I’d like to use this rubric for a time in exploration and explanation of interesting things – especially tangible objects – that appear in the Bible and often in the historical narrative passages. Typically in our preaching, teaching and studying of the scriptures in which we are searching for the spiritual, gospel truth of the passage, time does not permit us to take some interesting physical object in the story and then consider it and its significance in light of appearances of similar objects in other stories throughout the Bible. But let’s do that here, and let’s begin with boats.
Boats in the Old Testament:
- Noah’s Ark (Gen. 6–9): Of the boats mentioned in the Bible, the biggest is the gigantic ark of gopher wood that Noah built for his family and many animals in order to survive the worldwide flood. If we take a cubit as measuring 18 inches, the ark was about 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high. The construction of a full-sized replica of the ark has recently been completed in the United States as a project spearheaded by Answers in Genesis founder, Ken Ham.
- Moses’ Ark (Ex. 2:1–6): The smallest boat is Moses’ ark. The life of baby Moses was endangered in Egypt because Pharaoh wanted to kill all the baby Hebrew boys. After Moses’ mother Jochebed hid him at home as long as she could, she made a tiny boat of bulrushes, waterproofed it with slime, and set it in the river of Egypt with baby Moses inside. Moses was eventually found and taken out of his little boat by Pharaoh’s daughter.
- The Jordan’s Ferry (2 Sam. 19:18): Probably the most obscure and unfamiliar boat is the ferry of David’s men. David fled Jerusalem when his wicked son Absalom led a revolt and seized the throne. After Absalom was killed, David and his family made their journey back from the east and eventually had to cross the Jordan River to get home to Jerusalem. They used a ferry. The men of Judah who came to meet David assembled what was probably some kind of raft or pontoon-like vessel to aid the royal household in crossing the Jordan.
- Solomon’s Navy (1 Kings 9:26–28, 10:11, 22; 2 Chron. 8:18, 9:21): The most interesting collection of boats belonged to Solomon’s navy. The boats themselves are not so interesting, for we know little about them, but their use is fascinating. Solomon had a navy stationed in Ezion-Geber, along the Red Sea. The Red Sea was south of Israel, and had two fingers poking northward – the western finger toward Egypt, and the eastern finger toward Israel. Ezion-Geber was along the tip of that eastern finger of the Red Sea (the Gulf of Akaba). Here in Ezion-Geber Solomon stationed his fleet of oar-propelled boats. The shipmen who navigated these vessels came from Hiram. Hiram was the king of Tyre, a city along the Mediterranean Sea to the north of Israel. He supplied Israel with boats and men to operate them. It seems impossible that boats could come from Tyre to Ezion-Geber, for the two cities were not connected by any waterway. Perhaps Hiram had his own port city along the Red Sea where he stationed and from where he sent ships. Solomon did not use his navy to wage war, but to transport precious commodities from distant lands into his kingdom of dazzling wealth. Into Israel, by the navy of boats, came gold, and lots of it, and silver, ivory or elephant’s teeth, apes, peacocks, precious stones, and various trees. Many of these resources came from Ophir, which was likely some famous region either in Africa, Arabia, or, many think, India. Interestingly, years later, Jehoshaphat, the usually upright king of Judah, sinfully allied himself with the wicked Ahaziah, king of Israel, and they tried to build a navy together at Ezion-Geber so they could haul in gold from Tarshish and Ophir. God broke their ships (1 Kings 22:48–49, 2 Chron. 20:35–37), perhaps with a strong wind (Ps. 48:7).
- Jonah’s Ship (Jonah 1): Another well-known story involving a boat is the story of the run-away prophet Jonah who did not want to preach in Nineveh, that great city of the Assyrians. Jonah fled to Joppa, boarded a merchant ship and sailed through the Mediterranean Sea toward Tarshish. Jonah went down into a cabin of the ship and fell asleep. In His displeasure with Jonah, God sent a big storm on the sea so that the skilled mariners lost control of the ship. Jonah knew God was chasing him. At Jonah’s command the sailors threw Jonah overboard and the seas were stilled. Jonah was later swallowed by a great fish and spewed onto dry ground.
Boats in the New Testament:
- Ships used by Jesus and disciples (The gospel narratives): The Bible speaks of a boat or ship most often in connection with Jesus and his disciples, for they frequently travelled from one area of Galilee to another by sailing across the Sea of Galilee on a boat (Matt. 9:1, 15:39). Jesus used a boat as a platform from which to teach the multitudes (Matt. 13:1–3), and well-known miracles like the stilling of the tempest, Peter’s walking on water, and the great catch of fishes involved boats (Matt. 8:23–27, 14:22–33, Luke 5:1–9). Our Savior probably became quite familiar with boats and skilled in the navigation of them. His disciples certainly were, for many were former fisherman (Matt. 4:21). The boats of Jesus’ ministry were wooden fishing vessels with one main sail and a large oar out the rear acting like a rudder.
- Ships used by the missionaries (Acts 13–21): Various ships, bigger than those Jesus ever sat in, were used by the apostle Paul and his fellow laborers in their missionary journeys throughout the Mediterranean world. For example, Paul and Barnabas sailed to Cyprus (Acts 13:4), and later on the same journey they sailed from Asia Minor back to Antioch (Acts 14:26).
- Ships bringing Paul to Rome (Acts 27): The longest and most vividly told “boat story” in the Bible is the inspired Luke’s chronicle of the prisoner Paul’s harrowing voyage to Rome to appear before Caesar. Paul and his fellow prisoners were loaded into a cargo ship of Adramyttium in Palestine and they eventually landed in Myra of Asia Minor. At Myra they boarded an enormous grain ship of Alexandria bound for Italy with a full load of cargo, a crew, 276 passengers, and outfitted with 2 rudders, at least 4 anchors in the stern, and eventually a lifeboat. It was in Fair Havens along the island of Crete that Paul instructed the captain to winter the ship mid-journey, for the seas were too dangerous. The instructions were ignored. Once that massive boat left Crete and headed west toward Italy, it became a miniscule speck in a vast and ever so tempestuous and perilous sea. The mighty waves began pounding the ship so badly that the sailors wrapped it in cables so that the planks with which the ship was built would not split open. Anything on the ship that was not absolutely necessary was pitched overboard into the raging sea. Soon all the wheat went over also. Most of the men were convinced the ship was going down and they would all drown at sea. However, Paul received a reassuring vision from God and restored confidence in his fellows. After fourteen days rocks were spotted. The next morning the ship ran aground on the island of Malta. Badly battered, the boat would never sail again. There was, however, another Alexandrian ship at Malta, and so after a three-month stay on the island Paul would be off again to Italy.
God’s Hand that Held these Boats:
These boats we have mentioned are not only in the Bible, but were in God’s hand. All boats are in God’s hand. Little row boats and kayaks that skim the surface of quiet ponds are. So are submarines, gigantic cruise ships, and aircraft carriers that plough through the deepest waters of the sea. The Mayflower, Titanic, Lusitanian, Beagle, Arizona, and Santa Maria were. Your boat, if you own one, is.
When we say these boats were in God’s hand we are using a figure of speech to confess the doctrine of providence, which refers to God’s almighty and everywhere present power whereby he upholds and governs all things in the universe. Looking at these boats in the Bible helps us understand and appreciate God’s providence. Since God’s providence always serves his covenant, God (and now Christ exalted in heaven) holds all boats and moves them for our salvation.
- God used Noah’s ark to preserve the church amid the catastrophic flood he brought upon a wicked world. The covenant people and seed would have perished from off the earth without that boat.
- God used a tiny boat of bulrushes to preserve the life of the infant who would become the typical deliverer and mediator to lead Israel out of bondage and through the wilderness. Moses was kept alive by boat.
- God used the ferry in the Jordan to escort David and his family safely over the river and back to Jerusalem. The kingdom needed its king who not only had Christ in his loins but was a type of King Jesus. God’s providence controlled many details that served David and his rule, including a ferry.
- Solomon’s kingdom of wealth and glory was a dim Old Testament picture of the glorious kingdom of Jesus Christ in all of its spiritual riches and ultimately a picture of the perfection of that kingdom in paradise. God used Solomon’s navy as the means to transport all that wealth into the kingdom and fit it for service as a picture of Jesus’ kingdom.
- God would use the prophet Jonah to give a sign of the resurrection of Jesus. But in order for that sign to be accomplished Jonah needed to be in a great fish for 3 days and 3 nights. God was pleased to get Jonah out on the open seas by boat.
- God used the boats of Jesus’ day to transport him, the seeking and saving Shepherd.
- God used the boats of the missionaries to move them efficiently through the Mediterranean world as they brought the gospel from city to city for the salvation of the Gentiles. How would the gospel get to the island Cyprus when there were no airplanes? Must the preacher swim?
- How the providence of God is on display in Acts 27 in bringing Paul safely to Rome where he could, under arrest, preach the gospel to some for their salvation, and demonstrate the power of the Spirit by whom Jesus promised the gospel would go to the ends of the earth.
By God’s hand all things work together for the church’s good – boats included.
*Rev. Huizinga is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, CA.