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Jonah 1:17 – 2:1 1:17 And the Lord appointedd a great fish (דָג)* to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. 2:1 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish (דָגה)**

There is an interesting and at the same time incomprehensible moment. In the Hebrew text, in chapter 1, v.17, "fish" stands in the masculine gender, but in chapter 2, v.1, "fish" stands in the feminine gender. Although it tells about the same fish. דָג - Masculine. fish. דָגה - - Feminine. fish.

What is the reason for this? And how can explain it?

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5 Answers 5

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Dagah and dag (דג, דגה) have different meanings and are not interchangeable. They are defined as distinct words in all Hebrew dictionaries.

"Dag/dagim" is a noun of masculine gender from the root דוג. It means a fish or fishes in the plural form dagim.
"Dagah" is a noun of feminine gender also from the root דוג. In OT Hebrew it means collectively the fish in a particular body of water to which a verse refers. In no instance does it refer to a singular fish, except for the poetic use in this verse.

The trait of gender is never ascribed to any fish in the OT. That is, there is no reference to a specifically male or female fish anywhere in the OT, or in later Hebrew until the modern era.

The letter heh (ה) suffix to a noun in some noun forms (בניינים) makes the noun a collective noun. This suffix forces the gender of the collective noun to be feminine, whatever the gender of the original noun was. Such collective forms never have plural forms. That is, there is no dagot, anywhere.

Examples of this form of collective from OT Hebrew are:

  1. שיר/שירה song vs a singing
  2. עדה meaning the collective congregation
  3. שמלה meaning clothing, as in Deuteronomy 10:18: עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפַּט יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה וְאֹהֵב גֵּר לָתֶת לוֹ לֶחֶם וְשִׂמְלָה

Examples of the collective dagah are, Exodus 7:18:

וְהַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר-בַּיְאֹר תָּמוּת וּבָאַשׁ הַיְאֹר וְנִלְאוּ מִצְרַיִם לִשְׁתּוֹת מַיִם מִן-הַיְאֹר

and Psalms 105:29:

הָפַךְ אֶת-מֵימֵיהֶם לְדָם וַיָּמֶת אֶת-דְּגָתָם

When used as a verb, the root דוג has the sense of to spawn or multiple rapidly, as in Genesis 48:16:

הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל רָע יְבָרֵךְ אֶת הַנְּעָרִים וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ

Although dagah is the collective form of dag, since this verse, the introduction to Jonah's prayer, is part of the high poetry of the rest of the prayer of Jonah, there is license to use it to mean just "the fish" singular. From Jonah's point of view, this fish was all the fish in the sea. No other fish mattered.

The use of dagah in this verse is necessary for the meter and alliteration of the verse:

wa yitpallel yonah And Jonah prayed
al adonoi alohow To YHVH his God
mi ma-ay hadagah From the entrails of the fish

Each phrase ends with a kamatz syllable and a heh or waw (which are related letters in terms of vocalization). Using just dag would break this.

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  • You final three paragraphs,, with which I agree, show that the masculine and feminine forms of fish have been used interchangeably and thus disprove you opening paragraph. Clearly, the word dag/dahah in Jonah 2:1 & 10 mean the same thing.
    – Dottard
    Sep 12, 2022 at 20:46
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    @Dottard Yes, in this verse, for the poetry. But in no other verse in the OT, and no other instance anywhere in any later layer of Hebrew. That is, this is a unique special case that has a particular reason, the meter and alliteration, Sep 13, 2022 at 6:34
  • Except that I listed a couple more in my answer.
    – Dottard
    Sep 13, 2022 at 7:02
  • @Dottard All of the feminine forms that you cite are the collective form דגה, not the feminine of דג which does not exist except in modern Hebrew. In these words that you cite, the final ה is not a gender indication, it is an indication of collective. See for example the definition at he.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D7%93%D7%92%D7%94. דג and דגה are two distinct words and are defined as such in all Hebrew dictionaries. Sep 13, 2022 at 7:45
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    @bsesic דגה is indeed always a feminine noun, but it is not the feminine form of דג, it is a distinct word by itself. Only in modern Hebrew is there a feminine form of דג, (דגה, which is not used by the well-educated) and must be used as "this דגה" that is "הדגה הזאת" in order not to confuse the listener who might be thinking of the classical collective noun דגה. Note that we need to distinguish between "feminine" as a noun class, and "feminine form" of a noun. I know that for English speakers this is not easy because English has no noun classes and only irregular feminine forms. Sep 13, 2022 at 10:59
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As is well-known, there are two words in Hebrew for "fish",

  • דָּג masculine, occurring 19 times, Gen 9:2, Num 11:22, 1 Kings 4:33, 2 Chron 33:14, Neh 13:16, Job 12:8, 41:7, Ps 8:8, Eccl 9:12, Eze 38:20, Hos 4:3, Jonah 1:17, 2:10, Hab 1:14, Zeph 1:3, 10.
  • דָּג feminine, occurring 15 times, Gen 1:26, 28, Ex 7:18, 21, Num 11:5, Deut 4:18, Ps 105:29, Isa 50:2, Eze 29:4, 5, 47:9, 10, Jonah 2:1.

