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 (
Red Sea, however, is not an accurate translation for Hebrew yam suph. While yam means “sea,” suph may mean “reed” (
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 (
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 (
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 (
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.
- Hoffmeier, James D. Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Yoo, Philip Y. “Once Again: The Yam Sûp of the Exodus.” Journal of Biblical Literature 137:3 (2018): 581–97.
- Roskop, Angela R. The Wilderness Itineraries: Genre, Geography, and the Growth of Torah. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011.