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The Yam Suph
"Red Sea" or "Sea of Reeds"?

Dennis Bratcher

There has long been debate about the account of the crossing of the sea in Exodus 13-15, including the number of people, the route taken, the date, etc. For some, these details, none of which are clear from Scripture, have become the battleground for arguing about the inerrancy of Scripture and, indeed, about the very nature of Scripture itself. Of course some simply discount the entire account as tribal legend told to justify the worship of a certain deity. However, for those who want to take the Bible seriously as Scripture, such a central biblical account cannot be so easily dismissed as little more than fanciful fiction.

That commitment to the Bible as Scripture for the Church demands a more careful and reasoned approach to understanding the nature of the account and what it says to us as Scripture. Yet, a careful examination of the exodus account raises questions even among those committed to the Bible as Scripture. While there are various issues, one of the points of debate is the geographical location of the exit from the land and the route taken by the liberated slaves (see also Date of the Exodus).

Some want to preserve a very narrowly literal reading of the exodus narrative. So, for example, many adamantly argue that the point of exit from the land was across the Red Sea "as the Bible clearly says" (at least in some translations). This would mean that the Hebrews journeyed far to the south and before turning across the Red Sea into the Sinai peninsula. Some like to point out the great width of the sea as a further proof of the miraculous nature of the escape, since the Red Sea averages about 150 miles wide.

However, even among those who believe in a more literal perspective of the account of the crossing recognize that this is much too far for a large company to traverse in a single night. The miracle emphasized in the biblical account is the parting of the waters, not the speed at which they crossed or the amount of land covered. It is also a problem that the main body of the Red Sea lies much too far to the south to be reached by a large company of people in such a short span of time. So most would want to contend for the northwestern arm of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez, which is only about 17 miles wide at its narrowest point. This would mean a more northerly route for the exodus with a later turn to the south into the Sinai. But this still raises questions of logistics for the large company of people portrayed in the biblical account.

However, apart from the matter of the number of people is an even more significant issue. The problem is that the biblical account never refers to the Red Sea by name. In fact, nowhere in the entire Old Testament Hebrew text is the body of water associated with the exodus ever called the "Red Sea." Instead in the Hebrew text the reference is to the yam suph. The word yam in Hebrew is the ordinary word for "sea," although in Hebrew it is used for any large body of water whether fresh or salt. The word suph is the word for "reeds" or "rushes," the word used in Ex. 2:3, 5 to describe where Moses' basket was placed in the Nile. So, the biblical reference throughout the Old Testament is to the "sea of reeds" (for example, Num 14:25, Deut 1:40, Josh 4:23, Psa 106:7. etc.).

Now the simple fact is, we do not know exactly what body of water is referenced by yam suph in Scripture, which is the origin of much of the debate. The translation "Red Sea" is simply a traditional translation introduced into English by the King James Version through the second century BC Greek Septuagint and the later Latin Vulgate. It then became a traditional translation of the Hebrew terms. However, many modern translations either translate yam suph as "Sea of Reeds" or use the traditional translation and add a footnote for the Hebrew meaning.

This gives rise to various opinions for the route of the exodus based on landmarks mentioned in the accounts. Historians have not positively identified the cities of Ramses and Pithom mentioned in the Exodus account (1:11), but many locate them in the Nile Delta near an archaeological site identified as the store city of Ramses. The route of the escape is then generally identified, at least in the early stages of the flight from Egypt, to be south from the store city of Ramses in the eastern Nile delta to the Bitter Lakes region. (see -note-)  These are shallow lakes and marshy areas just to the north of the Gulf of Suez. The crossing of the sea would then be across these lakes and marshes, the yam suph where the miracle of deliverance occurred.

After the crossing of the sea, historians then divide between a northern route and a southern route for the rest of the exodus journey. The posited northern route lies across the northern Sinai Peninsula with Mount Sinai identified as Jebel Helal, about 30 miles west of the oasis of Kadesh-Barnea. The southern route assumes a turn directly south after crossing the sea traveling along the eastern shores of the Gulf of Suez into the depths of the southern Sinai Peninsula. In this route Mount Sinai is identified with the traditional Jebel Musa ("Moses' Mountain"). 

