated in Syria and was spread by merchants. It does not seem to have been practiced by the Israelites at any stage. The often repeated statement that Dagon (1 Sam 5:2ff.) was a fish deity, with its name derived from Heb. סִירָה, H6106, has no real foundation. (See NBD, p. 287.)



Bulletins of Dept. of Agric. and Fisheries, Israel; W. Luther and K. Fielder, “Die unterwasser Fauna der Mittelmer Küsten.”

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(dagh, daghah, da’gh; ichthus, ichthudion, opsarion):

1. Natural History:

Fishes abound in the inland waters of Palestine as well as the Mediterranean. They are often mentioned or indirectly referred to both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, but it is remarkable that no particular kind is distinguished by name. In Le 11:9-12 and De 14:9 f, "whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters" is declared clean, while all that "have not fins and scales" are forbidden. This excluded not only reptiles and amphibians, but also, among fishes, siluroids and eels, sharks, rays and lampreys. For our knowledge of the inland fishes of Palestine we are mainly indebted to Tristram, NHB and Fauna and Flora of Palestine; Lortet, Poissons et reptiles du Lac de Tiberiade; and Russegger, Reisen in Europa, Asien, Afrika, 1835- 1841. The most remarkable feature of the fish fauna of the Jordan valley is its relationship to that of the Nile and of East Central Africa. Two Nile fishes, Chromis nilotica Hasselquist, and Clarias macracanthus Gunth., are found in the Jordan valley, and a number of other species found only in the Jordan valley belong to genera (Chromis and Hemichromis) which are otherwise exclusively African. This seems to indicate that at some time, probably in the early Tertiary, there was some connection between the Palestinian and African river systems. No fish can live in the Dead Sea, and many perish through being carried down by the swift currents of the Jordan and other streams. There are, however, several kinds of small fish which live in salt springs on the borders of the Dead Sea, springs which are as salt as the Dead Sea but which, according to Lortet, lack the magnesium chloride which is a constituent of the Dead Sea water and is fatal to the fish. Capoeta damascina Cuv. and Val., one of the commonest fishes of Syria and Palestine, has been taken by the writer in large numbers in the Arnon and other streams flowing into

2. Jonah’s Fish:

An unusually large shark might fulfill the conditions of Jonah’s fish (dagh, daghah; but Mt 12:40, ketos, "whale" or "sea monster"). The whale that is found in the Mediterranean (Balaena australis) has a narrow throat and could not swallow a man. No natural explanation is possible of Jonah’s remaining alive and conscious for three days in the creature’s belly. Those who consider the book historical must regard the whole event as miraculous. For those who consider it to be a story with a purpose, no explanation is required.

3. Fishing:

The present inhabitants of Moab and Edom make no use of the fish that swarm in the Arnon, the Hisa and other streams, but fishing is an important industry in Galilee and Western Palestine. Now, as formerly, spear hooks and nets are employed. The fish-spear (Job 41:7) is little used. Most of the Old Testament references to nets have to do with the taking of birds and beasts and not of fishes, and, while in Hab 1:15 cherem is rendered "net" and mikhmereth "drag," it is hot clear that these and the other words rendered "net" refer to particular kinds of nets. In the New Testament, however, sagene (Mt 13:47), is clearly the dragnet, and amphiblestron (Mt 4:18), is clearly the casting net. The word most often used is diktuon. Though this word is from dikein, "to throw," or "to cast," the context in several places (e.g. Lu 5:4; Joh 21:11) suggests that a dragnet is meant. The dragnet may be several hundred feet long. The upper edge is buoyed and the lower edge is weighted. It is let down from a boat in a line parallel to the shore and is then pulled in by ropes attached to the two ends, several men and boys usually pulling at each end. The use of the casting net requires much skill. It forms a circle of from 10 to 20 feet in diameter with numerous small leaden weights at the circumference. It is lifted by the center and carefully gathered over the right arm. When well thrown it goes to some distance, at the same time spreading out into a wide circle. A cord may be attached to the center, but this is not always the case. When lifted again by the center, the leads come together, dragging over the bottom, and sometimes a large number of fish may be enclosed. The novice has only to try, to realize the dexterity of the practiced fishermen.

Alfred Ely Day

See also

  • Animals