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Fish in the Bible is an important theme. In both the Old and New Testaments we read about fish, fishing, which fish are “clean and unclean” and several well-known Bible stories about fish and fishing.
In this post, we’ll cover all of that and include a section on they symbolism of the “Jesus Fish”.
It is interesting to note that no fish is mentioned by name in either the Old or New Testaments, yet the word for fish is mentioned (at least in the KJV) 38 times. This doesn’t include the word for fishing, which is mentioned additional times, not included in the 38.
(See below for a downloadble, printable PDF of Bible verses about fish and fishing)
Are you ready to explore fish in the Bible?
The Hebrew word for fish is dag, written in Hebrew this way: דָּגִים, דָּג
The translated Greek word for fish is ‘ichthys’ or ‘ichthus’. We’ll cover this in more detail below.
Key Stories About Fish in The Bible
You probably recall from Sunday school several important stories about fish in the Bible. We’ll cover five of the most well-known fish stories in the Bible and their significance.
The Miraculous Catching of Fish
In Luke chapter 5:1-9, we read of the miraculous catching of fish:
“One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners. –
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. – Luke 5:1-10
After a night of not catching anything, Peter and his friends were instructed by Jesus to go back out and let their nets down. They told Jesus that they had just been out all night and didn’t catch a thing, but they listened to Jesus, went out and let their nets down, anyway.
Lo and behold, they caught so many fish that the nets began to break. At that point, they realized that Jesus wasn’t any ordinary man and decided to leave everything and follow Him.
The 153 Fish Miracle
After Jesus’ resurrection , a similar event occurs (found in John 21) in which Peter, John and the others after fishing all night and catching nothing, are told by the Christ to throw the nets on the right side to catch fish. They again followed His instructions and this time they haul in 153 fish but the nets don’t break.
When they returned to shore, they saw a “fire of burning coals with fish on it, and some bread”.
“Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.’ – John 21: 10-13
Here’s an informative video by a fellow Bible “geek” explaining more about the 153 fish miracle:
The Two Fishes that Feed the 5,000
It was getting late in the day and the crowd that had followed to hear Jesus preach had already numbered more than 5,000. The people were hungry and had a long way to travel back home so Jesus told His disciples to feed the crowd. Wait. What? The disciples thought this was impossible (they should have already known that Jesus was a miracle performer and way maker!). Then, a boy approached Jesus holding 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes. The disciples still doubted. Andrew said “but how far will they go among so many?” (John 6:9)
Oh, but Jesus!
Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. – John 6:10-15
Jesus multiplied the meager loaves and two simple fish enough to feed the entire crowd and still have leftovers!
Have you ever felt doubt in a situation that seemed impossible? Nothing is impossible for God. It doesn’t matter what the situation looks like. He can perform miracles.
The Whale (Big Fish) that Swallowed Jonah
Another “fish” story in the Bible, one that most are familiar with is the story of Jonah. Jonah was swallowed by the big fish (whale, although the Bible uses the word for big fish) and he stayed in the stomach of the whale for three days.
Here’s a quick recap of the story:
One day, God spoke to Jonah and told him to go preach in Ninevah because the people were wicked and not following God’s commands. Jonah wasn’t thrilled with God’s request as Nineveh was an enemy to Israel and he was afraid to preach to them.
Instead, Jonah tried to run away from God – in the opposite direction of Nineveh – and got on a boat to head to Tarsish. When you disobey God, He is going to step in. God sent a huge storm over the ship and the other men on the ship blamed Jonah. They got together and threw him overboard. As soon as Jonah hit the water, the storm stopped.
As Jonah was floundering in the water (no pun intended), God sent a huge fish Jonah’s way to swallow him save him from drowning. As Jonah is in the belly of the whale, Jonah prayed to God for help. He repented, and praised God. But, for three days Jonah remained in the belly of the fish. After the three days, God had the big fish throw up Jonah who ended up on the shores of Nineveh.
