Understanding Jonah: Was Dagon a fish god?

Continuing the discussion from Can we use secular culture and other religions to glorify God?:

Hi @alison, thanks for sharing this!

It’s an idea I can find elsewhere.

For instance, at Got Questions:

Dagon was the chief deity of the Philistines, and the worship of this pagan god dates back the third millennium BC. According to ancient mythology, Dagon was the father of Baal. He was the fish god (dag in Hebrew means “fish”), and he was represented as a half-man, half-fish creature. This image furthered an evolutionary belief that both men and fish had evolved together from the primal waters. Dagon may also have been the provider of grain. So Dagon was similar to many other idols in that he personified natural forces that had supposedly produced all things.

John MacArthur:

And they [the Ninevites] also worshiped the fish god Dagon, who had the head of a fish and the body of a man. Fish were of particular importance to the Ninevites – fresh water fish and these fish gods.

Hope Bolinger at Christianity.com:

The name Dagon in the Bible derives from the word “dag” which means fish. As we can see, the Assyrians decided to take the quite literal route of calling it as they saw it.

New Advent Encyclopedia:

A Philistine deity. It is commonly admitted that the name Dagon is a diminutive form, hence a term of endearment, derived from the Semitic root dag , and means, accordingly, “little fish”. The name, therefore, indicates a fish-shaped god.

Britt Mooney at BibleStudyTools.com:

Some depictions of him made him like a merman, a fish from the waist down. Some scholars have called him a fish god, which seems logical, especially for the Philistines along the coast, but other scholars have disputed it since there’s more evidence he was responsible for crops and grain. Even his name is connected to an old noun for “grain.”

However, these popular sites appear to have gotten it wrong.

In a more academic resource, the Dictionary of Deities and Demons, J.F. Healey explains:

The etymology of the name Dagan is uncertain. Etymologies based on dāg, ‘fish’, dāgān, ‘grain’, and on a root meaning ‘be cloudy’ (Arabic dajj or dajana) are all equally dubious and there is no contextual evidence from the Hebrew Bible or from Mesopotamian/West Semitic sources to give much support to these speculations. It is wiser to restrict oneself to what can be known from the evidence, principally that Dagan was a deity of major significance in the Mari region in the Old Babylonian period and that his worship appears to have spread widely in later times. He was thus adopted, no doubt in some syncretistic form, perhaps as a corn-god, by the Philistines.

We cannot resolve the question of the etymology of the name Dagan/Dagon. It could be pre-Semitic. The connection with ‘fish’ (cf. Biblical evidence as interpreted by Wellhausen [below], Jerome and later Jewish tradition [Rashi, Kimchi]) is entirely secondary, being based on a folk etymology.

Likewise, in his 1 Samuel commentary, David Tsumua explains:

Two major etymologies have been suggested: (1) Medieval Jewish commentators (Rashi, Kimchi) explained its meaning as “fish” (*dg), but this folk etymology is no longer accepted. (2) Others say it is from “grain” (*dagan),17 and this would make him a vegetation deity. But Healey is cautious about positing this etymology, for the connection with “grain” is secondary and based on the coincidence of the West Semitic word for grain.

Since Dagon is Semitic and the Philistines were not, they presumably adopted Dagon sometime after their arrival, but how soon is not known. Biblical writers clearly consider Dagon as the Philistines’ national god, however (Judg. 16:23; 1 Chr. 10:10). Worship of Dagon at Ashdod still continued around 50 B.C. (cf. 1 Macc. 10:83–85; 11:4).

So, from this brief look into the subject, it appears that the idea that Dagon was a fish god started with medieval Jewish commentators, was popularized by Julius Wellhausen, and has continued to be a popular understanding.

However, scholars who have studied the original cultural context reject this theory.

I know it’s a small issue, but I think it’s important that we get it right.

First, if we mischaracterize Dagon as a “fish god” when that isn’t supported by historical evidence, we risk misinterpreting the biblical passages that mention him.

Getting these cultural details right helps us be faithful to the text. The more we understand the specific pagan beliefs and practices Israel was called to reject, the more we can understand the significance of biblical events and teachings.

Second, it’s a reminder to be cautious about accepting popular interpretations that may not hold up to scholarly scrutiny. It’s much more work to question popular pastors and expensive to get academic resources. But pursuing truth ultimately honors God, and I’m grateful we attempt to do that in this community.

But this is just a starting point for discussion!

What scholarship have you seen on the nature of the idol Dagon?

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