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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Ships And Boats

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1. In OT and Apocrypha

(1) Among the Israelites . In spite of the long line of coast by which Palestine is bordered, the Israelites were an agricultural rather than a maritime people. In fact a large part of the coast was occupied by the Phœnicians in the North and the Philistines in the South. That in the earliest times the people as a whole were ignorant of navigation is shewn by their version of the Flood, in which an unnavigable box takes the place of the navigated ship of the ancient Accadian story. Exceptions more or less to the rule in relatively ancient times were the tribes of Asher on the north, and Dan, before its emigration, on the south.

‘And Dan, why did he remain in ships?

Asher sat still at the haven of the sea,

And abode by his creeks’ (Judges 5:17 ).

It is very doubtful whether boats were originally used, even by the Phœnicians and the Philistines, except for fishing, and perhaps for purely local traffic and communication. Zidon, the earliest Phœnician settlement, was, like its synonym, Beth-saida, derived from a root meaning to catch prey, and was doubtless first noted as a fishing town. Again, Dagon, the chief god of the Philistines, is derived from the word dag , meaning a fish.

At a somewhat later period we find Zebulun described as a ‘ haven of ships ’ ( Genesis 49:18 ), and later still, probably after the division of the kingdom, Issachar is mentioned with Zebulun as deriving wealth from naval commerce ( Deuteronomy 33:19 ).

In any case, it is not till the time of Solomon that we hear definitely of any important development of commercial enterprise. Under the direction, and with the co-operation, of the Phœnicians, cedar and cypress timbers from Lebanon were cut and floated down the rivers to the coast and formed into rafts (AV [Note: Authorized Version.] floats ), which carried the sawn stones to Joppa. Here they were broken up, and both were conveyed to Jerusalem for the building of the Temple ( 1 Kings 5:9 , 2 Chronicles 2:3-18 ). Solomon had also a navy of ships navigated by Phœnician sailors. They were stationed at Ezion-geber , at the head of the Gulf of Akabah, and traded with Ophir, probably in the southeast of Arabia, in gold and precious stones ( 1 Kings 9:26-28 ). The ‘ivory and apes and peacocks’ of 1 Kings 10:22 may have been imported into this region from India and more distant Eastern lands, or the ships of Hiram and Solomon may themselves have made more distant voyages. In addition to this, there was a regular trade maintained with Egypt, whence Solomon Imported chariots and horses ( 1 Kings 10:28-29 ).

The conflict between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms after Solomon’s death put a stop to the commercial activities of the Jews, and there does not appear to have been any attempt to revive them till the time of Jehoshaphat, whose fleet of ships made for trading for gold to Ophir was wrecked at Ezion-geber. An offer of Ahaziah to join in a renewal of the enterprise was afterwards rejected (1 Kings 22:43 ; 1 Kings 22:49 ). The mention in Isaiah 2:16 of ‘ships of Tarshish’ among the objects against which J″ [Note: Jahweh.] ’s judgment would be directed, makes it likely that there was again a revival of naval commerce in the prosperous reigns of Jotham and Uzziah. Finally, in the time of the Maccabees we read that Simon, the brother of Judas, made Joppa a seaport ( 1Ma 14:5 ). It was probably at this period that the Jews first began to have experience of ships of war ( 1Ma 1:17 ; 1Ma 15:3 ; cf. Daniel 11:30 ), though they must have been in use at a much earlier period. There are figures of such ships, with sharp beaks for ramming, in Layard’s History of Nineveh , and Sennacherib in his expedition against Merodach-baladan had ships manned by Tyrians. In Isaiah 33:21 the allusion is certainly to hostile ships, but the reference may he to ships of transport, rather than warships. In any case the distinction between a merchantman and a warship in early times was obviously not so definite as it afterwards became.

(2) Among neighbouring nations . Unlike the Israelites, the Phœnicians were the great navigators of the ancient world. Their country was particularly favourable for such a development. Dwelling on a narrow piece of sea-board, unsuited for agriculture (they imported corn from Palestine, 1 Kings 5:11 , Acts 12:20 ), they had behind them the Lebanon range, famed for its great cedars, and a coast with good natural harbours. By the time of Solomon they would seem already to have had an extensive trade. The phrase ‘ ships of Tarshish ’ which probably meant originally ships accustomed to trade with Tartessus in Spain, had come to be used in a secondary sense, like our ‘East-Indiaman,’ of large vessels suited for such a trade. It is believed that by this time they had penetrated as far as Cornwall, and had even found their way to the Canaries. Their numerous colonies, at any rate the most distant, of which Carthage is the best known, probably began to be founded soon after. The form of their ships was, it would appear, a gradual development from the hollowed trunk of a tree to the vessel of three banks of oars, known among the Greeks as a trireme (see Hastings’ DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] , art. ‘Ships’). With the Assyrians navigation seems to have been confined to the Tigris and Euphrates, where small timber boats, supported by inflated skins ( keleks ), and coracles of plaited willow ( kufas ), were largely in use (see EBi [Note: Encyclopædia Biblica.] , art. ‘Ships’). On the other hand, the Babylonians seem quite to have justified the phrase ‘ships of their rejoicing’ i.e. in which they take pride ( Isaiah 43:14 ), having extended their voyages to the Persian Gulf, and even engaged in commerce with India since the 7th cent. b.c. The Egyptians used ‘ vessels of papyrus ’ for the navigation of the Nile ( Isaiah 18:2 , cf. Job 9:26 ), but it is not quite certain whether they were boats constructed out of papyrus, or rafts composed of bundles of these reeds bound together. We learn from Egyptian monuments that they had also ships of considerable size. We have very little to guide us in determining the form or size of ships during these early periods, but it is probable that while at first they appear to have varied greatly, they gradually approximated to the type of vessel used in the Levant in NT times. It is not possible to say at what time sails were first introduced. We find them, or more correctly the sail, in the one great sail mentioned in Ezekiel 27:7 in addition to the oars. In Isaiah 33:23 the sail only is mentioned. In Isaiah 33:21 the ‘ galley with oars ’ is mentioned distinctively, and in contrast to the ‘ gallant ship ,’ which probably means the larger vessel provided with a sail.

(3) In literature . That the Israelites, though, generally speaking, unused to navigation, had some acquaintance with and took an interest in shipping, is clear from the constant reference to ships in their literature. Isaiah 33:23 , in which Israel is compared to a disabled vessel, has been already alluded to. Ezekiel’s famous comparison of Tyre to a ship in Isaiah 27:4-11 gives a fair general idea of the different parts of a ship of that period, though some of them the deck-planks of ivory, the sail of fine bordered linen, the awnings of blue and purple are evidently idealized. The graphic picture in Psalms 107:23-27 of the terrors experienced by those ‘who go down to the sea in ships’ was almost certainly written by one who had experienced a storm at sea. In Psalms 104:25 the ships are, as much as leviathan, the natural denizens of the deep. Of special beauty is the simile of the ship that passes over the waves and leaves no pathway of its keel behind ( Wis 5:10 ), to express the transitoriness of human life and human hope. The danger of ship-faring is pointed out in Wis 14:5 . That people should commit their lives to a small piece of wood would be absurd but for Divine Providence.

2. In the NT . We are concerned chiefly with our Lord’s Galilæan ministry and St. Paul’s voyages.

(1) On the Sea of Galilee . The Galilæan boats were used primarily for fishing, and also for communication between the villages on the Lake, and probably for local trade. At least four of our Lord’s disciples were fishermen, and were called while engaged in their work. He frequently crossed the Lake with His disciples, and sometimes preached from a boat to the people on the shore ( Luke 5:2 , Mark 4:1 ). Among the most picturesque incidents of His life as recorded in the Gospels are the miracle of stilling the tempest and the miraculous draughts of fishes. The boats were small enough to be in danger of sinking from a very large catch of fish, and yet large enough to contain our Lord and at least the majority of His twelve Apostles, and to weather the storms which are still frequent on the Lake. It appears from the frequent use of the definite article, ‘the boat,’ that one particular boat, probably St. Peter’s, was usually employed.

