Much like the garden of Eden, the location of the place called Tarshish in the Bible has become shrouded in mystery over time. The word Tarshish is mentioned over 25 times in Scripture, yet few geographical clues are found in these references to help pinpoint the location, and some of them actually seem to contradict each other. The earliest mention of Tarshish occurs in what is commonly called the Table of Nations, the Israelites’ oldest catalog of the peoples of the ancient Near East (Genesis 10:4; 1 Chronicles 1:7). Tarshish is then mentioned by various biblical writers from the time of Solomon to the time of the Babylonian exile. Some passages suggest Tarshish was located in the Mediterranean Sea (Jonah 1:3), while other passages seem to suggest that it could be reached by way of the Red Sea (1 Kings 22:48; 2 Chronicles 20:36-37). A few references indicate that Tarshish was located far from Israel (Isaiah 66:19) along a sea coast, perhaps on an island (Psalm 72:10). The prophet Ezekiel noted that Tarshish traded silver, iron, tin, and lead (Ezekiel 27:12; see also Jeremiah 10:9). Finally, numerous passages speak of “ships of Tarshish” in various contexts and locations (1 Kings 10:22; 22:48; 2 Chronicles 9:21; 20:36-37; Psalm 48:7; Isaiah 2:16; 23:1-14; 60:9; Ezekiel 27:25). Outside of the Bible, a 9th-century B.C. stone tablet from the city of Nora in Sardinia appears to mention Tarshish. The inscription seems to be saying that a certain official had either been coming from Tarshish or was intending to go to Tarshish but was driven to Nora instead. Perhaps a first step to gaining more clarity about the location of Tarshish is to address the frequently used term “ships of Tarshish.” Given the many varied uses of this phrase in Scripture, most scholars now believe it likely referred to a class of ships built for conveying large amounts of goods over long voyages, rather than to the ships’ origin or destination. Thus newer translations often render this phrase as “trading ships.” A second step in identifying where Tarshish was likely located is to investigate its association with tin, silver, and lead–all of which were rare commodities in the ancient world that originated from a limited number of sources. The term Tarshish is likely derived from a Phoenician term meaning “smelting place,” and there were no doubt several such places in the ancient world that derived their name from this word, including Tarsus (in Cilicia), Tharros (in Sardinia), and Tartessos (in Spain). Based on the location of related peoples, it is likely that the Tarshish mentioned in the Table of Nations was located at Tarsus. But isotopic analysis of silver samples found in Israel has confirmed that by the time of Solomon much of Israel’s silver was likely coming from Tharros, so it is possible that the term Tarshish at that time referred to Tharros. Soon after this, however, the primary supplier of silver for Israel shifted further west to Spain, perhaps at a place called Tartessos. Several deposits of tin were also located in Spain and areas further north, bolstering the argument that by this time Tartessos had become the location that later biblical writers meant by the term Tarshish. But then what about 2 Chronicles 20:36-37, which, when more literally translated, seems to insist that King Jehoshaphat was building ships at Ezion-geber on the Red Sea with the intent of sailing to Tarshish? Some scholars have suggested that the Chronicler must have mistaken the phrase “ships of Tarshish” in 1 Kings 22:48 as indicating the destination of the ships. This critical view typically also assumes that Tarshish was located in the Mediterranean Sea, making the Chronicler doubly mistaken. But, in fact, it may be that the term Tarshish, while typically associated with known smelting centers in the Mediterranean Sea, was ultimately a generic term for any smelting place, and thus this passage may be using this term to reference the gold smelting centers at Ophir at the southern end of the Red Sea.

Map adapted from information provided by Vasiliki Kassianidou and Arthur Knapp. Archaeometallurgy in the Mediterranean: The Social Context of Mining, Technology, and Trade. (2008) 10.1002/9780470773536.ch9.

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