Parting the Red Sea
Moses Crossing the Red Sea by Raphael (1483-1520), St Peters Basilica, Vatican City
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD for the Come Follow Me lesson April 4 – April 10, Exodus 14-17
A number of scholars have attempted to dismiss the miraculous nature of the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea by insisting that they crossed the Reed Sea rather than the Red Sea. The implication is that the Reed Sea was little more than a brackish swamp, with only shallow water.
The problem with this rather superficial attempt at linguistic dismissal is that nobody but the Greeks called the Red Sea the Red Sea until after the third century BC. Apparently, at least according to legend, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the Greek pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt from 283 to 246 BC, invited seventy-two Jewish scholars to translate the Torah from Hebrew to Greek so that the translation could be included in the Great Library at Alexandria. That “legend” is confirmed by no less than Aristeas, Philo of Alexandria, Josephus (in his Antiquities of the Jews), as well as Augustine of Hippo. That Greek translation is called the Septuagint, meaning “seventy,” referring to the number of scholars compiling it. Following later rabbinic tradition, the Septuagint was considered a distortion of sacred Hebrew text and, thus, unsuitable for use in synagogues. None-the-less, the Septuagint was in wide use during the Second Temple period (516 BC – 70 AD) because few people at that time could read Hebrew. The Septuagint Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament more often than is the original Hebrew Old Testament, especially in the Pauline epistles.
The Red Sea has gone by several names throughout the centuries. The Egyptians called it the “Green Space.” They also called it the “Great Green,” not distinguishing it from the Mediterranean Sea. In other words, a sea was a sea, whether the Mediterranean or the Red (see the discussion in the next paragraph). To the Hebrews, it was the Yam Suph, the “Sea of Reeds.” In the Coptic, it was Phiom Enhah, the “Sea of Hah” (an ancient god of the sea). The Romans called it Pontus Herculis, the “Sea of Hercules.” The Arabs called it al-Baḥr al-ʾAḥmar, the “Red Sea,” but that was not until the first to fourth century AD. The Europeans referred to it as part of the Erythrean Sea (named for an Ionian city in Asia Minor) or, in Latin, Sinus Arabicus, the “Arabian Gulf.” Western geographers referred to it as Mare Mecca, the “Sea of Mecca.” Herodotus used the terms Southern Sea and Red Sea interchangeably. Likewise, the Black Sea was the Northern Sea. Some modern scholars have concluded that, for the Greeks, the term red referred to the direction south and black referred to the direction north. Thus, to the Greeks, the Red Sea simply meant the Southern Sea. In English, the terms “Red” and “Reed” are very close to each other – obviously a matter of only one letter, but in Hebrew, Suph, meaning “Reed,” and Adom or Adam meaning “Red” are worlds apart.
In order to more fully understand the different names given to the Red Sea, let’s consider what the ancient inhabitants on the fringes of the Mediterranean Sea called that more prominent body of water. The Greeks called the Mediterranean hē thálassa: “the Sea.” The Romans called it Mare Magnum: the “Great Sea,” Mare Internum: the “Internal Sea,” or, with the Empire, Mare Nostrum: “Our Sea.” The Iranians and Arabians called it the “Roman Sea.” The Carthaginians called it the “Syrian Sea.” The Persions called it the “Western Sea” or “Syrian Sea.” The Phoenicians called it the “Great Sea.” The Hebrews also called it the “Great Sea,” or simply “The Sea.” They also called it the “Hinder Sea,” the “Western Sea,” or the “Sea of the Philistines.” The Egyptians called the Mediterranean Wadj-wer: the “Great Green,” because of the papyrus forests along the Mediterranean at the Nile River Delta. The Egyptian word for papyrus also was Wadj, so their other name for the “Great Green” also was “Great Papyrus.” Their name for green and papyrus was the same word: Wadj. This name is very interesting in light of their name for the Red Sea – the “Green Space,” or even “Great Green.” It is also of interest in light of the Hebrew term “Reed Sea” for the Red Sea. Papyrus, Cyperus papyrus, is a wetland sedge, a graminoid (grass-like) plant – in other words, a type of reed, which is the common name for any wetland graminoid. Thus, the terms “Reed Sea” and “Papyrus Sea” are more or less interchangeable.
