What “sea creatures” had been “tamed” in New Testament times?

Q. I am doing the James sessions from your wisdom literature study guide in my Sunday School class and this question came up: When James is talking about taming the tongue, he says, “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind.” What “sea creatures” had been tamed by the time of the early church?  (Dolphins??) Or does “tamed” means subdued or mastered rather than domesticated?

Rather than having specific “sea creatures” in mind that humans had trained and domesticated, I think James here is using another one of those “marvelous Hebrew expressions for totality” that I also discuss in this post.  In effect, he means that “every creature” can be at least subdued, if not tamed, by humans.  (The verb is damazō and in this context, as you suspect, it more likely means “subdued” or “controlled” than “tamed” or “domesticated.”)

One way the biblical authors speak of every creature is to refer to “the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea,” as Hosea does, echoing the three-part division of the creation in Genesis into land, sky, and sea.  But sometimes the land creatures are subdivided, as when Zephaniah speaks of “man and beast . . . the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea.”

Another distinction among land creatures is between those that go on all fours and those that creep on the ground.  In the Genesis creation account, on the sixth day God makes “the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds.”  Significantly, the word used in the Septuagint or Greek New Testament for creeping creatures is herpetos, the same word that’s translated “reptiles” in James.  It should probably be understood with this broader meaning there.

This allows for a fourfold division of all creatures, such as appears in God’s words to Noah after the flood in Genesis:  “The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea.”  (In this case, the Septuagint uses the Greek word for “moving” rather than herpetos, but the same distinction is in view.)

In the story of Peter’s vision in Acts, the narrator says similarly that the sheet he saw lowered from heaven “contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles [herpeta] and birds.”  When Peter himself describes this vision later in the book, he divides the land animals even further into “four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles [herpeta] and birds,” arriving at the characteristic four-fold division meaning “all creatures” even without citing sea creatures.  Paul does something similar in Romans when he speaks of “images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”

So we should recognize James’ phrase about “animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures” as his own version of the variable three-fold or four-fold formula meaning “all-creatures.”  It’s important not to think the Bible is providing specifics when it’s speaking generally this way.  Otherwise we get into questions like the one asked in your class that can needlessly call the accuracy and thus the truth of the Bible into question.

More importantly, we might misunderstand James means when he says that “no human being can tame the tongue.”  That’s the whole point he wants to make by drawing his comparison to the taming of creatures.  If we believe he’s making a universal statement, rather than a general one, then we’ll conclude it’s pointless to try to tame our own tongues.  But that is precisely what James is encouraging us to do here.  He says, holding up an ideal standard we should aspire to, “Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.”  More is at stake than just our understanding of the Bible in cases like this; our obedience depends on it.

Henry Davenport Northrop, “Peter’s vision of a sheet with animals,” 1894.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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