What country was the Biblical “Tarshish?”

On Tarshish

The first time I looked into what country Tarshish was, I was convinced it was some ineffable mystery – not because the content of the Bible was confusing, or the historical identification was confusing, but just because every single article I read on the subject, from the Wikipedia page to academic texts, presented it as some sort of esoteric unsolved question.

As a start, the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and the Targum of Jonathan render Tarshish as Carthage. This text makes the case that Tarshish is Carthage, I will be upfront about that and not dance around the subject. I think the Tarshish controversy has to be one of the most artificial controversies that exist, yet the inability of academia to settle on a consensus persists.

Here is the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s article on Tarshish:

Tarshish occurs in the Hebrew Bible with several uncertain meanings, most frequently as a place (probably a large city or region) far across the sea from Phoenicia (modern Lebanon) and the Land of Israel. Tarshish is currently the name of a village in the Mount Lebanon District of Lebanon. Tarshish was said to have exported vast quantities of important metals to Phoenicia and Israel. The same place-name occurs in the Akkadian inscriptions of Esarhaddon (the Assyrian king, d. 669 BC) and also on the Phoenician inscription of the Nora Stone in Sardinia; its precise location was never commonly known, and was eventually lost in antiquity. Legends grew up around it over time so that its identity has been the subject of scholarly research and commentary for more than two thousand years.

The Jewish Encyclopedia States:

Josephus (“Ant.” i. 6, § 1), apparently reading “Tarshush,” identifies it with Tarsus in Cilicia. This identification was adopted by Bunsen and Sayce (“Expository Times,” 1902, p. 179); but it seems from Assyrian inscriptions that the original Hebrew name of Tarsus was not “Tarshush.” Bochart (in his “Phaleg”), followed by many later scholars, identifies Tarshish with Tartessus, mentioned by Herodotus and Strabo as a district of southern Spain; he thinks, moreover, that “Tartessus” is the Aramaic form of “Tarshish.” On the other hand, Le Page Renouf (“Proc. Soc. Bibl. Arch.” xvi. 104 et seq.) refutes this theory, declaring besides that Tartessus never really existed. Renouf’s opinion is that “Tarshish” means a coast, and, as the word occurs frequently in connection with Tyre, the Phenician coast is to be understood. Cheyne thinks that “Tarshish” of Gen. x. 4, and “Tiras” of Gen. x. 2, are really two names of one nation derived from two different sources, and might indicate the Tyrsenians or Etruscans. Thus the name may denote Italy or the European coasts west of Greece.

Encyclopedia Britanica doesn’t have an entry for Tarshish, instead including Tarshish in the definition of Tartessus, as they have concluded Tarshish must be Tartessus in Spain:

Tartessus, ancient region and town of the Guadalquivir River valley in southwestern Spain, probably identical with the Tarshish mentioned in the Bible. It prospered from trade with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians but was probably destroyed by the latter about 500 BC. The exact site of the town is not known, but archaeological evidence suggests it may have been near present-day Sevilla.

Why can’t scholars agree on the location? I can’t explain the lack of commitment, but I can demonstrate here that Tarshish is the region that we now call Carthage, because the explicit descriptions in the Old Testament are very clear as to Tarshish, and of course the intentions of the Biblical authors are what we are discussing here, since we are discussing a location named in the Bible, and the vast majority of references to Tarshish are in the Bible.

As a start, we can eliminate any region not associated with Tyre or Sidon. This is because of the countless references to Tarshish specifically within the context of Tyre or Sidon.

As a non-exhaustive account.

There is the Prophecy Against Tyre of Isaiah 23, which contains the following references to Tarshish interlaced throughout the text:

A prophecy against Tyre
Wail, you ships of Tarshish!

Cross over to Tarshish;
    wail, you people of the island.
Is this your city of revelry,
    the old, old city,
whose feet have taken her
    to settle in far-off lands?

Till your land as they do along the Nile,
    Daughter Tarshish,
    for you no longer have a harbour.

Wail, you ships of Tarshish;
    your fortress is destroyed!

Then there is the building of Solomon’s Temple, where King Solomon is recorded as having ships of Tarshish at sea with the King of Tyre, King Hiram’s fleet. 1 Kings 10:22 and 2 Chronicles 9:22 list similar products:

For the fleet of Tarshish belonged to the king and was on the sea with the fleet of Hiram; once every three years the fleet of Tarshish used to come carrying gold and silver, ivory, apes, and baboons.

Once every three years the ships of Tarshish came carrying gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.

