Traveling by Land and Sea in Bible Times

Have you ever thought about how comfortable it is to travel in the 21st century? While riding in an SUV to your grandparents’ house on a hot summer afternoon, you will likely sit on a covered, cushioned seat and have the air conditioner blowing on you to keep cool. You might listen to your favorite songs or watch a movie on an electronic device, which is plugged into a power source in the vehicle. 

If you happen to feel a bump in the road that is not absorbed by the vehicle’s shocks, you might become a little annoyed because you are not used to being “disturbed” while riding down the road. In just 3½ hours, you are able to journey a little more than 200 miles to your grandparents’ house on only a half a tank of gas. Best of all, you get there just in time for supper—grandma’s specialty, baked chicken, fresh vegetables, and apple pie. The biggest frustration for you during your journey was that it just seemed to take too long.

Now compare your normal traveling experience in the 21st century with someone from Bible times. If you were like the average person back then, you would have walked almost everywhere you went—to work, to worship, and even sometimes to your relatives (who might live 30 miles away). When God presented to Abraham the land of Canaan, He instructed him saying, “Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever…. Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you” (Genesis 13:14-15,17). About 2,000 years later, when Jesus was on Earth, it seems that He walked nearly everywhere He went. Although animals such as mules, donkeys, horses, and camels often were used when traveling long distances, walking was still the most common method of travel. 

Whether walking or riding on an animal, traveling in Bible times was uncomfortable, tiresome, and dangerous. The Bible describes Jesus as “being wearied” after traveling from Judea to a city in Samaria known as Sychar (John 4:6). When writing to the church at Corinth concerning the trials that he had endured as a servant of Christ, the apostle Paul wrote that he had been “on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers,…dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness,…through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:26-27). 

To avoid the extreme heat of the Sun, travelers would often travel by night and get their direction from the stars. People also journeyed at nighttime in order to help escape detection from thieves, who (as in the parable of the Good Samaritan—Luke 10:29-37) would hide beside the road (perhaps behind large rocks or bushes), waiting for someone to rob. And if that was not enough, a journeyman in Bible times also had to beware of wild animals along the way. Lions, leopards, and bears were just a few of the animals that lurked about the land of Palestine, especially in the wilderness of Judea. (Do you remember how “a young lion came roaring against” Samson as he traveled through the vineyards of Timnah—Judges 14:5-6?)

Truly, traveling in ancient times was much different than it is today. It was both wearisome and scary for people to leave the comforts and safety of their village to journey elsewhere. In view of the many dangers that travelers encountered along their journeys, we should be even more thankful for the godly men of history who traveled great distances to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The donkey was the most common beast of burden used in the land of Palestine. A donkey’s average journey was about 20 miles a day. The only animal the Bible ever mentions Jesus riding was a young donkey, which He rode into Jerusalem during the last week of His life. 

Distances in ancient times customarily were measured in units of time rather than by the amount of ground covered. One city might be said to be two hours (distant) from another city because it takes that amount of time to travel from one to the other. “A day’s journey” simply was the amount of ground a person could walk in one day—on average, about 15-20 miles for individuals and about 10 miles for a large group of people traveling together. In some places, distances are still computed by the hours or days occupied by the journey, rather than by counting miles or kilometers.

Aside from safety, the most important thing for travelers to have on their journeys was water. Knowing the location of wells or springs of water was essential to one’s journey. Sadly, sometimes travelers would count on a spring of water that, upon arrival, they would find had gone dry.  

Some people in ancient times used carriages led by cattle or horses to get from village to village. Warriors sometimes rode in chariots.

During Bible times, many people also traveled by boat. Many of the boats used sails. Boats that didn’t use sails often had oars in them for men to row the boat where they wanted it to go. In the book of Jonah, the men in the boat with Jonah “rowed hard” using oars to try to reach land (Jonah 1:13). Some boats had oars and sails.

Traveling by boat was often scary and dangerous. Bad weather could cause a ship to be tossed about on the waves. Sometimes the stormy weather got so bad that the boat would be broken to pieces and sink. In the New Testament, at least twice, Jesus saved His disciples from treacherous storms (Matthew 14:24-33; Mark 4:35-41). The book of Acts tells the story of Paul being shipwrecked and his boat being torn to pieces by the terrible weather. Fortunately for Paul, the Lord protected him and all the other prisoners on the boat. The ones who could swim jumped overboard and swam to safety, while the others floated on pieces of the broken ship. (Read Acts 27 for a full account of the story.)

Boats played a big part in the lives of Jesus and His disciples. Four of the apostles were fishermen who made their living using boats. And one time Jesus sat in a boat to teach because a huge crowd had gathered on the shore (Matthew 13:1-3). Jesus and the apostles used boats to travel many miles to tell others about God’s love. 

Whatever modern methods of transportation we use now and in the future, let’s be sure (1) to thank God for them and (2) to use them to the glory of God. What better way to use them than to “take the name of Jesus with you” wherever you go?


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