Search the Site


Red Sea


Measuring approximately 1200 miles long and 190 miles across at its widest point in between Africa and Arabia, the Red Sea is famously known as the place where God rescued the Israelites as they crossed a body of water and left behind the Egyptian cavalry.

But is the Red Sea really the sea of the exodus?

Did the Israelites cross at the Red Sea?
In the account of the exodus, the Israelites departed from Rameses (Exod 12:37; Num 33:5), identified as Pi-Ramesses in the eastern Nile Delta. Pi-Ramesses lies some 250 miles from the northern tip of the Red Sea, so some scholars argue that the Israelites actually crossed the sea’s northwestern inlet, the Gulf of Suez.

Red Sea, however, is not an accurate translation for Hebrew yam suph. While yam means “sea,” suph may mean “reed” (Exod 2:3, Exod 5; Isa 19:6). Since reeds do not thrive in salt water, some scholars argue that the sea of the exodus must be a fresh water lagoon in northeastern Egypt, closer to the Mediterranean Sea.

In any case, suph cannot mean “red.” The name Red Sea can be traced to a name that ancient Greek geographers gave to a vast sea that runs from both northern inlets of the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean: erythra thalassa, which literally means “red sea.” The name erythra thalassa is the equivalent to yam suph in the Septuagint. Although it is inaccurate to equate these two bodies of water, the Greek name reflects an attempt to locate a significant event at a known geographical point. This association became widely accepted (Jdt 5:13; Wis 10:18; Wis 19:7; 1Macc 4:9; Acts 7:36; Heb 11:29) and can be seen in the writings of Philo, the expression mare Rubrum in the Vulgate, and the name Red Sea in many English translations of the Bible.

Red, Reed, or End Sea?
The sea of the exodus is not always called yam suph. Exodus 14 preserves a Priestly tradition of the Israelites crossing an unnamed sea, yam. Sometimes, yam suph and yam appear as completely different bodies of water (Num 33:10-11). At other times, these two names are used interchangeably (Neh 9:9-11). In a handful of texts, yam suph may refer to the Gulf of Aqaba or Eilat, far from Egypt and closer to Edom (1Kgs 9:26; Jer 49:21).

Yam suph may not even have anything to do with plants. An intriguing proposal is to read suph as soph, which means “end.” An “end sea” may have mythical overtones, as the site of a cosmological battle between Yahweh and the Canaanite god Yam (“Sea”). An “end sea” is also fitting as the point where the Israelites entered the wilderness (Exod 13:18; Exod 15:22); the destination of an ancient route (Num 14:25; Deut 2:1) and, in a border list, the edge of the promised land (Exod 23:31).

There is no clear answer to the question on whether or not the Red Sea is the sea of the exodus. Some biblical writers believed that the Israelites crossed at or near the Red Sea, but others placed this important event at a completely different sea, either real or imagined.

  • yoo-philip

    Philip Yoo is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Ezra and the Second Wilderness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).