Red Sea or Reed Sea?

By Roy Hanu Hart, M.D., aka Doctor Faith on June 1, 2011

“So God led the people around by the desert road towards the Red Sea” (Exodus 13:18).  This will be our starting point.

There’s no problm reading the verse in English, which has  yam suph translated as “Red Sea.” The Hebrew yam refers to a sea, lake, or river, and raises no translationary issue. But suph translates as reeds, rushes, marshes. Thus, yam suph is quite rightly translated as “Sea of Reeds,” not “Red Sea.”

Leading biblial scholars, such as the “three H’s,” James Hoffmeier, Cornelius Houtman, and James Philip Hyath, maintain that the Israelites waded through  a marshy Sea of Reeds. Most modern biblical scholars have followed suit.

On the other hand, we have the Septuagint, the 3rd-century BCE Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which rendered yam suph as eruthra thalassa, Greek for “Red Sea.” It should be noted that the translators, 72 Alexandrian Jewish scholars, didn’t use the Greek words for “Sea of Reeds.”

They understood only too well that yam suph literally meant “Sea of Reeds,” but they also knew that yam suph actually was the Red Sea. The tradition from Moses to the time of the Septuagint held that yam suph  was indeed the Red Sea, not the Sea of Reeds.

In 1 Kings 9:26, we read,  ”And King Solomon [c. 1000 BCE] made a navy of ships in Ezion Geber, which is besides Eloth, on the shore of the Red Sea [yam suph], in the land of Edom” (KJV). Solomon was building fighting ships to sail on a body of water and not through marshland!

A thousand years later, we have New Testament references to the Red Sea  –     in Acts 7:36 (“[Moses] brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea…”) and Hebrews 11:29 (“By faith they passed through the Red Sea…”) – that use eruthra thalassa, the Greek for Red Sea, and not the Greek words for “Sea of Reeds.” The authors of these two books were Jews who, after all, were fully cognizant of their tradition.

In the 4th-century Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Vulgate, St. Jerome rendered yam suph as mare rubrum to designate the Red Sea, and the King James Version of the Bible (1611) also translated yam suph as Red Sea. The translators knew exactly what they were doing.

Indeed, as already confirmed, yam suph means “Sea of Reeds,” but all the biblical citations imply a Red Sea crossing, not a soggy march through an inland reedy lake, such as Lake Timsah and the Bitter Lakes, a day’s journey from Rameses (q.v.), and two of the modern scholars’ favorite candidates for the Sea of Reeds.

What lay behind God’s plan in leading Moses and the Israelites in the desert to the Red Sea (as stated in Exodus 13:18)?

Moses began the Exodus from Rameses (modern Qantir) in the Nile Delta and followed the ancient trade route to the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. If you saw Lawrence of Arabia, Aqaba will sound familiar.

But where are we geographically in this account? you’re asking. Well, spread your left forefinger and middle finger as far apart as you can.  Your middle finger, pointing northwest, will be the Gulf of Suez, and your forefinger, the Gulf of Aqaba. The dorsum (back) of your hand represents the main body of the Red Sea. The two gulfs are thus projections or extensions of the Red Sea and as such are parts of the Red Sea. In ancient times, the gulfs themselves would also be referred to as the Red Sea. As for Aqaba, it is at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba (near the tip of your index finger).

During the time of the ten plagues visited upon Pharaoh, Moses and Pharaoh were actually sparring. What Moses wanted from Pharaoh was permission to take the Israelites out into the desert three days march from Rameses to sacrifice to the LORD. It was to be three days out and three days back plus one day for offering sacrifice, one week in all. Only Moses, of course, had no intention of returning. He had secured sufficient provisions from Pharaoh to make it to the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, where he would find plenty of fresh water to be able to continue the journey to Mount Sinai. 

We have to remember that the Red Sea, like the Caribbean and North Seas, is a salty sea, as opposed to, for instance, the Sea of Galilee, an inland freshwater lake. Reeds grow only in freshwater rivers, lakes, and seas, not in saltwater seas. The salty Gulf of Aqaba is reed-free, yet it is called yam suph, Sea of Reeds.

Here is where I have to pause to say something about Colin J. Humphreys, minerals engineer, physicist, chemist, astronomer, geologist, and researcher in microprinting, eternal light bulbs, and computer chips in the brain, as well as amateur archeologist and lay biblical scholar, in brief, a contemporary polymath, and my chief source for an up-to-date analysis of  Exodus.

Humphreys is in the vanguard of scholars who are bringing the disciplined methodology and innovative tools of modern science to the study of the Bible. When it comes to the Red Sea versus Reed Seed controversy, the case he presents in his book, The Miracles of Exodus, is quite compelling.

Nevertheless, there is something left unsaid about his version of Moses’ route in the desert. Since the Red Sea is a salty sea, why would Moses expect to find fresh water, and plenty of  it, at Aqaba?

Humphreys is an enthusiastic amateur archeologist and biblical Sherlock Holmes.  Accompanied by his wife,  he spent the Easter week of 1999 at Taba, on the western shore of the Gulf of Aqaba, playing botanical detective. To shorten a long story, he did find great clumps of freshwater reeds, four to six feet high, growing at the northernmost part of the gulf.  He also found evidence that in Roman times the gulf extended farther north than today’s shore and was also — and this is quite fascinating — a reservoir of considerable fresh water back then. (The details are in The Miracles of Exodus.)

How did Humphreys come to find what no one else had ever found? The answer is startingly simple: no one had bothered to look. It is in their nature for scientists to bother to look.

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