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Red Sea or Reed Sea?

2009 November 20
Posted by Ross McIntyre

Yam suph – Hebrew words literally rendered ‘Reed Sea’, and the basis for the theory that the body of water crossed by Moses and the Israelites was a small inland lake, not the great body of water known as the Red Sea today.


There is no doubt that the term for the body of water mentioned in Exodus is to be interpreted ‘Sea of Reeds’. The men translating this passage of scripture most certainly took some prerogative in writing ‘Red Sea’ instead of the Hebrew label ‘Sea of Reeds’. There is no doubt that any reader of Hebrew would notice the difference in the Masoretic text (from which we get the ‘Old Testament’ of our King James Version) and the English rendering in the King James Version itself.


The word suph (‘reed’, ‘reeds’, or ‘rushes’) is used in Exodus 3:2 to describe the basket in which Moses was placed in a futile attempt to hide or disguise him, as well as in all of the ‘Red Sea’ references in the King James’ translation. There is an obvious, unambiguous difference between the Hebrew and English renderings.


This difference raises the question: why did the translators of the King James Version call what is obviously labeled ‘Yam Suph’ the ‘Red Sea’? However, we will soon see that this is the wrong question. The proper question is not “why did the Englishmen call the Reed Sea ‘Red Sea”?’, but “why did the Hebrew men call the Red Sea the ‘Reed Sea’?” In fact, I believe it is one of the most ridiculous arguments ever contrived against the accuracy of scripture to say that the biblical yam suph is not what we know today as the Red Sea.


There really should be no doubt that the body of water mentioned in Exodus is what we now call the Red Sea. Though yam suph is a convenient point of disagreement with partially informed and/or willingly ignorant people, there really is no basis for alleging that the term refers to an ‘inland lake’ or anything at all other than the Red Sea. If we look at a few other places in which the Bible mentions yam suph it will become increasingly clear.


First, it is clear that both Luke (Acts 7:36) and the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 11:29) harbored no doubts that that water of which they spoke was the Red Sea. Indeed, it seems unlikely that a first-century writer would be already so misled by labels of geography so near his own country as to be clueless as to the real identity of the sea. It is more interesting that not only the King James translators, but the septuagint translators tranlated ‘yam suph’ to ‘Red sea.’ Furthermore, the septuagint scholars lived less than 150 miles away from the bodies of water discussed. Therefore, at Bible times at least, the identification was intact, and so it is most certainly not a lapse of ‘modern’ scholarship that the disparity exists.


Secondly, we have the records of King Solomon and King Jehoshaphat which are found in I Kings 9:26 and ­I Kings 22:48, respectively. I Kings 9:26 reads, ‘And 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.’ This is undoubtedly the ‘Red Sea’ we know of, for it would indeed be a great paradox if the Bible were to say both that Solomon was the wisest king that ever reigned and that he built an entire navy on ‘a small inland lake’! I Kings 22:48 reads ‘Jehoshaphat made ships of Tharshish to go to Ophir for gold: but they went not; for the ships were broken at Eziongeber.’ This is the same Eziongeber, the port city on the Gulf of Aqaba (the Red Sea’s eastern ‘finger’; as opposed to the Gulf of Suez) where Jehoshaphat was attempting to follow the presumably good example of Solomon. By these and other examples of ancient writing we know that yam suph is the Red Sea, specifically, the gulf of Aqaba.


So then, the question really is, ‘why did the Hebrew men call the Red SeaReed Sea”?’ The label ‘Red Sea’ is obvious enough: if one does not notice the remarkably red-pigmented terrain of Edom (‘red’), one will notice that the water reflects the red terrain at certain times of the day. This reddish tint is compounded when a sunset is at hand. Also, at certain places along the shore, red coral gives a tint to the water at a spring tide. The sea deserves no title more than it deserves ‘Red.’ Therefore, it is plain to see that the ancient scholars intended to write ‘Red’ and not ‘Reed’ when they identified the Red Sea. Now, the term ‘reed’ sea is a little more difficult. Most significantly, reeds do not grow in salt water, but fresh. The reeds used by Moses’ parents and those used in the papyrus documents of Egyptian use came from the Nile river, not the sea. It is indeed perplexing to see why such a label would be used.


Colin Humphreys is a renowned scientist at Cambridge University. One of his books, The Miracles of Exodus may shed a little light on the mystifying label of the Red Sea. In it, he relates that in 1999, he was on vacation near the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba in Egypt. While surveying the terrain around the tip of Aqaba, Humphreys found many areas of reeds growing in the undeveloped portions of the shore. He attributes this to the numerous springs in the area – most of which are hidden by high tide but revealed at low tide. He relates the story of an explorer who stated ‘the animals did not wish to drink from the fresh water from the well, preferring to go to the sea shore where they very readily drank from the many springs which flowed there [with great strength].’ Thus, we have one seeming paradox of fresh water springs permeating the shoreline of a saltwater sea explaining the other: freshwater plants growing in a salt water environment. Surely the ancients observed this and remarked upon it; perhaps this is the explanation for the application of the old label of yam suph to the Red Sea.

4 Responses Leave One →
  1. November 21, 2009

    Great study! You should teach a class on this lesson.
    Could I use some for a Wed. Night lesson?

  2. Radx permalink
    November 24, 2009

    Good study on Red Sea or Reed Sea.. I enjoyed it

  3. December 10, 2009

    Interesting possible nuance on why the Red Sea was called the Reed Sea. It is also an example of the Rabbinic Maxim, “A good question is better than a good answer.” It seems a very good question. Have you found any historical designations of the area being called the Reed Sea by the “Hebrew Men”? Did the Septuagint translators explain their use of Red Sea over Reed Sea? Since the translators did not choose to translate the term literally, “Reed Sea”, does this mean you would agree with dynamic equivalence in translation, i.e. “Red Sea”? Or, do you believe this is a clarity issue, i.e. erek aphim (Hebrew), literally, ” long of nose”, is translated, long suffering? In other words, it is a modern understanding explaining an ancient idiom.

  4. Ross McIntyre permalink
    December 10, 2009

    To Brian Hatfield: Unfortunately, neither the KJV translators nor the LXX translators (to my knowlege) left notes explaining this designation. However, since it seems obvious that the body of water IS the Red Sea, it would seem that it is indeed a case of a ‘modern’, recognizeable term replacing an older, obscure one, or at least a culturally recognizeable one. As a further example of this, I have heard (though I cannot confirm) that in some cultures, the kidneys are referred to in the same sense that we refer to our hearts (as the seat of our emotions, etc.); thus bible words in these (African?) languages have been translated to ‘kidney’ instead of ‘heart’.

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