Skip to: Site Menu | Main content


In My View the Biblical Sea of Reeds is the Red Sea





By Colin Humphreys
Professor and Director of Research
Selwyn College,
Cambridge
August 2011


When I was at school, our religious education teacher told us that “Red Sea” was the biggest mistranslation in the Bible. “Always remember”, he said, “the correct translation is ‘Reed Sea’, not ‘Red Sea’. Moses and the Israelites didn’t cross the Red Sea, they crossed an inland reedy lake called the Reed Sea”. This interpretation of the Reed Sea is, of course, the overwhelming view of biblical scholars today, whether or not they believe the Exodus account of the sea crossing to be factual or a legend. Scholars believe in the Reed Sea interpretation for a very good reason: there can be no doubt that the Hebrew words yam suph (in, for example, Exodus 13:18), which the King James Version of the Bible renders as “Red Sea”, literally means “Sea of Reeds”. Since reeds only grow in fresh water, and not in salt water, most biblical scholars believe that the yam suph crossing refers to an inland reedy lake such as Lake Menzaleh, Sirbonis, Ballah, Timsah or the Bitter Lakes. However, in my view the situation is not so simple.

As is well known, the oldest complete version of the Old Testament that we possess today is the Septuagint. The Septuagint version of the Pentateuch dates back to the third century BC and is a translation from the Hebrew into Greek by Jewish scholars living in Alexandria in Egypt. When these scholars translated into Greek the Hebrew words yam suph, they deliberately did not give the Greek words for “Sea of Reeds”, but instead rendered yam suph as erythra thalassa, which is Greek for “ Sea”. The most probable explanation of this must be that in their tradition, the Jewish writers of the Septuagint believed that Moses and the Israelites had indeed crossed the Red Sea, and not some reedy inland lake. The third century BC Septuagint is the earliest known reference to where the yam suph crossing occurred: it was at the Red Sea. Since the Septuagint was written in Alexandria, only about 140 miles away from inland reedy lakes like the Bitter Lakes, we must give the evidence from the Septuagint significant weight.

When the writers of the New Testament referred to the Sea Moses crossed (Acts 7:36, Hebrews 11:29), the Greek words they used were erythra thalassa, meaning “Red Sea”. Similarly the Latin Vulgate version of the Old Testament rendered yam suph as mare rubrum meaning “Red Sea”. Essentially, all these versions followed the lead given by the Septuagint. Thus both Jewish tradition from at least the third century BC onward and Christian tradition from the first century AD onward have consistently interpreted yam suph as “Red Sea” and not as “Sea of Reeds”. Incidentally, the Red Sea really does look red at certain times because of red coral being close to the surface at low tides, and because of reflections off the red granite and red sandstone mountains bordering many stretches of the Red Sea and its two gulfs.

Does the Old Testament itself identify yam suph with any particular body of water? It does in several places, but the clearest and the most unambiguous is in 1 Kings 9:26, “King Solomon also built ships at Ezion Geber, which is near Elath, in Edom, on the shore of the Red Sea [yam suph].” Presumably the wise Solomon would not have built his ships on an inland reedy lake, since he would not have been able to get them out! The precise locations of ancient Elath and Ezion Geber are uncertain, although many scholars believe that Elath was in, or close to, modern Aqaba in Jordan, on the northeast side of the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. However, we do know that ancient Edom was a country adjacent to the Gulf of Aqaba, hence we can say with reasonable certainty that the biblical yam suph is the Gulf of Aqaba, which is one arm of the Red Sea (the other arm being the Gulf of Suez). Yam suph may refer to other bodies of water as well, but I suggest that it is beyond reasonable doubt that the biblical yam suph includes the Gulf of Aqaba. Hence it would seem that the rendering of yam suph as “Red Sea” in the Septuagint, the New Testament, and the KJV must be at least partially correct.

An obvious question is why ancient writers would call the salt-water Gulf of Aqaba yam suph, meaning Sea of Reeds, when reeds only grow in fresh water? Although salt-tolerant reeds and rushes can grow in slightly salty lakes, marshes and estuaries, they cannot and do not grow in the Red Sea and its two gulfs (Suez and Aqaba) because they are too salty. This is true today, and we can reasonably expect it to have been true at the times when the Old Testament was written and when the events recorded occurred. So why does the Old Testament use the term yam suph, which undoubtedly means “Sea of Reeds”, to describe the Gulf of Aqaba, which, because of its saltiness, is inherently reed free?

I believe the answer to the above question lies in the unusual geography of the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. The Czech explorer Alois Musil, in The Northern Hegaz, written in 1926, describes an extremely unusual feature of the northern seashore at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba: it contains fresh water. He writes: “At low tide the rocky shore was laid bare for a distance of about two hundred yards, uncovering numerous springs which gushed forth with great strength.” Musil then emphasises the excellent quality of this fresh water: “The animals [camels] 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.”

