[Note: The following is a text for a Bible Study for the Sabbath of June 30, 2018, in the waters between Anacortes, WA and Victoria, BC.]
Today we happen to be traveling through the waters between the United States and Canada in a ferry boat. In our day-to-day lives, boats are a fairly rare form of transportation, unless we travel on ferries like this one or travel from port to port on cruise ships or are involved in logistics and the transportation of goods along the trade routes of the world. In that light, I think it would be worthwhile to take this opportunity to discuss something that I do not remember ever having been the subject of a message or Bible study nor is it something that I have ever read. Today I would like to discuss what the Bible says about boats and what insights we can gain from understanding when boats are spoken of in scripture. Although this may seem to be a very large and sprawling subject, I think that we can gain some surprising and often-neglected insights from the way that boats are portrayed in the Bible and what sort of events and contexts boats relate to in the pages of scripture. With your permission, then, I would like to address this odd and unusual subject for you all today.
The first, and perhaps most famous boat discussed in the Bible is the Ark. We get what details we have about the construction of the Ark in Genesis 6:13-22: “And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopherwood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and outside with pitch. And this is how you shall make it: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. You shall make a window for the ark, and you shall finish it to a cubit from above; and set the door of the ark in its side. You shall make it with lower, second, and third decks. And behold, I Myself am bringing floodwaters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds after their kind, of animals after their kind, and of every creeping thing of the earth after its kind, two of every kind will come to you to keep them alive. And you shall take for yourself of all food that is eaten, and you shall gather it to yourself; and it shall be food for you and for them.” Thus Noah did; according to all that God commanded him, so he did.”
Here we see the first context in which boats appear in the Bible, namely the context of the covenant between God and Noah as well as the preservation of life in the midst of an evil world. We see particular attention being paid to the pitch that covers the wood and allows it to float and to therefore be preserved from the face of the flood. We find at least one further detail about this aspect and the design and construction of Noah’s Ark in Genesis 8:6-12: “So it came to pass, at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. Then he sent out a raven, which kept going to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth. He also sent out from himself a dove, to see if the waters had receded from the face of the ground. But the dove found no resting place for the sole of her foot, and she returned into the ark to him, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took her, and drew her into the ark to himself. And he waited yet another seven days, and again he sent the dove out from the ark. Then the dove came to him in the evening, and behold, a freshly plucked olive leaf was in her mouth; and Noah knew that the waters had receded from the earth. So he waited yet another seven days and sent out the dove, which did not return again to him anymore.” And once the dove did not return to Noah, it was not very much longer before Noah and his family and the rest of the animals they were taking care of left the ark as well and were fruitful and multiplied to fill the earth as God had commanded in the beginning, and reiterated after the flood.
We next see boats in an unusual way, when we look at how Moses was delivered from the edict that Hebrew boys should be slaughtered by the Egyptian government for fear of overpopulation of the Israelites. We see this in Exodus 2:1-6: “And a man of the house of Levi went and took as wife a daughter of Levi. So the woman conceived and bore a son. And when she saw that he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months. But when she could no longer hide him, she took an ark of bulrushes for him, daubed it with asphalt and pitch, put the child in it, and laid it in the reeds by the river’s bank. And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him. Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. And her maidens walked along the riverside; and when she saw the ark among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it. And when she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby wept. So she had compassion on him, and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.””
There are at least a few things that we can note from this passage that we should be led to reflect upon. For one, the Bible itself explicitly compares the baby cradle that Moses was in to the ark. It does this in several ways. For one, the account calls what Moses’ mother made an ark. For another, the story itself is about the deliverance of life in the face of threats of death from the Pharaoh. For another, the ark that is made is covered, like that of Noah, with pitch. In this way, we see that the Bible itself is self-referential, and that it uses language and details in such a way that should lead us to reflect upon its contents. We might not think it anything special that a boat should be covered in pitch, but when we see a boat that holds Noah and his family as well as a large number of animals to save life from a flood that shows God’s judgement on a wicked nation equated with a little boat for a single little baby who is being delivered from the wicked decree of a wicked ruler, our attention ought to be drawn as to both the comparison and the contrast between the two. In both cases, the arks are a sign of divine mercy and of a continuance of life, and the similarity of the details should prompt our attention to the threads that connect the Bible’s stories together.
