Israel And Phoenicia Mingled Under King Saul

Most of the kings whose names are known from reading the Jewish writings wouldn’t be able to list 10 good things that they did in their lifetimes. It’s much easier to remember that Saul chased David all over the countryside, but very few people can tell you why he did it. Neither can they tell you the positive things he did during his reign, or even how long it was (40 years if the sources aren’t using a number-metaphor).

Let’s see if we can find evidence of some good things he did.

First, the surrounding people were coming into Israel and stealing their crops and cattle, leaving the people to starve. Saul gathered and trained a standing army of professional soldiers who put a stop to that mischief.

David, in his lament for Saul when he learned of Saul’s death, mentioned that he “clothed the daughters of Jerusalem in silk”. The only silk available in the known world at that time was in China, on the far eastern side of the continent, and the only ways to get to it were by ship through the Indian Ocean (the Horn of Africa was only used much later when ships were made large enough to withstand the storm waves) and sail around India to China, or go by camel caravan across the deserts in the middle of the continent. Either way, silk was only for the wealthy. That indicates that the raids on the crops had stopped and the people had sufficient means to afford silk. It also means that the Phoenicians were trading extensively with Israel at that time.

There were several major sea ports in use by the Phoenicians to accommodate their Israeli customers. There was the port in Byblos, the first port opened by the Phoenicians over 5,000 years ago. There were the ports of Tyre and Sidon,  and there was a smaller port at what is now Tel Aviv. All of them were useless on a trip to China, as there was no Suez Canal in those days linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean.  Then there was the port of Elait on the Gulf of Aqaba that was extensively used by the Phoenicians going to China. That route took them down to Cambodia, where there were square lay-over bays for the ships to use while they waited for the trade winds to reverse in order to blow them up the coast to China. Wind and oars were the only means of moving ships in those days.

Remember, Saul was a member of the tribe of Benjamin. Their eastern border was on the Jordan River, their northern border was just above Bethel, their western border was half way between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, and their southern border took in the northern flange of the altar of sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem, so Saul had no convenient means to work with the Phoenicians. We do know that Jericho was on the ancient Silk Road, but that it was destroyed and lay empty for many years. The only way Saul could have had that much trade with Phoenicia was to have a permanent envoy in his court. Enter David again.

When Saul got permission from Jesse to keep David at his court – remember, David was a slave in Jesse’s house because his mother was an indentured Levite in Jesse’s house, not his legal wife, and Jesse had never openly claimed him as his son, making David a slave in the same class as his mother – David led a contingent of Saul’s troops, so would have known these envoys personally, which shows up again in his life later, as we shall see.

With this many ports in Israel and a permanent envoy in Saul’s court, ties with Phoenicia were strong and binding. His strengths were trade and war, not religion, in which he found his down-fall and the loss of hereditary rights to the throne for his sons. Part of the reason for this was that the tabernacle that served the nation during their wanderings had fallen into decay over 300 years earlier, the ark had been taken into the home of one of the priests, and the temple had not yet been built. The annual meetings in which the political future of the nation were discussed were still held, but not at the site of the ark of the covenant, making it easy to separate church and state, resulting in the loss of the orders of division of who does what when, and who doesn’t do what ever. David learned this from his mother, not in Saul’s court, where he learned states-craft and war. But David met the envoys of the city-states of the Phoenicians and made friends with them, which he cultivated for the rest of his life.