The Red Sea

Posted: February 15, 2010 in Uncategorized

Depending on context, the Bible uses the term “Red Sea” (yam suf) to refer either to the western Red Sea (bordering Egypt, i.e., the Gulf of Suez), or to the eastern Red Sea (in the land of Edom, i.e., the Gulf of Aqaba).

In some cases, Hebrew suf refers to “reeds” as in Exodus 2:3ff., where the mother of Moses placed the ark in the reeds (suf) and where the daughter of Pharaoh found Moses.  Literally, the biblical term yam suf means “sea of reeds,” but that is an etymological translation, not an identification of the body of water in question.  Many believe suf is a loan word from Egyptian twf (meaning papyrus).

The term suf in yam suf simply refers to what may have been the origin of the name “Red Sea” not to its geographical location.  Some claim that the western Red Sea (Gulf of Suez) cannot be meant as the place of the Israelite crossing because reeds do not grow in salt water.  However, this is an illustration of what D. A. Carson called the root fallacy:

“One of the most enduring of errors, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components.  In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word.”  (Exegetical Fallacies, 1996, pp. 28ff.) 

For instance, our English word “nice” means pleasant or good, but its Latin root means “ignorant.”  (Idem.)  Thus, a translation cannot always be based on etymology, but has to be based on usage and context as well.  If that’s true of translation, it goes double for interpretation (e.g., location or identification).

So the literal or root meaning cannot in itself be used as a geographic indicator.  This is shown by Numbers 33:10, where the term “Red Sea” (yam suf) has reference to the eastern Red Sea, the salt-water Gulf of Aqaba.  It does not refer to a fresh-water lake of reeds.  In 1 Kings 9:26, Ezion Geber is located on the shore of the eastern Red Sea (yam suf) bordering the land of Edom, again the Gulf of Aqaba, not a fresh-water marsh.  (See also, Jer. 49:21.)

With respect to the Red Sea of the Israelite crossing, the Septuagint translates the term yam suf as “Red Sea” (eruthra thalasse).  This is not so much a literal translation of yam suf as it is an identification of it with the western Red Sea.  Thus, the Jews of the 3rd to the 1st century BC understood yam suf as referring to the traditional Red Sea (Gulf of Suez).  Note that eruthra thalassa is not a reference to reed-filled lake marshes since eruthra means “red” not “reeds.”

The New Testament writers also ascribed the Israelite crossing to the western Red Sea (Acts 7:36, Hebrews 11:29).  Here they also used eruthra thalassa (red sea) to translate the Hebrew yam suf (sea of reeds).  The authority of the New Testament seems decisive to me.

I think the reason translators want to translate yam suf as referring to a shallow lake or to northern marshes above the Gulf of Suez is simply because they are attempting to downplay the miraculous and provide a naturalistic explanation for the crossing.

I don’t think Christians have this option if they really believe in the biblical philosophy of history vis-à-vis a naturalistic, uniformitarian philosophy of history.

See for discussion, James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt, 1996, pp. 199ff; Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus, 1986, pp. 106ff; Colin J. Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus, 2003, pp. 172ff.

For New Courville, a crossing at the Gulf of Suez is consistent with the MB1 Exodus theory since MB1 indicia have been found on both sides of the western Red Sea.   In our opinion, the best location for the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea is in the Gebel Atika area, where MB1 indicia have been found.  This area is on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea.  The Israelites would have entered the Sea at this point and journeyed to the other side, arriving perhaps at Ayun Musa, about 13 miles distance.  For more discussion, see our essay “Crossing the Red Sea”:



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