Sometimes one finds boats in strange places in the Bible. That is the case when one examines the story of Dan and their behavior as is recorded in the Song of Deborah, in Judges 5:17, which reads: “Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan, and why did Dan remain on ships? Asher continued at the seashore, and stayed by his inlets.” Here we see boats as a way that people escape from unpleasant realities, namely fighting to overcome oppressors. The use of boats as an escape, of course, has parallels to the story of Jonah. Here, in Jonah 1:1-3, we see Jonah’s attempt to flee on ships from the call of God to serve as a prophet to Nineveh: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.” But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” In both cases here we see boats being used as a way to attempt to escape from doing what God had commanded, and in both cases the attempt to escape responsibility is viewed with a great deal of hostility on the part of those who are writing the Bible. As Psalm 139:7 reminds us: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?”
We find that the story of Jonah has parallels with that of Jesus Christ. Let us first look at Jonah asleep in the ship in Jonah 1:4-9: “But the Lord sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up. Then the mariners were afraid; and every man cried out to his god, and threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten the load. But Jonah had gone down into the lowest parts of the ship, had lain down, and was fast asleep. So the captain came to him, and said to him, “What do you mean, sleeper? Arise, call on your God; perhaps your God will consider us, so that we may not perish.” And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this trouble has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Please tell us! For whose cause is this trouble upon us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” So he said to them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.””
Let us compare this incident with Jesus Christ’s similar experience in the Sea of Galilee in Luke 8:22-25: “Now it happened, on a certain day, that He got into a boat with His disciples. And He said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side of the lake.” And they launched out. But as they sailed He fell asleep. And a windstorm came down on the lake, and they were filling with water, and were in jeopardy. And they came to Him and awoke Him, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” Then He arose and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water. And they ceased, and there was a calm. But He said to them, “Where is your faith?” And they were afraid, and marveled, saying to one another, “Who can this be? For He commands even the winds and water, and they obey Him!”” Let us examine the parallels. Jesus, like Jonah, gets into a boat and then falls asleep. In both cases a terrible storm hits the boat while they are asleep, and in both cases the storm is stilled because of the power of the Lord who made the sea and dry land. In one case, the storm is calmed because Jonah is thrown overboard, and in the other case, it is because Jesus calms the storm Himself and shows Himself to be the master of the weather conditions that trouble others. This comparison between Jesus and Jonah is all the more pointed because the one sign that Jesus gave of His own ministry is that He would be in the belly of the earth for three days and three nights just as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish in the deep during that time.
The association of the sea with death and danger is one that continues after the Gospels and is especially poignant in the life of Paul. Included, for example, among Paul’s boasts is the following comment in 2 Corinthians 11:22-29: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?” Paul’s conversation here about sea travel includes references to having already been shipwrecked three times–he must have been an unfortunate mariner–and having been in perils in the sea as well as in perils of waters, having spent a night and a day in the waters after those shipwrecks in danger of drowning or hypothermia or something equally unpleasant.
The most notable shipwreck we have mentioned in scripture relating to the Apostle Paul comes in Acts 27. This eyewitness account from Luke has such dramatic flavor that we will read the whole chapter from verses one through forty-four and make some comments on it as we go (comments are impromptu): “And when it was decided that we should sail to Italy, they delivered Paul and some other prisoners to one named Julius, a centurion of the Augustan Regiment. So, entering a ship of Adramyttium, we put to sea, meaning to sail along the coasts of Asia. Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, was with us. And the next day we landed at Sidon. And Julius treated Paul kindly and gave him liberty to go to his friends and receive care. When we had put to sea from there, we sailed under the shelter of Cyprus, because the winds were contrary. And when we had sailed over the sea which is off Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra, a city of Lycia. There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing to Italy, and he put us on board. When we had sailed slowly many days, and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus, the wind not permitting us to proceed, we sailed under the shelter of Crete off Salmone. Passing it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea. Now when much time had been spent, and sailing was now dangerous because the Fast was already over, Paul advised them, saying, “Men, I perceive that this voyage will end with disaster and much loss, not only of the cargo and ship, but also our lives.” Nevertheless the centurion was more persuaded by the helmsman and the owner of the ship than by the things spoken by Paul. And because the harbor was not suitable to winter in, the majority advised to set sail from there also, if by any means they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete opening toward the southwest and northwest, and winter there. When the south wind blew softly, supposing that they had obtained their desire, putting out to sea, they sailed close by