In honor of International Seafarers Day, Jewish Treats takes a brief look at seafaring in the biblical canon.

The patriarchs and matriarchs were total “landlubbers.” In fact, the closest the first generation out of Egypt came to seafaring was walking through the Sea of Reeds. However, the Tribe of Zebulun was, as per Jacob’s blessing in Genesis 49:13, to be “a haven for ships” and thrived as a maritime, mercantile people. The Tribe of Dan is also noted for its seafaring, but only in a statement of rebuke from Deborah who criticized the Danites for staying on their ships during the war with Canaan.

The Tanach (Bible) records two instances when Jewish kings organized a fleet. The first was by King Solomon, who “built a fleet of ships at Ezion-Geber, which is near Eilat, on the shore of the Sea of Reeds in the Land of Edom” (I Kings 9:26). The ships were served by Phoenicia’s expert seamen, who were sent to Solomon’s kingdom by King Hiram I of Tyre. The fleet appears to have been successful in their mercantile efforts, for II Chronicles records “they went with Solomon’s men to Ophir and obtained gold there in the amount of 450 talents, which they brought to King Solomon” (II Chronicles 8:18).

Four generations later, after the split between the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah, Judah’s King Jehoshaphat also built a fleet, with the goal of replicating his great-great-grandfather’s trade for gold at Ophir. The ships, however, were wrecked at Etzion-Geber. The two accounts of this episode in I Kings 22:49-50 and II Chronicles 20:35-37 both record an offer of partnership from Israel’s King Ahaziah (who encouraged idolatry in the northern Kingdom of Israel). I Kings states that Jehoshaphat turned down the proposal, but II Chronicles attributes the destruction of the fleet to this “unholy” alliance.

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