Great Fish

September 3, 2012
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Ruby Namdar

Now God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed unto his God out of the fish’s belly, and God spoke unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

This bizarre yet strangely resonant story likens the belly of the great fish to the depths of hell, to the lowest spiritual and existential point from which the only path is upward.

Our ancestors, neither mariners nor intimate with the sea and its creatures, were, nonetheless, intrigued by these depths and often used them as theological metaphors and images. The great fish of the sea are used as proof or symbol of God’s omnipotence: Imagine the greatness of the god who created these mighty sea creatures!  At the same time, the great fish represent chaos, and they are often treated as a challenge to the same omnipotence — as rivals or rebels against the sovereignty of the Creator. This duality is typical of all biblical and rabbinic myths and stories surrounding these mysterious creatures and may represent an unspoken ambivalence about the monotheistic notion of an omnipotent god, a notion that was counterintuitive for early monotheists whose minds still bore the remnants of paganism and its tendency to admire and worship great natural phenomena.

The legendary taninim (translated into English as “the great whales”) are introduced in the first creation story (Genesis 1:21) and are named as if to emphasize that they are — with all their power and enormity — among God’s creatures. Later, in Psalm 148:7, the same taninim (translated now as “dragons”) suffer the misfortune of having their heads broken in the waters, again as a manifestation of God’s greatness.

A similar fate befalls leviathan, another “great fish” of mythic proportions. In the spectacularly stylized poetry of Psalm 104:25-26, the great leviathan is mentioned as God’s play-thing, as the Creator’s toy: “So here is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships: There is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein. This notion is again celebrated in the following talmudic account of God’s daily schedule:  “Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: ‘The day consists of twelve hours; during the first three hours, the Holy One, blessed be He, is occupying Himself with the Torah; during the second three, He sits in judgment on the whole world, and when He sees that the world is so guilty as to deserve destruction, He transfers Himself from the seat of Justice to the seat of Mercy; during the third quarter, He is feeding the whole world, from the horned buffalo to the brood of vermin; and during the fourth quarter He is sporting with the leviathan,’ as it is said: ‘There is leviathan, whom Thou hast formed to sport therewith.’”  (BT, Avodah Zarah 3b)

The same leviathan, God’s playful pet, is portrayed very differently in other places. Isaiah (Chapter 27:1) promises, as part of his apocalyptic vision, that “In that day, God, with his sore and great and strong sword, shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and He shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.” Psalm 74:14 describes this vengeance even more graphically: “Thou breakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.” The book of Job, apart from its wonderfully written poetic
depiction of the mighty leviathan, offers a couple of explanations for the fish’s inevitable violent defeat. First, God must slay leviathan to prove that God is mighty enough to do so. But less arbitrary is the notion that leviathan, which represents hubris — creation’s rebellious pride — must be suppressed by the Creator in order for the world to exist. (Chapters 41-42)

And what is to be done with the slain sea monster? In Job (41:6), we read that perhaps “the companions [will] make a banquet of him.” The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra, 74a-75a) elaborate, and among many beautifully told tales, we find rabbis encountering sea monsters, a banquet, and the distribution of leviathan’s remains among the merchants and peddlers of Jerusalem. Further, it is taught that God will “in time to come, make a tabernacle for the righteous from the skin of leviathan; for it is said: ‘Canst thou fill tabernacles with his skin’ … The rest will be spread by the Holy One, blessed be God, upon the walls of Jerusalem, and its splendor will shine from one end of the world to the other; as it is said: ‘And nations shall walk at thy light, and kings at the brightness of thy rising.’”

It is only ironic that it is us, the true rebellious creatures, kings over all the children of pride, that senselessly slaughter the great giants of the deep and push them to the brink of extinction.

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Ruby Namdar was born and raised in Jerusalem, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in sociology, philosophy, and Iranian studies and a master’s degree in anthropology at the Hebrew University. His first book, Haviv, a collection of short stories published in 2000, won the Israeli Ministry of Culture’s award for the best first publication of the year, as well as the Jerusalem Fiction award for 1998. Namdar’s novel, Habayit Asher Neherav (The Ruined House), will be published by the Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir Publishers in 2013. He lives in New York where he teaches Jewish and Israeli literature.

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