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Post Resurrection Appearance: Israel as the Fish

Paper presented to the Society of Biblical Literature, April 2008

The conventional understanding of “fish” in John 21:1-14 views this symbol as representing the redemptive salvation of the Christian Church. A review of the literature of the last thirty-five years finds this conclusion is often based on a tendency to interpret the NT from the NT. However, a review of the literature also offers periodic glimpses of veiled meaning from the Hebrew Scriptures (HS). For example, Edersheim suggests the fish symbolize the great harvest of souls at the end of days, and Trudinger explores, through the Hebrew system of gematria, the meaning of the number 153, which were the number of fish caught in the net.

This paper continues an approach to further uncover the veiled meaning. It proceeds with the assumption that NT symbolism of fish is derived from (HS), and that the original recipients of John’s letter would have understood this relationship. The methodology of the study identifies particular passages, first in Genesis 1-4, which is the first mention of the symbol, then in the Torah, and finally in the prophets and writings, before returning to the NT to consider the relationship between the two testaments. This approach is based on the ancient practice of pearl-stringing; a method used by the sages, that starts with the first usage of a word or concept and then puts related passages together to search for deeper meaning.
The study proceeds with a three-step process for each section of scripture. The first step examines the meaning of a passage from the perspective of the Hebraic culture and context of the time. The second step involves a comprehensive look at the Hebrew language by examining three-letter roots, individual letters, doubles (that is, two words meaning the same thing), gematria, (numerical equivalents for letters), numerical symbols or any other anomalies. The third step, found only in the passages in Genesis 1 and John 21, evaluates framework concepts such as the Hebrew Calendar with its festival cycle, and the seven thousand year plan of God.
This methodology searches for deeper meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures to which the passage in John 21 is likely pointing, and which the disciples undoubtedly heard. Furthermore, by examining additional ancient interpretive literature, which may not have been available to the disciples, the finding of this paper may penetrate more deeply than the likely understanding of the first century disciples. To accomplish this, the study accompanies the three step approach in the HS with an examination of the relevant references in Second Temple Literature, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Jewish prayer liturgy.
After following this methodology, the study finds that “fish” is an allusion to the House of Israel, which has been hidden in the nations and protected by God, and will be fished out of the sea and brought back to her land in the future Messianic Kingdom. The paper does not address the relationship of the Church to the symbolism of “fish”.
The first mention of fish, as a symbol, is found in Genesis 1:20 on the fifth day of creation. Josephus captures the essence of this verse as viewed in ancient Jewish literature. He explains the verse saying, “God produced the living creatures in the sea and sorted them as to society and mixture for procreation so that their kinds might increase and multiply. Thus, the fish represent living beings that multiply.
The Scriptures and the Jewish commentaries reinforce this perspective of Josephus. Genesis speaks of the “waters swarming with living beings” or beings that are alive (nephesh hiya). The root of swarming is “sheretz,” which means to abound in a place like the sea and to multiply souls as fish do. According to Rashi, souls are teeming in great confused numbers, and this particular term describes any living creature that is the smallest of its species. Targum Jonathan refers to these living beings as the bringing forth of progeny. Rabbi Hirsch concludes that the water itself would actually produce living bodies.
Furthermore, fish were commanded to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the water in the seas. To the Jewish sages, to fill, maleh was associated with a sovereign act of God and meant to fill to abundance, to be complete or satisfied, and ultimately to represent (as a Hebrew idiom) the future days of the Messiah. But to the ancient Hebrews, the sea was a place of darkness, restlessness, instability and sin. Since the Israelites were not a sea-faring people, they were frightened by the sea and spoke of the vast amounts of water with images of terror. The deepest waters held mythical monsters and unclean fish. To fill the seas came to represent the filling of the nations with people who were considered unclean. Furthermore, yam, the Hebrew word for sea, which is made up of a yod meaning hand or west, and a mem meaning water or sea, means a hand working in the sea.
The rabbis found significance in numbers. The gematria for sea is fifty and fish were created on the fifth day. According to E.W. Bullinger, the number five and its multiples have great spiritual significance and there are numerous examples in Scripture. Nearly all the measurements in the Tabernacle are multiples of five. Exodus 13:18 declares, “Israel came out of Egypt by five in rank.” Psalm 8:9 offers a further explanation of this verse by identifying fish as mankind traversing the lanes of the sea” . The fifth letter of the aleph-bet is hey, which when added to Avram, changes the meaning of Abraham’s name to father of many nations signifying abundance of progeny. The fifth kingdom is the perfect Messianic Kingdom, which will overcome and absorb the preceding four great world powers or nations.
