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Red Sea or Sea of Reeds, Which Is It?

posted by Brad Hirschfield

In responding to an earlier post which shared a Seder ritual designed to help us get out of any tight spot (the literal translation of Mitzrayim, Hebrew name of Egypt) in which we may find ourselves, Zevulun commented:

Rabbi,
Given that you’re writing about the Exodus, I’m hoping that you can clear something up for me. Many Jewish scholars say that the original text translates to Reed Sea or Sea of Reeds, and not the Red Sea as we so often hear. Which is correct, and does it matter?

Thanks for the question Zevulun, especially connected to a holiday which is all about questions. That’s probably because nothing better captures the meaning of being free than the freedom to ask questions. So let’s get to yours.
The Hebrew name for what we call the Red Sea is Yam Suf,


which is certainly not best translated as ‘red sea’. It might be rendered best as ‘sea of reeds’, and it might also be rendered ‘final sea’ (from the Hebrew sof, for end), or even ‘stormy sea’ (from the Hbrew sufa).
Does it matter? I guess that depends on why you read the Bible. If you are interested in the historicity of the story, then it probably matters a great deal. So too, if your interest is archeological and you are trying to determine which body of water the Israelites crossed. All of which is very important, for some readers.
Others are more interested in the poetry of the story, in which case the meaning of the words in the story as it is told is most important. What is evoked by a story in which the protagonists either cross to freedom (the ancient Israelites) or drown (Pharaoh and his army)?
And for others the issue is what lesson they take from the story. What are its enduring truths that can shape our lives and make them better? How might word choice help us to figure that out? Our answers are probably at least a little related to the text.
So, I guess the answer is that it does matter, but it matters differently for each of us – kind of like the bible itself, right?



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Hornblower

posted April 7, 2009 at 11:58 am


And then of course, there are those like me for whom all the possibilities matter :)
Another thing to consider is how our imaginations help us visualize the story. Knowing the correct geography or history may not be ultimately crucial for someone, but that does not mean that knowing the correct term doesn’t help people create a picture in the mind of the event.



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Zevulun

posted April 10, 2009 at 10:31 am


I sincerely appreciate your insight, Rabbi.



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Carolyn Gold

posted April 11, 2009 at 11:35 am


Perhaps we can all agree that there was some form of water involved. If it was the Red Sea, fine. If it was a Sea of Reeds, well reeds grow at water’s edge. If the Children of Israel were chased into the reeds, it must have been pretty swampy, with rather unpleasant creepy crawly things. People might have managed to negotiate getting through the reeds with some difficulty, but it’s easy to imagine how Pharaoh’s chariots would have become bogged down, and maybe even dragged down under. Even looking at it symbolically, the Israelites saw the Other Side as representing freedom and change from the old ways. The Egyptians, on the other hand, couldn’t let go of the old ways and their own blind rigidity and refusal to change was what ultimately may have been their undoing.
Gavriella



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Barbiels

posted April 11, 2009 at 4:35 pm


There is a documentary I saw some time ago called “The Exodus Decoded” that gave a pretty good explanation of the parting of the Red/Reed sea. I found it to be quite informative.



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Dr. Dave

posted April 11, 2009 at 5:51 pm


I read a book sometime ago by a journalist named Blum who wrote a paperback entitled Gold of Exodus. In it he reasons that the Sea of Reeds may have provided a narrow passageway or isthmus when the water level was low but the Pharoah’s chariot would have sunk into the Sea of Reeds. He also changes the geography so that the site of Mount Sinai is in Saudi Arabia where he claims to have found caves etc. related to Moses’ encounter with God and the rocks that supported the Golden Calf. I don’t know if it is still in print, but it had some interesting photos and maps. I agree that historicity is not the point, but archaeology is an interesting side light to the Bible.
Hag Sameach!!



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Phil

posted November 4, 2009 at 7:40 pm


The island 50 miles north of Cyprus exploded causing a tsunami which caused the waters of the ‘Reed Sea’ to recede so the Israelites could cross. They crossed and then the Tsunami came, washing Pharoh and his army.
Ancient historians of many civilisations documented the island exploding at the same time and also mentioned that the plume of smoke could be seen from a great distance, darkening the sky.
Pumice stone which was washed from the island can be found on the top of the banks surrounding the ‘Reed Sea’ which can be geologically traced back to the island.
So the answer is they crossed at the Reed Sea.



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Garry from Romania

posted January 29, 2010 at 12:38 am


There is a new book out THE QUEST FOR THE LOCATION OF THE RED SEA CROSSING, which follows Josephus account of Israel leaving from Letopolis, and that Israel had been moved to the west side of the Nile to work on [repair/build] the pyramids (Antiq. II, 9:1). The Yam Sup is the flooded Delta from the 7th plague.



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Ted Rice

posted February 2, 2013 at 4:50 pm


The words used (Yam Suph) in Hebrew come from ancient Egyptian and definitely mean “Sea of Reeds” in both languages.

Regardless of hair splitting over the name, the Scriptures pinpoint exactly where Yam Suph was (and is) in Numbers 23:31: And I will set thy bounds from the Red sea (Yam Suph) even unto the sea of the Philistines (the Mediterranean), and from the desert (“midbar” or grazing land) unto the river (the Euphrates): for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee.

Putting Yam Suph in the Delta would make the map of Israel rather ridiculous – the only place it works out is if Yam Suph is the Gulf of Aqaba. This is verified by Numbers 14:25 where God tells the Israelites at Kadesh Barnea to turn around and return to the “wilderness” (midbar or pastureland) by way of the Red Sea (Yam Suph). He is telling them to return to the mountainous area east of Aqaba that they had come from, Numbers 12:16, not to return to Egypt, which He had forbidden them to do in Deuteronomy 17:16.

So why would Aqaba have been called the “Sea of Reeds” when reeds are freshwater plants and can’t grow in it? Well, they can grow along it and early explorers noted bulrushes growing in the Wadis running down to the Gulf. It was also more moist 3500 years ago in the Middle East than it is today.

Whatever the reason for the name, the location is rather well documented.



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