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Tyre: A dual perspective

Updated on July 13, 2017

"What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"

Thus spake 2nd century author Tertullian, decrying the chasm between Biblical religion and Western thought.

I would respond a great deal. Though it is hard to construe in our modern age of "godless materialism", religion has had a profound impact on the development of our society for millennia. This has manifested in both minor crossovers such as the oft-overlooked coincidence of Jeremiah succeeding over the false prophet Hananiah in classical Judah; and Athenian statesman and lawmaker Solon being appointed archon both in 594 B.C., to the major events like the fusion of religion and enlightenment thinking in the writing of the American Constitution.


Both sets of sources agree that the Tyrians are smart. Ezekiel uses a metaphor of a ship (27:5) to convey their naval enterprise and with good reason- it would take Alexander the Great seven months to conquer this tiny island. Grasping that they were virtually invincible at sea, the conqueror constructed a mole in order to invade Tyre by land. Not to be outdone, the inventive seafarers made quick work of burning his earlier models by setting sail smouldering "vessels of dry twigs" which they would "run aground" against the nascent moles then shoot arrows at the burning mass so no Macedonian could safely get near to "quench the fire".

The heat of battle: An artist's impression


On the other hand, both sources also criticize Tyre's sense of pride and arrogance. Both Isaiah and Ezekiel prophecy its impending doom, warning that conquest would "break their pride" (23:9). Ezekiel elaborates that Tyre crowed "I am perfect in beauty" (27:3). This sort of pride is perhaps evident in Arrian's writings whereby the cause for Alexander's incursion on the city as opposed to merely collecting tribute and moving on was their refusal "to admit [inside] any Persian or Macedonian", suggestive of a xenophobic arrogance. Though the sources come from different perspectives, Isaiah proclaiming how Tyre would pay for her indifference as Jerusalem lay burning[2] and Arrian clarifying how he perceived their actions to be Alexander's Casus belli, one can determine a clear consistency in the Tyrian mood.

We slowly piece together an unpleasant picture of the Tyrians as self-centered and apathetic to the fate of others. In the same vein, Isaiah uses a metaphor of harlotry to describe the nature of Tyre's relations with other nations (23:17), which is perhaps a continuous trait that prompts Alexander's need to establish a presence there. Plutarch who also documents Alexander's expedition, pins down as a motive a recurring dream he had of a satyr beckoning him which was expounded by his diviner Aristander to indicate Sa-tyros: Tyre will be ours. Further, Plutarch recounts that "Apollo was displeased and left them", possibly because they dismantled his statue. Either way, it is perhaps evidence from Ezekiel's chiding-"you desecrated your sanctities". Even within the parameters of their Pagan culture, the Tyrians' were not loyal to anything.

[2] During Nebuchadnezzer's invasion, when he razed Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple. Despite previous acquaintance, the Tyrians cast a blind eye, only to be sacked a few years later by the Babylonian conqueror. This is the primary focus of the prophets' criticism.


Moreover, it does not take a great stretch of the imagination to wonder why else Tyre might be frowned upon from above. Ezekiel declares, "You were a terror" (27:36). Though ultimately defeated, the Tyrians, considering their diminutive size and number ranked as some of Alexander's bitterest enemies. They brought down renowned Admiral Pyntagoras of Cyprus, General Admetus and 400 battle-hardened Macedonians before admitting defeat at the hands of the Macedonian hordes and an entire Phoenician league that Alexander was forced to assemble. They could also be ruthless, Arrian recording how the Tyrians would taunt Alexander by "slaughtering his captured men on the ramparts in front of his eyes and tossing them into the sea". Five centuries earlier, the Tyrians had similarly rejoiced over the destruction of the First Temple as they saw only the commercial gain; merchandise diverted to them from the ruins of Jerusalem. Ezekiel warned that their rejoicing was premature and Babylon would ultimately set its sight on the island too. As would Alexander's men centuries later (332 B.C.) when they finally boarded the city and mercilessly "slaughtered its inhabitants", razed it to the ground and sold any survivors into slavery.


Overall, it seems clear that whilst aiming for different messages, there is a striking similarity in the characterization of the Bible and the Greek authors' as they analyse Tyre, one as a foreboding prophecy, the other in a doomed conquest. If the relevance of a prophecy about an obscure nation can endure for centuries, then how much more so are there abundant lessons to take from eternal themes in the Bible on the rule of law, universal morality and brotherhood of man in these troubled times.


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