Finally, Jonah got the message, went to Ninevah and preached. He warned them to repent before the city would be destroyed in 40 days. Despite being wicked and enemies of Israel, they listened to Jonah and believed him. They stopped their wickedness and God took mercy on them.
Instead of being thrilled that his preaching had a profound effect on the Ninevites, Jonah was angry. He felt that God should destroy the Ninevites as they were Israel’s enemy. Jonah sat to rest and God gave him a vine for shade. The next day, God sent a worm to eat the vine. So, now Jonah is sitting in the hot sun, angry, complaining and saying that he wanted to die. God scolded Jonah for worried about a plant instead of the lives and souls of the people who lived in Ninevah.
Have you ever been angry with God because you don’t feel someone got what they deserved? God is in control and His plans are way bigger than anything we can imagine. We have to trust Him to do what is best for his people and not worry about how God handles situations.
You can read more of this story in the Book of Jonah.
The Coin in the Mouth of a Fish
In Exodus 30:11-16, the temple tax was first established by God. It was a requirement that was part of the law found in the Old Testament. Later, the temple tax increased to two drachma for every Jewish man.
Although, as Son of God, Jesus was most likely exempt from paying the tax, He did not want to offend the tax collector. He told Peter to go fishing and to use a hook and line instead of a net. Jesus instructed Peter to look in the mouth of the very first fish he caught and he would find a coin in its mouth. The coin would be enough to pay the tax for both Peter and Jesus.
I can only imagine what Peter thought when Jesus told him to do this, but Peter has already witnessed several miracles, by Jesus, involving fish, so he went ahead and went fishing. Of course, when he fished, Just as Jesus said, the first fish he caught, he found a coin in its mouth!
“After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
“From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” – Matthew 17:24-27
Fishers of Men
One of the most well-known lines spoken by Jesus is when he referred to His prospect disciples as “Fishers of Men”
“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” – Matthew 4:19 (NIV)
Or in the ESV
“And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” – Matthew 4:19 (ESV)
These men, these brothers, have been fishers all of their lives. It was their livelihood and their way of life. When Jesus asked them to drop everything and follow Him for a larger calling, they were probably a bit in disbelief, but, they did and became instrumental in the advancement of the Kingdom.
God wants to use you, too, my friend, to advance His Kingdom. He has amazing plans for your life. If you aren’t sure what your calling is, see this post on What is God Calling Me To Do?
Are you ready to follow Andrew and Peter’s lead and leave your nets to follow him?
God wants to use you, too, my friend, to advance His Kingdom. He has amazing plans for your life. Are you ready to follow Andrew and Peter's lead and leave your nets to follow him?
Fishing in Biblical Times
The Sea of Galilee is the world’s lowest fresh-water lake with a surface approximately 680 feet below sea level and a maximum depth of 150 ft. It is roughly 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. It is also referred to in scripture as Chinnereth, Sea of Tiberas or Lake Genneseret. The lake is completely encircled by a beach and the water is cool and clear. Fishing was an important occupation in Galilee during Jesus’ time. Bethsaida, an ancient Galilean fishing village mention seven times in scripture was located on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee. The place derives its name from words meaning place of nets or fishery.
Scripture does not mention fish by their type or name, but most likely, in the story of Jesus feeding the multitude, the text mentions the boy had two small fish. Likely, these were Kinneret sardines, very small, but commercially important fish in the Sea of Galilee area. In biblical times, these fish were salt-brine pickled sardines and were an important part of the diet of those who lived in the area.
Most fisherman in biblical times (as referenced several times in scripture) fished at night. The nets were made from linen and were less visible to the fish at night making it easier to catch them. The fish caught by nets were referred to as large fish, probably tilapia, which was one of the the most coveted and commercially important fish in the Sea of Galilee.
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Another fish, which is believed by biblical scholars to be referenced in scripture is the eel-like sfamnun. This is the sole species of African catfish (sfamnun means mustached fish) in Israel, and the largest indigenous fish in the lake (up to 4 feet in length and 25 pounds). Its lack of scales made it religiously unlawful to eat. (More on clean and unclean fish below)
The sfamnum looks like a serpent and local fisherman were said to have referred to them as snakes. If you recall, in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Jesus shares a parable about God’s perfect love for his people, stating that even an imperfect, earthly father knows not to give his son a snake when he asks for a fish. Many Bible scholars believe that it is this sfamnum that He is referring to, rather than what we would know as a snake today (viper, cobra, etc.)