The two forms of the word are used synonymously with identical meanings, sometimes, as in Numbers and Jonah, interchangeably.

In the case of Jonah, note that we have the masculine and feminine both used in the same chapter 2 (V1, 10) with the same meaning. A similar thing occurs in Numbers 11 (V5 & 22); there is another example in Gen 1:26, 28 (Fem) vs Gen 9:2 (masc).

Therefore, I see no significance to this change of grammatical gender in Jonah.

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    So we are looking at grammatical gender not biological gender. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 12, 2022 at 15:30
  • Does there exist a Hebrew dictionary that does not define דג and דגה as distinct words with different meanings where דגה is not defined as the קַטְלָה form of the root דוג? Sep 13, 2022 at 8:42
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahimalYahud - BDB defines them distinct words with the same meaning. See biblehub.com/hebrew/1709.htm and biblehub.com/hebrew/1710.htm
    – Dottard
    Sep 13, 2022 at 9:41
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    @Dottard The meaning of the two words is very different in Hebrew, but in English there is only one word, "fish" to express both meanings. The lack of collective noun forms in English does not mean that the meaning of the word is the same. You need to be really careful when using BDB and other "word-list" translations. It is much better to cross check the meaning in a real dictionary like the Even Shoshan that gives you the root and the form and an actual explanation of the meaning of the word. Sep 13, 2022 at 11:24
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahimalYahud Your interesting comment on BDB (of which I am not a fan). When you say 'word-list' what do you mean ?
    – Nigel J
    Sep 13, 2022 at 12:29
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There are three reasons which can account for the change from דָּ֣ג (and הַדָּ֔ג) in verse 1:17 to הַדָּגָֽה in verse 2:1 and back to לַדָּ֑ג in verse 2:10:

  1. Literary
  2. Natural
  3. Symbolic

Literary
As Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim al Yahud explains, this section is poetic and dāḡâ "fits" better than dāḡ. Thus, the writer employed "poetic license." Obviously, from the description of events, "the fish" is the same fish which swallowed Jonah, something which is reinforced at the close of the passage when, the fish הַדָּ֔ג vomits him out on to dry land.

In addition, the male form is used to describe that which was prepared by YHVH and that which YHVH commanded to vomit Jonah onto dry land.

Now the LORD had prepared a great fish (דָּ֣ג) to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish (הַדָּ֔ג) three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17 NKJV)

So the LORD spoke to the fish (לַדָּ֑ג), and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. (Jonah 2:10)

That is, the literary effect is not simply poetic; it also is used to separate the word of YHVH from the word of Jonah (his prayer).

Natural
There are 500 spices of fish which have the condition called hermaphroditism. That is, some fish may properly be described as male and later female, or vis versa. If the "great" fish was one such species, it would account for the use of both male and female term to describe the same fish.

While male and female is the norm in nature, the creation account states only humans were created "male "and "female;" all forms of life were created "according to their kinds."

Symbolic
After being swallowed, Jonah was transformed from a prophet who refused to do as YHVH instructed, to one who gave thanks and promised to pay his vows recognizing, salvation of YHVH.

But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD. (Jonah 2:9)

In this sense, Jonah was transformed while in "the belly" of the fish. "Belly" is מֵעֶה which can mean "womb." The specific form is מִמְּעֵ֖י, which is masculine, but is always otherwise used with a female:

By You I have been upheld from birth; You are He who took me out of my mother’s womb. My praise shall be continually of You. (Psalm 71:6)
עָלֶיךָ נִסְמַכְתִּי מִבֶּטֶן מִמְּעֵי אִמִּי אַתָּה גוֹזִי בְּךָ תְהִלָּתִי תָמִֽיד

“Listen, O coastlands, to Me, And take heed, you peoples from afar! The LORD has called Me from the womb; From the matrix of My mother He has made mention of My name. (Isaiah 49:1)
שִׁמְעוּ אִיִּים אֵלַי וְהַקְשִׁיבוּ לְאֻמִּים מֵרָחוֹק יְהוָה מִבֶּטֶן קְרָאָנִי מִמְּעֵי אִמִּי הִזְכִּיר שְׁמִֽי