Crete. But not long after, a tempestuous head wind arose, called Euroclydon. So when the ship was caught, and could not head into the wind, we let her drive. And running under the shelter of an island called Clauda, we secured the skiff with difficulty. When they had taken it on board, they used cables to undergird the ship; and fearing lest they should run aground on the Syrtis Sands, they struck sail and so were driven. And because we were exceedingly tempest-tossed, the next day they lightened the ship. On the third day we threw the ship’s tackle overboard with our own hands. Now when neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest beat on us, all hope that we would be saved was finally given up. But after long abstinence from food, then Paul stood in the midst of them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me, and not have sailed from Crete and incurred this disaster and loss. And now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For there stood by me this night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar; and indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ Therefore take heart, men, for I believe God that it will be just as it was told me. However, we must run aground on a certain island.” Now when the fourteenth night had come, as we were driven up and down in the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors sensed that they were drawing near some land. And they took soundings and found it to be twenty fathoms; and when they had gone a little farther, they took soundings again and found it to be fifteen fathoms. Then, fearing lest we should run aground on the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern, and prayed for day to come. And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, when they had let down the skiff into the sea, under pretense of putting out anchors from the prow, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the skiff and let it fall off. And as day was about to dawn, Paul implored them all to take food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day you have waited and continued without food, and eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take nourishment, for this is for your survival, since not a hair will fall from the head of any of you.” And when he had said these things, he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all; and when he had broken it he began to eat. Then they were all encouraged, and also took food themselves. And in all we were two hundred and seventy-six persons on the ship. So when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship and threw out the wheat into the sea. When it was day, they did not recognize the land; but they observed a bay with a beach, onto which they planned to run the ship if possible. And they let go the anchors and left them in the sea, meanwhile loosing the rudder ropes; and they hoisted the mainsail to the wind and made for shore. But striking a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground; and the prow stuck fast and remained immovable, but the stern was being broken up by the violence of the waves. And the soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any of them should swim away and escape. But the centurion, wanting to save Paul, kept them from their purpose, and commanded that those who could swim should jump overboard first and get to land, and the rest, some on boards and some on parts of the ship. And so it was that they all escaped safely to land.
This is quite a dramatic story, it should be noted. We see here that Paul had a great deal of expertise about the sea, and that traveling after the Day of Atonement was dangerous. The proper order of operations of what was to be tossed overboard and done in order to deal with storms as best as possible is undertaken here, and the end result leaves Paul and his fellow passengers stranded for some months until they are able to join up with another grain ship and travel the rest of the way to Italy, where they disembark at Naples and walk the rest of the way to Rome, meeting with brethren in congregations along the way. This particular chapter gives a great deal of detailed discussion of what it was like to travel on ships during the time of Paul. These trips were no pleasure expeditions on cruises like we have nowadays, but were rather cases where large ships were used to bring both people and trade goods from the provinces to Italy for the elites to dispose of as they wished, and the transportation of people was often secondary to the concerns of business.
As we have noted, ships are often associated with trade, and it should not be a surprise that here too there is often a connection between stories that we would not gather if we were not sensitive to the parallels between the stories. Let us first look at the example of Solomon’s great trading expeditions in 1 Kings 9:26-28: “ King Solomon also built a fleet of ships at Ezion Geber, which is near Elath on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom. Then Hiram sent his servants with the fleet, seamen who knew the sea, to work with the servants of Solomon. And they went to Ophir, and acquired four hundred and twenty talents of gold from there, and brought it to King Solomon.” Here, at the end of a chapter that talks about Solomon’s glory as a king, there is a straightforward mention of his trading alliances with the people of Tyre, who were quite a bit more skilled at seafaring than that of most Israelites. This example of trade wealth can be contrasted with the later attempts of Jehoshaphat to profit from seaborne trade in 1 Kings 22:48-49: “Jehoshaphat made merchant ships to go to Ophir for gold; but they never sailed, for the ships were wrecked at Ezion Geber. Then Ahaziah the son of Ahab said to Jehoshaphat, “Let my servants go with your servants in the ships.” But Jehoshaphat would not.” Here we see a case that Jehoshaphat was much less fortunate than Solomon in terms of his allies. While Solomon earned a great deal of wealth from trade in alliance with Hiram of Tyre, when Jehoshaphat sought to trade in alliance with the Israelites during the time of Ahab’s son, his efforts to build a fleet and profit from the gold trade of the horn of Africa were unsuccessful.
