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Red Sea

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Red Sea

    The traditional translation (beginning with the Septuagint) of the Hebrew expression yam sûf, Red Sea is the name of the body of water crossed by the Israelites in their Exodus from Egypt. This translation, followed by later Greek biblical tradition (Jth. 5.13; Wisd. of Sol. 10.18; 1 Macc. 4.9; Acts 7.36; Heb. 11.29) and the Vulgate, would connect the miracle of the crossing (Exod. 14–15) with either the western (the Gulf of Suez; Map 2:R3–4) or the eastern (the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat; Map 2:T3–4) branch of the Red Sea. But in Exodus 2.3–5 (and elsewhere in the Bible) sûf means “reed,” and this is how the Septuagint and Vulgate translate it there; yam sûf refers to the eastern branch of the Red Sea in only two other texts (1 Kings 9.26; Jer. 49.21). Most contemporary scholars, and a few modern translations (e.g., NJV), therefore prefer to translate the phrase “Reed Sea” or “Sea of Reeds” (see NRSV textual notes).

    The record of Israel's miraculous crossing is a complex one. According to what has been taken as the more ancient stratum of Exodus 14.21–22, perhaps from J, “The Lord drove the Sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land.” Another stratum, possibly from P, reads: “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea … and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left,” after which the waters enveloped the Egyptians. A third version, perhaps from E (14.24–25), reads, “At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said: ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’ ” In the first case we have a natural event, where the miracle lies in the synchronism of natural forces; in the second we deal with a miracle in the absolute sense, so that any explanation is immaterial; in the third we have neither water nor a miracle proper; the Egyptians realize that something is going wrong and withdraw. A variant of the second version is found in chap.15. Any connection with volcanic or seismic phenomena should therefore be excluded.

    The term “Sea of Reeds” or “Reed Sea” seems to mean a marshy area or a large body of water abundant in reeds in the eastern delta. One possible localization of the event, among the many that have been proposed, is Lake Sirbonis (Map 2:R–S1), where, depending on the tides, fresh water and saltwater can be found; another is the swampy region in the vicinity of the “Bitter Lakes” (Map 2:R2). We must remember, however, that we are dealing here, as in the desert wanderings, with mythical data (see Ps. 114.3–6), so with few exceptions, the localities mentioned cannot and perhaps should not be identified.

    J. A. Soggin

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