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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Joseph Is Sold into Slavery

Genesis 37

The well known story of Joseph and his brothers opens with his family living in the area of Hebron in the land of Canaan. After many years spent elsewhere, Joseph’s father Jacob had returned to Hebron (Genesis 35:27-29), for that was where Jacob’s father Isaac had settled and where Isaac’s father Abraham had purchased some land to serve as the family burial place (Genesis 23). Joseph’s brothers had gone to Shechem far north of Hebron to graze the family flocks, but apparently Joseph stayed behind. Joseph had earlier angered his brothers and even his father by telling them about some dreams he had that seemed to suggest they would all bow to him one day. Jacob eventually sent Joseph to Shechem to check on his brothers. When he arrived, he did not find his brothers, but another man told him that he overhead his brothers saying that they should go to Dothan. As Joseph was approaching Dothan, his brothers saw him and plotted to kill him, but the oldest brother, Reuben, persuaded them only to throw him into an empty cistern. As the brothers sat down to eat their meal, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelite traders coming from Gilead on their way to Egypt. Their camels were loaded down with gum, balm, and myrrh, which matches Jeremiah’s later association of Gilead with balm and medicinal ointments (Jeremiah 8:22; 46:11). The traders were no doubt making their way to the international trade route that passed near the coast. So instead of killing Joseph, his brothers sold him to the traders, whom the story now refers to as “Midianites.” Both Ishmaelites and Midianites were largely nomadic peoples, and it may be that the term Midianites could be used to refer to any transient group of people, such as a trade caravan. After the Midianites reached Egypt they sold Joseph to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.

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The Empire of Alexander the Great

Though the conquests of Alexander the Great are barely mentioned in the Old Testament and never mentioned in the New Testament, the eventual impact of his accomplishments upon the world of the New Testament can hardly be overstated. Alexander was born in 356 B.C. in Macedonia, a region in northern Greece that had formerly been subjugated by the Persians from 512 B.C. to 479 B.C. In 336 B.C. at the age of 20 Alexander assumed the throne of Macedonia from his father Philip II, and he immediately united all of Greece under his rule and launched a 10 year campaign with his army to overthrow the entire Persian Empire–a feat he accomplished without losing a single battle to the Persians. Technically speaking, Alexander lived between the Old and New Testament eras, but the prophet Daniel had foretold of Alexander’s actions in chapters 8 and 11 of his book. During his conquests, Alexander passed through Palestine on his way to Egypt, and the cities of Tyre and Gaza made futile attempts to stop him, thereby suffering devastating consequences for their resistance. The high priest of Judea, however, openly submitted to Alexander’s rule and spared the nation from destruction at his hands. Alexander continued his victorious campaign eastward through Babylon, Persepolis, Ecbatana, and Kabul, eventually bringing virtually the entire Persian domain under his rule. After reaching what was called India by the Greeks, Alexander’s army refused to continue pushing eastward, so Alexander was forced to begin the long journey home to Macedonia with his army. Along the way, however, Alexander died in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon in 323 B.C., and his empire was eventually divided among his generals. The impact of Alexander’s actions, however, lived far beyond his death. Besides founding or renaming over 20 cities with the name Alexandria (those most famous being the one in Egypt), Alexander united the entire eastern world under a common language, a simplified form of Greek called Koine. Eventually this led to a new translation of the Old Testament in Koine Greek (the Septuagint), and the New Testament was written in Koine Greek as well, because by that time it had become the most widely spoken language throughout the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Over the following centuries, many of these eastern peoples also adopted Greek values and beliefs in a process commonly called Hellenization (from Hellas, the ancient name of Greece). Many Jews in Palestine and throughout the eastern world were among those who adopted Hellenistic lifestyles and beliefs as well, often mixing them together with more traditional beliefs and practices of Judaism. Over time tensions in Palestine increased between traditional Jews and Hellenistic Jews, eventually erupting into open conflict under the leadership of Mattathias Maccabeus and his sons.

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Mount Tabor and Its Surrounding Tribal Boundaries

Among the gentle foothills of Lower Galilee stands the distinctly recognizable peak called Mount Tabor, which many scholars believe was a common cultic center for the surrounding tribes during the time of the Old Testament (see Deuteronomy 33:18-19). As such, Tabor does not appear to have been included within any of the tribes’ allotted territory (see Joshua 19), although three of the tribes bordered it. Tabor was also the location where Deborah and Barak attacked the forces of Sisera and King Jabin of Hazor (Judges 4-5) and where Gideon’s brothers were later slaughtered by the Midianites (Judges 8:18-19). Later, it seems that the cultic activities at Tabor must have devolved into pagan idolatry, leading the prophet Hosea to denounce the worship practices there (Hosea 5:1). Yet despite the clear significance that Mount Tabor held throughout the Old Testament, the location of various sites surrounding it have become obscured over time. When Deborah sent for Barak, he was living in Kedesh-naphtali (Judges 4:6), which some have sought to locate at Khirbet Qedesh a few miles southeast of Khirbet ad-Damiya (Adami-nekeb) or even at Tell Kedesh much further north. But a more convincing argument can be made that Kedesh-naphtali (meaning “holy place of Naphtali”) should be located at Khirbet Kashtah just north of Mount Tabor (see further discussion here). An equally obscured location in this region is Japhia, which is mentioned only once in the Bible as part of the boundary descriptions of Zebulun (Joshua 19:12). Many scholars identify Japhia with modern Yafa, which was no doubt the Japha of Josephus’s activities during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (Life of Flavius Josephus 45; Jewish War II. xx. 6). But the identification of Yafa with Japhia is virtually impossible to reconcile with other more certain locations given in the description of Zebulun’s boundary, such as Sarid and Daberath. But this author has found a possible a solution to this confusing dilemma in the Onomasticon, where Eusebius notes that Japhia was located on the east side of Zebulun and that it was called the “Ascent of Iafo” in his time. Eusebius’s comments and Joshua’s boundary descriptions make it very unlikely that Japhia should be identified with Yafa, which is not located on the east side of Zebulun. But how then did Eusebius’s “Ascent of Iafo” and Josephus’s “Japha” (at modern Yafa) both come to bear some form of the name Japhia? The answer may be that Japhia originally referred not to a town but to the general area now called the Nazareth Ridge. Furthermore, the eastern boundary of Zebulun as it is described in Joshua 19:12-13 makes better sense if it was following what was likely Eusebius’s “Ascent of Iafo [Japhia],” shown on this map. This also coalesces very well with more literal translations of verse 13, which describe the boundary as passing “along on the east toward the sunrise to Gath-hepher” (RSV). That is, this verse is saying that the eastern border of Zebulun passed to Gath-hepher, or perhaps that the border passed to the east of Gath-hepher, or both.

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Coastal Lands of the Black Sea

Because the coastal lands of the Black Sea are mentioned infrequently and mostly indirectly in the Bible, they are often overlooked as significant contributors to the context of biblical events and passages, but careful study of Scripture reveals that the biblical writers were very aware of these people groups throughout the entire span of ancient history. The earliest mention of peoples from these lands is likely the references to Gomer and Ashkenaz in what is often called the Table of Nations in Genesis 10. Gomer probably refers to a people more widely known as the Cimmerians, and Ashkenaz probably refers to a people known otherwise as the Scythians. Until the later Old Testament, these two peoples lived primarily north of the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, and they were distantly related to each other. They were both equestrian and nomadic, and they left no written histories of themselves, though some of their culture and practices have been described by the Assyrians, the Greeks (including Herodotus), and the Romans. By the eight century B.C., large portions of these peoples had pushed south across the Caucasus Mountains and into Ararat and the region of the Halys River. Around the same time, Greek colonies began to spring up along the coasts of the Black Sea (many of which are shown here), and over the next few centuries the Scythians and the Cimmerians north of the Black Sea became increasingly hellenized. Nevertheless, ancient authors often continued to regard them as a savages, as can be seen in 2 Maccabees 4:47; 3 Maccabees 7:5; and 4 Maccabees 10:7. This stereotype is likely what Paul was seeking to renounce within the church when he noted in Colossians 3:11 that in Christ “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.” Similarly, the land of Colchis, though it is not mentioned in the Bible, was renowned in ancient times as an exotic land of immense riches and gold. The land of Pontus along the southern shore of the Black Sea was noted as one of the places from which Jews had come when Peter delivered his powerful sermon during the festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:9). Pontus was likewise listed among the addressees of Peter’s first letter (1 Peter 1:1), and it was the homeland of Aquila, a coworker of Paul (Acts 18:2). The region of Bithynia, immediately west of Pontus, was noted as one of the addressees of Peter’s first letter as well, and Paul tried to enter this region during his second missionary journey, but the Spirit of Jesus prevented him from doing so (Acts 16:7).

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