Red Sea: What Body of Water Did the Israelites Cross?

The Crossing of the Red Sea by Nicolas Poussin (1633–34). Source: Commons.Wikipedia.org.

This post is excerpted from The Bible Unfiltered by Dr. Michael S. Heiser.

Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus 14 has been spectacularly depicted several times for television and movies. But anyone who retraces the steps of Moses and the Israelites to discover where the crossing occurred finds a significant problem: The “Red Sea” in Israel’s itinerary most likely wasn’t what we think of as the Red Sea.

The problem originates with the biblical Hebrew phrase yam suph, usually rendered as “Red Sea” in English translations. The phrase actually means “sea of reeds” or “reed sea.” The word yam refers to a body of water which, of course, could include something as large as a sea. However, suph does not mean “red”; that word in Hebrew is ʾadom (used in Gen 25:30) or ʾadmoni (used in Gen 25:25).

So the Israelites crossed “the sea of reeds,” which refers to a body of water with reeds in it, most likely papyrus reeds. That description could not apply to the Red Sea since very few parts of the Red Sea are suitable for reeds to grow due to the salt content of the water. The phrase yam suph further complicates the identification of the crossing, since it is used in the Bible for watery locations in or near both prongs of the Red Sea. Some verses describe the eastern prong, the Gulf of Aqabah (1 Kgs 9:26; Exod 23:31; Num 21:4; Judg 11:16), but Num 33:8–10 describes the yam suph as being geographically oriented to the western prong of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez, a few days’ journey from Egypt. This passage also has the Israelites passing “through the midst of the sea (yam)” before they ever get to the yam suph (“Red Sea”):

And they set out from before Hahiroth and passed through the midst of the sea [yam] into the wilderness, and they went a three days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and camped at Marah. And they set out from Marah and came to Elim; at Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there. And they set out from Elim and camped by the Red Sea (yam suph).

It’s possible that when the Israelites emerged from Egypt that they crossed a smaller body of water adjacent to the Red Sea—possibly one of the Bitter Lakes or Lake Timsah—rather than the Red Sea itself. But there’s another option.

Since biblical Hebrew words were originally written without vowels, the phrase yam suph could be read as yam soph. The odd-sounding result would be “the sea of the end” or “the sea of extinction”—a phrase that refers to an ancient cosmological notion that the world was flat and surrounded by a water boundary. In this view, the Israelites would have thought they were approaching the end of the world, venturing out into the desert wilderness and straight into the primeval waters where no one could live.

This view is mythic in tone, but it does not preclude a miraculous historical event. Israelites who believed they were headed to the edge of the world—into the chaotic sea where none could survive—would have interpreted God’s deliverance as an astonishing act of divine power. To land safely on the other side of death’s realm would be miraculous.

Although we can’t determine the precise location of the crossing, the various possibilities in no way rule out God’s providential intervention on behalf of his people.

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why is the bible hard to understandThis article is adapted from Dr. Heiser’s book The Bible Unfiltered.

Dr. Michael S. Heiser is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host.

His newest book, The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things, is now on pre-order.

He’s taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

 

Comments

  1. Heiser is likely right to identify one of the bitter lakes north of the Red Sea as the “Sea of Reeds” which Israel crossed. The reeds no doubt lined the shore extensively from which this sea or northerly extension of the Red Sea gained its name. Also, it is not widely recognized that the middle of the 3rd millennium closes the final stage of the demise of the “Green Sahara” during which time the water table in northern Africa was higher and waters were more abundant than today (though still largely desert). Thus, the sea that Israel crossed could have been deeper (much deeper?) than today, and perhaps even have been connected with the larger body of the Red Sea itself at that time.

  2. Richard Nazarenus says:

    I’d strongly recommend to Dr. Heiser and others interested in this subject to read “The Lost Sea of the Exodus: A Modern Geographical Analysis,” Second Edition, (GeoTech, San Antonio, TX, 2016), a PhD dissertation by Glen A. Fritz. It is available at http://www.patternsofevidence.com. To my mind, he presents an Exodus route that is much more faithful to the Scriptures, including the extraordinary miracle of crossing Yam Suph.

    • Andrew Mckenzie says:

      I believe would already be familiar with this work. He discusses at length how the dating put forward by Patterns of Evidence is wrong in the current podcast series he is doing on Exodus. Without going and checking the transcripts I’m not sure but expect he would address this same evidence when discussing location of Sinai and the Reed Sea. Head over to NakedBible Podcast website where you can catch all the episodes include full transcripts to better understand his views than what I could do in this short space.

      • Richard Nazarenus says:

        My impression is that Dr. Fritz is not necessarily connected with Patterns of Evidence; his dissertation is offered as a resource on that site. In my opinion, Dr. Fritz’s work should be considered in its own right.

        This discussion makes me think all the more that Dr. Fritz’s work should be offered as a Logos resource–if he would permit that.

        As for Patterns of Evidence, Timothy Mahoney is candid about opposition from various academic circles regarding his research and conclusions. He deserves a careful hearing as well.

        I have no connection with Dr. Fritz (or with Patterns of Evidence–other than my viewing/reading some of their materials). Logos offers resources far more controversial than this topic. Dr. Fritz’s work is fascinating and thorough. It deserves a wider audience.

  3. Richard Nazarenus says:

    A few more thoughts on Glen A. Fritz and “The Lost Sea of the Exodus: A Modern Geographical Analysis”: Dr. Fritz is a dentist who went on to earn a PhD in cartography specifically because of his interest in this issue. He has also personally traveled extensively in the area in discussion. The book contains a wealth of information including a linguistic debunking of the “Yam Suph = Sea of Reeds” theory, careful analysis of Scripture passages on Yam Suph with respect to geography, reproductions of many of the earliest maps of the region (including their inaccurate perceptions of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba), Landsat images, photography (including his personal photography of the area). His work deserves much wider attention.

  4. Richard Nazarenus says:

    In my opinion, this resource would be an outstanding addition to Logos!

  5. Brent Little says:

    Josh McDowell dealt with this subject in the 70’s. It was the brainchild of liberals who doubted the miraculous. I’m surprised it is still in favor with some. The Sea of Reeds was shallow; as Josh pointed out, and it would have been a greater miracle than parting the Red Sea as Pharaoh’s army would have drown in a few feet of water.