American Civics Research Library

Contact Us

 

Bible Reference Page

 

Red Sea or Sea of Reeds?

Two different Seas

By:  David Deschesne

By:  David Deschesne

   In the King James Bible (as most others, too) the Red Sea is referred to many times as the sea Moses parted in the Exodus from Egypt.  However, in the original Hebrew text it is not the Red Sea to which they were referring, but ים-סוּף the Sea of Reeds .

     If you have a Strong’s Concordance, you will notice two separate listings for “Red.”  The first listing is where red is used to refer to a color.  The second listing is where ‘red’ is used to refer to the Red Sea.  Strong’s identifies the first ‘red’ in Hebrew as אדםadam’ and variations with that Hebrew root word (Strong's numbers: 119, 122, 132,) which means the color red, to turn red, to have a reddish hue, etc.

      The second ‘red’ listed in Strong’s, the one referring to the Red Sea, is translated from Hebrew as סוּף soof’ (Strong's number 5488) – which means ‘reed’ in English, which can mean any freshwater plant that is a reed, like a papyrus in Egypt, or a cattail in the U.S.  Soof is used in Exodus 2:3 to refer to the reeds on the bank of the Nile amongst which Moses was placed as a baby.

      According to the original Hebrew texts, the Israelites never crossed the Red Sea; they crossed a Sea of Reeds.  This is verified in The Torah:  A Modern Commentary, and with the original Hebrew words “yam soof  (yam = sea; soof = reeds) being used every time the Red Sea is referred to in the.1

      While the Red Sea did exist in the time of the Israelites,  none of the four hypotheses of their route intersects it.(see diagram).   The Sea of Reeds is believed to have been a marshy, freshwater area north of the Gulf of Suez, near one of the currently existing nearby lakes.  In the map below, there are several "Sea of Reeds" highlighted with circles.    Moses appears to have parted the Sea of Reeds,  not the Red Sea.  “The older translation ‘Red Sea’ is merely an interpretation of where the Israelites might have crossed over but is not a proper rendition of the text.”2

   “But the name of the Red Sea is not so easily traced.  Some think it was given from its contiguity to the countries of Edom (red), others derive it from its coral rocks, while a third class ascribe the origin of the name to an extremely red appearance of the water in some parts, caused by a numberless multitude of small sea-weeds.  This sea, at its northern extremity, separates into two smaller inlets - the eastern called anciently the Elanitic Gulf, now the Gulf of Akaba; and the western, the Heroopolite Gulf, now the Gulf of Suez, which, there can be no doubt, extended much more to the north anciently than it does now.  It was toward the latter the Israelites marched.”3

     The reeds in Egypt at that time were papyrus  - similar to our "cattails" in the United States.  Cattails can grow as tall as eight feet and are usually found in swampy, muddy areas.  Because of the nature of swamps and low-lying areas, cattails, in many cases, cover large areas; when viewed from a short distance away, the cattails do indeed look like a "sea of cattails," because when the wind blows they appear to have "waves" as they sway to and fro.  The word "sea" can be used in its more traditional sense to denote an expanse of water; but it can also be used as an idiom to describe a "sea of cattails," a "sea of people," a "sea of daffodils,” a “sea of” - any collection of similar things that can be seen as a whole.

   I can only imagine how an army of heavy chariots and soldiers would have been bogged down in a "sea of reeds."   In the case of a sea of reeds, Moses and the Israelites would have had just as much trouble traversing a veritable 'jungle' of reeds in a potentially ten-foot deep swamp as the army would have without some sort of Divine intervention.  Yes, I believe Moses did part the "Sea of Reeds" with Divine intervention and led the Israelites through an otherwise impassable area.  The Hebraic context takes nothing away from that miraculous act under the proper reading of the text.  An army of men can drown in ten feet of water just as easily as in an ocean - especially considering the additional problem of mud, reeds, etc. that can be found in swampy areas.

    According to Strong's, the word 'red' is used in the New Testament only twice to refer to the ‘Red Sea.’  However, upon closer examination, the Strong's Greek cross reference for ‘Red’  (No. 2281 - Greek: thalassa - sea) - is the same as the cross reference for the word ‘Sea’ - 2281!  According to Strong's The New Testament Greek doesn't even make reference to the color red when referring to the Red Sea, simply a “sea.”  Red was likely added in by translators in order to uphold a verbal tradition that came about at a later date.

     While God can part an entire literal ocean if He wants to, that's not what the story appears to say in its original language as it reads in Exodus. 

 

Notes:

1.  The Torah; A Modern Commentary, W. Gunther Plaut & Bernard J. Bambgerger, ©1981 The Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

2. ibid, p. 478.

3. A Commentary; Critical, Experimental and Practical on the Old and New Testaments, Rev. Jamieson, DD; Rev. Fausset, A.M.; and Rev. Brown, D.D., ©1945 WM B Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 322.

 

 

 

Click photo to enlarge the map. map: The Torah; A Modern Commentary, W. Gunther Plaut & Bernard J. Bambgerger, ©1981 The Union of American Hebrew Congregations.