Did the Israelites in the book of Exodus cross the Red Sea or the Reed Sea?Question: "Did the Israelites in the book of Exodus cross the Red Sea or the Reed Sea?"
Answer: Moses’ song of praise after the crossing of the Red Sea contains this line: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea. The best of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea” (Exodus 15:4). This is one of over twenty Old Testament verses dealing with the Exodus that mention the Red Sea. There has always been a question, though, about the accuracy of translating these verses with “Red Sea” instead of “Reed Sea.”
The Hebrew word suph, whose root is thought to be of Egyptian origin, meant “reed,” especially the papyrus. So the Hebrew phrase yam suph can be translated “Sea of Reeds” or “Reed Sea” or even “Papyrus Marsh.” Is this phrase, commonly translated “Red Sea,” in fact referring to what today is known as the Red Sea or is it some other body of water? More importantly, are the liberal scholars correct in saying yam suph refers to a marshy area near the Rea Sea or some small, shallow lake nearby? These questions are crucial because, if the Israelites escaped Egypt without God’s miraculous intervention, then the Bible contains exaggerations and lies.
When we look at the various passages of Scripture where the term yam suph is used, it becomes clear that it is indeed referring to the large body of water: “The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:21–22). The “wall of water” on each side of the Israelites certainly suggests depth. Later, “the sea went back to its place. . . . The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived” (verses 27–28). There can be no doubt about what Moses is communicating here. Red Sea or Reed Sea, it was deep enough to destroy the entire Egyptian army. All the credit for this miraculous event is given to the Lord (Exodus 15:3), and it is referenced often in Scripture as an example of God’s great power (Joshua 2:10; Nehemiah 9:9; Psalm 106:9–12; 136:13–14).
Exodus 14 clearly describes a supernatural event involving a deep body of water that Israel crossed on dry ground and that later drowned the Egyptians. Whether the Israelites called it the Red Sea or the Reed Sea, the only way to look at that chapter and see a shallow lake or marshy area is to have a preconceived bias against the miraculous. Exodus gives us a clear understanding that the body of water the Israelites crossed was large and deep. The Red Sea surely fits that description.
In support of “Red Sea” being the correct translation and the correct body of water is the Greek Septuagint (LXX) from 200 BC. This is the earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible known, and the words yam suph are consistently translated with the Greek words eruthros thalassa or “Red Sea” (see Acts 7:36; Hebrews 11:29). In Exodus 3:2 and 5, the translators of the LXX used hélos to refer to a marshy, reedy area. But when it came time to translate suph in the context of the exodus through the sea, they chose a different phrase (eruthros thalassa), which specifically means “Red Sea.” The translators of the LXX obviously understood Moses to be referring to the Red Sea, not some other body of water.
When the LXX is quoted in the New Testament, the biblical writers, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, retained the Greek words meaning “Red Sea” (not “Reed Sea”). One example is in Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7:36. Also, Hebrews 11:29 says, “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.” These New Testament passages provide strong proof that “Red Sea” is the correct translation.
Further evidence that yam suph can indeed refer to the Red Sea comes from 1 Kings 9:26. There we see King Solomon building a fleet of ships on the shore of the Rea Sea/Reed Sea in the land of Edom—hardly practical if that body of water were merely a marshy area or small, shallow lake.
Even if we choose the translation “Reed Sea” over “Red Sea,” there are several possible bodies of water near Egypt that the Israelites could have crossed. Some scholars point to the Gulf of Suez or the Gulf of Aqaba (both are extensions of the Red Sea) as possible crossing sites. Moving north of the Gulf of Suez is the Bitter Lakes region, and north of that is Lake Timsah. Other scholars have suggested a body of water in the Nile Delta region.
Regardless of the way the words yam suph are translated, the Bible is clear that God supernaturally parted a large body of water so the Israelites could cross on dry land, and, when the Egyptian army attempted to follow, He destroyed them in an overwhelming flood.
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Miscellaneous Bible Questions
Did the Israelites in the book of Exodus cross the Red Sea or the Reed Sea?