The problem of the routes is compounded by the fact that we do not know certainly of the landmarks mentioned, including the location of Mount Sinai that plays such a pivotal role in the story. We must admit that we simply do not know from the biblical account the route of the exodus.  But the fact remains that the biblical text reads "Sea of Reeds." Whatever else is debated, this fact remains and must be taken seriously. That is not speculation or conjecture or trying to do away with the Bible. It is simply a fact of the Hebrew language. And it is a fact of the biblical text in dozens of references. However the debate is discussed, the biblical text cannot be rationalized away from either direction. It cannot be dismissed as fiction, but then neither can it be used to support tradition or doctrine or even ideas about Scripture apart from what the text actually says. We must simply conclude that we do not know the point of exit of the Israelites from the land, nor do we know the route they took.

Apart from those debates about location and geography, a further point for discussion in understanding the meaning of the entire exodus account in terms of what the Israelites wanted to say theologically in how they told the story, is how few times the sea is actually named in the exodus account itself. The full term yam suph occurs only four times in the entire story between Exodus 6 and 15 (10:19, 13:18, 15:4, 22), while the simple term yam occurs dozens of time. As we look more carefully at the whole exodus account as the testimony of the Israelites to their encounter with God at the sea, it suggests two things. 

First, the Israelites were not concerned about precise geographical location. While we in the Western world are concerned with the details of geography and numbers and routes, it is apparent that these details are not a primary concern of the account. While we want to take the term yam suph as a proper name, it is more likely a description of the area. There is no question that the yam, the sea, is an important element in the event and the testimony to it. That can be seen clearly in the Song of the Sea that follows the crossing (Exodus 15:1-18), as well as the recurrence of the reference to the yam throughout Scripture as something to be conquered and subdued by God (see Ba'al worship in the Old Testament).  But the yam suph is far more likely simply the description of the general place that the event occurred, a body of water with a lot of reeds.

Second, it is no accident that the Hebrew term yam is also one of the deities in the Ba'al myth, the god Yamm who represents chaos and threat (often portrayed as a great dragon). In the Ba'al myth, Ba'al, the god of rain and springtime, conquers Yamm, the threat of disorder represented by destructive water (salt) and flood. This does not at all suggest, as some have, that the entire story was constructed from this myth. But it does suggest that the Israelites interpreted the significance of God's actions at the sea in terms of this story that was well known throughout the ancient Near east. They used the cultural categories of the Ba'al myth, and yet transformed them to bear witness to their encounter with the living God (see Speaking the Language of Canaan). 

Against that cultural background, and against the literary context of the preceding narratives in Geneses where water was a symbol of disorder and destruction (1:2, 6:4ff, etc.), the confession in the exodus narrative declares that Yahweh is the God who conquers the chaos and disorder of the world, it is He and He alone who has power over the forces of chaos in the world. Yahweh, not Ba'al, is the one controls water so that he can be given a title used for Ba'al in the Ba'al myths, "Rider of the Clouds (Psa. 68). 

So the Israelites can describe God's victory at the Sea of Reeds not just as a victory over Pharaoh, but over the very forces of chaos in the world in the symbol of water: "At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. (15:8; the "Deep" is another symbol of chaos, the god Tiamat in the Babylonian version of the Ba'al myth, also represented by a great dragon or serpent that lives in the sea). In light of all this, we might understand the significant use of these same symbols in the book of Revelation, where, we can recall, one of the features of the future reign of God is that there will be no more sea (Rev 21:1). 

Now, all of this simply suggests that we have come up far short of understanding the Old Testament as Scripture for the church when we become preoccupied with issues such as the specific location of the crossing of the sea, especially if we are tempted to make it test of whether people believe the Bible or not on such scant and imperfectly understood biblical evidence. It is an interesting historical question and certainly deserves historical investigation. And we can examine the evidence with all the methods of critical biblical and historical investigation to answer that question. But it cannot be allowed to become the central issue of the biblical account, or to shape our theology of Scripture. This also suggests that most of the depth of the meaning of Scripture unfolds as we take the time to hear what it is really saying on its own terms beyond what we think it ought to say to address our own agendas, or to try to address questions that the biblical text itself cannot answer.


-Note-  Some scholars also posit a totally northern route along the coast of the Mediterranean, identifying the yam suph with the coastal shallows known as Lake Sirbonis. However, the notation in Exodus 13:17-18 about God's leadership of the people seems specifically to rule out a totally northern route along the coast, since that would lead directly through the Philistine territory: "13:17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, "If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt." 13:18 So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea." This far northern route was an established trade route known as the Via Maris, the Way of the Sea, and was well fortified by the Philistines. [Return]

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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