Therefore, there is no difference between the Hebrew “Reed Sea” and the Greek “Red Sea.” They are the same sea. The Hebrews called what the Greeks knew as the Red Sea the “Reed Sea.” There is no smaller body of water known as the “Reed Sea,” which would have been a mere swamp, and easily crossed by the Israelites. The Reed Sea was the Red Sea. We are told in 1 Kings 9:26-27, “And king Solomon made a navy of ships in Ezion-geber, which is beside Eloth, on the shore of the Red sea [again, Yam Suph, the “Sea of Reeds”], in the land of Edom. And Hiram sent in the navy his servants, shipmen that had knowledge of the sea, with the servants of Solomon.” Solomon would not have launched a fleet of ships into a mere bog. Elath, or Eloth, was on the northern tip of the Gulf of Aquaba – part of the Red Sea.
Interestingly, the term “Red Sea” never even appears in the story of the Israelite crossing. The Lord told Moses in Exodus 14:2, “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they turn and encamp before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, over against Baal-zephon: before it shall ye encamp by the sea.” Moreover, we read in Exodus 14:16 and 21-22, “…lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea…And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.”
Not until the next chapter (Exodus 15:1-4, and 22) does the term “Red Sea” (actually “Reed Sea”) appear: “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation; my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea [actually Yam Suph, the “Sea of Reeds”]...So Moses brought Israel from the Red sea [again, the “Sea of Reeds”], and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.” In his Concise Commentary, Mathew Henry said, “This song is the most ancient we know of. It is a holy song, to the honour of God…” The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary states, “This song is, by some hundred years, the oldest poem in the world.” (biblehub.com)
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the term Yam Suph, the “Sea of Reeds,” translated in the Septuagint as Erythra Thalassa, “Red Sea,” appears several more times. In recounting the Israelite crossing, we read in Numbers 33:8-11, “And they departed from before Pi-hahiroth, and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness, and went three days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham, and pitched in Marah. And they removed from Marah, and came unto Elim: and in Elim were twelve fountains of water, and threescore and ten palm trees; and they pitched there. And they removed from Elim, and encamped by the Red sea. And they removed from the Red sea, and encamped in the wilderness of Sin.” We read in Psalm 106:7, “Our fathers understood not thy wonders in Egypt; they remembered not the multitude of thy mercies; but provoked him at the sea, even at the Red sea.” Then there is the recounting in Deuteronomy 1:1 “These be the words which Moses spake unto all Israel on this side Jordan in the wilderness, in the plain over against the Red sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Dizahab.” The term “Red sea” does not appear in the Septuagint, but was added by the translators of the King James Version. Then there is the phrase in Jashua 24:6, “And I brought your fathers out of Egypt: and ye came unto the sea; and the Egyptians pursued after your fathers with chariots and horsemen unto the Red sea.” Here the original Hebrew was hay·yām·māh, which means “sea” or “body of water.” The King James translators added “Red.” (biblehub.com)
The Red Sea is 1,364 miles long, including two northern extensions – the Gulf of Suez and Gulf of Aqaba – both of which can be considered parts of the Red Sea. Then there are another ninety miles of waterways between the Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean, including the Great Bitter Lake, six smaller lakes, Lake Manzala at the edge of the Mediterranean, and the Suez Canal. Is it possible that all of these roughly interconnected waterways could have been anciently considered part of the Reed Sea (Red Sea) – as an extension of the main body to the south – at least to later Israelite chroniclers? This roughly 1,450 miles of waterway occupies an ever-widening geological rift between two tectonic plates: the African Plate and the Arabian Plate, and separates the Old Kingdom of Egypt from the Sinai Peninsula. Theoretically, the Israelites could have crossed this barrier anywhere along that 1,450 miles. However, occupying a tectonic rift, the main body of the Red Sea is very deep, with an average depth of 1,608 feet and a maximum depth of up to 7,254 feet. It seems likely that the Israelite crossing took place at some marginal point, rather than through the middle of a 1.37-mile-deep sea.
