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Bible Dictionaries

Smith's Bible Dictionary


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Phoenic'ia. (land of palm trees). A tract of country, of which Tyre and Sidon were the principal cities, to the north of Palestine, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, bounded by that sea on the west, and by the mountain range of Lebanon on the east. The name was not the one by which its native inhabitants called it, but was given to it by the Greeks, from the Greek word for the palm tree. The native name of Phoenicia was Kenaan, (Canaan), or Kna, signifying lowland, so named in contrast to the land joining Aram, that is, highland, the Hebrew name of Syria. The length of coast, to which the name of Phoenicia was applied, varied at different times.

What may be termed Phoenicia proper was a narrow undulating plain, extending from the pass of Ras el-Beyad or Abyad, the Promontorium Album of the ancients, about six miles south of Tyre, to the Nahr el-Auly, the ancient Bostrenus, two miles north of Sidon. The plain is only 28 miles in length. Its average breadth is about a mile; but near Sidon, the mountains retreat to a distance of two miles, and near Tyre, to a distance of five miles.

A longer district, which, afterward, became entitled to the name of Phoenicia, extended up the coast to a point marked by the island of Aradus, and by Antaradus toward the north; the southern boundary remaining the same as in Phoenicia proper. Phoenicia, thus defined is estimated to have been about 120 miles in length; while its breadth, between Lebanon and the sea, never exceeded 20 miles, and was generally much less. The whole of Phoenicia proper is well watered by various streams from the adjoining hills. The havens of Tyre and Sidon afforded water of sufficient depth for all the requirements of ancient navigation, and the neighboring range of the Lebanon, in its extensive forests, furnished what then seemed a nearly inexhaustible supply of timber for ship-building.

Language and race. - The Phoenicians spoke a branch of the Semitic language so closely allied to Hebrew that Phoenician and Hebrew, though different dialects, may practically be regarded as the same language. Concerning the original race to which the Phoenicians belonged, nothing can be known with certainty, because they are found already established along the Mediterranean Sea at the earliest dawn of authentic history, and for centuries, afterward, there is no record of their origin.

According to Herodotus, vii. 89, they said of themselves, in his time, that they came, in days of old, from the shores of the Red Sea and, in this, there would be nothing in the slightest degree improbable as they spoke a language cognate to that of the Arabians, who inhabited the east coast of that sea. Still, neither the truth nor the falsehood of the tradition can now be proved. But there is one point respecting their race which can be proved to be in the highest degree probable, and which has peculiar interest as bearing on the Jews, namely, that the Phoenicians were of the same race as the Canaanites.

Commerce, etc. - In regard to Phoenician trade, connected with the Israelites, it must be recollected that, up to the time of David, not one of the twelve tribes seems to have possessed a single harbor on the seacoast; it was impossible, therefore, that they could become a commercial people. But from the time that David had conquered Edom, an opening for trade was afforded to the Israelites. Solomon continued this trade with its king, obtained timber from its territory and employed its sailors and workmen. 2 Samuel 5:11; 1 Kings 5:9; 1 Kings 5:17-18.

The religion of the Phoenicians, opposed to Monotheism, was a pantheistical personification of the forces of nature and, in its most philosophical shadowing forth of the supreme powers, it may be said to have represented the male and female principles of production. In its popular form, it was especially a worship of the sun, moon and five planets, or, as it might have been expressed according to ancient notions, of the seven planets - the most beautiful, and perhaps, the most natural form of idolatry ever presented to the human imagination. Their worship was a constant temptation for the Hebrews to Polytheism and idolatry. -

Because undoubtedly the Phoenicians, as a great commercial people, were more generally intelligent, and as we should now say civilized, than the inland agricultural population of Palestine. When the simple-minded Jews, therefore, came in contact with a people more versatile and, apparently, more enlightened than themselves, but who nevertheless, either in a philosophical, or in a popular, form admitted a system of Polytheism, an influence would be exerted on Jewish minds tending to make them regard their exclusive devotion to their own one God Jehovah, however transcendent his attributes, as unsocial and morose.

The Phoenician religion had, in other respects, an injurious effect on the people of Palestine, being, in some points, essentially demoralizing, For example, it mentioned the dreadful superstition of burning children as sacrifices to a Phoenician god. Again, parts of the Phoenician religion, especially the worship of Astarte, fended to encourage dissoluteness in the relations of the sexes, and even to sanctify impurities of the most abominable description. The only other fact respecting the Phoenicians that need be mentioned here is that, the invention of letters was universally asserted, by the Greeks and Romans, to have been communicated by the Phoenicians, to the Greeks. For further details respecting the Phoenicians, See Tyre; Sidon. Phoenicia is now a land of ruins.

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Bibliography Information
Smith, William, Dr. Entry for 'Phoenicia'. Smith's Bible Dictionary. 1901.

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