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The Bible and Archaeology

The Red Sea or the Reed Sea?

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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 Exodus 15:4Pharaoh’s chariots and his host has he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea.
American King James Version×
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 Numbers 21:4And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.
American King James Version×
and Jeremiah 49:21 Jeremiah 49:21The earth is moved at the noise of their fall, at the cry the noise thereof was heard in the Red sea.
American King James Version×

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).

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  • David L. Nunn

    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
    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
    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. Malachi
    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
    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 Numbers 21:4And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.
    American King James Version×
    . 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 1 Kings 9:26And king Solomon made a navy of ships in Eziongeber, which is beside Eloth, on the shore of the Red sea, in the land of Edom.
    American King James Version×
    , 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 Exodus 14:21And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
    American King James Version×
    . Number 2: The men on foot of the children of Yisra’el were 600,000 beside children in Exodus 12:37 Exodus 12:37And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children.
    American King James Version×
    . 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
  • Kryptir
    I don’t think the tsunami idea is that far fetched. God is the ultimate scientist and master of Rube Goldberg machines. Water needed to part so why not create a series of events in order to make it happen? Tsunami’s can cause water to recede for longer than 20 minutes. Saying it’s not possible is not giving God enough credit. If you look at the wind touchdown idea it’s also a ton of science we can barely comprehend to create this effect. It took a super computer hours to simulate the event. I don’t think God would have done something as simple as just parting the waters through magical power, even though God could. If you look at the history of man this is rarely how major events happen. It’s always a series of events that lead up to a conclusion. Back then you can only live in the event. Now we can see all from the outside thanks to internet. What chain lead up to the major event. God invented everything long before humans found the science. God created the science for all of today’s inventions long ago. Atoms, neutrons, wave lengths were all determined way before man found them. Humans don’t invent anything. We simply find out ways God created the universe and the science he used
  • linda effenberger
    Was that a tsunami storm that just blew over the waters of the Red Sea and did not affect any other area? We can try to explain away what God did as a natural occurrence, but what I read, tells me that it was a wind that caused an unnatural event. Not only did the wind divide the waters, but the wind turned the sea bed into dry land! (See Ex. 14:16, 21-22; Ex. 15:19). Over a million people on the shore were not blown away! God said to Moses to “tell the Israelites to move on” (Ex. 14:15). Maybe the Israelites started moving right away as the water parted before them. Maybe it took most of the night for them to move across to the other side. “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place” (Ex. 14:27). God does not do magic! The pillar of fire/cloud was real. The Israelites were to visualize his great power so that they would fear him and put their trust in him. How did God do this great miracle? “By the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up. The surging waters stood firm like a wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea” (Ex. 15:8)…”But you blew with your breath, and the sea covered them” (the enemy - v. 10).

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