Beware! Beware! the Ships of Tarshish!

“For the king’s ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Hiram. Once every three years the merchant ships came, bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and monkeys.” 

2 Chronicles 9:21

“Howl, howl, ye ships of Tarshish! The glory is laid waste:
There is no habitation; the mansions are defaced.”

Bayard Taylor, “Tyre” (1855)

As a geographer with reservations about modernity, I delight in passages by writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth century who express reservations about the new age of seafaring and discovery.  These writers were not, I hasten to add, lamenting the slaughter of distant savages, the plunder of heathen treasuries, or even the hunting of exotic beasts in lands beyond the sea.  These writers who delight me were lamenting the fact that Western man was now exploring the world and not his soul.

When he took to seafaring and discovery, Western man was, to quote St. Luke’s gospel, “troubling himself about many things” and neglecting the one thing needful (10:41).  When Western man sailed the seven seas to discover new worlds, Western man turned his back on the spiritual sea in which he could discover the next world.  Western man had become (or was at least becoming) a curious mix of Martha and Faust, a prosaic drudge who had mortgaged his soul to the Devil.

“For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

* * * * *

Richard Gilpin was a seventeenth-century Puritan clergyman from the borderlands in the north of England, and in 1677 he published Daemonologia Sacra, a remarkable work that is subtitled A Treatise of Satan’s Temptations.  It opens with this line:

“The accurate searches into the secrets of nature which this age hath produced . . . are become as little satisfactory to men that look after the true causes of things, as those ‘ships of desire’ whose great undertaking for gold had raised high expectations in their attempts, but in the return brought nothing home for their ventures but ‘apes and peacocks,’”

The phrase “ships of desire” is a literal translation of the Hebrew in Job 9:26, and this phrase is often interpreted as “swift ships.”  This is on the hypothesis that “ships of desire” referred either to swift pleasure boats unburdened by cargo, ships under full sail, or perhaps swift and piratical corsairs.  As he anxiously approaches death and judgment, Job likens the fleeting days of his life to such swift ships.  They appear suddenly and just as suddenly vanish over the horizon, and ships of desire is therefore a symbols of the vanities that distract us, Martha-like, from pursuit of the one needful thing.

The phrase “apes and peacocks” is an allusion to 2 Chronicles 9:21 and 1 Kings 10:22, in which we are told that the ships of Solomon went once every three years to Tarshish, and returned with “gold, and silver, ivory, and peacocks,” not to mention some jabbering “monkeys.”  Scripture does not say what Solomon gave in exchange for these luxuries, but we should notice that they are all symbols of the vain and spurious “profits” by which a man is rewarded when he loses his soul to the world.

Gold and silver are glittering metals for which men gladly spill innocent blood; apes and monkeys are a means to buffoonish amusement; the peacock is a symbol of strutting pride.  Ships of Tarshish is therefore, I suggest, a synecdoche of folderol, fripperies and foolish things, and more particularly of the tinsel for which we men eagerly sell our souls.

As the hourglass of our life runs down, we impatiently scan the horizon for the sails of the triannual fleet, eagerly anticipating another stupefying cargo of blood-soaked metal, buffoonish apes, and fancy feathers to put in our hair.  Gilpin indeed uses the image of windblown feathers to depict the tomfoolery in which we squander our days, as one by one, like ships of desire, they vanish over the horizon.

“He that knows that there is one thing necessary, and yet suffers himself to be diverted from the pursuit of that, by ‘troubling himself about many things,’ is more justly chargeable with folly, than he that neglects his estate, and finds himself no other employment but to pursue feathers in the wind.”

While Solomon gathered the glories that Jesus compared so unfavorably with the simple lilies of the field, we must remember that his kingdom was corrupted by idolatry, foreign blood, and the insidious cause of its eventual captivity.

Beware! Beware! the Ships of Tarshish!

* * * * *

It is generally agreed that the Tarshish of scripture is what the Greeks called Tartessus, in what is now Spanish Andalusia.  Ships of Tarshish were therefore Phoenician vessels that sailed west over the Mediterranean from Tyre, and it was from one of these Ships of Tarshish that the prophet Jonah was so famously thrown into the jaws of the whale.  Hiram was the king of Tyre, and the “servants of Hiram” who manned Solomon’s Ships of Tarshish were therefore sailors on loan to Solomon from the Phoenician merchant marine.

This long raised a difficulty for biblical exegetes since Solomon’s ships of Tarshish are said to have sailed from Ezion-geber, now known as Akaba, at the head of the Red Sea. 

Some exegetes have attempted to remove this difficulty by proposing a portage or primitive canal at Suez, others by proposing a circumnavigation of Africa, but the best solution is to suppose that the appellation “ship of Tarshish” was given to any vessel that was sufficiently seaworthy to undertake a long voyage to a distant land.  The great German geographer Carl Ritter explained that the appellation “ship of Tarshish” likely meant in Solomon’s day what “East Indiaman” meant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.*  A voyage from Europe to the East Indies was the longest voyage possible, and an East Indiaman was therefore a ship capable of making the longest possible voyage.  Thus “ships of Tarshish” and “ships of Hiram” likely meant ships as seaworthy as those that sailed to Tarshish in Spain.

Another possibility is that Tarshish had become a generic Phoenician term for the most remote regions to which the Phoenicians could sail, and was therefore a geographical signifier synonymous with Ultima Thule or the ends of the earth.  Indeed the Phoenicians may have called their Carthaginian colony Tarshish before they extended their geographic horizon to Andalusia, beyond the Pillars of Hercules.  This may be the reason why we are told in Genesis that Tarshish was the name of the grandson of Noah who settled his people in the utmost west (Genesis 10:4).

