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.
Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies, University of British Columbia
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).
Pertaining to the cosmos, i.e. the known universe.
migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.
Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.
The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.
The Latin-language translation of the Christian Bible (mostly from Hebrew and Greek) created primarily by Jerome.
The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.
37The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children.
5So the Israelites set out from Rameses, and camped at Succoth.
3When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the re ... View more
5 Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in ... View more
its canals will become foul,
and the branches of Egypt’s Nile will diminish and dry up,
reeds and rushes will rot away.
13 Then God dried up the Red Sea before them,
She brought them over the Red Sea,
and led them through deep waters;
The cloud was seen overshadowing the camp,
and dry land emerging where water had stood before,
an unhindered way out of the Red Sea,
and a grassy plain out of t ... View more
9 Remember how our ancestors were saved at the Red Sea, when Pharaoh with his forces pursued them.
36 He led them out, having performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years.
29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.
10 They set out from Elim and camped by the Red Sea. 11 They set out from the Red Sea and camped in the wilderness of Sin.
9 “And you saw the distress of our ancestors in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea. 10 You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servant ... View more
Solomon's Commercial Activity
26King Solomon built a fleet of ships at Ezion-geber, which is near Eloth on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom.
21 At the sound of their fall the earth shall tremble; the sound of their cry shall be heard at the Red Sea.
18 So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle.
Bitter Water Made Sweet
22Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderne ... View more
25 Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites live in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.”
1 we journeyed back into the wilderness, in the direction of the Red Sea, as the Lord had told me and skirted Mount Seir for many days.
31 I will set your borders from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates; for I will hand over to you the inhabitants ... View more