big fish

The Hebrew that is translated in English as “big fish,” “large fish,” or “great fish” is translated in North Alaskan Inupiatun as “whale.”

Steve Berneking tells this story (see here):

“In the whaling community of the Inupiat in northern Alaska, the whale is all but revered and respected as one of God’s creatures which bring life and sustenance. I was recently with our Inupiatun Bible Translation Team, working on the Book of Jonah. In popular culture, as we all know, the ‘big fish’ in this tale is often equated with what we know as the whale; Sunday school curriculum teaches it; art recreates it; collective memory recalls it. Therefore, they wanted an illustration of a white whale in their publication of the Book of Jonah.

“As a biblical scholar, I know this is erroneous and irresponsible. A biblical scholar assumes a ‘big fish’ is simply to be taken as a ‘big fish.’ The identity of this fish is not necessary to understand the tale: that God provided it is the point. As a Bible translator, hopefully a culturally sensitive one, however, I was quickly reminded in that moment that this Inupiatun community ‘needed’ that ‘Jonah’s big fish’ to be nothing other than a whale.

“This made the tale of Jonah even more meaningful because they ‘read’ the source of God’s deliverance of Jonah as the same source of God’s provision of food and sustenance to them.”