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:
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?