There have been wild, exaggerated, unsubstantiated claims that there is an underwater “land bridge” at a narrow point in the Gulf of Aqaba, at an ancient river delta known as Nuweiba. It is true that the water plunges to depths of 3117 feet on one side of the “bridge” and 4921 feet on the other side, but the water depth over the “bridge” itself is still some 2625 feet – right at a half mile. This is not a likely crossing point.
One tantalizing potential crossing point along the water barrier between Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula is not actually in the Red Sea, but at a, “…site in the eastern Nile delta, where the ancient Pelusiac branch of the Nile once flowed into a coastal lagoon then known as the Lake of Tanis” (now Lake Manzala). An interesting hypothesis, based on computer modeling, presenting a possible scientific explanation for the parting of the Red (Reed) Sea was advanced in 2010 by Carl Drews and Weiging Han, entitled, “Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta,” and published in the on-line journal PLoS One (2010; 5(8): e12481). In their paper, Drews and Han “…conduct[ed] a satellite and modeling survey to analyze this location, using geological evidence of the ancient bathymetry and a historical description of a strong wind event in 1882.” They concluded that, “Wind setdown is the drop in water level caused by wind stress acting on the surface of a body of water for an extended period of time. [The wind blew all night, according to the scriptures.] As the wind blows, water recedes from the upwind shore and exposes terrain that was formerly underwater. Previous researchers have suggested wind setdown as a possible hydrodynamic explanation for Moses crossing the Red Sea, as described in Exodus 14.” (see the YouTube video: Parting the waters, Part 1: The physics of a land bridge.)
Drews said of their work, “The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus…The parting of the waters can be understood through fluid dynamics. The wind moves the water in a way that’s in accordance with physical laws, creating a safe passage with water on two sides and then abruptly allowing the water to rush back in.” (washingtontimes.com)
The Come Follow Me lesson for April 4 – April 10, Exodus 14-17, refers the reader to Bible Map #2: “Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and Entry into Canaan.” The map shows “Pi-hahiroth Israel passed through the Red Sea” (#3 on the map), at the north end of the Gulf of Suez. That Gulf is a much more likely crossing point than anywhere along the Gulf of Aqaba because the former gulf is far more shallow, being only 180 to 210 feet deep. This is especially true of the northern end of the Gulf of Suez, where the water is only ten to twenty feet deep – shallow enough for “Wind Setdown” to occur but plenty deep to drown an army of chariots. The forty-mile-long stretch of the Suez Canal between the north end of the Gulf of Suez and the Great Bitter Lake may have been dug as early as the reign of the pharaoh Khakheperre Senusret II, around 1897 to 1878 BC, perhaps 200-300 years before the Israelites came to Egypt. Even though the Drews-Han “Wind Setdown” model was proposed for an area at the northern end of the Suez Canal, such a model also fits well with the north end of the Gulf of Suez, where the Suez Canal begins at the south. The scriptural, historical, and scientific data all suggest that this map is accurate in showing where the Israelites miraculously crossed over the Red Sea – by the work of God, who knew full well about the east wind, hydrodynamics, and Wind Setdowns.
Warning: Be Wary of Fake News
Almost anyone who believes the Old Testament to be a reasonably accurate story, and who, by faith, believes the story of the Israelite Exodus to be true, for the most part, would love to see archaeological evidence for hundreds of Egyptian chariots beneath the waves of the Red Sea. However, such evidence has not as yet been unearthed, and likely never will be. Looking for fragments of mostly wooden chariots in or around the mud and water in a 1,450 mile-long waterway in eastern Egypt is like looking for a deteriorating needle in a haystack. It is also quite likely that any chariot remains will be buried deeply beneath the mud and soil, much like the sacred lake in the temple of Mut at Tanis, discovered in 2009, buried by some forty feet of mud/earth from the ever-rising Nile Delta. Furthermore, as you can imagine, the area at the south end of the Suez Canal, at the modern city of Suez, is heavily built over by Port Taofik, where the remains of any ancient army would have been obliterated many years ago. In addition, the Egyptians loved to commemorate their victories through wall reliefs, but they were not so anxious to remember their defeats.