“‘Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to regard as unclean. And since you are to regard them as unclean, you must not eat their meat; you must regard their carcasses as unclean. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you. – Leviticus 11:9-12
What Does the Christian Fish Symbol Represent to the Believer?
The Fish Symbol or Jesus Fish is one of the oldest symbols that were associated with Christianity. According to historical studies of Christian faith, Christians have been using the Fish Symbol as early as the first century.
Early in Christianity, the Romans ruled in much of the world. Because believing in one God and recognizing one Lord, Jesus Christ, was forbidden (people were to worship the king or emporer), Christians in the Roman empire had to be careful with what they said and how they behaved or recognized each other. They looked for a symbol that would not immediately stand out, but that would be discernible enough for believers to recognize and encourage each other. The fish became a symbol of Jesus.
In Greek, the translated word for fish was ‘ichthys’ or ‘ichthus’. The first or early Christians found a way to create an acrostic using the first letters of the Greek word which is exactly spelled as ΙΧΘΥΣ.
I stands for ‘Iēsous’ which is the Greek form of ‘Jesus’
X (which is read as Chi) stands for ‘Christos’ that literally means ‘Anointed’
Θ (the Theta ‘th’ symbol) stands for ‘Theou’ which means ‘God’
Y the Upsilon that stands for ‘(h)uios meaning ‘Son’
Σ (the Sigma ‘s’ symbol) stands for ’Sōtēr’ which means ‘Savior’
The fish was like a password. Whoever drew the fish indicated, without speaking that they were a Christ follower.
With so many biblical stories involving fish, it was a perfect symbol!
The Fish Gate in Jerusalem
The city of Jerusalem had eight gates. Each with a different name. The Fish gate was a gate to the north side and was mentioned in Zephaniah 1:10.
“’On that day,’
declares the Lord,
“a cry will go up from the Fish Gate,
wailing from the New Quarter,
and a loud crash from the hills.” – Zephaniah 1:10
“The Fish Gate was built by the sons of Hassenaah. They did the whole thing–laid the beams, hung the doors, and put the bolts and bars in place”. – Nehemiah 3:3
It is believed that the gate was name the Fish Gate due to it’s proximity to the fish market in the city.
Fish and fishing were clearly an important part of life and diet in biblical times.
Clean and Unclean Fish
In the Old Testament, God lays out a plan for which foods could be eaten and which could not according to His laws. This includes fish.
“Of all that are in the waters you may eat these: whatever has fins and scales you may eat. And whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you.” – Deuteronomy 14:9-10
Have you ever wondered why God allowed certain food to be eaten while others were forbidden? God didn’t give rules and laws to arbitrarily. He gave them to care for His people.
While God did share the specific reasons some animals and food may be eaten and others forbidden, many biblical scholars agree that we can come some conclusions about this:
In listing the animals that should not be eaten, God forbids the consumption of scavengers and carrion eaters, which devour other animals for their food.
When it comes to sea creatures, bottom dwellers such as lobsters and crabs scavenge for dead animals on the sea floor. Shellfish such as oysters, clams and mussels similarly consume decaying organic matter that sinks to the sea floor, including sewage. God was protecting His people from eating things that may harm them.
Bible Verses About Fish and Fishing
Click the image below for a 2 page downloadable and printable PDF with key Bible verses about fish and fishing. Use them for deeper study, scripture writing, verse mapping and more.
For deeper study, you may wish to check out the recommended resources below:
A devotional for the fisherman in your life:
To Become a Fisher of Men:
Are you a fisher of men? If you would like to learn more about sharing the gospel, see this post.
What was your biggest takeaway from this post about fish in the Bible? I’d love to hear about it!
Because of Him,