SEA (Heb. yām, Gr. thalassa). In the Bible the term is used in several ways.

1. The ocean, the gathering of the waters at the creation, is called sea (Gen.1.10; Ps.8.8; Ps.24.2).

2. Almost any body of water, salt or fresh, is called sea. The Mediterranean (Acts.10.6), the Sea of Galilee (Num.34.11; Matt.4.18), the Dead Sea (Deut.3.17), and the Red Sea (Exod.13.18; Exod.14.2) are referred to in Scripture. Obviously, not all of these would be called seas by us. Galilee is a lake, being only about twelve and a half by seven and a half miles (twenty-one by thirteen km.) in size, but it is often called a sea.

3. Even rivers may, in poetic language, be called a sea: the Nile (Isa.18.2; Isa.19.5) and the Euphrates (Isa.21.1).

4. The basin in Solomon’s temple was called a sea (see Bronze Sea).

The ancient Hebrews were not a sea people. The sea in the Bible becomes a symbol of restlessness, instability, and sin (Isa.57.20; Jer.49.23; Jas.1.6; Jude.1.13; Rev.13.1).

SEA (יָם, H3542, roar; hence applicable either to the sea or to a river, wherever the water is turbulent). By extension, Heb. uses yâm for the W (q.v.) as the direction in which the sea lay to an observer in Pal. Greek θάλασσα, G2498, sea, is general in the NT, with πέλαγος, G4283, open sea, ocean, occurring once, in Acts 27:5, in reference to the Mediterranean.

Four “seas” form the background to Biblical events, and each appears in the record under a variety of names. (1) The Red Sea, often referred to as “the sea” or “the Egyp. sea.” This was the obstacle which the Israelites had to overcome on their march out of Egypt and, once they were safely across and had watched its waters close over the pursuing Egyptians, they never returned to it; it is mentioned only once thereafter, in 1 Kings 9:26, when Solomon built a fleet and a base on the Gulf of Aqaba for trading purposes.

(2) The Mediterranean. This first appears in Exodus 23:31 as “the sea of the Philistines,” since its coastlands were held, then and for long afterward, by Israel’s rivals. In Joshua 1:4ff., it is called the Great Sea (q.v.), and this is its designation all through the topographic descriptions concerned with Israel’s settlement in the land. In Joel 2:20 and Zechariah 14:8 it is called by RSV the “western” sea (q.v.), but by KJV the “utmost” sea and the “hinder” sea in these two instances. In each of these latter cases there is an intentional contrast with the “eastern” or “former” sea—the Dead Sea on the other flank of the mountains of Judaea. Indeed, dissimilar as these two bodies of water might appear to be, the OT writers seem to have thought of Israel as somehow hemmed in between them.

(3) The Dead Sea. This appears first as the “Salt Sea” (Num 34:12) and then as “the sea of the plain” (KJV) or “the sea of Arabah” (RSV, Deut 3:17), these latter being equivalent terms (see Plain). Thereafter, RSV prefers “eastern sea,” e.g., in Joel 2:20 and in Zechariah 14:8, where KJV has “former sea.” As with Galilee (see below), the name “sea” is here given to what is in reality only a lake (cf. Caspian Sea); unlike Galilee, however, the Dead Sea has no outlet—its level is maintained by a very high rate of evaporation from its surface. This same phenomenon is responsible for its extremely salt waters, and it is contrasted frequently with the Mediterranean for the fact that no fish can live in it. One of the visions of the prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah was that its waters would one day become fresh enough to support life; hence the picture of fishermen spreading their nets at En-gedi (Ezek 47:10). Modern hydrology brings such a vision within reasonable distance of feasibility.

(4) The nodetitle. This appears in the OT as the Sea of Chinnereth (Num 34:11) or Chinneroth (Josh 12:3 et al.) and in the NT occasionally as the Sea of Tiberias, after the town of that name built on its shore by Herod Antipas, or the Lake of Gennesaret (Luke 5:1); it is suggested that the latter name may be derived from Chinnereth. Sea of Galilee is, however, its usual name in the NT.

The sea proper, as opposed to the lake, plays very little part in the Bible narrative. In the OT there are really only three naval episodes, the first when Hiram, king of Tyre, floated rafts of timber S along the Mediterranean coast to supply Solomon with materials for the Temple (1 Kings 5:9), and the second when Solomon built his Red Sea fleet (1 Kings 9:26-28), and the third when Jonah fled from the Lord (Jonah 1). The Israelites seem to have had little contact with the sea and no maritime tradition; with the Phoenicians as their near neighbors they would, in any case, prob. have been outclassed.

G. Adam Smith (HGHL) suggests that this lack of maritime interest was due to the fact that, S of Phoenicia, the coastline of Pal. offers no good natural harbors and few unimportant ones; the straight, dune-fringed coast provides no shelter. Baly (1966) points out, on the other hand, that a more valid explanation of Israel’s disinterest in the sea may be that they so seldom occupied the coastline politically. Without assured access to the sea along the Philistine coast, they had little opportunity to become seafarers. In support of this suggestion is the fact that the only two national episodes linking the nation with the sea (see above) occurred during the reign of Solomon, when the Philistines had been suppressed and Israel’s power was at its height. On the whole, the Bible views the sea as a hostile element, dangerous, and separating men from one another. It is a part of the anticipated glories of the new heaven and earth that the sea has been eliminated (Rev 21:1).


G. Adam Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land (ed. of 1966), chs. VII, VIII and XXIII; D. Baly, Geographical Companion to the Bible (1966), 74.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Yam is used of the Nile in Na 3:8 and probably also in Isa 19:5, as in modern Arabic bachr, "sea," is used of the Nile and its affluents. Yam is often used for "west" or "westward," as "look from the place where thou art, .... westward" (Ge 13:14); "western border" (Nu 34:6). Yam is used for "sea" in general (Ex 20:11); also for "molten sea" of the temple (1Ki 7:23).


In midhbar yam, "the wilderness of the sea" (Isa 21:1), there may perhaps be a reference to the Persian Gulf.

See also

  • Dead Sea