* * * * *

When Hiram’s servant’s sailed Solomon’s ships from Ezion-geber, they no doubt sailed down the Red Sea and on to the utmost east.  This utmost east was at first the south coast of Arabia, in what is now Yemen, where mountains bring rain to what would otherwise be a desert land.  The Romans later call this mountain oasis Felix Arabia, to distinguish it from the unhappy Arabia farther north.

It was from this Felix Arabia that the Queen of Sheba came with her caravan of gold and spices to make inquiries of wise King Solomon, and it was to Felix Arabia that Solomon no doubt first sent his Ships of Tarshish.  Ophir may thus have been the Old Testament name of Felix Arabia, although many have argued that Ophir lay much farther off, near the mouth of the Indus or on the shore of Mozambique.  One writer has plausibly suggested that Ophir may simply have been a name for lands that lay far to the east, since Ophir first appears as the name of a great-great grandson of Noah who settled in that quarter of the earth.

Thus Ophir, like Tarshish, is a name for all distant lands to which men have sailed to find pearls of great price but little value.  Ophir is therefore another symbol that suggests, like Ships of Tarshish, that Solomon in all his glory was not so very wise.

* * * * *

It was Isaiah who first prophesied that Ships of Tarshish are an evil omen because they cary in their holds the luxurious dainties that presage ruin.  Bayard Taylor was developing Isaiah’s theme when he wrote the lines of my second epigraph.

“Howl, howl, ye ships of Tarshish! The glory is laid waste:
There is no habitation; the mansions are defaced.”

7 thoughts on “Beware! Beware! the Ships of Tarshish!

  1. Yemen and Israel – well, Syria anyway, Israel being then still a young regional power – had long known well of each other by Solomon’s day. The myrrh and frankincense grown only in Yemen and over in Eritrea had been important ingredients in temple incense all over the ancient Near East for centuries by then. The Hebrews were no exception.

    Myrrh was incredibly valuable; perhaps the most valuable commodity in the ancient world. Not only is it a mild entheogen (thus its use in incense), but it has many medicinal applications.

    The ancient myrrh trade route runs (as I recall) from Yemen up the western shore of the Arabian Peninsula. When it reaches the Gulf of Arabia, it splits: one branch runs off to the West and up the Gulf of Suez toward Egypt, the other heads north up the Great Rift Valley from Ezion Geber toward the head waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

    There was regular ship traffic up and down the Red Sea and on down the African coast, too.

    How far did this traffic extend? There is a tribe of very black Africans down near South Africa somewhere who have always maintained that they are Jewish. Sure enough, they carry Kohanite genes. Of course, they could have got to South Africa from the sizable Jewish colony at Elephantine Island, far up the Nile Valley.

    We moderns badly underestimate sea travel in the ancient world. The Romans maintained a garrison at Goa to protect their merchants; nicotine has been found in Pharaonic skeletons. And there was for thousands of years a sea going culture that stretched at least from Britain (possibly even Scandinavia) down to Mauritania. The Phoenicians and Greeks must have encountered them; both had trading entrepots and colonies dotting the western Mediterranean littoral. Thus a ship of Tarsus might have been a ship that traveled from Palestine to Tartessus, there to trade Levantine goods (Myrrh? Saffron?) for precious goods brought up from West Africa.

  2. “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

    I have always understood ψυχὴν in Matt 16:26 as “life,” a meaning common in Matthew –

    ζητοῦντες τὴν ψυχὴν τοῦ παιδίου – those who sought the Child’s life – Matt 2:20

    Οὐχὶ ἡ ψυχὴ πλεῖόν ἐστιν τῆς τροφῆς – Is not life more important than food? – Matt 6:25

    We find it in all four evangelists –

    ἀπολέσει τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἕνεκεν – Loses his Life for my sake – Mk 8:35

    εἶπεν ταύτῃ τῇ νυκτὶ τὴν ψυχήν σου ἀπαιτοῦσιν ἀπὸ σοῦ – this night do they require your life of you– Lk 12:20

    καλὸς τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ τίθησιν – Lay down his life for the sheep – Jn 10:11

    It comes from the verb ψύχω – to blow, breath on, hence to cool, as in blowing on a spoonful of soup. Similarly, the Latin word, anima is a cognate of Greek ἄνεμος meaning “wind” or “breeze.” They both come from the same Indo-european root.

    Thus, the root meaning of ψυχή is something like “breath of life” and it came to mean life in the concrete sense, the thing one loses on death. Every schoolboy knows (or used to know) the line where Homer describes Achilles pursuing Hector around the walls of Troy:

    ἀλλὰ περὶ ψυχῆς θέον Ἕκτορος ἱπποδάμοιο – They ran for Hector’s life [ψυχῆς] (Il 22 161)

    In Acts 7:14, ἀποστείλας δὲ Ἰωσὴφ μετεκαλέσατο Ἰακὼβ τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ πᾶσαν τὴν συγγένειαν ἐν ψυχαῖς ἑβδομήκοντα πέντε – And Joseph sent and called down to him his father Jacob and all [his] kindred, seventy-five souls – It obviously just means individuals or people but this is a Hebraism, not found in Classical Greek).

    • Owen Barfield discusses this in his book Poetic Diction, and there argues that the ancients still treated breath and soul as a unitary concept. Your reading of Matthew would seem to be a counsel of cowardice. In any case it makes no sense since you can’t gain the world if you are dead. It clearly implies loss of something other than physiological function.

  3. “Alas, we but chase feathers flying in the air, and tire our own spirits,

    for the froth and over-gilded clay of a dying life.

    One sight of what my Lord hath let me see within this short time,

    is worth a world of worlds.”

    -Samuel Rutherford


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