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An Examination of Tarshish in the Scriptures

In this article, we undertake a study about the identity of Tarshish, and, comparing Scripture with Scripture, suggest that it is not possible to identify with certainty the location(s) of Tarshish. Then we will examine why Tarshish is sometimes identified as Britain. Finally, the reader is encouraged to consider the implications of an alternate identification.
By JONATHAN FARRAR
Read Time: 14 minutes

An important example for any Bible student is the Bereans, who received the word with, “…eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11, ESV). This example applies to any Bible study, including prophecy, which can be a challenging and humbling undertaking, especially when evidence surfaces that does not fit with an existing understanding that may be long-held.

One case where evidence suggests a different-than-traditional interpretation of prophecy is the identity of Tarshish, which is mentioned twenty-five times in ten Old Testament books. The identification of Tarshish matters when trying to determine its role in prophecies, whether fulfilled or future.

One case where evidence suggests a different-than-traditional interpretation of prophecy is the identity of Tarshish

In this article, we undertake a study about the identity of Tarshish, and, comparing Scripture with Scripture, suggest that it is not possible to identify with certainty the location(s) of Tarshish. Then we will examine why Tarshish is sometimes identified as Britain. Finally, the reader is encouraged to consider the implications of an alternate identification.

The Usage of “Tarshish” in the Bible

The entry for Tarshish in Strong’s Concordance (#8659) states, “probably the same as #8658 (as the region of the stone, or the verse); a place on the Mediterranean, hence the epithet of a merchant vessel (as if for or from that port); also the name of a Persian and of an Israelite.”

This entry suggests three distinct usages of the word Tarshish in the Old Testament, depending on the context: a location; a description of a merchant ship, and a person’s name. These occurrences are summarized below.

Tarshish as a location Ships of Tarshish Tarshish as a person
2 Chronicles 9:21

2 Chronicles 20:36-37

Psalm 72:10

Isaiah 23:6, 10

Isaiah 66:19

Jeremiah 10:9

Ezekiel 27:12

Ezekiel 38:13

Jonah 1:3

Jonah 4:2

1 Kings 10:22

1 Kings 22:48

2 Chronicles 9:21

Psalm 48:7

Isaiah 2:16

Isaiah 23:1, 14

Isaiah 60:9

Ezekiel 27:25

Genesis 10:4

1 Chronicles 1:7

1 Chronicles 7:10

Esther 1:14

“Ships of Tarshish”

It is important to notice that the epithet or expression “ships of Tarshish” does not denote a particular location. That is, “ships of Tarshish” should not be understood as ships that always sailed to or from a specific location named Tarshish. Only once does the Bible mention that “ships of Tarshish” went to Tarshish (2 Chronicles 9:21).

The Bible also states that Jehoshaphat made ships to go to Tarshish (2 Chronicles 20:36), which were presumably “ships of Tarshish,” as was Solomon’s navy, which were “ships of Tarshish” per 2 Chronicles 9:21. Both navies were constructed in Ezion-geber (1 Kings 9:26; 2 Chronicles 20:36).

we cannot identify the location of Tarshish from the phrase “ships of Tarshish.”

The “ships of Tarshish” built by Jehoshaphat were destined for Ophir (1 Kings 22:48), possibly on the east coast of Africa.[1] And, in Isaiah 23:1, 14, as well as Ezekiel 27:25, the Mediterranean port city of Tyre welcomed ships of Tarshish. These references show that “ships of Tarshish” could be built in Ezion-geber by Israelite kings; and could sail to Tarshish itself, as well as Ophir and Tyre, which are locations in very different bodies of water – the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

Thus, “ships of Tarshish” has to be an epithet or term used to describe large sea-going vessels, as these ships did not sail to or from Tarshish exclusively, a conclusion on which historians tend to agree.[2] As such, we cannot identify the location of Tarshish from the phrase “ships of Tarshish.”

Isaiah 2:16 mentions “ships of Tarshish” in connection with cedars of Lebanon, oaks of Bashan, lofty mountains, hills, high towers, and fortified walls, all in the context of the pride of man (vss. 11-15). Thus, “ships of Tarshish” are grouped with other large, tall objects representing pride. In this context, it is sensible that “ships of Tarshish” would be large ships, but “ships of Tarshish” do not specify a location.

Likewise, Psalm 48:7 likens kings who came to, but fled from Mount Zion as ships of Tarshish broken by an east wind. This reference to mighty kings would make sense if “ships of Tarshish” were mighty ships, but here again, Psalm 48:7 does not refer to Tarshish as a specific location. Isaiah 60:9 says that “ships of Tarshish” would transport “thy sons” (Jews) to the land of Israel “from far.” This verse does not state where these ships originated; but they were destined for Israel, not Tarshish.[3]

Tarshish as a Location

The references to Tarshish as a location do not state clearly where Tarshish was situated. There are no obvious geographic markers to identify Tarshish in any of the verses. Below is another table with these references and what they tell us about the location of Tarshish.  (While reading the table, consider whether the evidence identifies Tarshish as a specific nation or location).

Tarshish as a place What we learn about the location of Tarshish
2 Chronicles 9:21 Ships of Tarshish went to Tarshish and returned every three years bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.
2 Chronicles 20:36-37 Ships could sail from Ezion-geber to Tarshish.
Psalm 72:10 Kings of Tarshish, along with kings of coastlands, will bring gifts to Christ. Implied is that Tarshish is in a coastal region (“isles” in the KJV).
Isaiah 23:6, 10 The Tyrians could travel to Tarshish, whose inhabitants are described as living in a coastal region (“isles” in the KJV). Verse 10 simply states that Tarshish had land.
Isaiah 66:19 Refugees from the land of Israel will be sent to Tarshish, as well as Pul, Lud, Tubal, Javan: to the isles afar off.
Jeremiah 10:9 Silver was sourced in Tarshish.
Ezekiel 27:12 Tarshish traded silver, iron, tin, and lead in the Tyrian markets.
Ezekiel 38:13 Sheba, Dedan, and the merchants of Tarshish, with the young lions of Tarshish, ask Gog why it is invading Israel. Implied is that Tarshish may be in the same geographic region as Sheba and Dedan.
Jonah 1:3; 4:2 Tarshish is west of Joppa, reachable by ship, and was where Jonah was heading.

 

Tarshish may reference several different locations. There must have been a location in the Mediterranean Sea where Jonah sailed (west of Joppa, in the Mediterranean Sea). Even then, we do not know with certainty where that Tarshish was.

Furthermore, the fleet of ships that Solomon sent to Tarshish was probably a different Tarshish than Jonah’s destination, as Solomon’s animal cargoes are not found in the Mediterranean basin, and Solomon’s ships probably did not circumnavigate Africa and sail to the Mediterranean Sea.

Tarshish may reference several different locations.

It would not be feasible to launch ships from the Red Sea to sail to the Mediterranean, given the distance, the unlikelihood of the route around Africa to the Mediterranean being known to Solomon, and the relative ease of navigating the Mediterranean from the shores of Palestine, should Solomon have wished to do so.[4] Thus, the Tarshish known to Solomon was probably different than the Tarshish known to Jonah.

Since Tarshish seems to refer to multiple locations, and as only the references to Jonah’s Tarshish are clear as to the relative location (west of Joppa), Bible students should not conclude that Tarshish, when cited in other references in the table, must refer to a clearly defined location.

It is impossible to distinguish between Jonah’s Tarshish and Solomon’s Tarshish in these other references. Moreover, it is possible also that another reference to Tarshish might refer to a location different from where Jonah sailed and from where Solomon sent his ships. In sum, the context of the verses mentioning Tarshish as a location do not provide any clear guidance as to the location of Tarshish in each verse.[5]

Tarshish as Britain?

Some Christadelphians have suggested that Tarshish is Britain. Without quoting any of these sources (so as not to be perceived as critical of anyone), the reasoning as to why Tarshish is Britain goes something like this:

  1. Tarshish is west of Joppa (Jonah 1:3)
  2. Tarshish is an island nation (Psalm 72:10; Isaiah 23:6)
  3. Tarshish is a maritime power (Isaiah 2:16)
  4. Tarshish traded tin with Tyre (Ezekiel 27:12), the ancient capital of the Phoenicians; and the Phoenicians obtained tin in southwestern Britain (notably Cornwall).

Regarding 1), merely knowing that Tarshish was west of Joppa does not give any definitive clue to the identity of Tarshish. There are many locations west of Joppa. Furthermore, there was likely also a Tarshish somewhere in the Red Sea area where Solomon sent his ships.

Point 2) states that Tarshish is an island nation. However, according to Strong’s Concordance, the word translated as “isles” (Strong’s #339) means “a habitable spot; dry land, a coast, an island.” Gesenius’s Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon agrees and says that this Hebrew word means “habitable land as opposed to water, the sea and rivers”; and “maritime land, whether the sea coast of a continent, or an island.” Thus, an “isle” does not have to be an island. There is nothing in the context of Psalm 72:10 and Isaiah 23:6 (or any Tarshish references) to imply that an island is mentioned rather than a coastal mainland. As mentioned previously, Tarshish probably has reference to multiple locations.

Point 3) is addressed in the subsection above pertaining to the ships of Tarshish. To conclude that Tarshish is a maritime power on the basis of the phrase “ships of Tarshish” is incorrect, as the term “ships of Tarshish” describes large seagoing ships rather than a specific location.

Point 4) asserts that because tin was mined on the southwest coast of Britain by the Phoenicians, and the Phoenicians (whose principal seaport was Tyre) were supplied with tin by Tarshish per Ezekiel 27:12, then Britain must be Tarshish.

To make the case that Tarshish is Britain, there must be evidence that the metals mentioned in Ezekiel 27:12 (silver, iron, tin, and lead) must have been supplied by Britain to Tyre in the time of Ezekiel by a seafaring people (the Phoenicians).

Christadelphian Bible students who affirm this premise tend to focus solely on tin, and rely on classical Greek writers, who mention something about the existence of mysterious tin islands near Britain. Recent scholarship, however, does not support the premise that the Phoenicians ever visited Britain. British archaeologist Timothy Champion, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at the University of Southampton, states:

“The archaeology of the Phoenicians is now reasonably well established (Aubet 1993; Moscati 1988). Phoenician maritime activity certainly extended beyond Gibraltar into the Atlantic, and there was an important colony on the site of the modern city of Cadiz [in Spain].

“How much further northwards along the Atlantic coast of Europe Phoenician merchants ever sailed is unknown. The direct archaeological evidence for the presence of Phoenician or Carthaginian traders as far north as Britain is non-existent, and the most recent review of Phoenician activity in the west does not even bother to consider the question (Aubet 1993).”[6]

He goes on to state in his article that the documentary evidence of the classical Greek authors has provided the basis for speculation about Phoenician activity in the waters of northwestern Europe.

He also quotes a classical Greek author (Diodorus Siculus), who stated that the production of Cornish tin was in the hands of the locals of Cornwall, and its transport to the Mediterranean was organized by local merchants, by sea (across the English Channel) and then overland to France and down the Rhone river. In email correspondence with this author in September 2019, Professor Champion continues to affirm the lack of evidence for a Phoenician presence in Britain.[7]

One of the sources quoted by Professor Champion is Aubet (1993). Maria Aubet is Emerita Professor of Archaeology at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. Her book, “The Phoenicians and the West” was translated into English and printed in 1993, then reprinted in 2001.[8]

to identify Tarshish with a specific location because that location contains tin  does not appear justifiable

Aubet makes the point that there is considerable archaeological evidence for Phoenician settlements in the Mediterranean basin as well as Phoenician exploration in the Red Sea area. She does not mention anything about Phoenician trading activity north of the southern Spanish coast.

She also notes that there were great mineral reserves containing tin in Anatolia (Turkey), on the island of Elba, and in Tartessos (a region in Spain), all of which were in the Mediterranean region, and as such would have been accessible to Tyre.[9] Therefore to identify Tarshish with a specific location because that location contains tin (i.e., Ezekiel 27:12) does not appear justifiable, as there are multiple locations that could have provided tin to Tyre.

Finally, Aubet notes that when the Phoenicians expanded into a territory, it was not just for ore, but also for the land, agricultural output, out of demographic necessity, etc.

Furthermore, the production of metals requires a whole series of complex processes, from extraction, transport, smelting, making alloys, finishing, and marketing. From extraction to sale, the process was enormously expensive and required considerable ore deposits to be economically viable. The two major constraints were production capacity and distance.[10]

Thus, it is implausible that the Phoenicians would have “visited” Britain to mine ore because they only planted permanent settlements and for reasons that were not just limited to ore production; and the cost to produce ore in Britain and ship it to Tyre would likely have been prohibitively expensive, given the great distance.[11]

Conclusion

In this article, we have considered how Tarshish is presented in multiple ways in the Scriptures. It is a word that has different meanings, and can refer to a location, although the location is not clearly identifiable from any of the contexts.[12] There appears to be at least two locations for Tarshish (west of Joppa and in the Red Sea area). Other references to Tarshish are ambiguous as to which of these two locations, if any, are referred to.

Tarshish is also contained in the expression, “ships of Tarshish,” which were ships that did not necessarily originate in or sail to a location named Tarshish; therefore, this expression cannot be used to identify Tarshish as a location. It does not appear possible to identify with any certainty a single location for Tarshish.

there is no historical evidence that the Phoenicians ever visited Britain

Tin is mentioned in Ezekiel 27:12 as being sourced from Tarshish and traded with Tyre. There were at least three primary sources of tin in the Mediterranean region (in Anatolia, the island of Elba, and Tartessos), which could have provided tin to Tyre.

Furthermore, at least three archaeologists who have studied the Phoenicians relatively recently – two of whom are British – conclude that there is no historical evidence (archaeological or from Classical Greek writers) that the Phoenicians ever visited Britain.[13]

Cornish tin was likely transported to the Mediterranean by local merchants through France. The Phoenicians did not “visit” an area; rather, they placed permanent settlements strategically, and not just to mine ore. Thus, the notion that the Phoenicians made forays to Britain (or islands near Britain) to mine tin is improbable. As well, the cost of producing and shipping ore from Britain to Tyre would most likely have been prohibitively expensive.

What does all this mean for Bible students today? The viewpoint that Tarshish is Britain has currency among some Bible students. However, this viewpoint does not seem to be well-supported. Any predictions about unfulfilled prophecies pertaining to Tarshish should probably be done very carefully, as it is not possible to identify the location of Tarshish with certainty through any particular Bible verse.[14]

Brother Jonathan Farrar, Paris, Ontario

 

[1] The name Africa, derived from the Latin Aphir-ic-a, is a cognate [root word] to the Hebrew Ophir.  See Stieglitz, R. (1984), “Long-distance seafaring in the ancient Near East,” The Biblical Archaeologist, 47(3), p.141.  See also https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ophir for a discussion of several other possible locations.

[2] Two examples of historians who conclude similarly are 1) Whitney, G. (1872). Handbook of Bible Geography, p.378-9.  London: Hodder and Stoughton. He states that the term “ships of Tarshish” signified large Phoenician ships destined for long voyages, just as the English ship ‘East Indiaman’ was a general name given to vessels, some of which were not intended to go to India at all; 2) Stieglitz, ibid note 1 at p.139, who states, “Tarshish ships… seem to have been merchantmen fit for long voyages.”

[3] Isaiah 60:9 may have been fulfilled prior to and just after World War II, as in the waves (aliyahs) of immigration to Israel, transport ships were the primary mode of transportation, carrying approximately 100,000 Jews who embarked at European ports.

[4] The Wikipedia entry for ‘European exploration of Africa’ suggests that the first circumnavigation of Africa, made by the Phoenicians, did not occur until around 600 BC, which was about 400 years after Solomon’s reign.

[5] The individual named Tarshish in Genesis 10:4 is mentioned in connection with other individuals who are understood to have settled in the coastal regions in the north and northeastern Mediterranean.

[6] Champion, T. (2001). The appropriation of the Phoenicians in British imperial ideology. Nations and Nationalism, 7(4), p.453. In his article, he also notes that a large tin ingot, weighing 158 pounds, now at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro, is now thought to be of late-medieval date (p.454).

[7] Per email correspondence on 9/21/19, he wrote, “I would still stand by my assertion that there is no archaeological evidence for their presence in Britain … It is true that the Greek geographer Strabo refers to Phoenicians acquiring tin in islands called the Cassiterides, as I discussed briefly in the article you cite; attempts have been made to identify these islands with the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall, and hence bring Phoenicians at least to the south-westernmost tip of England, but they are now mostly discounted. Tin was certainly an important export from Cornwall, but all the archaeological evidence suggests close contacts with northern France, and production and primary distribution in the hands of local inhabitants.”

[8] Aubet, M. (2001). The Phoenicians and the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[9] Ibid, note 8, p.80

[10] Ibid, note 8, pp. 95-96.

[11] Another archaeologist, also British, has written a book, published in 2018, which contains a chapter (“Phoenician Islands”) discussing how an alleged Phoenician presence in northwest Europe became entrenched into western European historical mythology. See Quinn, J. (2018). In Search of the Phoenicians. Princeton: Princeton University Press.  About the book, Quinn says, “One of the chapters I most enjoyed writing in this book is about the way that scholars in England concocted fantasies of Phoenician origins for their homeland.” (https://press.princeton.edu/interviews/qa-11132).

[12] This explanation is consistent with other examples in the Bible where a word can have multiple meanings depending on the context (such as ‘elohim’).

[13] Cited in footnotes 6, 8, and 11.

[14] For example, the idea that the “young lions” of Ezekiel 38:13 refer to British commonwealth nations is based on the understanding that the Tarshish of Ezekiel 38:13 is Britain.

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