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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).