Additionally, the first use of מֵעֶה is a promise made by YHVH to Abram:

And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” (Genesis 15:4)
וְהִנֵּה דְבַר־יְהוָה אֵלָיו לֵאמֹר לֹא יִֽירָשְׁךָ זֶה כִּי־אִם אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִמֵּעֶיךָ הוּא יִֽירָשֶֽׁךָ

The heir, Isaac, not Ishmael, came from Abraham's body and Sarah's womb, not Hagar's. Thus, in the same way the heir can be promised to come from Abram's מֵעֶה which must also mean Sarah's מֵעֶה; Jonah's prayer, in which he asserts, יְשׁוּעָתָה לַיהוָֽה, salvation of YHVH, while in מִמְּעֵי הַדָּגָֽה the womb of the fish despite being in בִּמְעֵי הַדָּג, the belly of the fish for three days.

The language is symbolic but prophetic to the plan of salvation where the Son of God must physically come from the womb of a virgin woman who is betrothed to a man, in word only at the time of His birth.

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From the Book of Jonah Wikipedia page:

The peculiarity of this change of gender led later rabbis to conclude that Jonah was comfortable enough in the roomy male fish to not pray, and because of this God transferred him to a smaller, female fish, in which Jonah was uncomfortable, to which he prayed

This makes sense for me, however as native Hebrew speaker I also know דגה can mean "many fish", so personally I think it might also mean he was later swallowed by more fish.

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An answer based on source criticism:

The sentence, "Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish (דָגה)" introduces the "Psalm of Jonah," which is a poem not only written in a completely different style from the rest of the story, but having little to do with it other than describing the psalmist's feelings of being swallowed by metaphorical waters of despair. (Some commentators see it the other way around, with the story of Jonah being composed to fit the hymn.)

Those who hold that the two words can be used interchangeably are correct, just as a writer might use "ocean" in one sentence and "sea" in another. However, as Fr. Roland E. Murphy wrote in the Interpreter's Bible p. 481, the hymn and its introduction were inserted in the text of the Book of Jonah by a later redactor.

Inserted here is a thanksgiving psalm which is a classical example of this literary type. The reason it has been utilized here and is thus preserved is doubtless its references to the sea.

The hymn could easily stand on its own as a psalm. I will include it here for reference.

“I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction,
And He answered me.

“Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
And You heard my voice.
3 For You cast me into the deep,
Into the heart of the seas,
And the floods surrounded me;
All Your billows and Your waves passed over me.
4 Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight;
Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’
5 The waters surrounded me, even to my soul;
The deep closed around me;
Weeds were wrapped around my head.
6 I went down to the [a]moorings of the mountains;
The earth with its bars closed behind me forever;
Yet You have brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord, my God.

7 “When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the Lord;
And my prayer went up to You,
Into Your holy temple.

8 “Those who regard worthless idols
Forsake their own Mercy.
9 But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving;
I will pay what I have vowed.
Salvation is of the Lord.”

The psalm, if isolated from the narrative, has little to do with the story. There is no fish, no mention of escaping the Lord's command, no prophetic mission of the poet. While there is indeed a belly, it is the "belly of Sheol," not a fish. The waters of the poem are metaphorical, just as they are in several other psalms (18:16, 42:7, 69:1, 69:14, 124:5), describing the writer's despair at being separated from God and the Temple. The sea of the story is literal.

After the hymn concludes, the narrative resumes as before, using the earlier word for fish (דָּג).

Thus, the answer is quite simple: the use of דָג is part of the narrative story. The use of דָגה is an introduction to the Psalm of Jonah that was inserted later.

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    This is opinion based. It would be necessary to support such a theory with solid manuscript evidence to be substantial.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 12, 2022 at 14:44
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    manuscript evidence belongs more to textual criticism. There are no texts that go back early enough for this particular issue. So we have to look at issues such as style, author's viewpoint, theological message etc. To insist that source-critical methods should be ruled out as "opinion based" would be to dismiss a huge part of hermeneutics. Sep 12, 2022 at 15:00
  • Personally, I call it 'higher criticism'.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 12, 2022 at 15:28
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    That works too. But the point is, as the Tour says when in links us to the word hermeneutics, "we do a lot of things that aren't really Hermeneutics, such as exegesis, translation, and criticism." Answers are welcome to be diverse and must always explain the hermeneutical process, quoting Biblical texts and citing sources for facts. I think I've done that here. Sep 12, 2022 at 16:12
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    but it uses a different word for fish than the narrative does. That's the basic question here. Or are you saying there is no basis for saying the psalm is by a different writer? Sep 12, 2022 at 20:58

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