The Phoenicians: An Enigmatic People and Their Relationship with Israel

The Phoenicians: An Enigmatic People and Their Relationship with Israel

Brent Pollard

Reading about the discoveries of Biblical archaeology and how they shed light on the Bible is a fascinating hobby of mine. I read a recent article about discovering five Tartessian busts in Spain, which could shed light on people who were once close allies of Israel. Scholars considered the Tartessians aniconic because they had left behind no icons or symbols of their religion. However, among these masks, archaeologists think they might see images of the goddess Astarte. So yes, they may have discovered representations of Baal’s consort.

The Phoenicians are still shrouded in mystery. Even though scholars will reject much of the Bible’s record about Israel, they will cling to the testimony about the Phoenicians because we know so little about them. The Phoenicians were considered Canaanites, but did they come from the area or, like the Philistines, move there from somewhere else in the Mediterranean? Indeed, if these were indigenous inhabitants of the Levant or Arabia, they adapted to the sea like a duck to water, forging a maritime empire.

The Phoenicians colonized a region of Spain in addition to their colonies in northern Africa (such as Carthage). One possible origin for the name of the country is the Phoenician word “i-span-ya,” which translates as “land of gold forging” or “earth where metals are forged.” This Spanish colony returns us to the Tartessians mentioned in the first paragraph. These individuals were the product of cultural mixing between Phoenician colonists and natives of the Iberian Peninsula.

According to 1 Kings 5.1, the king of the Phoenician city-state of Tyre admired King David. King Hiram demonstrated his fondness for David by building him a palace (2 Samuel 5.11). After David’s death, Solomon still had an ally in Tyre. The Phoenicians assisted Solomon in the construction of an Israelite navy and accompanied Solomon’s men on an expedition to Ophir to obtain gold (1 Kings 9.26–28).

The fleet returned from Ophir with more than just gold; they also brought back a “very great number of almug trees and precious stones” (1 Kings 10.11 NASB1995). The Bible says King Solomon used almug wood to fashion temple pillars and musical instruments. Whatever the identity of these trees, the author of 1 Kings 10.12 states that those “trees have not come in again, nor have they been seen to this day” (NASB1995). For his part, Solomon rewarded King Hiram’s fidelity by giving him twenty cities in Galilee (1 Kings 9.11).

Solomon got his hands on goods from faraway Spain because of the alliance between Israel and Phoenicia. You can read about Solomon receiving gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks from King Hiram and the Tarshish fleet in 1 Kings 10.21–23. As a result, silver’s value plummeted because it was so abundant during Solomon’s reign. Scholars have long regarded Tarshish as Phoenicia’s most western settlement in Spain. (Would our Tartessians be inhabitants of Tarshish?) Because of Tarshish’s perceived isolation, Jonah believed he could elude God by boarding a ship headed there (Jonah 1.3).

It is interesting how Solomon used his alliance with the Phoenicians when building the Temple. 1 Kings 7 details all of the work that Solomon had one named Hiram do for the Temple. This Hiram was part Israelite, having a mother from the tribe of Naphtali, and part Phoenician, having a father from Tyre. So, though he is not King Hiram, he is a man named Hiram and a Phoenician. Could Hiram have been a common Phoenician name?

Following the breakup of Israel’s united kingdom, the ten northern tribes were renowned for their great wealth. The prophet Amos blasted them for being at ease in Zion, reclining on ivory beds, and writing songs about themselves (Amos 6.1–8). No doubt, this was a result of their continued ties with Phoenicia. Their relationship was so close that King Ahab married the daughter of the king of Sidon, another Phoenician city-state (1 Kings 16.31). Not long after our introduction to Jezebel, we find her slaughtering God’s prophets (1 Kings 18.4). 

By the time we reached the world of the New Testament, the Phoenicians had long since lost their influence. The Babylonians conquered parts of Tyre built on the mainland, leaving only the island city. The Greek conqueror Alexander the Great built a causeway to the island city using debris from the city’s destruction. After a lengthy siege, he was able to take the city in 332 BC.

When the Romans took control of the Mediterranean, they refused to share it with anyone else. As a result, the Romans and the Phoenicians, then known as Carthaginians, would fight three Punic Wars. Historians call them the Punic Wars because the Romans called the Carthaginians Puni. You’ve probably heard of Hannibal, a Carthaginian. Hannibal dared to attack the Roman Empire nearly 200 years before Christ, riding his elephants across the Alps to Rome. However, the Romans foiled his plans, and Carthage eventually fell to the Romans. By 19 BC, Rome had conquered all the remaining territories of the (Phoenician) Carthaginian empire (i.e., Spain).

In the pages of the New Testament, Phoenicia is the Roman provincial name for Syria. The place where people first called Christ’s followers “Christians” was Antioch, a town in Phoenicia (Acts 11.19). Next, Paul and Barnabas traveled back through Phoenicia to report to Jerusalem’s brethren concerning the work done among the Gentiles (Acts 15.3). Lastly, Paul’s fateful return from the third missionary journey would take him through Phoenicia (Acts 21.2).

In conclusion, the Phoenicians were pivotal figures in ancient Near Eastern history, and their impact was felt far beyond the boundaries of the Mediterranean. They were important allies of Israel and built a massive empire thanks to their knowledge of the sea. Recent archaeological discoveries, such as the Tartessian busts, shed light on their religious practices, but many aspects of their culture remain a mystery. Although the Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans ultimately defeated the Phoenicians, their impact on world history is undeniable, and their legacy lives on.

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