What is the origin of the water in these freshwater springs at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba? It comes from rain water falling on the mountains bordering the Arabah. The water is then funnelled along and under the sand of the Arabah down towards the Gulf of Aqaba, where it breaks out on the seashore as freshwater springs. The head of the Gulf of Aqaba thus has an extremely unusual physical geography. The seashore is a boundary between the salt waters of the gulf to the south and the freshwater coming down to the seashore from the north. In addition, Edward Robinson (Biblical Researches in Palestine, 1841) describes a marsh at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba when he visited it in 1838, which would have been a fresh water marsh fed by freshwater funnelled down the Arabah. This marsh still exists today, and reeds grow in it today, as they do in other places around the head of the Gulf of Aqaba (Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus, 2003). I suggest that when ancient travellers found freshwater springs and reeds at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, they would have recognised this juxtaposition as extremely unusual. In fact, it was so unusual that they called the place yam suph, the Sea of Reeds.

In summary, it is clear from the biblical reference to where Solomon built his ships, that yam suph refers to the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. By extension, it may also refer to the Gulf of Suez and to the main body of the Red Sea as well. I have found no evidence that yam suph was ever used to refer to an inland reedy lake. If my arguments are accepted, the Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek Septuagint, and the New Testament all agree that the crossing of Moses and the Israelites occurred at the Hebrew yam suph, meaning Sea of Reeds, which was later called in Greek erythra thalassa, meaning Red Sea, both terms referring to the Gulf of Aqaba and probably also to the Gulf of Suez and the main body of the Red Sea.





Comments (5)


I think Prof. Humphreys is correct and his article will be helpful for many.

For any who are confused: in paragraph 2, line 9, Humphreys may have meant the phrase at the end of the sentence to read "...which is Greek for Red Sea."

Humphreys' explanation will undoubtedly prompt the question: Why would the Israelites need to cross the Gulf of Aqaba on their way out of Egypt? A glance at the map seems to indicate this would be far out of their way.

My answer would be: Ancient Israelites could easily get confused about geographical details. Perhaps Humphreys has a different answer, especially if he believes "the events recorded occurred" (par. 5).
#1 - Peter Milloy - 08/25/2011 - 16:20



It would have been the miracle of miracles for God to have drowned the Egyptian army in such shallow water as the Reed Sea. Although, He can do much with little.
#2 - Ken Goins - 12/14/2011 - 17:52



"It would have been the miracle of miracles for God to have drowned the Egyptian army in such shallow water as the Reed Sea."

Ken, I understand your thinking, but consider that while it may have been shallow to begin with, that theory doesn't take into consideration the force of the water God had displaced which then cascaded down upon Pharohs Army. One only has two look at the aftermath of the Japanese Tsunami to see the fury of rushing water.
#3 - Andrew Nelson - 01/26/2012 - 11:42



It has been suggested that the word in question is simply not the Egyptian word, as popularly accepted among scholars, which means "reed", but is rather a Hebrew word, which can be found alongside the Egyptian entry in Strong's Concordance, and has quite an interesting root meaning. By the way,why would Moses have used an Egyptian word anyway? I'm just wondering, are there any other non-Hebrew words found in the first five books of the Old Testament?
Consider the following quote from Wikipedia:
"More conjecturally, it has also been suggested that suph may be related to the Hebrew suphah ("storm") or soph ("end"), referring to the events of the Reed/Red Sea escape itself:

The crossing of the sea signaled the end of the sojourn in Egypt and it certainly was the end of the Egyptian army that pursued the fleeing Hebrews (Ex 14:23-29; 15:4-5). After this event at yam suph, perhaps the verb soph, meaning "destroy" and "come to an end," originated (cf. Amos 3:15; Jer 8:13; Isa 66:17; Psa 73:19). Another possible development of this root is the word suphah, meaning "storm-wind"...The meanings "end" and "storm-wind" would have constituted nice puns on the event that took place at the yam suph.[4]"

That the Red Sea crossing took place across the Gulf of Aqaba is the only logical conclusion IF we take the biblical account as true. For the children of Israel, we are told, appeared to be trapped in the wilderness, and were no longer in Egypt at the point where they crossewd the Red Sea. This is indicated many times in Exodus 13 and 14.
#4 - Scott - 02/28/2012 - 21:21



I have long pondered about this and heard many theories about the issue, but I tend to agree with you on this matter. It seems to best satisfy the many verses of scripture that make reference to this body of water!
#5 - Robert Willing - 01/07/2013 - 15:18






Use the form below to submit a new comment. Comments are moderated
and logged, and may be edited. You must provide your full name.
Inappropriate material will not be posted.

Name
E-mail (Will not appear online)
Comment