Seafaring in the ancient world (Jonah 2)

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Illustration: Ancient Egyptian Abydos ships discovered in 1991

Seafaring in the ancient Near East extends back well into the third millennium B.C., a period during which Egyptian sources refer to the “Byblos ship” (a term that signified any large, seafaring vessel). Such ships carried the valuable cedars of Lebanon and other prized timber from the northern Levant (Syria-Palestine) to Egypt. During the second millennium B.C. Ugaritic letters also report seafaring trade along coastal Canaan. A shipwrecked vessel from around 1300 B.C. near Uluburun, Turkey, managed to preserve its cargo of olives, pomegranates, figs, various spices and nuts. Twelfth century B.C. pictures from Medinet Habu carved into the temple of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses III depicts the naval battle between the Egyptian and the Sea People, a mysterious new emigrant group who brought with them naval technology that revolutionized seafaring in the Near East.

The Phoenicians were especially great naval innovators, building a maritime trading empire that extended west to Carthage and beyond. Two eighth century B.C. Phoenician shipwrecked crafts laden with wine amphorae have been located in the Mediterranean, approximately 50 km from Ashkelon. The Bible also speaks of Phoenician maritime skill in 1 Kings 9:26-28, where Solomon is said to have established a fleet at Ezion Geber, on the shore of the Red Sea, staffed by Phoenician sailors to make the run to Ophir for the gold trade. It is clear that seafaring already boasted a long history by the time of Jonah.

Joppa, on the Mediterranean coast, was one of the major seaports in the region during Jonah’s day. Ships from Tarshish were heavy, seagoing vessels perhaps named for a geographical location or for their metallurgical cargo. Scholars once speculated that ships of this time hugged the coast and did not venture into deeper waters, but this is no longer believed to have been the case; the ship Jonah took was probably capable of going far out to sea. The most likely geographical candidates for Tarshish are Tartessus in Southwestern Spain of Tarsus in Southwestern Asia Minor. Despite this ambiguity, it is clear that Jonah knew he could flee west from Joppa aboard a ship. Yet he would soon discover that not even these mighty vessels and their advanced Phoenician technology could separate the Lord’s prophet from the God of Israel.


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