Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Sign of Jonah: In the Belly of the Sea Monster

My wife and I have recently joined a wonderful small group affiliated with our church in an attempt to get "plugged in" to our local family of believers. (I want to thank all of you for making us feel so welcomed!) Our group is going through a 90-day reading plan, during the course of which I've come across some interesting "tidbits" of biblical information. We haven't always had time for me to share these tidbits, and Lord knows I need an outlet! So, I decided to start a new series called "Tidbits," in which I will share these interesting Scriptural nuggets I come across.


On day nine of our reading plan we read a passage from Matthew that includes these words spoken by Jesus:

"Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, 'Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.' But He answered and said to them, 'An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here." (Matthew 12:38-41, emphasis mine)

I've read this passage many times, I'm sure, but somehow missed it. It was my wife, in fact, who caught this. In our preferred translation of this passage, Jesus calls the creature in whose belly Jonah was trapped a "sea monster." The Amplifed translation agrees, and this had me a bit curious. We're more familiar with this story as depicting Jonah in the belly of a whale (KJV), or a "great fish" (NIV, NLT, ESV, CEV, NKJV). Why, I wondered, did the NASB and Amplified translations render it differently?

Jesus is quoting Jonah 1:17 where we read, "And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights." The original Hebrew words rendered "great fish" are דג גדול (dag gadol), which literally mean just that: huge (gadol) fish (dag). The translators of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament from which the New Testament authors often quoted, rendered it μέγα κῆτος (mega ketos) which also means great or huge (mega) fish (ketos).

The problem is that Jesus uses this word, κῆτος (ketos), to refer to the "great fish" in Matthew 12:40, instead of ἰχθύς (ichthys), which is used everywhere else in the New Testament to refer to fish (Matthew 7:10 and 1 Corinthians 15:39, for example). The word κῆτος (ketos) appears nowhere else in Scripture. How, then, is it different from ἰχθύς (ichthys)?

The word κῆτος (ketos) is used in ancient Greek myths to refer to monsters of the sea. They "were usually depicted as serpentine fish withlong rows of sharp teeth" (Ketea, Theoi Greek Mythology). The word was used, then, to refer to huge, terrifying fish-like creatures of the sea. Contrast that with ἰχθύς (ichthys) which was used to refer to the small fish caught for food, and it is evident why Matthew records Jesus' words using κῆτος (ketos).

Neither Matthew nor Jesus were perpetuating contemporary Greek myths of terrifying, serpent/fish sea monsters. They were merely quoting from the Septuagint, which rendered the original Hebrew words "great fish" into the Greek in as clear a way as possible.

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