These four preceding worldly kingdoms are inhabited by “pagans.” The Hebrew for “pagans” is goyim (plural), meaning “the nations.” However, the singular goy first appears in Genesis 35:11. Rashi concludes that the word goy in this verse refers, not to the pagan nations but to Israel when she returns to idolatry and is absorbed into the nations. Interestingly, goy is a derivative from the root word gvah, which means “in the middle of something” and Ephraim, which in Scripture often signifies Israel, received a tribal portion that was in the middle of the land of Israel. There is still another connection between fish, which represent living beings that multiply and Ephraim. The tribe of Ephraim encamped on the west side of the Tabernacle, and “west” is the root word for sea. Thus God has placed Ephraim (that is, Israel) in the middle of the nations because Israel is not yet prepared to enter the final Messianic Kingdom when there will be an exploding abundance of progeny.
The imagery continues. The Hebrew word for fish is dag from the root dagah which means to multiply progeny quickly. Now, looking at the individual letters, an emerging meaning will become significant when we examine the prophecy in Ezekiel 47:1-10. But now, let us simply acknowledge that each individual letter has meaning. Rabbi Munk concludes from the Jewish literature that the letter dalet in dag means door, specifically the door of the tent of meeting The letter gimmel means the foot of a man and represents mankind on his feet working, traveling, playing or gathering at a watering hole. Taken together these letters reveal that the people would be gathered to the door of the tent to the place where water is provided. Dagen, (with a nun added) means the continuation of a new generation. In the Talmud, the Messiah, whose appearance is said to bring fruitfulness to the whole world, is also called Nun or “fish”.
Continuing with the Hebrew language, the gematria for dag is seven, which is the number for the seventh day, the Sabbath, and also the seventh thousand year, which is the Messianic kingdom. Fish have been identified with the Sabbath throughout the ages. The custom of eating fish on the Sabbath apparently goes back to the very early times. B’nei Yisoskhor concludes that fish were blessed on the fifth day of creation, mankind on the sixth day, and the Sabbath on the seventh day. The reason man eats fish on the Sabbath, suggests Yisoskhor, is to receive a triple blessing because the Hebrew word for “green pastures” (Psalm 23) is deshe from the first letter of fish, Sabbath and mankind. These three are joined on the Sabbath, the seventh day. It appears that these three, the Sabbath, the fish and mankind, will all be joined in the Messianic Kingdom in the seventh thousand year.
The framework concept of the seven thousand year plan of G-d comes from the creation story. The seven thousand years is referred to in rabbinic sources, the HS and the NT, and is a period of six thousand years when the world will work, and a seventh in which the world will rest. This is patterned after the seven days of the creation week. Psalm 90:4 speaks of a day as being one thousand years, and 2 Peter 3:8 refers to Psalm 90:4. The last one thousand years is referred to as “that day” and a Sabbath rest. The culmination of God’s seven thousand year plan is the Messianic kingdom when redemption will be delivered by the Messiah.
Having finished exploring the first use of fish at the time of creation, we will turn next to the symbol of the fish found in the Torah, specifically in Genesis 48:16. But first we will look at the Hebraic culture and context in which we can understand the symbolism of the fish.
Scripture portrays Israel settled in the land of Egypt, before the Exodus, where the people acquired much property and had indeed become fruitful and multiplied in number. They saw themselves as permanent residents. The books of Midrash from the Talmud, indicates that because of this Egyptian settlement, the people slowly became “grasped” by the land of Egypt and to culture because they had begun the slide into assimilation during their exile.
As the time of Jacob’s death is approaching, Jacob prepares to bestow a special blessing on the sons of Joseph, who are Manasseh and Ephraim. Even though he knows them, Jacob asks who they are. The rabbis believed that Jacob saw prophetically into the future to a time when the wicked king Jeroboam would descend from Ephraim. Jeroboam was the king who separated himself from the United Kingdom of David and Solomon, and moved the center of worship away from Jerusalem to the north of the country. Jeroboam also set up different days for observing the festivals and regressed into pagan practices. The rabbis further believed that Jacob could see to a time when the descendants of Ephraim would be assimilated into the nations with their identity lost. This actually happened when the Assyrian Empire conquered the ten northern tribes.
Jacob then blessed both Manasseh and Ephraim and elevated them to the status of own sons, transferring to them Joseph’s double portion of inheritance. Joseph’s two sons were now full-fledged tribal fathers whose descendants became the ten tribes of Israel. One of the Jewish sages, The Ramban, comments that this blessing was a major change in the composition of the Jewish people and marked the spiritual success of Joseph by his bringing spiritual integrity to the land of Egypt. Jacob further elevated the younger son, Ephraim, to the first born position by placing his right hand upon him. The rabbis believed that the right hand on Ephraim would bless him with superior wisdom and knowledge, and spiritual supremacy.
In this same passage, Jacob also blessed them in “that day”, which we have already seen is a picture of the Sabbath rest in the future Messianic Kingdom. This blessing itself and the timing of it lead to a development in the Jewish prayer liturgy where the prayer, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” is recited on the eve of every Sabbath. Furthermore, in the reciting of this prayer, the people are given the strength to maintain their faith in the face of hostility and the temptation of assimilation into other cultures. This same prayer also became an important testament to their fruitfulness in their own land.
Turning to the Hebrew language, we see that, Ephraim, whose name means fruitful has descendants described as “fish”, although various Bible versions have translated fish as “proliferate” or “teeming multitudes”. Ephraim receives a blessing but this is apparently prophetic of a future time because he is further described as katan (small) and insignificant. When we come to the NT passages, we will discover that the seven loaves and “one” fish are also describing the fish as small. According to the Talmud, descendants of Ephraim “will be like fishes in the midst of the earth and in the sea covered by water”. It is the prophetic fame of Ephraim’s offspring that will fill the nations (milo hagoyim). This fruitfulness of the seed of Ephraim is also described here as a congregation of peoples, which the sages identify as a people belonging to God.
Another unusual element is the use of a Hebrew double, which repeats a word or phrase. In this case the phrase is “I know” or yadati. We will see shortly another double in Jeremiah 16:16 and yet again it in Ezekiel 47:10. The general view from commentators like Rashi and Radak explain the double yadati as signifying the preeminence of Ephraim. Even though Manasseh will be great in his own right, Jacob’s prophecy identifies the progeny of Ephraim as fish. In fact, the entire northern kingdom of the ten tribes was called Ephraim, whereas the two southern tribes belonged to Judah. The sages viewed this repetition as an intensity of the blessing from Jacob, which was necessary for Ephraim to carry out his mission successfully. The Rabbis also see the double as a picture of the two redemptions of Israel, the first from Egypt and the second at the end of days.
We turn next to the mention of fish in the prophets and the description of the idolatry of Israel in the context of fish, which is the background for Jeremiah 16:16. Israel is admonished for prostituting herself, committing adultery, and defiling the land because of her assimilation into pagan cultures. She was exiled from the land, by God, for her failure to follow the Torah and its commandments. However, God would honor his promise to Jacob when he declared he would “send for many fishermen and they will fish for them” in speaking of how he would rescue Israel from her exile in the nations and bring her back to the land.
Continuing in this verse, there appears another double. In this case there are two words in the Hebrew used for fishermen. First is doogim which is followed by a second word, dayagim. The first contains a vav, which is then replaced by a yod in the second word. According to Rabbi Munk, the vav represents physical completion and the yod is a reference to life in the world to come. The two references could possibly point again to the two redemptions of Israel. The first redemption was physical rescue from slavery in Egypt brought about by Moses. The second will be a future spiritual redemption brought about by the Messiah. The fishermen are the agents who help bring about the redemption by rescuing Israel out of the depths of the sea. These agents are identified by the sages with the patriarchs in the HS and possibly the disciples in the NT. The concept of the fishermen as agents will be further explained in the section on the NT. Strangely enough this double is followed by the small letter quoof, which according to the sages, alludes to the attribute of holiness. Israel will be cleansed, set apart and removed from the contamination (out of the sea) of the whole world in both redemptions.
Ezekiel 47: 1-10 describes some of the events that will take place in the time of the future redemption. The word for fish, dag, was noted earlier in this paper to signify people gathering at the door of the tent where water is provided. Ezekiel describes water flowing from under the door of the Temple, running down from the right side. This is said to be life giving water that will flow into the Dead Sea, making it become fresh, and allowing it to swarm with all kinds of living creatures. In reviving the Dead Sea with this life giving water, everything will be restored and able to live again, and the fish will be exceedingly abundant. Fishermen will stand on its shores spreading their nets, catching many more varieties of fish. The fish, like living souls, will be healed by the water that gives life to the dead. The place where life giving water is offered is the place for the unity of the whole house of Israel. (at the door to the Temple) This unity extends to the nations, who are personified by all the different kinds of fish that will be restored. Just as Jacob, who is called Israel, extended his right hand and laid it on Ephraim, so too Jesus told his disciples to cast their net on the right side of the boat.
This passage in Ezekiel contains yet another double, that is, one word stand that appears in two different tenses. The first is in a future tense and the second in a past tense. “Stand” refers to the fisherman. The root amad means to stand in preparation to act, and further suggests the idea of remaining and enduring as opposed to perishing. This again is most likely a picture of the two redemptions of Israel, the past rescue from Egypt and a future redemption. The work of the fishermen helps accomplish this.
We are now ready to apply our understanding from the HS to the passage in John. Starting with the Hebraic culture and context of the time, we note that fish was a basis of the diet for the people of the Galilee. A high demand pushed up the price and placed fresh fish out of the reach of the poor. The fishing industry on the lake was a highly competitive one. Scripture suggests that the disciples, who were fishermen, probably came from prosperous, perhaps assimilated, Jewish middle-class families that spoke both Aramaic and Greek. These disciples served in an administrative, as well as a practical role in that major fishing industry and were experienced businessmen capable of handling the competition. Apparently the reality of business and profit did not satisfy, for the reason they searched for something more spiritual and fulfilling.
Most Jewish fisherman did, in fact, follow the torah in their business practices by distinguishing between clean fish (with scales) and unclean fish. For fishermen in the Galilee, all the unkosher fish could be sold to the Gentiles in the Decapolis region, which was considered by the rabbis to be the home of the pagans. But the fish sold by the Gentiles was presumed to be unclean, so Jewish buyers only went to Jewish suppliers. In Matthew 7:10, which may have been mistranslated, Yeshua asks who would give their son a catfish (not a snake) if he asked for a fish. The catfish was considered unkosher and Jews of the time would not have eaten this fish and certainly would not have given it to their children to eat. This helps explain the meaning of the parable of the net in which the net is compared to the Kingdom of God. Once the fish were brought in, the fisherman had to separate the good fish from the bad.
In ancient times, net fishing was the main method used to catch fish. According to Mendel Nun, the men were using a trammel net, which he describes as a compound net built from three layers. “Hauling the net ashore, disentangling the fish, sorting them and repairing the many breaks during the day took a lot of work, explains Burge who met with Nun. The fishermen who used a trammel net fished at night, and stopped working at the first light of day because the fish could see the netting. Yeshua arrived at the shore while the disciples were washing their nets after a night of failing to catch any fish. Part of the miracle of the great catch was not only that there were a large number of fish where there hadn’t been earlier, but also that fish swam blindly into the net. Under normal circumstances they had to be scared into the nets after the nets were put into place. Yeshua, after his resurrection, rescued them from the tragedy of not having caught anything and blessed them with an abundance that normally would have taken weeks to catch.
Turning to step three, framework concepts, we see a strong allusion to the Hebrew calendar and its accompanying festival. Yeshua’s resurrection coincided with the Feast of First fruits and the start of the counting of the omer. Scripture commands a counting of the omer each day for seven weeks from “the morrow of the Sabbath” , making 49 days plus one or 50. The counting of the omer begins with the offering of the new barley that was brought to the Temple. Each and every day the omer is to be counted in a prayer until the fiftieth day, which is Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost. The omer is a community offering, not an individual one, and part of the worship ceremony was to raise the omer and wave it in all four directions in honor of God who is everywhere. According to the tractate Pesachim, in the Mishnah, the people of Israel asked Moses when they should worship God and he replied at “the end of fifty days”.
The number seven grows in significance. According to the sages, seven attributes were replanted in the world by each of their great ancestors, the patriarchs. These seven patriarchs from Abraham to David were called the seven shepherds. They were to bring redemption to Israel. It is possible that the seven disciples in John reflect these seven shepherds of Israel. During each week of the counting of the omer, one of the seven attributes related to one of these patriarchs reigned supreme. Since John 21 took place during the second week of the counting of the omer, the emphasis was on the attribute of Isaac who personified strength and immortality, pointing to the resurrection of Yeshua. Furthermore, according to the sages, the knowledge of man ended at the 49th day of the counting of the omer and the knowledge of God appeared on the 50th day. It was said that in this last day, Israel will achieve complete sovereignty and the whole world will become a kingdom of heaven sanctified by the Torah.
This complete sovereignty of Israel is more deeply expressed in the gematria for Betzalel, the builder and designer of the Tabernacle because the numerical value of the letters in his name is 153, which is the number of fish in John 21:11 The meaning of the name Betzalel is “in the shadow of El”, which signifies the shadow of God falling on him with the wisdom and knowledge of the 50th day, the day of the Feast of Weeks. Betzalel was the great-grandson of Caleb who was originally a Kenizzite. These Kenizzites were an ancient Canaanite people, considered pagans by the rabbis, who mingled with the other Canaanites, and eventually lost their identity. However, Caleb, a pagan Kenizzite, joined himself to Israel, becoming a leader of the tribe of Judah and following God and His commandments. In addition, Bullinger identified the gematria of b’nei Elohim (children of God) as 153 signifying the unity of the nation.
In the same way, Jacob, in his blessing over Ephraim, prophesied that Ephraim would abound in the same superior wisdom and knowledge. Jacob’s blessing further confirmed that even though Israel would mingle with the pagan nations, she would come out of those nations, repent, and turn back to God. At the final redemption, in the time of the Messianic kingdom, Israel will be in the shadow of God with the same spirit of wisdom and knowledge upon them. They will join themselves back to Judah so that the whole community will achieve sovereignty on the 50th day.
Continuing to explore the Hebrew language, we find in the Greek of the Gospel of John (and in other versions in the NT that mention fish), numerous words and phrases and concepts that are translations of Hebrew idioms. In John, Yeshua invites his disciples to eat some of the fish they have caught. The expression to “come” meant to draw near to the kingdom, and to “eat” meant to go beyond this present age to the Messianic Kingdom and the “world to come”
In the feeding of the five thousand, the multitudes eat from five loaves and two fish with twelve baskets remaining. We find an explanation of the Hebrew idioms for “eat” and were “filled” and some were “leftover” in the Talmud (Shabbat 113b), which interprets “to eat” as in this world, were “filled” as in the days of the Messiah, and “leftover” in the world to come. Bullinger suggests, the five loaves represent the fifth kingdom, that is, the Messianic kingdom, the time of the final redemption when people will be called out for the last time. The seven thousand year plan of God suggests the two fish are a picture of two days or two thousand years. The time Israel is hidden in the nations is two thousand years is from Yeshua’s resurrection until the time of the Messianic Kingdom. The twelve baskets left over represent that complete union of the twelve tribes which is prophesied in Ezekiel 37.
The narrative of the feeding of the four thousand shows the crowd eating from seven loaves and a “little” fish. The seven loaves are equated with the completion of the seven thousand year plan of God. The word used for “little” in describing the fish reminds us of the same word katan used to describe Ephraim as small in Genesis 48. The seven baskets that are leftover are a picture of the seven shepherds and the seven disciples who act as agents to help Israel, who is identified with Ephraim. In the end of days, Israel will achieve complete sovereignty at the time of the final redemption.
In conclusion, from all the associations in the HS, the symbol of the fish in John 21 refers to Ephraim, the house of Israel. From the first mention of fish in Genesis, fish are described as living beings in the sea, which represents the nations. They are commanded to fill the seas. In the Torah passage, Ephraim is identified as fish that will be protected by God until the final redemption and is the prophecy of Jacob that shows they will fill the nations (milo hagoyim). The prophets continue the theme that, although Israel will be assimilated into the nations for a time, she will be brought forth by fishermen for the time of her redemption. The fish coming out of the sea in John 21 represent the house of Israel coming out of the nations, being delivered, and returning to her land in the future. When Israel fills the nations (milo hagoyim), and when her blindness is removed as Paul says in Romans 11, then “all Israel will be delivered”.
This interpretation represents a deeper meaning that has not been previously considered. There are certainly other meanings for the symbol of the fish as well as numerous other rich pictures in this passage of John. Further study into this rich symbolism will reveal an even greater depth of understanding than what has been presented here. For example, it is possible that the bread has its symbolism in the fulfillment of the house of Judah. Other topics to explore are the meaning of daybreak, the net, the fire of burning coals, the shoreline, and the garment Peter threw on as he made his way to shore. This paper has covered only a very small portion of what the passage is hinting through its association to the HS. There remains much available for further study,

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