Who were the Merchants of Tarshish?
Tyre’s island fortress
By Craig C. White
According to Ezekiel 38:5 Turkey will lead Libya, Iran, and Sudan in an invasion into Israel. All of these nations are fighting in Syria today. I think that Turkey will invade Syria, destroy Damascus, and then lead these nations in an invasion into Israel! Three other nations are also mentioned in Ezekiel 38:13. Two are easy to identify. One is not so easy. They are Sheba, Dedan, and the merchants of Tarshish. Sheba and Dedan are easily identified as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia; but who are the merchants of Tarshish?
There has been a long debate over the identity of the merchants of Tarshish in Ezekiel 38. The fact that they are called merchants leads us to think that they were a major shipping power in ancient days. Some say that the merchants of Tarshish refer to Spain because Tartessos was the name of a harbor city in ancient Spain. Some say that the merchants of Tarshish extend to all of Europe and the United States because Ezekiel 38:13 says that Tarshish is accompanied by its young lions. I don’t know if that is correct. All of the other nations that are listed in Ezekiel 38 are located in the Middle East. Perhaps Tarshish is also located in the Middle East.
Ezekiel 38:13 Sheba, and Dedan, and the merchants of Tarshish, with all the young lions thereof, shall say unto thee, Art thou come to take a spoil? hast thou gathered thy company to take a prey? to carry away silver and gold, to take away cattle and goods, to take a great spoil?
In the verse above, the merchants of Tarshish are accompanied by all of their young lions. Most bible prophecy teachers equate young lions with nations. I think that is a mistake. The Hebrew word Kephiyr translated as young lions primarily means village. So it is much more reasonable to equate the term young lions to mean the regional area of a country such as a county or province. It may be a mistake then to equate the term young lions to refer to several entire countries.
The merchants of Tarshish are mentioned alongside of Sheba and Dedan in Ezekiel 38:13 above. They seem to be excusing themselves from participating in the invasion into Israel. They use a flimsy argument that will excuse them from participating in the invasion but at the same time cheer on its success. They all ask the Turkish led invaders of Israel “Are you going into Israel to rob them?”
The merchants of Tarshish are listed with Saudi Arabia. Perhaps when it comes to the invasion into Israel the merchants of Tarshish have something in common with Saudi Arabia. I would like to point out that all of the rest of the above mentioned nations are also currently fighting in Syria. Perhaps the merchants of Tarshish also have something in common with Saudi Arabia as it is fighting in Syria. Saudi Arabia is the latest entry into the battle for Syria. The Saudi government is supporting Al-Qaeda terrorists from Saudi Arabia as they fight against Syrian President Assad. The main Al-Qaeda force fighting in Syria today is from Libya. There is one other Al-Qaeda faction that has significant representation in Syria; and that has also not yet been identified in Ezekiel chapter 38. That is Al-Qaeda from Iraq! Could Iraq represent the merchants of Tarshish? It is a possibility. Was the region around Iraq a major shipping power in ancient days? Yes it was one of the biggest, and it still is today. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were and are both major shipping channels. Today Iraq’s capital city of Baghdad lies on the Tigris River. The ancient Assyrian capital city of Nineveh still lies on the Tigris River in far northern Iraq across the river from the modern city of Mosul. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is headquartered in Mosul in the Nineveh Province.
Is there any biblical evidence of a person or region named Tarshish in ancient Iraq? I think that there is. In Esther chapter 1 below, King Ahasuerus calls a conference together with the seven princes of the Persian Empire. The Persian Empire was actually a dual empire headed by Persia which is today’s Iran, and Media which was located in today’s northern Iraq. One of the princes of the Persia and Media regions was named Tarshish. If Prince Tarshish ruled over a province in Media (or northern Iraq) then he just may be the Tarshish that Ezekiel recognizes. Perhaps Prince Tarshish ruled over the Nineveh Province!
Esther 1:14 And the next unto him was Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, which saw the king’s face, and which sat the first in the kingdom;)
Princes are set over provinces. So Prince Tarshish was the first ruler in his province of ancient Persia or Media, which is today’s Iran and Northern Iraq.
We know from Ezekiel 38:5 that Iran will participate in the Turkish led invasion into Israel. Tarshish accompanies Saudi Arabia in Ezekiel 38:13. They both cheer on the plundering of Israel. Both Saudi Arabia and Iraq play secondary roles in Syria today. It is possible that Saudi Arabia and Iraq are represented in Ezekiel 38:13. It may be that after the fighting in Syria ends then Al-Qaeda from Saudi Arabia and Iraq will both excuse themselves from invading Israel. It is possible that the merchants of Tarshish represent today’s northern Iraq!
