By Colin Humphreys
Professor and Director of Research
When I was at school, our religious education teacher told us that “Red Sea” was the biggest mistranslation in the Bible. “Always remember”, he said, “the correct translation is ‘Reed Sea’, not ‘Red Sea’. Moses and the Israelites didn’t cross the Red Sea, they crossed an inland reedy lake called the Reed Sea”. This interpretation of the Reed Sea is, of course, the overwhelming view of biblical scholars today, whether or not they believe the Exodus account of the sea crossing to be factual or a legend. Scholars believe in the Reed Sea interpretation for a very good reason: there can be no doubt that the Hebrew words yam suph (in, for example, Exodus 13:18), which the King James Version of the Bible renders as “Red Sea”, literally means “Sea of Reeds”. Since reeds only grow in fresh water, and not in salt water, most biblical scholars believe that the yam suph crossing refers to an inland reedy lake such as Lake Menzaleh, Sirbonis, Ballah, Timsah or the Bitter Lakes. However, in my view the situation is not so simple.
As is well known, the oldest complete version of the Old Testament that we possess today is the Septuagint. The Septuagint version of the Pentateuch dates back to the third century BC and is a translation from the Hebrew into Greek by Jewish scholars living in Alexandria in Egypt. When these scholars translated into Greek the Hebrew words yam suph, they deliberately did not give the Greek words for “Sea of Reeds”, but instead rendered yam suph as erythra thalassa, which is Greek for “ Sea”. The most probable explanation of this must be that in their tradition, the Jewish writers of the Septuagint believed that Moses and the Israelites had indeed crossed the Red Sea, and not some reedy inland lake. The third century BC Septuagint is the earliest known reference to where the yam suph crossing occurred: it was at the Red Sea. Since the Septuagint was written in Alexandria, only about 140 miles away from inland reedy lakes like the Bitter Lakes, we must give the evidence from the Septuagint significant weight.
When the writers of the New Testament referred to the Sea Moses crossed (Acts 7:36, Hebrews 11:29), the Greek words they used were erythra thalassa, meaning “Red Sea”. Similarly the Latin Vulgate version of the Old Testament rendered yam suph as mare rubrum meaning “Red Sea”. Essentially, all these versions followed the lead given by the Septuagint. Thus both Jewish tradition from at least the third century BC onward and Christian tradition from the first century AD onward have consistently interpreted yam suph as “Red Sea” and not as “Sea of Reeds”. Incidentally, the Red Sea really does look red at certain times because of red coral being close to the surface at low tides, and because of reflections off the red granite and red sandstone mountains bordering many stretches of the Red Sea and its two gulfs.
Does the Old Testament itself identify yam suph with any particular body of water? It does in several places, but the clearest and the most unambiguous is in 1 Kings 9:26, “King Solomon also built ships at Ezion Geber, which is near Elath, in Edom, on the shore of the Red Sea [yam suph].” Presumably the wise Solomon would not have built his ships on an inland reedy lake, since he would not have been able to get them out! The precise locations of ancient Elath and Ezion Geber are uncertain, although many scholars believe that Elath was in, or close to, modern Aqaba in Jordan, on the northeast side of the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. However, we do know that ancient Edom was a country adjacent to the Gulf of Aqaba, hence we can say with reasonable certainty that the biblical yam suph is the Gulf of Aqaba, which is one arm of the Red Sea (the other arm being the Gulf of Suez). Yam suph may refer to other bodies of water as well, but I suggest that it is beyond reasonable doubt that the biblical yam suph includes the Gulf of Aqaba. Hence it would seem that the rendering of yam suph as “Red Sea” in the Septuagint, the New Testament, and the KJV must be at least partially correct.
An obvious question is why ancient writers would call the salt-water Gulf of Aqaba yam suph, meaning Sea of Reeds, when reeds only grow in fresh water? Although salt-tolerant reeds and rushes can grow in slightly salty lakes, marshes and estuaries, they cannot and do not grow in the Red Sea and its two gulfs (Suez and Aqaba) because they are too salty. This is true today, and we can reasonably expect it to have been true at the times when the Old Testament was written and when the events recorded occurred. So why does the Old Testament use the term yam suph, which undoubtedly means “Sea of Reeds”, to describe the Gulf of Aqaba, which, because of its saltiness, is inherently reed free?
I believe the answer to the above question lies in the unusual geography of the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. The Czech explorer Alois Musil, in The Northern Hegaz, written in 1926, describes an extremely unusual feature of the northern seashore at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba: it contains fresh water. He writes: “At low tide the rocky shore was laid bare for a distance of about two hundred yards, uncovering numerous springs which gushed forth with great strength.” Musil then emphasises the excellent quality of this fresh water: “The animals [camels] did not wish to drink from the fresh water from the well, preferring to go to the sea shore where they very readily drank from the many springs which flowed there.”
What is the origin of the water in these freshwater springs at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba? It comes from rain water falling on the mountains bordering the Arabah. The water is then funnelled along and under the sand of the Arabah down towards the Gulf of Aqaba, where it breaks out on the seashore as freshwater springs. The head of the Gulf of Aqaba thus has an extremely unusual physical geography. The seashore is a boundary between the salt waters of the gulf to the south and the freshwater coming down to the seashore from the north. In addition, Edward Robinson (Biblical Researches in Palestine, 1841) describes a marsh at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba when he visited it in 1838, which would have been a fresh water marsh fed by freshwater funnelled down the Arabah. This marsh still exists today, and reeds grow in it today, as they do in other places around the head of the Gulf of Aqaba (Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus, 2003). I suggest that when ancient travellers found freshwater springs and reeds at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, they would have recognised this juxtaposition as extremely unusual. In fact, it was so unusual that they called the place yam suph, the Sea of Reeds.
In summary, it is clear from the biblical reference to where Solomon built his ships, that yam suph refers to the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. By extension, it may also refer to the Gulf of Suez and to the main body of the Red Sea as well. I have found no evidence that yam suph was ever used to refer to an inland reedy lake. If my arguments are accepted, the Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek Septuagint, and the New Testament all agree that the crossing of Moses and the Israelites occurred at the Hebrew yam suph, meaning Sea of Reeds, which was later called in Greek erythra thalassa, meaning Red Sea, both terms referring to the Gulf of Aqaba and probably also to the Gulf of Suez and the main body of the Red Sea.
So then yam suph can be translated to BOTH Red Sea and REED Sea?
There is no reason to translate Yam Suph as Sea of Reeds at all. This is the actual mistranslation. The word suph has two very different meanings and etymologies in Scripture. One is an Egyptian word, and the other Hebrew. Suph only clearly means reeds in three verses (Ex.2:3, 5; Is. 19: 6) In Jonah it refers to the end of deep where Jonah is going down prior to be being swallowed by a giant fish, and is so translated in the LXX. In 25 instances it refers to either the place and incident where God saved his people, ending the Egyptian pursuit of them and ending their sojourn and slavery in Egypt, or to the Gulf of Aqaba arm of the Red Sea. It is Yam Suph in all 25 cases except one, where it is simply Suph. Suph (reeds) is an Egyptian loan word, but Suph is also a completely different word (Hebrew and also in Aramaic) meaning and end. There is no reason to translate Yam Suph as "Sea of Reeds".