Nor does this exhaust the Bible’s references to seaborne trade and the profits that result from it, as it is written in Revelation 18:11-19: “And the merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her, for no one buys their merchandise anymore: merchandise of gold and silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen and purple, silk and scarlet, every kind of citron wood, every kind of object of ivory, every kind of object of most precious wood, bronze, iron, and marble; and cinnamon and incense, fragrant oil and frankincense, wine and oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and bodies and souls of men. The fruit that your soul longed for has gone from you, and all the things which are rich and splendid have gone from you, and you shall find them no more at all. The merchants of these things, who became rich by her, will stand at a distance for fear of her torment, weeping and wailing, and saying, ‘Alas, alas, that great city that was clothed in fine linen, purple, and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls! For in one hour such great riches came to nothing.’ Every shipmaster, all who travel by ship, sailors, and as many as trade on the sea, stood at a distance and cried out when they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, ‘What is like this great city?’ “They threw dust on their heads and cried out, weeping and wailing, and saying, ‘Alas, alas, that great city, in which all who had ships on the sea became rich by her wealth! For in one hour she is made desolate.’” Here we see the practical outcome of the prophetic warning of Zechariah 14:21 that tells us: “In that day there shall no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord of hosts.” Those who profit off of luxuries traded in evil realms will be brought to nothing, and will mourn the destruction of their profits when they suffer shipwreck. Such people will not be concerned about the wickedness of Babylon or the evil that great and wicked system is involved in, but will mourn over their lost profits instead, and John here shows his knowledge of the importance of ships to worldwide trade, an importance that continues to this day.
The prototypical wicked merchant, of course, is Satan, and as we saw previously that Tyre is a city noted for its merchants, it is little surprise that we should see in Ezekiel 28:16-19 that God views trading as synonymous with evil. As it is written: “By the abundance of your trading you became filled with violence within, and you sinned; therefore I cast you as a profane thing out of the mountain of God; and I destroyed you, O covering cherub, from the midst of the fiery stones. “Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor; I cast you to the ground, I laid you before kings, that they might gaze at you. “You defiled your sanctuaries by the multitude of your iniquities, by the iniquity of your trading; therefore I brought fire from your midst; it devoured you, and I turned you to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all who saw you. All who knew you among the peoples are astonished at you; you have become a horror, and shall be no more forever.” ’ ”” As is the case in the contemporary world, so to the abundance of trading can be synonymous with a great deal of pride and luxury and of wickedness that God will bring into judgment.
Although this is not a complete discussion of all of the cases in which ships and boats are mentioned in the scriptures, it gives us a general flavor of the material as a whole. Let us therefore gain what insights we can from the stories and see what general patterns arise from the way that the Bible refers to ships. In the Bible, we see the transportation of both people as well as the carrying on of trade and enterprise as worthwhile concerns to mention. In the stories of Noah and Moses we see arks being used to deliver people from the threat of death, while in 1 Kings and Revelation, for example, we read of ships being used for the attempted profit of a realm through seaborne trade. Frequently ships are associated with the threat of death–not only in the stories were arks deliver the dead but in Jonah, the Gospels, and Acts where people find themselves in peril as a result of storms. Boats, therefore, are seen as a place of vulnerability where God can show his power over the storm by delivering people’s lives as He chooses to do. When Satan is compared to a merchant, however, we do not see ships as a sign of divine favor but of corrupt merchandising.
This complexity is mirrored in our own world when we reflect on the multiple layers of meaning regarding shipping and seaborne transportation . The sea is a place of great profit where logistics are important and where people and goods are moved about in ways that make a lot of people a great deal of money. It is a place where nations try to project their power into littoral regions, or where various entrepôts serve to transfer goods from one area to another and for people of different cultures and tongues to interact with each other for mutual profit. Sometime this trade can bring us our food and our consumer goods, and at other times the merchandise includes slaves and those who are being trafficked after kidnapping. Likewise, ships carry people and cars on mundane ferries where the space is too far and too expensive to bridge, and allow people to carry on fishing and other humble lines of business that benefit ordinary people all over the world. It should therefore be of little surprise that the complexity of ships in our world should be reflected in the way that boats and ships are discussed in scripture, even if it is not an area that we are used to studying in any particular depth.
 See, for example: