The meat we choose to put upon our table is partially dependent upon where that table sits. As you might expect, my Texas table has lots of beef. Last year, when my daughter visited Peru, she enjoyed—ready for this?—guinea pigs, one of the local favorites. And in Australia, kangaroo meat is a common cuisine. Different cultures, different tastes.
You may have noticed that, multiple times in the Gospels, the food on the table of Jesus is fish. I don’t think this was simply a cultural choice, however. Indeed, in one of the most memorable post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, quite a big deal is made about our Lord and his disciples eating fish (John 21). Even the number caught that day is detailed. Why?
I suspect that when God came down to live among us, to eat with us, his choice of fish was a signal that something had changed. There was a shift. And that culinary shift was also a theological shift: in his choice of food, God was indicating the mission to the Gentiles had begun in earnest.
Let’s turn to the Hebrew Scriptures to unpack what I mean.
No Fish on God’s Altar
In the Old Testament, the temple was the house of God, the King’s residence. The Holy of Holies was his throne room, the Holy Place where he received his priestly servants, and the altar out front his table (Malachi 1:7, 12). Unlike the pagan deities, Israel’s Lord did not need food. He was not hungry (Ps. 50:8-15). Nevertheless, what was placed on the altar was called the “food of their God” (Lev. 21:6, 8, 17). The Lord’s fire “ate [אָכַל] the sacrifices upon the altar” (Lev. 9:24).
What was on the Lord’s table? Oxen, sheep, goats, and doves. These were the regular food offerings. But one animal that never would have been placed upon the altar was fish. And for good reason. Here’s why.
Swallowed by the Gentile Sea
Throughout the Old Testament, fish, great sea creatures, the sea and raging rivers were all emblematic of the Gentile world. For instance, deliverance from “the waters” is deliverance from “foreigners” (Ps. 144:7). The thundering of the Gentiles is like the thundering and roaring of the seas (Isa. 17:12). Gentile kingdoms and their rulers were likened to great oceanic creatures like legendary Rahab (Dan. 7; Isa. 51:9). Even in the New Testament, John echoes this imagery when he says “the waters” are “the peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (Rev. 17:15).
The most well-known use of this imagery is the story of Jonah. When the prophet flees from God’s “face,” where does he go? To the sea, with Gentile sailors, where he ends up being swallowed by the icon of Gentile rulers, namely, a big fish. When he is cast into the raging sea, Jonah undergoes a sort of watery exile. Yet, just as God chose Babylon to “swallow” Israel in exile and release the nation later, so God appointed a fish to swallow Jonah and spit him out later (1:17).
Thus, throughout the Old Testament, Gentiles were destroyed at the sea (Egypt), conquered after Israel crossed a river (the Jordan), and the creatures of the sea were likened to these nations and their kings. It comes as no surprise, then, that fish were never placed upon the Israelite altar as food.
But all that was about to change.
Twelve New Fishing Patriarchs
When Jesus called his disciples, his choice of several fishermen—and the context in which they were called—was not by chance. They let down their nets into the deep and caught so many fish that their nets were breaking. Jesus told them not to fear. From now on they would be “catching men” (Luke 5:11). In Matthew, Jesus calls them “fishers of men” (4:19). These new 12 patriarchs, the apostles, would not be conquering Gentile nations with the sword as did Israelite tribes of old, but would be fishing for Gentiles in the “seas” of the nations, using the net of the Gospel (cf. Matt. 28:18-20).
In fact, significantly, Jesus called these disciples at the Sea of Galilee. And in that context of Matthew 5, Galilee is explicitly called “Galilee of the Gentiles” (5:15). The sea from which they fished, the deeps into which they let down their nets, and the fish they caught were all weighty with significance: Gentiles were about to be the object of God’s special saving concern. They were being brought, together with Jews, into the kingdom of God.
When Jesus consumed fish, he was visually enacting the Gentiles’ incorporation into the kingdom. They were, quite literally, entering the body of Christ. Indeed, after Jesus’s resurrection, when he appears to his disciples, he asks them a strange question, “Do you have anything here to eat?” (Luke 24:41). Of all the things to ask on such a momentous occasion! But it was actually quite fitting. They gave him a piece of broiled fish. He ate it and then told them that everything in the Old Testament had now been fulfilled. Then he added that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name “to all nations” (24:47). Notice the progression: resurrection, eating fish, the OT fulfilled, and the Gentiles now to hear the message of the kingdom.
In other words, God had now added fish to his diet.
When God Gets Hungry
All of this is the best of news for us. For we who once were separated from the Lord of the covenant, alienated from Israel, far-off Gentiles, have been brought near to God by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:12-13). The Lord’s promise to Abraham that his Seed would be a blessing to all nations has come true in the Seed born of Mary (Genesis 12). We who once swam in the darkness of sin and death have been caught by the net of the Gospel. Christ thereby consumed us, made us part of his body, incorporated us into himself.
It’s great to be a fish when God gets hungry.
*I am grateful to Peter Leithart's book, A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament, for his insights on this subject.