Ships and Seafaring during the Old Testament—1 Kings 10:22

Mediterranean trade networks emerged early in the third millennium BC. By the Late Bronze Age, complex seafaring routes required ship building, ports, and certain production centers. The Uluburun shipwreck of the fourteenth century BC excavated near the southern coast of Turkey exemplifies the kinds of prestige goods that flowed through those trade channels. It included Cypriote copper, Levantine anchors, Mycenaean pottery, Egyptian resin and glass ingots, African ebony and ivory, Baltic amber, central Asian tin, wine amphora from Israel’s coast, and Italian weapons. This one shipwreck alone demonstrates the extensive mercantile connections that existed by that time.

Natural seaports became important centers for trade, serving the large urban centers located farther inland. Thus, Minet al-Beidha was the port of entry for Ugarit in Syria. Likewise, Poros-Katsambas acted as the main gateway for Knossos in Crete. In the regional upheaval occurring ca. 1200 BC, some older port cities continue to survive, while new Iron Age ports appeared, such as Tyre, Sidon, and Dor along the Levantine coast and both Salamis, and Amathus in Cyprus. They supported the continuing trade network during the Iron Age.

The Phoenicians eventually came to dominate shipping in the eastern Mediterranean from their ports at Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut. Solomon built ships at a new seaport at Ezion-Geber, located near Eilat on the Red Sea. Hiram of Tyre supplied experienced sailors versed in the sea routes to accompany the Israelites on their voyages (1 Kings 9:26-28). From their port on the Gulf of Aqaba, they set out to Ophir and Tarshish to bring back gold, silver, ivory, precious stones, rare woods, and apes and baboons (1 Kings 10:11, 12, 22). During the divided monarchy, Jehoshaphat of Judah tried to imitate Solomon and agreed to build a fleet of ships with Ahaziah, king of Israel. But the ships were wrecked at their ports in Ezion-Geber (2 Chron. 20:35-37). King Uzziah (Azariah) also engaged in seafaring trade from the same port city (2 Kings 14:22; 2 Chron. 26:2). Other biblical writers referred to the ships and trade of various nations (Prov. 31:14; Ezek. 27:4-9). Jonah set sail from Joppa (south of present-day Tel Aviv) to Tarshish located on the eastern coast of Spain (Jon. 1:3-9).

Archaeologists have excavated two possible sites for the port of Ezion-Geber. Nelson Glueck worked at Tell el-Kheleifeh, but later analysis suggested that the evidence did not support such an identification. Some have suggested the island of Jezirat Fairun, located south of modern Eilat and just off the eastern coast of the Sinai Peninsula, as a possible candidate. Its ancient harbor appears to reflect Phoenician design characteristics. In addition, it is also possible that Ezion-Geber lies under the modern ports and construction of today’s Eilat and has not yet been found.