Israelites were not seafaring people, partly because the Mediterranean coast south of Mt Carmel had shallow waters and sandy shores, with no good sites for harbours. North of Mt Carmel, however, there were good harbours at Tyre and Sidon. This was one reason why the Phoenicians became a famous seafaring nation in Old Testament times (Ezek 27:2,25; 28:2; see PHOENICIA). In the time of the Israelite monarchy, King Hiram of Phoenicia and King Solomon of Israel established a fleet of ships to operate between the Red Sea port of Ezion-geber and India. Because of the Israelites’ lack of seafaring experience, Solomon had to rely on the Phoenician seamen to guide and teach his men. The ships used on this route were known as ‘ships of Tarshish’. This was a technical name for a certain kind of ocean-going cargo ship, not an indication of the port to which or from which a ship was sailing (1 Kings 9:26-28; 10:11,22; see TARSHISH). ‘Ships of Tarshish’, like other large ships, may have been driven by oars or by sails (Isa 33:21,23; Ezek 27:6-8,26,29). River boats, which were much smaller, may have been made of papyrus reeds (Isa 18:1-2). God’s judgment on the greedy commercial giant Phoenicia (Tyre) was pictured by the prophet Ezekiel as the sinking of a great ship. The ship had been beautifully made of the best materials from all parts of the trading world.

Its planks, masts, oars and decking were made of the best timbers, its sails of the finest linen, and its colours of the most expensive dyes. The rowers, sailors and craft workers who made up its crew were highly skilled people from many countries. Tyre’s trade, however, became so great that the ship became overloaded. When caught in a storm at sea, it sank. All its cargo was lost and all the crew drowned (Ezek 27:1-9,25-27; 28:2-8; cf. Rev 18:19). In New Testament times huge grain ships sailed from Alexandria in Egypt to Greece and Rome (Acts 27:6; 28:11). They were capable of carrying large cargoes and several hundred people (Acts 27:18,37). Being sailing ships, they had to stay in port during winter months, when severe storms were likely to wreck them (Acts 27:9-20). During the stormy season the ship’s crew wrapped strong ropes or metal bands around the hulls of the ships to hold their timbers together (Acts 27:17). The smaller boats that sailed on the Lake of Galilee were used mainly for fishing or carrying passengers (Matt 4:21-22; 8:23-27; 9:1; Luke 5:2-7; John 6:22-23; 21:3). They were driven either by sails or by oars, depending on the weather conditions (Mark 6:48; John 6:19).

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