I do see some problems with this view. Like I said before we don’t know which Province Prince Tarshish ruled over. Most importantly the merchants of Tarshish are called merchants! Assyria was a shipping destination. But Nineveh was the end of the line. In fact the Tigris River gets very shallow that far north so shipping is limited. There is another town that is almost always referred to as merchant; both in the bible and also in world history. No, I don’t think that the merchants of Tarshish represent northern Iraq.
Here we go again. This time I think that we really may have gotten it right! There is also biblical evidence that Tarshish was in today’s Lebanon.
Tarshish was the son of Javan. Javan was the brother of Magog. Magog settled in today’s Turkey. Tarshish may have settled nearby in today’s Lebanon.
Gen 10:2 The sons of Japheth; Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras.
Gen 10:4-5 And the sons of Javan; Elishah, and Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. 5 By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.
In Isaiah chapter 23 the city of Tyre (or Tyrus) is prophesied to be destroyed. Tarshish is mentioned several times in this chapter. Tyre was a very busy and wealthy seaport city located in today’s Lebanon. Tyre consisted of a large mainland town plus an impressive fortress just 1000 yards off its shore. The walls of the fortress were said to have been 150’ high! Shipments would be protected by the island fortress of Tyre and warehoused on the mainland. The mainland city of Tyre was besieged by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 585 BC. The siege lasted thirteen years.
There is still a city at Tyre in Lebanon today. Today Tyre is called Sur or Sour meaning rock. It is on Lebanon’s southern Mediterranean coast. Just 1000 yards off of its shore rests the ruins of the ancient island fortress of Tyre. The island fortress was attacked by Alexander the great in 332 BC and wiped flat.
Isa 23:1 The burden of Tyre. Howl, ye ships of Tarshish; for it is laid waste, so that there is no house, no entering in: from the land of Chittim it is revealed to them.
In Isaiah 23:6 below there is an invasion coming upon the mainland city of Tyre! The residents of Tyre are instructed to pass over into Tarshish. They are fleeing to the safety of the island fortress. We know from history that the citizens of the mainland city of Tyre did in fact flee to the island fortress. Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar besieged the mainland city of Tyre from the land. Tyre’s residents sought refuge in Tyre’s island fortress. It is very possible that Tarshish was the island fortress of ancient Tyre.
Isa 23:6 Pass ye over to Tarshish; howl, ye inhabitants of the isle.
Isaiah 23:14 below illustrates the economic and most importantly the security reliance that the merchants of Tarshish had on the island fortress of Tyre. Tyre’s island fortress protected the shipping industry. So the Merchants of Tarshish sailed in and out of port under its protection.
Isa 23:14 Howl, ye ships of Tarshish: for your strength is laid waste.
The Merchants of Tarshish play a role in Ezekiel 38’s Turkish led invasion into Israel. They ask the Turkish forces “Have you come to rob Israel?” (Eze 38:13). If Turkey invades Israel from Syria’s southern border then they would pass right by Lebanon. It seems very likely then that the Merchants of Tarshish could in fact represent today’s Lebanon.
Eze 38:13 Sheba, and Dedan, and the merchants of Tarshish, with all the young lions thereof, shall say unto thee, Art thou come to take a spoil? hast thou gathered thy company to take a prey? to carry away silver and gold, to take away cattle and goods, to take a great spoil?
In the book of Jonah, Jonah tries to escape from God by hightailing it out of the land of Israel. Jonah got on a ship at Joppa to sail his way to Tarshish. Joppa is a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast just south of Tel Aviv. Tyre or Tarshish in southern Lebanon would have been the ships first stop outside of the land of Israel.
Jonah 1:3 But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.
We don’t know exactly when Jonah headed for Tarshish but it was sometime around 800 BC. There was probably already a fortress at Tyre. Jonah may have thought that he would be safe from God there. King Hiram of Tyre sent building materials to King David for his palace around 965 BC.
2Sa 5:11 And Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar trees, and carpenters, and masons: and they built David an house.
Jonah wanted to make haste for the first city outside of Israel. He may have also sought the protection of the island fortress of Tarshish. This argument seems simple and straight forward to me. I think that it makes more sense to identify the Merchants of Tarshish as seagoing merchants from the nation we call Lebanon today. Lebanon will one day ask Turkey and its invading forces from Libya, Iran, and Sudan, “Have you come to rob Israel?”