The Bible and Archaeology: The Red Sea or the Reed Sea?

For many years scholars have disagreed over the identity of the sea the Israelites crossed and thus the site of the drowning of Pharaoh's army. Three routes for the Exodus have been proposed and continue to be debated.

Some believe that the Israelites' path took them north to the coast and that the "sea" they crossed was part of Lake Sirbonis, an arm or bay of the Mediterranean, after the crossing of which they turned south into the Sinai Peninsula.

Others have adopted the idea that the Israelites took a central route and crossed a shallow lake north of the Red Sea called the Reed Sea. The term in Hebrew is yam suph. Yam means "sea," and suph is generally thought to mean "reeds," "rushes" or possibly "seaweed." That is why some versions of the Bible call it "the Sea of Reeds" or "Reed Sea" instead of the Red Sea. (See Exodus:15:4 in the Revised Standard Version, New American Bible and Jerusalem Bible.)

Some scholars prefer the translation "Reed Sea," noting that lakes north of the Red Sea are abundant with reeds. They usually designate one of these shallow bodies of water as the site of the Israelite crossing but say that the Egyptians, with their heavy chariots, got bogged down and somehow drowned.

Other scholars prefer a southern route, pointing to evidence that they feel demonstrates that yam suph may mean "sea at the end of the world," as some conceive it to have been. Says theology professor Bernard F. Batto: "What we call the Red Sea . . . was regarded by the ancients as the sea at the end of the world. Interestingly enough, the Greeks applied the name Red Sea not only to our Red Sea but also to the Indian Ocean and, later when they discovered it, even to the Persian Gulf . . . Yam sup came to refer to the Red Sea because like other ancient peoples, the Israelites did not distinguish the Red Sea from oceans further to the south. To their way of thinking, the Red Sea—the yam sup—was the sea at the end of the earth" ( Biblical Archaeology Review , July-August 1984, p. 59).

In other biblical references, yam suph means Red Sea or its arms, the Gulf of Suez and Gulf of Aqaba. In 1 Kings 9:26 we read: "King Solomon also built a fleet of ships at Ezion Geber, which is near Elath on the shore of the Red Sea [yam suph], in the land of Edom." If this were a marshy lake close to Egypt, this would certainly be a strange place for Solomon to build his great fleet. But geographers know Elath is a port at the northernmost end of the Gulf of Aqaba.

Notice also Numbers 33, which mentions the stops the Israelites made in the wilderness of the Sinai. After crossing "the sea," they camped in Marah, then Elim. And "they moved from Elim and camped by the Red Sea [yam suph]" (verse 10). How could they have crossed a "sea of reeds" and, after many days of travel, still camped by that same "sea of reeds"? No body of water in the region except the Red Sea would have been enough for the Israelites to have traveled so long and still be close to its coast. Other references that support the Red Sea are Numbers:21:4 and Jeremiah:49:21.

Which route did the Israelites take, and at what point did they cross the sea? We cannot know for sure. However, one author of several works on biblical history offers this perspective: "The crossing of Israel . . . cannot be explained as a wading through a swamp. It required a mighty act of God, an act so significant both in scope and meaning that forever after in Israel's history it was the paradigm against which all of his redemptive and saving work was measured" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests , Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1987, p. 66).

David L. Nunn

David L. Nunn's picture

I agree with your conclusion. If anyone has any doubt, they could also read Exodus 14:22 and 29 which say the water was a wall on their right hand and left. Verse 27 talks about the sea returning to "its full depth" and verse 28 says it covered the Egyptians. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul compares the Red Sea crossing to a baptism (which if done biblically, is a full immersion). All of these verse suggest the Red Sea, not some marsh or Reed Sea.


wilfdodds's picture

i just watched a programme titled 10 things you did not know about sunamies.BBC i player,presented by Dr ian stewart (geologist).A proven fact that a sunami created 'back draft' to expose the sea reeds for 20 minutes thus allowing moses to cross this marshy area.When the sunami waters came back in to drown pharo's army.The light moses saw that guided him was from the erupting volcano that caused the sunami....interesting.


joshdills89's picture

There is no other explanation for the crossing of the red sea other than divine intervention. The whole tsunami proposal is a little ridiculous, even from a scientific standpoint. Millions of people crossed the stretch of water in twenty minutes with all of their belongings? Hardly. A divine act of God is the only logical explanation.

Messianic Min. ...

Messianic Min. Malachi's picture

A simple solution to the Red Sea / Reed Sea puzzle.
"Other scholars prefer a southern route, pointing to evidence that they feel demonstrates that yam suph may mean "sea at the end of the world,..."
The other evidence was unspecified but praise Yah, was reveled to me during a discussion with my wife Tamar, who is learning Hebrew. I mentioned the word "suph" and she said it means "end". We did further investigation and discovered that Google translate confirmed the multiple meaning of suph.
The Hebrew text of Exodus has ים סוף (Yam Suph). In Hebrew סוף can be pronounced as both “Suph” and “Soph”.
Suph translates to “reeds” but when spoken and pronounced Soph, it means “end”.
So “Yam soph” means "sea at the end”; to be better understood as “Sea at the End of the known world".
The word meanings are in Strongs H5486 & H5488. Strangely Strongs phonetically spells both the same as “sûph”, which may sound like "saph" and so apparently matches neither Hebrew word.
In Aramaic they use two very different words; “the end” is spelt "amlws" and “reed” is spelt "aynq", which shows that the Aramaic translators also missed the alternative meaning of “The End”. "Reed Sea" is simply an error.


kennyray's picture

For a while I thought the Sea of Reeds was a shallow in the nile delta region, even though it seemed strange that the children of Yisra'el (Israel) journeyed from Mount Hor by the way of the Sea of Reeds in Numbers:21:4. It did not make since to go all the way back to the nile delta. But, one day my Heavenly Father showed me a verse that I have read before but did not see. The verse He showed me was 1 Kings:9:26, then I knew the Sea of Reeds had to be the Red Sea of today.

As far as a Tsunami being responsible for the crossing of the children of Yisra'el, I do not accept this theory. Number 1: The Scriptures say Elohim caused sea to go back by a strong east wind in Exodus:14:21. Number 2: The men on foot of the children of Yisra'el were 600,000 beside children in Exodus:12:37. If there were 600,000 men on foot then when you add the women and children they would have numbered well over one million. And when you add the carts that carried all the spoils of Egypt, it seems impossible that the children of Yisra'el could have crossed the Red Sea, even at its narrowest crossing in just 20 minutes. I believe this theory of a Tsunami is just another of man to take away the power of Elohim

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