Please note that I have checked the original Hebrew interlinears, and gold, silver, ivory, and apes are direct and uncontested translations, but peacocks has this footnote “The meaning of this word is unclear; some suggest it refers to “baboons.” NEB has “monkeys,” NASB, NRSV “peacocks,” and NIV “baboons.” so we will consider a location with access to gold, silver, ivory and apes as certain and peacocks or baboons as a bonus.

This is key, since not all locations have ivory, especially alongside gold and silver and apes and peacocks. We can also discern the probability that Tarshish ships are Phoenician ships, as the Phoenicians at that time were undoubtedly the most advanced shipbuilders specifically, being known for it, and are credited with inventing the keel, double oar boats, the battering ram on the bow, caulking between planks, establishing vast coastal colonies. As King Solomon was great allies with King Hiram, and the Israelites were an agrarian people rather than maritime, it is most likely, but not really necessary to the identification, that these “ships of Tarshish” Solomon sent with Hirams fleet are Phoenician ships.

Then there is Ezekiel 27, which contains a “A lament over Tyre” in which many nations are named, but Tarshish is named first of the merchants of Tyre.

“The ships of Tarshish were carriers of your merchandise.
You were filled and very glorious in the midst of the seas.

Of course we would be remiss to not mention that the mythological geneology of Tarshish, given the exact same in Genesis 10:4 and 1 Chronicles 1:7, reads:

And the sons of Javan; Elishah, and Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim.

While the locations of the other nations mentioned are not universally agreed upon either, all of the most likely locations given for each other nation mentioned, either were or contained a prominent Phoenician colony.

Kition, correlated with Kittim, on Cyprus, was a Phoenician colony, and In the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Kittim are referred to as being “of Asshur,” a tribe who’s original borders extended far into modern day Lebanon. Kittion was the founder of Carthage’s first stop from Tyre, before going to Carthage.

Elishah was associated with Alashiya; “Scholars have often identified Elishah with Cypriots, as in ancient times the island of Cyprus or part of it was known as Alashiya. Alashiya is a distinctly Phoenician name, the exact name of Alashiya, the Queen of Tyre who founded the city of Carthage, who the locals called Dido. Alashiya named Carthage “Qarthadasht”, or “New City.”

Dodanim was associated with Dardania in Illyria as in Genesis Rabbah, and according to the foundation mythology of Illyria quoted by Apollodorus, “Illyrius was a founder of Illyrian genus. Illyrius was a son of Phoenician Cadmus and his wife Harmonia. By the orders of his father Agenor (the king of the Phoenicia) Cadmus had to go to search his sister…”

That is every other name listed alongside Tarshish being associated with a Phoenician colony, two of the three visited by the same woman who founded Carthage, and the third with a Phoenician origin story. The countless contextualizations would perhaps be enough to make a great guess, but the genealogy speaks for itself.

As a sidenote, Norah Stone, which mentions Tarshish, also contains a possible reference to Queen Alashiya’s brother, Pygmalion of Tyre. “A possible reference to Pygmalion of Tyre is inferred by an interpretation of the fragmentary inscription, made by Frank Moore Cross…”

To the next step of this process of elimination, we go to 1 Kings 9, where there is another location given as being the location Hiram and Solomon derived wealth from, Ophir, mentioned in very similar context:

26 King Solomon also built ships at Ezion Geber, which is near Elath in Edom, on the shore of the Red Sea. 27 And Hiram sent his men—sailors who knew the sea—to serve in the fleet with Solomon’s men. 28 They sailed to Ophir and brought back 420 talents of gold, which they delivered to King Solomon.

And 1 Kings 10:11, where the navy of Hiram is specified as those related to Ophir.

And the navy also of Hiram, that brought gold from Ophir, brought in from Ophir great plenty of almug trees, and precious stones.

Ophir is in the table of nations, which lists all the nations known to the authors of the Old Testament.

Joktan’s sons in the order provided in Genesis 10:26-29, were Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Obal, Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab.

All of these peoples, at least every one that is identified, many are not, are from the African continent – remember that is for Ophir.

Tarshish is summed up in relation to African locations when referring to proximity and personifying the nations as peoples close together, consistent with a colony in Africa, although of course Ophir was perhaps a nearby African city, and Carthage itself was very African, the colony at that time being one of trade without displaced peoples, Carthage is being used here to designate the general geographic location. Some examples:

Ezekiel 38:12-14

Sheba and Dedan and the merchants of Tarshish and all her villages will say to you, ‘Have you come to plunder? 

Psalm 22:

May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!

Psalm 72:10

The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.

