The story of Jonah found in the book which bears his name is one of the best known in all the Hebrew Bible. Unwilling to warn the Assyrian capital of Nineveh of coming judgment, Jonah stows away onto a ship that is going the opposite direction of the city. When Yahweh hurls ” a great wind” upon the sea, those in the vessel begin to fear for their lives. They begin to throw cargo overboard with the hope that it would make the vessel less susceptible to sinking. The ship’s captain goes down into the hold and finds Jonah fast asleep. Flabbergasted at this, the captain orders Jonah to call out to his god so that they might all survive. What happens next is bizarre in its own right.
First, the sailors begin casting lots to figure out who created the mess they were in. The lot falls on Jonah who admits “he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD” (Jonah 1:10). “What shall we do to you?” they ask him (1:11). Jonah instructs them to treat him as they had their cargo and toss him overboard. If they do so, he tells them, the storm will cease and they will be well. But they don’t. They continue to row but the storm continues to grow. They plead with Yahweh, “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you” (1:14). Jonah is tossed over the side of the ship. The storm dies down and then men offer a sacrifice to Yahweh. And then
the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (1:17).
The Masoretic Text (1:17 ET = 2:1 MT) refers to the animal as dg gdwl. The Hebrew word dg is not a word that comes up a lot in the Hebrew Bible but without a doubt it refers to fish. The adjective gdwl lets us know that this isn’t an ordinary fish: it’s big.
The dg gdwl in the Septuagint
In the Septuagint’s rendering of the passage the dg gdwl is referred to as kētei megalō. We easily recognize megalō as meaning “great” or “large.” But kētei is more obscure and in some ways a surprise. In Genesis 9:2 where the MT tells us that the fear of humanity would be upon all animal life including “the fish of the sea,” the Hebrew word there is the same word used in Jonah 1:17 (2:1) – dg. But in the LXX the word isn’t kētous but ichthyas, a generic word for fish. Assuming the MT reflects accurately the Hebrew original of the text of Jonah, this means that the translator(s) of the LXX did not think that all dg were kētos and that some dg were ichthys. But what in the world is a kētos?
The first appearance of kētos in the LXX comes in Genesis 1:21 where we read in the MT that God created htnynm hgdlym, “the great sea monsters.” The LXX renders htnynm hgdlym as ta kētē ta megala, a construction very similar to what we find in Jonah 1:17 (2:1). The Hebrew word tnyn is used to describe serpents (Exodus 7:9, 7:10, 7:12) or mythical creatures like Leviathan (Isaiah 27:1). But not every instance of tnyn is rendered as kētos in the LXX. In fact, in some places like in Exodus 7 tnyn is rendered by another Greek word: drakōn. That word should be familiar to anyone who enjoys Game of Thrones. But we do see elsewhere in the LXX that the translators felt that mythical creatures from Ancient Near Eastern lore were kētos. For example, in Job 26:12 the MT’s reference to “Rahab” which is compared with “the fleeing serpent” in 26:13 is in the LXX to kētos (cf. Job 9:13). And in Daniel 3:791 we see reference to kētē kai panta ta kinoumena en tois hydasi, “sea monsters and all those that move in the waters” (my translation).
Thus it appears that the LXX uses kētos to refer to mythic sea creatures and it stands to reason that whoever translated the Hebrew text of Jonah into Greek viewed the dg gdwl not as a big fish but as a great sea monster.2
Jesus, Jonah, and the dg gdwl
Though the prophet Jonah features in both the Gospels of Matthew (12:38-42) and Luke (11:29-32), it is only in the Matthean that the story of Jonah and the dg gdwl is mentioned. The scribes and Pharisees request from Jesus a sēmeion, “a sign.” But Jesus responds with some rather harsh words: “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign [sēmeion], but no sign [sēmeion] will be given to it except the sign [sēmeion] of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39). What sēmeion is this? Jesus explains: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). So the sēmeion of Jonah is about the death and resurrection of the Son of Man.
As you no doubt noticed, the Matthean Jesus tells the Pharisees that Jonah spent three days and nights “in the belly of the sea monster.” “Sea monster” in the NRSV translates the genitive of the same noun we found in Jonah 1:17 (2:1, LXX) – kētous. In the New Testament, it is the only time the term appears. And other translations do not render kētous as “sea monster” but as “great fish” (ESV) or “whale” (KJV), perhaps in a bid to avoid something as fanciful as monsters. Why the existence of sea monsters is less believable than a man surviving inside of one is beyond me. Given what we know about how people viewed large bodies of water in general, there was constant fear of great creatures lurking beneath the waves. Of course, if you intention is to make the story of Jonah historical then you run into the issue of what the creature was and in our modern scientific society we know sea “monsters” don’t exist.
So What Swallowed Jonah?!?
So if you’re reading the Hebrew text of Jonah then what swallowed Jonah was a pretty big fish (dg gdwl). If you are reading the LXX of Jonah then what swallowed him was a big sea monster (kētei megalō). And if you’re reading the words of Jesus through the lens of Matthew’s Gospel then what swallowed him was a sea monster (kētous).
And that cleared up nothing.
1 In the LXX, the book of Daniel features additions not present in the MT, including a large expansion of chapter three. See R. Timothy McClay, “To the Reader of Daniel,” in Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (editors), A New English Translation of the Septuagint and the Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under That Title (Oxford University Press, 2007), 991-994.
2 In other ancient Greek literature kētos is used to refer to sea monsters including Scylla, a six-headed beast mentioned in The Odyssey (12.97).
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