What was the name of the sea which God separated for the Israelites?
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen.” And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and when the morning appeared, the sea returned to its full depth, while the Egyptians were fleeing into it. So the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. Then the waters returned and covered the chariots, the horsemen, and all the army of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them. Not so much as one of them remained. But the children of Israel had walked on dry land in the midst of the sea, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.Exodus 14:26-29
In this prose description of events, notice that the body of water is simply called “the sea.” There is no proper name for it.
The following chapter, Exodus 15, is a poem known as the “Song of the Sea.” It’s a nominee for the Oldest Part of the Bible Award along with the “Song of Deborah” (Judges 5:2-31). It praises God for saving the Israelites from the Egyptians and then goes on to describe how other Israelite enemies such as the Canaanites and Philistines were terrified by His strength:
“Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea;
His chosen captains also are drowned in the Red Sea.
The depths have covered them;
They sank to the bottom like a stone.
“Your right hand, O Lord, has become glorious in power;
Your right hand, O Lord, has dashed the enemy in pieces.
And in the greatness of Your excellence
You have overthrown those who rose against You;
You sent forth Your wrath;
It consumed them like stubble.
And with the blast of Your nostrils
The waters were gathered together;
The floods stood upright like a heap;
The depths congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy said, “I will pursue,
I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil;
My desire shall be satisfied on them.
I will draw my sword,
My hand shall destroy them.”
You blew with Your wind,
The sea covered them;
They sank like lead in the mighty waters.”Exodus 15:4-10, emphasis added
On the surface, it seems that the older poetic source of the story knows exactly where it happened: at the Red Sea. It is the younger prose description that lacks detail. But your Bible translation is deceiving you unless it includes a footnote on verse 4 that reads something like, “Lit. Sea of Reeds.” (If your Bible doesn’t have that footnote, then I strongly suggest you find and read one that does.)
In the Hebrew, the words that our Bibles tend to render as “Red Sea” are yam suph. Yam means “sea.” No problem there. But suph is a little trickier. Let’s start by saying what it is not: “red.” The word we would translate as “red” is adam, as in that guy named Adam whom God created from rich red-colored dirt and whose skin can be reddened by the sun. Obviously this is a common word that would have been known to Moses as he composed the Song of the Sea, so if he had meant “Red Sea,” then I think he would have sung it. And if somehow Moses had gotten it wrong in the original version, then the generations of people who sang yam suph for hundreds of years would have changed it, or the scribes who finally wrote the song down would have corrected it. And if all those people missed the “error,” then so did every other Bible character who ever mentioned the event! Check out Joshua 24:6; Deuteronomy 11:4; Psalm 106:7,9,22; Psalm 136:13-15; and Nehemiah 9:9. Those all say yam suph, too, not yam adam.
So why have Bible translators knowingly wrongly translated yam suph for so long? Tradition.
The first translation of the Hebrew Bible—and oldest complete manuscript in any language by about one thousand years—is the Greek translation called the Septuagint. It made the first attempt to “correct” what presumably had been written in the even older Hebrew manuscripts we no longer have today. It replaced what we would call an improper noun and adjective, yam suph, with a proper noun, Red Sea, presumably in an attempt to help readers more quickly understand where the actions were taking place. This is a common translational practice. I can promise you there are tons of places where your Bible reads, “Jesus said” or “Paul said” or “Methuselah said,” but the Greek or Hebrew originals just have “he said.” In a string of he-saids, he-saids, he-saids, adding the antecedent is helpful and often necessary.
Other translations then followed the Septuagint’s lead without really questioning whether the addition was correct. The Latin translation did it in 400 CE, the King James Version did it 1611, and almost all modern translations in all languages have followed suit. The one exception on my bookshelf is the Jewish Study Bible, and that’s because it doesn’t use the Septuagint as its basis for English translation of this phrase as do all the others I own.
It is impossible to know exactly why the translators of the Septuagint decided to edit the Hebrew, but the best idea I’ve heard is that yam suph is used in other places in the Bible where other geographical details make it clear that those writers were referring to the Red Sea, as we call it today. For example, “King Solomon also built a fleet of ships at Ezion Geber, which is near Elath on the shore of the yam suph, in the land of Edom” (1 Kings 9:26). There is little doubt that this passage is talking about our Red Sea based on the three other locations mentioned. But the problem is, we can’t assume that yam suph always means the Red Sea. It would be like assuming highway always refers to Route 66 or ice cream always means Baskin-Robbins’s World Class Chocolate (if only it did!).
So if it doesn’t mean “red,” then what does suph mean? Most scholars today will tell you it comes to Hebrew from an Egyptian word that means “reed.” Yam suph translates to “Reed Sea” and describes a shallow body of water where papyrus reeds can grow. A lot of researchers really like this idea because it makes God’s dividing of the sea physically possible and not necessarily miraculous: a strong wind would be enough to carve a path in a papyrus marsh. (Of course it is difficult to then imagine an entire army drowning in the same papyrus marsh, but those researchers tend to ignore that problem with their interpretations.)
But isn’t it odd that passages such as 1 Kings 9:26, which very obviously is referring to the Red Sea, would describe that body of water as a sea of reeds when it has always been too deep and too salty to grow papyrus on its shores? Of course it is. You might as well call frozen yogurt “ice cream”!
Allow me to suggest that we don’t actually understand what the ancient writers meant by suph. In 1984 a religious studies professor suggested to Biblical Archaeology Review readers that suph might not be an Egyptian loan word meaning “reed,” but may in fact be related to the Hebrew word soph, meaning “end.”[i] This results in yam suph meaning something like “sea at the end [of the world].” In that case, the improper noun yam suph could describe any large body of water where a distant shore could not be seen or had not been discovered. In the ancient Near East, this could have described the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, or even the Persian Gulf.
The “end” translation never caught on in theological circles, but its sheer reasonableness reminds me that no one knows everything when it comes to Scripture. Even simple solutions to big problems such as yam suph can be overlooked when thousands of years of tradition have so trained us to believe what may or may not be correct. Today, thanks to two separate traditions, we have the people who believe wholeheartedly that God split the Red Sea only because that’s what King James said. We also have the people who scoff at the Red Sea tradition and say God (or no one) let a medium-sized wind or tide move about twelve inches of water somewhere along the Nile River. Might I suggest they both may be wrong?
My mother-in-law likes to say, “When we all get to heaven, we will all know that we were all wrong.” As the Grimm brothers would never learn the “original” story of Cinderella, we probably won’t ever know what body of water God parted. This may, in fact, be by design. God doesn’t want us to spend our lives trying to track down every movement of the Exodus only to hang our faiths on what we find based on our translations. He wants us to recognize how mighty and loving He is—so loving that He would alter His own creation for a day to protect His people.
[i] Bernard F. Batto, “Red Sea or Reed Sea?” Biblical Archaeology Review 10, no. 4 (1984): 56–63, https://members.bib-arch.org/biblical-archaeology-review/10/4/3.