Despite Israel's proximity to the Mediterranean, the Israelites were never a seafaring people. By contrast, Canaanites in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1500–1200 BCE) seem to have traded extensively by sea, and the Philistines came by sea to establish themselves in Palestine simultaneously with the emergence of Israel. In the first millennium BCE Israel's Phoenician neighbors to the north controlled several excellent harbors and became the great maritime people of the ancient world.

Southern Palestine's coastal geography was generally unsuited for harborage, and Israel seldom controlled the modest harbor towns of Acco, Dor, Joppa, and Ashkelon. Before the tenth century BCE the tribes of Zebulun (Gen. 49.13) and Dan and Asher (Judg. 5.17) possibly went to sea, but in the Bible, ships often belong to foreigners, and Israel's attitude toward them can be wary (Isa. 33.21; Deut. 28.68; Judg. 5.17; Prov. 30.19).

Only during the reign of Solomon in the tenth century BCE does Israel seem to have engaged in significant sea trade (1 Kings 9.26–28; 10.11, 22; 2 Chron. 8.18; 9.21). Israel and Tyre joined fleets to sail the lucrative Red Sea trade route to Ophir (southern Arabia and/or East Africa) and possibly to the Indian Ocean for such valuable commodities as spices and gold. Subsequent rulers of Judah and Israel failed to revive this maritime commerce (1 Kings 22.48, 49; 2 Chron. 20.35–37; 26.2).

The recurring phrase “ships of Tarshish” (1 Kings 10.22; Ps. 48.7; Isa. 2.16; 23.1; 60.9; cf. Jon. 1.3) seems to be a generic term referring to foreign (probably Phoenician) ships propelled by a combination of sails and oars. It derives from Phoenician trade with a place called Tarshish whose exact location was perhaps Anatolia, Cyprus, or the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Ezekiel 27 contains an elaborate description of these vessels (see also Isa. 33.23).

Many poetic references to ships and sailors relate to the ancient mythic tradition of Yahweh's power over the sea (Exod. 15; Pss. 48.7; 77.19; 104.25–26; 107.23; Ezek. 27.26; Jon. 1). Isaiah 60.9 reflects this theme in the promise that Israel will return to Zion in ships of Tarshish (cf. Dan. 11.30). Later echoes appear in Wisdom of Solomon 14.1–4, and in the New Testament when Jesus calms the storm that threatens his disciples' boat (Mark 6.47–52; cf. Isa. 43.16). (See also Israel, Religion of.)

The tale of Noah's ark (Gen 6.5–9.19) belongs to a story tradition that Israel shared with Mesopotamia, where boats and towed barges were common forms of transport. The description of the ark, however, suggests that it was not a boat at all but a sort of enclosed box with no sail or oars and with a single window. For later Christians the ark came to symbolize the church and its salvation.

Several of Jesus' disciples sailed fishing boats on the freshwater Sea of Galilee (Matt. 4.18–22), and Jesus often made use of these craft (Luke 5.3; Matt. 9.1). In 1986 archaeologists discovered a well‐preserved example of such a boat from the first century BCE, just below shore level in the Sea of Galilee.

Paul is the most famous sea traveler of the New Testament. His Mediterranean journeys profited from Roman domination of the seas and improvements in shipbuilding techniques. Even so, he was shipwrecked several times (2 Cor. 11.25; cf. Acts 27).

Mary Joan Winn Leith