Down to the Sea in Ships

By Berlyn, Patricia | Jewish Bible Quarterly, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Down to the Sea in Ships


Berlyn, Patricia, Jewish Bible Quarterly


Others go down to the sea in ships, ply their trade in the mighty waters; They have seen the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep (Ps. 107:23).

THE SEA

The Land of Israel runs from sea to sea--the Great Sea (Mediterranean) on the west to the Lower Sea (Red Sea), on the south. (1) The sea and seafaring were familiar to Israelites, from their coastlines and from their ports and estuaries where foreign ships could load and unload cargoes and take on supplies, and sailors could spin their yarns. Some dwelt beside the sea and some sailed upon it, and they knew its vastness, its depths, and the often strange teeming life therein; unfathomable and turbulent, governable only by Divine might.

The earliest recorded link of Israelites to the sea is in Jacob's combined blessings and forecasts for his sons, among them Zebulun, who 'shall dwell by the seashore, he shall be a haven for ships' (Gen. 49:13). After the settlement in the Land, the tribe of Zebulun was not directly on the seacoast but it was close to it, and the Kishon River that flows through its tribal territory gave it access to what is now called Haifa Bay. In the Song of Deborah, two more tribes are given maritime connections: And Dan--why did he linger by the ships?/Asher remained at the seacoast/ And tarried at his landings (Jud. 5:17). Dan would then have been still in the territory first allotted to it on the coast not far from the port of Jaffa. (2) The tribal territory of Asher did have a strip of coastland, adjacent to Phoenician Tyre with its wide-ranging merchant fleets.

The Israelites, from experience or observation or hearsay, knew of the remoteness and loneliness in the heart of the seas (Ezek. 28:2; Jon. 2:4). Even during the wandering in the desert, they were well enough aware of the hardship and perils of a maritime journey to be told: Neither is it [the Torah] beyond the sea, that you should say 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' (Deut. 30:13).

They also knew that the farthest reaches and deepest depths of the seas were the dominion of the Lord:

   And if any conceal themselves from My sight
   At the bottom of the sea,
   There I will command
   The serpent [nahash] to bite them (Amos 9:3).

The moods of the sea, its sounds and its furies, provided similes and metaphors:

   Ah, the roar of many peoples
   That roar as roars the sea,
   The rage of nations that rage
   As rage the mighty waters--
   Nations raging like massive waters! (Isa. 17:12-14).

As to the denizens of the deep, God said, 'Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, ... God created the great tanninim and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind ... (Gen. 1:20-21). This category of every living creature subsumes fishes, cetacean mammals, octopi, squid, crustaceans, sea turtles, and other species, but in Genesis only the tanninim are singled out by name, perhaps because they were the most awesome of all. The tannin cannot now be taxonomically identified and some translators resort to the generic "monster." In modern Hebrew, tannin is used for crocodilians and that may be the original usage as well, for in past ages a salt-water crocodile did slink through the waters of the Mediterranean. In opposition to this, however, is Lamentations 4:3, where the tannin is a mammal: Even tanninim offer the breast and suckle their young. Perhaps, then, the King James Version is correct in rendering the tanninim of Genesis as "whales."

The tannin may have been fearsomely real, but other things thought to lurk in the depths of the sea derive not from nature but from Canaanite mythology. Among them were Leviathan, imagined as a large twisting and writhing creature with seven heads, (3) the gruesome Rahab, (4) and Yamm, a deity of seas and rivers. To the Israelites, who may have had some notion of them only as characters in old stories, these were all merely obstreperous critters, subjects of the Lord, to be disciplined when unruly. …

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