The Great Sea

SEA, THE GREAT (הַיָּ֥ם הַגָּדֹ֖ול). The Mediterranean Sea is so designated throughout much of the OT, beginning in Numbers 34:6, 7. Clearly, the modern name of Mediterranean, suggesting the sea’s central position in the known world, would have been completely unsuitable to the Israelites; for them, the sea was the western limit of their world and, indeed, gave them their word for W (q.v.). At the same time, the Mediterranean was “great” by contrast with the narrower Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba; it is 400 m. from the Nile Delta across to the southern coast of Asia Minor, and over 1000 m. from the Levant Coast across the sea’s eastern basin to Sicily.

The eastern Mediterranean was, however, never familiar to the Israelites; its trade routes were dominated first by the Minoans of Crete, and then by the Phoenicians who, operating from their harbor bases of Tyre and Sidon, established trading posts and colonies along the whole length of the sea, as far as the Straits of Gibraltar. From about the 15th cent. b.c. until they were displaced by the Rom. power, the Phoenicians held the key to the Levant Coast.

Some impression of the life and traffic of the Great Sea under the Romans can be obtained from the Acts of the Apostles, and esp. the journeys of Paul. Rome organized imperial trade routes for drawing upon the resources of its provinces around the Mediterranean shores. These and the coastal shipping routes between the ports of Asia Minor and the Levant, as well as those to the islands like Crete, Cyprus, and Rhodes, provided Paul with easy and relatively fast means of travel on most of his journeys, and some of the habits of the Mediterranean sailor can be learned from Luke’s record of those journeys.

Although land-bound, the Mediterranean is certainly large enough to generate fierce storms. In winter, these are caused by the passage of depressions along the sea from W to E, drawing in cold air from the N behind them. In summer, the out-blowing winds from the Arabian desert can attain considerable force as they cross the coast of Pal., and easterly gales therefore occur off-shore to inconvenience shipping.