(2) In the Levant . Ships played an important part in St. Paul’s missionary journeys. It was frequently necessary for him to cross the Ægæan, and sometimes to make longer voyages to and from Syria. That he was frequently exposed to great danger we learn not only from the detailed account of his shipwreck in Acts 27:1-44 , but from an express statement in 2 Corinthians 11:25 , in which, writing before this event , he says ‘thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep,’ which certainly seems to mean that he drifted for this space of time upon the spar or some part of a wrecked ship. But our interest is centred chiefly in the account of his voyage from Cæsarea to Puteoli in Acts 27:1-44 ; Acts 28:1-31 . From this we learn that the larger vessels were of a considerable size, that of the shipwreck containing, according to what is probably the correct text, 276 persons ( Acts 27:37 ; according to B, 76). It was impelled only by sail , the only oars mentioned being the paddles used as rudders , which were braced up, probably in order to allow the ship to be more easily anchored at the stern ( Acts 27:29 ; Acts 27:40 ). This, a custom not infrequently resorted to when some special purpose was served by it, was to enable them to thrust the vessel into a favourable place on shore without the necessity of turning her round. In addition to the mainsail , the vessel had a foresail ( artemôn ), which was used for the same purpose, as more easily adapted for altering the ship’s course ( Acts 27:40 ). The vessel had one small boat , which was usually towed behind, but was taken up for greater security during the storm ( Acts 27:16 ). Another remarkable practice is that described in Acts 27:17 as ‘using helps, undergirding the ship.’ These helps or ‘under girders’ were chains passed under and across the ship, and tightened to prevent the boards from springing. It was a common practice of ancient times, and is not unknown even in modern navigation. Soundings were taken to test the near approach to land, much as they would be at the present day. Though ships had to depend mainly on one great square sail, by bracing this they were enabled to sail within seven points of the wind. In this case, allowing another six points for leeway, the vessel under a northeaster ( Euraquilo , Acts 27:14 ) made way from Cauda to Malta, a direction considerably north of west. As, however, the vessel could not safely carry the mainsail, or even the yard-arm, these were first lowered on deck, and then the vessel must have been heaved to and been carried along and steadied by a small storm-sail of some kind. Had she drifted before the wind she would inevitably have been driven on to the Syrtis, the very thing they wished to avoid ( Acts 27:17 ). This has been shown very clearly by Smith in his classical work, The Voyage of St. Paul , ch. iii. The same writer draws attention to the thoroughly nautical character of St. Luke’s language, and the evidence of its accuracy by a comparison with what is known of ancient naval practice; and, what is perhaps even more striking, the evidence of skilful navigation to which the narrative points. He justly observes that the chief reason why sailing in the winter was dangerous ( Acts 27:9 , Acts 28:11 ) was not so much the storms, as the constant obscuring of the heavens, by which, before the discovery of the compass, mariners had chiefly to direct their course.

The fact that two of the ships in which St. Paul sailed were ships of Alexandria engaged in the wheat trade with Italy (Acts 27:6 ; Acts 27:38 , Acts 28:11 ; Acts 28:13 ; Puteoli was the great emporium of wheat), is especially interesting, as we happen to know more about them than any other ancient class of ship. In the time of Commodus a series of coins with figures of Alexandrian corn-ships was struck to commemorate an exceptional importation of wheat from Alexandria at a time of scarcity. One of these ships, moreover, was driven into the Piræus by stress of weather. Lucian lays the scene of one of his dialogues ( The Ship or Wishes ) on board of her. From the coins and the dialogue together we get a very good idea of the ships of that time (2nd cent. a.d.) and their navigation. Lucian’s ship was 180 ft. by 45 ft., with a calculated tonnage of about 1200. It is not surprising, then, that the Castor and Pottux was large enough to contain, in addition to her cargo and crew, the 276 persons of the shipwrecked vessel ( Acts 28:11 ). Josephus was wrecked in a ship containing 600. The ships had one huge square sail attached to an upright mast about the centre of the vessel, with a very long yard-arm. There was also a second small mast, set diagonally near the bow, and looking not unlike a modern bowsprit, which carried the foresail. On the principal mast there was also sometimes a small triangular topsail. Both ends of the vessel curved upwards and were pointed horizontally, and terminated, the former especially, in some sort of decoration, very frequently a swan. The two rudder paddles , the universal method of steering till about the 12th cent., were usually in the larger vessels passed through port-holes, which could also serve as hawse holes when the vessel was anchored by the stern.

(3) In literature . In the books of the NT, shipping provided the writers with some striking similes. In the Ep. to the Heb. ( Hebrews 6:19 ), Christian hope is called ‘the anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and entering into that which is within the veil.’ Again, St. James compares the tongue, in the control which its constraint exercises on the character, to the very small rudders by which ships, though they be so great, are turned about ( Hebrews 3:4 ).

F. H. Woods.

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Ships And Boats'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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