Isaiah 66:19

And I will set a sign among them, and I will send those that escape of them unto the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, that draw the bow, to…

Pul is in north Africa and Lud is in North Africa.

So we have eliminated locations not associated with both Phoenicia and Africa, or at least, rendered them unlikely in the extreme.

The colonies that became Carthage were the most important and earliest of the Phoenician colonies in Africa. There being no other Phoenician colony established in Africa of note that survived from that particular narrow time period, and no African colonies in Phoenicia at that time, and a strong Phoenician-African association being required, I will now proceed to the conclusion that Carthage is the only suitable option, incorporating the other descriptions of course.

We know that any location must have gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. For ivory, we know they come from elephants, rhinos, hippos (if you are brave…), walruses, warthogs, sperm whales, and narwhals. So we’re able to eliminate whales and narwhals right away, this being a location on land, walruses do not make sense geographically, which leaves us with elephants, rhinos, hippos, and warthogs.

Asia has elephants, but we can rule Asia out because multiple bible verses give a western location for Tarshash, that is to say west of Canaan and Israel, and it’s also specified as being on the shores of the Mediterranean coast. Europe used to have elephants, but they were extinct far before earliest estimates of Solomon, 10’s of thousands of years ago.

With the exception of the Cyprus dwarf elephants, which went extinct in 11,000 BC, there were no elephants on the islands either.

Gold and silver are so general, and the mining of it so well attested in countless areas around the Mediterranean, that I will consider that neutral, not counting towards any one location, although Africa was very rich in gold and silver, but most candidates for Tarshish are.

That leaves us with apes, who to my knowledge were not native to most of Europe. The only European monkeys, not apes, living in the wild today are the Barbary macaque population of Gibraltar, which is the only such population outside Northern Africa, but it’s introduced not native.

So only in the Phoenician colony of Africa do we find all the products that were reported to be brought back from Tarshish in a western, coastal location. All other options only remain options until we think about the four criteria, that it is it is far away west of Israel, on the coast, it has the correct animals and metals, and it is associated with both Africa and Phoenicia.

I think it plain that the location of Tarshish was Carthage, Ophir being in all probability a nearby African city. Perhaps of note and as a fun direction to speculate in, the latin word for Carthaginian was phonetically identical to Ophir, it was pronounced Afer. As noted by Etymology Online, in it’s Africa entry:

Latin Africa “African land, Libya, the Carthaginian territory, the province of Africa; Africa as a continent,” fem. of adjective Africus, from Afer “an African,” a word of uncertain origin. The Latin word originally was used only in reference to the region around modern Tunisia; it gradually was extended to the whole continent.

Afer is phonetically Ophir, and Afer used to refer to Carthaginians, before being expanded to the entire continent, the origin of the term Africa.

So, why would the early Jewish texts, who had pen put to paper in 500BC as an early estimate, refer to Tarshish and Ophir rather than much more obvious names for the same exact places, that would have prevented this confusion?

Remember Alashiya, the founder of Carthage?

Well, the writers of the Old Testament would have known all about her – Alashiya was the daughter of the King of Tyre, and in those times the King of Tyre was the King of Sidon and parts of Cyprus, having conquered them.

That makes Alashiya, the founder of Carthage and most other Phoenician colonies, a very close relative of Jezebel.

Jezebel was the extremely unpopular, in Judah, wife to King Ahab of Judah, mother of King Ahaziah of Judah and King Jehoram of Judah. Even if the founding of Carthage happened in a different way or in a different time than the common foundation story, regardless the association between Jezebel and her family was absolute, and would have had an enormous impact on how Judah wanted to include Carthage in the history of Judah. The avoidance of more common names, that were explicitly associated with the close family of their hated Jezebel, seems logical. Jezebel was in these same texts said to have been a prostitute, who was thrown out of her window by castrated priests and eaten by dogs upon impact, it seems a sober explanation that they used names that were less explicitly associated with her family, when discussing Solomon’s wealth. This lends strength to the truths in the Old Testament – the writers may have hated Jezebel and the King’s of Judah she birthed, and such a detail as where Solomon got rich could have been changed or excluded, but it was retained, with naught but a less common name used.

I don’t think that Judean scribes would have preferred to name a city permanently and recently associated with Jezebel’s family and the family of Ahaziah or Jehoram as important to the history of Israel. Yet they were true in their explanation and I think here the truth is clear with a little logic.

I imagine in their times it was not confusing at all, being familiar themselves with whatever term they did use, it’s only in modern times some are left scratching their heads. I hope that I was able to clear up any confusion, much of the history of the Old Testament is a mystery, we need not invent new ones.

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