However, Ron Wyatt claims to have discovered just such missing archaeological evidence in the form of chariot wheels off the Nuweiba Delta in the Gulf of Aqaba in 1978. One problem is that he did not have any bonafide archaeologist examine the wheels, or wheel hubs. Wyatt claimed that a wheel hub, which has since apparently gone missing, was verified by Dr. Nassif Hassan, a head Egyptian archaeologist, but Hassan has never corroborated that claim. Although others have posted photos of the supposed discoveries, no such photos appear on the ronwyatt.com website, and the photo on the wyattmuseum.com website is an obvious fake. Another problem with the “discovery” is that this is the same Ron Wyatt who claimed that a naturally-occurring geological formation, a doubly plunging limonite syncline, near the village of Üzengili in eastern Turkey was Noah’s ark. This is also the same Ron Wyatt who discovered the Arc of the Covenant in Jerusalem (thecompassmagazine.com/uncategorized/the-adventist-indiana-jones-hoax-or-hope-part-2). This is also the same Ron Wyatt who “discovered” the post hole where the very cross of Jesus was raised, the “Great Stone” from the Garden Tomb, and the blood of Christ, which had run down the cross and dripped onto the Arc of the Covenant hidden in “Jeremiah’s Grotto” below the cross post hole. If this isn’t enough, Wyatt analyzed the blood and discovered it to have only 24 chromosomes (rather than the normal 46 chromosomes), proving Christ’s divinity. To continue reading the fantasies, check out the website: freechristianteaching.tv. This website is that of Richard Kent, MD, and there is no claim that the site is fantasy or satire, which apparently is not Kent’s intention.
Satire is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, ridicule, and indeed, Fake News to expose and criticize people's gullibility, and, perhaps, to entertain us all. One online, satirical newspaper, the World News Daily Report (WNDR), is run by Canadians Janick Murray-Hall and Olivier Legault. Right at the bottom of the WNDR home page, Murray-Hall and Legault state, “World News Daily Report assumes all responsibility for the satirical nature of its articles and for the fictional nature of their content. All characters appearing in the articles in this website – even those based on real people – are entirely fictional and any resemblance between them and any person, living, dead or undead, is purely a miracle.” That seems to be quite clear. On 24 October 2014, WNDR reported:
“Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry announced this morning that a team of underwater archaeologists had discovered the remains of a large Egyptian army from the 14th century BC, at the bottom of the Gulf of Suez, 1.5 kilometers offshore from the modern city of Ras Gharib. The team was searching for the remains of ancient ships and artefacts related to Stone Age and Bronze Age trade in the Red Sea area, when they stumbled upon a gigantic mass of human bones darkened by age.”
“The scientists lead by Professor Abdel Muhammad Gader [a fake person] and associated with Cairo University’s Faculty of Archaeology, have already recovered a total of more than 400 different skeletons, as well as hundreds of weapons and pieces of armor, also the remains of two war chariots, scattered over an area of approximately 200 square meters. They estimate that more than 5000 other bodies could be dispersed over a wider area, suggesting that an army of large size who have perished on the site.” (snopes.com/fact-check/chariot-wheels-found-bottom-red-sea)
Apparently, the fake WNDR story was picked up and repeated by several other “news” outlets, without including, or apparently even reading, the disclaimer so prominently displayed on the WNDR website. Often, people of faith may be so anxious to have that faith supported by evidence that any evidence may be accepted. David Mikkelson warned, “…if one is looking for news of an important scientific or historical discovery, World News Daily Report is not the place to look.” (25 October 2014; snopes.com/fact-check/chariot-wheels-found-bottom-red-sea)
It is my opinion that truth is eternal and is never in conflict with other truth, no matter the origin. However, sometimes the truth is buried under forty feet of soil, under the buildings of later cities, or under the misstatements of chroniclers, or fake chroniclers, 2600 years ago, 2300 years ago, 400 years ago, 44 years ago, or 8 years ago. Beware, lest you be deceived by faith-destroying, pernicious claims or by faith-promoting rumors, that may provide a foundation of sand to your weak faith. Paul warned Timothy (2 Timothy 3:1-6): “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall… creep into houses, and lead captive silly women [and men]…from such turn away.”
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD