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Great Sea

From the Tell of Joppa looking north toward Tel Aviv.

GREAT SEA (הַיָּם הַגָּדֹ֔ל). A Biblical name for the sea that lies between the European and African continents; better known as the Mediterranean Sea.

The Mediterranean is 2,196 m. in length from Gibraltar to the Lebanon coast and varies in width from c. 600 m. to 100 m. with a maximum depth of c. 2.7 m. It is the main existing fragment of a great ocean called by geologists Tethys that existed at least from the late Carboniferous period to early Tertiary times. Because it is largely an enclosed sea, its saline content is abnormally high. Its divisions include the Aegean, Ionian, Adriatic, Tyrrhenian, and Ligurian seas. Only a narrow strip along the Palestinian coast receives any appreciable amount of rainfall, and the rapid transition to arid desert country is quite pronounced in the E and on the S.

Many great Mediterranean civilizations of ancient times were maritime powers (Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans) but seafaring and sea-trading played almost no part at all in Israel’s history and economy. In spite of the long coastline, the sea exerted only a marginal influence on Israel. This fact may best be explained by the absence of good harbors along the Palestinian coastline. There have been a few harbors of relative importance along the coast, e.g., Ashkelon, Dor, Joppa, and Acco, but a large part of the shoreline, particularly in the S, is backed by a strip of shifting sand, sometimes several m. in width, that blocks the approach to the shore. By contrast, the coastline of Syria played an important part in the development of that area, for there are many excellent natural harbors along the Syro-Phoenician coast. Therefore, maritime trade was highly developed there even in the most ancient periods. Byblos was a noted maritime power in the third and second millennia and Canaanite Tyre and Sidon during the early centuries of the first millennium b.c.

Solomon built a fleet of ships at Eziongeber on the Red Sea and operated it with the assistance of the Phoenicians (1 Kings 9:26, 27). Jehoshaphat’s fleet was wrecked at Eziongeber (22:48). However, the Hebrews never did undertake a similar venture on the Mediterranean.

The cosmic sources of water that were conceived in mythological imagery to be dragons are absent in the Genesis account of Creation, so little was the influence of the sea on the Hebrews. Though tehom (deep) (Gen 1:2) may be related etymologically with tiamat (dragon), there is no direct derivation or association implied. Several scriptures make it clear that the Hebrews believed that God had absolute power over the seas (Ps 89:9; Isa 23:11; Jonah 1:4, 9).

In the early Christian era, the Mediterranean world was ruled by Rome. Her supremacy in the W was established by the defeat of Hannibal of Carthage in the battle of Zama in 202 b.c. In the E, conquest by Pompey in 63 b.c. made the Mediterranean (as the Romans liked to call it) “Our Sea.” Under the rule of Augustus (d. a.d. 14) and his successors, the Mediterranean world experienced for two centuries the Pax Romana, a period of peace which it had never had before or has enjoyed since.


W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (1942), 148, 149; J Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past (1946), 209, 210; H. G. Wells, The Outline of History (1949), see Index; T. Herdman, “Mediterranean Sea,” EBr, XV (1957), 209; M. Noth, The History of Israel (1960), 13; Y. Aharoni, The Land of the Bible (1967), 9, 16.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(ha-yam ha-gadhol):

1. Names of the Sea:

2. Israel and the Sea:

It bulked large in the minds of the landsmen--for Israel produced few mariners--impressing itself upon their speech, so that "seaward" was the common term for "westward" (Ex 26:22; Jos 5:1, etc.). Its mystery and wonder, the raging of the storm, and the sound of "sorrow on the sea," borne to their upland ears, infected them with a strange dread of its wide waters, to which the seer of Patmos gave the last Scriptural expression in his vision of the new earth, where "the sea is no more" (Re 21:1).

3. The Coast Line:

Along the coast lay the tribal territories assigned to Asher, Zebulun, Manasseh, Da and Judah. Many of the cities along the shore they failed to possess, however, and much of the land. The coast line offered little facility for the making of harbors. The one seaport of which in ancient times the Hebrews seem to have made much use was Joppa--the modern Jaffa (2Ch 2:16, etc.). From this place, probably, argosies of Solomon turned their prows westward. Here, at least, "ships of Tarshish" were wont to set out upon their adventurous voyages (Jon 1:3). The ships on this sea figure in the beautiful vision of Isaiah (60:8 f).

See Acco; Joppa.

4. The Sea in the New Testament:

The boy Jesus, from the heights above Nazareth, must often have looked on the waters of the great sea, as they broke in foam on the curving shore, from the roots of Carmel to the point at Acre. Once only in His journeyings, so far as we know, did He approach the sea, namely on His ever-memorable visit to the "borders of Tyre and Sidon" (Mt 15:21; Mr 7:24). The sea, in all its moods, was well known to the great apostle of the Gentiles. The three shipwrecks, which he suffered (2Co 11:25), were doubtless due to the power of its angry billows over the frail craft of those old days.

See Paul.

5. Debt of Palestine to the Sea:

The land owes much to the great sea. During the hot months of summer, a soft breeze from the water springs up at dawn, fanning all the seaward face of the Central Range. At sunset the chilled air slips down the slopes and the higher strata drift toward the uplands, charged with priceless moisture, giving rise to the refreshing dews which make the Palestinian morning so sweet.