Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 18 (2018) - Review

Yoder, Tyler R., Fishers of Fish and Fishers of Men: Fishing Imagery in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016). Pp. 240. Hardcover. US $54.50. ISBN: 978-1-57506-458-1.

In order to understand a literary motif or metaphor, one must understand the context in which it is used and the connotations it held within the mind of its author. Yoder's monograph facilitates a more nuanced understanding of fishing metaphors in an ancient Israelite context, which, due to a relative lack of water sources, did not place much socioeconomic focus on fishing activities. As a consequence, Yoder notes, the majority of fishing metaphors in ancient Hebrew poetry feature non-Israelites doing the fishing. This monograph begins with an overview of Metaphor Theory from which Yoder develops his own method for the project, providing a solid theoretical grounding.

Using iconographic evidence and material culture from ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian contexts, Yoder establishes the central role fish had socially, economically, and cultically in such cultures. By contrast Yoder demonstrates, on both linguistic and archaeological grounds, the remarkable lack of fishing endeavours in early ancient Israelite contexts, though this situation changes in later periods. Most of the fish consumed in ancient Israel are imports from the Nile and Mediterranean, thus the impact of fishing on prophetic and wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible appears to have originated from these external contexts. Yoder surveys all related fishing terminology in the Hebrew Bible, including all associated equipment and related verbs.

In the second chapter, Yoder discusses the relationship between the divine and fishing in ancient Near Eastern texts. Yoder demonstrates that while some Mesopotamian deities were particularly associated with fishing, such as the goddess Nanše and the gods Dumuzi, Sin, and Papulegarra, many Mesopotamian deities wielded nets as weapons, for example, Nid, Enlil, Ninlil, Šamaš, Marduk, and Inanna. Yoder thus concludes that fishing imagery conveys divine retribution and unrivalled authority over the human sphere. This insight is then used to interpret Jer 16:16–18 as a text in which Yahweh conscripts fishers, symbolising the Babylonians in Yoder's view, to bring inescapable and total punishment on Judah.

Chapter 3 explores five further texts in which fishing equipment is utilised in the dramatization of divine retribution (Amos 4:1–3; Hab 1:12–17; Ezek 12:9–16; 17:16–21; 19:2–9). The fishing hook and net are used as images for the deportation of exiles by foreign powers. Yoder argues that the use of these images in Amos appears to arise from the self-conception of the Assyrians who describe themselves as fishers subjugating neighbouring lands like fish in royal inscriptions. Such imagery was then appropriated by the authors of Habakkuk and Ezekiel and applied to the new eastern power, Babylon.

Chapter 4 addresses “big-game” fishing imagery, that is, imagery associated with sea monsters in Hebrew Bible and comparative ancient Near Eastern texts. Thus, biblical texts featuring Yahweh's “fishing” of Leviathan and Tannin are analysed (Job 40:25–32; Ezek 29:1–6a; 32:1–10), as well as Marduk's subjugation of Tiamat in Enūma Eliš. In all three texts, the sea monsters represent threat to human order and are thus variations on the Chaoskampf motif. Yahweh's distinctiveness and supremacy are accentuated in Job and Ezekiel by overpowering the monsters, while Job and Pharaoh Hophra respectively are simultaneously rendered impotent by comparison.

The fifth chapter is dedicated to a contextualisation and analysis of Qoh 9:12. This image of a “maleficent net” designates ensnarement with no prospect for rescue, as is the case of nets in Mesopotamian literature wielded by deities. In Qohelet, however, the net emblematises death, not as a consequence of divine retribution, but the inevitable end of human life regardless of one's righteous actions. The lowering of the net signifies the end of one's “time” and thus the end of one's life.

In chapter 6 Yoder focuses on three Hebrew Bible texts that use fishing imagery to describe certain states of being, rather than act-consequence progressions as in the previous chapters (Isa 19:5–10; Ezek 26:1–14; 47:1–12). The first two, aimed at Egypt and Tyre respectively, portray societal collapse due to the drying up of the Nile and the conversion of a prosperous maritime island to a heap of eroded rocks. Ezekiel 47:1–12, on the other hand, is the only example of a text featuring fishing imagery in which the connotation is positive. Here, Ezekiel envisions a river flowing from Yahweh's temple which reinvigorates the land with a healthy supply of fish. Yoder suggests that the transformation of the Dead Sea from a place where fishing is inconceivable to a locus of flourishing fish and fishers is perhaps ironic in that it reflects the everyday reality of the locus of this text's authorship: Babylon, where fishing was integral to socioeconomic life.

Chapter 7 concludes the monograph by “reeling in” the findings of the previous chapters. One interesting observation Yoder makes is that, while the majority of Israel's imported fish appear to have come from Egypt, the literary use of fishing does not. Instead, the rhetorical use of fishing in Hebrew Bible texts demonstrates awareness of the nuanced political connotations fishing imagery had in Mesopotamian literature. The scribes of the Hebrew Bible thus reuse literary conventions appropriated from texts that utilise fishing metaphors and communicate the threat of destruction. Yoder then suggests that the origins or medium of such an exchange of these scribal tropes would benefit from further research, but does point out that cuneiform evidence found in ancient Israel indicates some familiarity with Mesopotamian scribal traditions. Overall, Yoder concludes that fishing imagery in the Hebrew Bible communicates otherness, in that fishing was not ‘Israelite’ but something associated more comprehensively with foreign cultures and is utilised, not to talk about the fishing of fish, but instead the fishing of humans.

Yoder's work is a much-needed exploration that helps to remedy the lacuna of scholarly research on the role of fish and fishing in ancient Israel. His findings are well researched and make excellent use of ancient Near Eastern texts as well as iconographic evidence. The chapters are clearly structured, the text is well written and there are also fourteen figures of iconographic and other material culture images, in addition to thirty-three helpful tables for textual aid. The reviewer also enjoyed the multitude of fishing puns. Overall this work is an articulate and informative piece that should be cited in future commentaries in relation to the passages featuring fishing imagery. This monograph would also be of use to any scholar wishing to explore particular examples of Mesopotamian influence on ancient Hebrew prophecy and poetry.

Rebekah Welton, University of Exeter