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Red Sea or Reed Sea? Bernard F. Batto, BAR 10:04, Jul-Aug 1984.

Sinai PeninsulaHow the mistake was made and what yam sûp really means

If there is anything that sophisticated students of the Bible know, it is that yam sûp, although traditionally translated Red Sea, really means Reed Sea, and that it was in fact the Reed Sea that the Israelites crossed on their way out of Egypt.

Well, it doesn’t and it wasn’t and they’re wrong!

Yam sûp (pronounced yahm soof) appears many times in the Bible. In a number of these instances, it clearly refers to the body of water we know as the Red Sea (including its two northern fingers, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Eilat or Aqaba).

Note that I do not say that yam sûp literally means Red Sea. What yam sûp literally means is part of the problem. Yam indeed means sea; that much is clear and agreed. But the word for red is adam (pronounced a-dahm), not sûp. Literally, Red Sea should be Yam Adam, not Yam Sûp. Yet from the context, we know that in a number of Biblical references, yam sûp refers to the body of water that we know as the Red Sea.

Look, for example, at 1 Kings 9-26, where we are told that “King Solomon built a fleet of ships at Ezion-Geber near Elath [or Eilat] on the shore of the yam sûp in the land of Edom.” From the other geographical references, it is absolutely clear that yam sûp refers to the northeastern finger of the Red Sea, known today as the Gulf of Eilat or the Gulf of Aqaba.

Or consider Jeremiah 49-21. Jeremiah prophesies that the dying babies of Edom will be crying, and “the sound of screaming shall be heard at the yam sûp.” A glance at a map indicates that the yam, or sea, referred to is again the northeastern finger of what we call the Red Sea. Yam sûp again refers to the body of water we call the Red Sea. (For other examples, see Numbers 21-4 and, with less certainty, Numbers 14-25; Deuteronomy 1-40; 2-1; and Judges 11-16.)

One especially important reference, to which we shall return later in this article because it describes the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt, is found in Numbers 33. Numbers 33 contains the ancient list of camping stations of the exodus, all the way from Rameses and Succoth in Egypt to Kadesh and the land of Edom. In verse 8, we are told that the Israelites “passed through the sea [yam] into the wilderness.” Which “sea,” we are not told. Then the Israelites travel for three days and camp at Marah. Then they leave Marah and go to Elim. Then they leave Elim and camp by the yam sûp. It is obvious that they have reached the northwestern finger of the Red Sea, which we call the Gulf of Suez. Yam sûp here again refers to the body of water we call the Red Sea. It is at minimum five days’ travel from the sea the Israelites miraculously passed through.

Based on these clear geographical referents, it is easy to understand how the traditional translation of yam sûp came to be Red Sea.

In the earliest known translation of the Bible—from Hebrew to Greek—yam sûp is consistently translated as Erythra Thalassa, which means “Red Sea.” This Greek Bible, known as the Septuagint, was translated in about 300 B.C. In St. Jerome’s Latin translation, known as the Vulgate (from about 400 A.D.), yam sûp is translated Mare Rubrum—Red Sea. Because of the Vulgate translation, “Red Sea” became firmly entrenched in western tradition, appearing for example, in the King James Version.

The Red Sea/Reed Sea problem arises because yam sûp is also used in the Bible as the name of the body of water that parted to allow the Israelites to pass through and then came together to drown the Egyptians. The most important of these Biblical passages is found in Exodus 15, which scholars consider to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest and most archaic poems in the entire Bible. Known as The Song of the Sea,a Exodus 15 celebrates the miracle of the sea by which the Israelites were saved from Pharaoh’s pursuing horsemen-

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

Horse and driver he has hurled into the sea [yam].

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has cast into the sea [yam];

And the pick of his officers are sunk in the yam sûp.

(Exodus 15-1, 4)

In later Biblical books, the sea that parted for the Israelites to pass through is consistently referred to as the yam sûp. In Joshua 2-10, for example, Rahab the harlot who let the Israelite spies into Jericho tells them, “We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the yam sûp before you when you came out of Egypt.”

When the Lord parted the Jordan River to allow the Israelites to cross, Joshua told his people that this was just “as the Lord your God did to the yam sûp which he dried up for us until we passed over,” (Joshua 4-23). (See also Joshua 24-6; Deuteronomy 11-4; Psalms 106-7, 9, 22; Psalms 136-13–15; and Nehemiah 9-9.)

Traditionally, yam sûp is translated as Red Sea in these passages too. Yet something seems to be wrong with this translation. It doesn’t seem to fit the geography of the Israelites’ trek out of Egypt, quite apart from the fact that the Gulf of Suez is over 20 miles wide. Moreover, there is absolutely no philological reason to think that sûp means “red” or anything like it.

Thus was born the translation “Reed Sea.”

Translating yam sûp as Reed Sea arguably solves all these problems. It allegedly fits the geography, it involves a body of water that could dry up under the force of a heavy wind, and sûp has an arguable basis for an Egyptian etymology meaning “reed.”

We don’t know who first suggested the translation Reed Sea. The 11th-century medieval French Jewish commentator known as Rashi accepted a connection between yam sûp and a marsh overgrown with reeds.1 Ibn Ezra, a Spanish Jewish commentator of the 12th century, commenting on the meaning of yam sûp in Exodus 13-18, notes that “Some say that it is so called because reeds grow round about it.” Martin Luther may have been acquainted with such opinions; he translated yam sûp as Schilfmeer (meaning Reed Sea).

Among modern scholars, Heinrich Brugsch in 1858 was apparently the first to develop a comprehensive, coherent theory of the “Reed Sea,” including the alleged connection between Biblical yam sûp and p´-twf(y) (pronounced approximately pi thoof) of the Egyptian texts.2

These Egyptian texts form the principal pillar of the Reed Sea hypothesis. According to this argument, these texts establish that yam sûp literally means “Sea of Papyrus” or “Sea of Reeds.” Etymologically, we are told, Hebrew sûp is a loan-word from Egyptian twf which means “papyrus (reeds).” This etymology is supposed to be proved from those Biblical passages where sûp refers to vegetation growing along the banks of the Nile. For example, in Exodus 2-3, 5, the baby Moses is hidden from Pharaoh who has threatened to kill all newborn Hebrew males; he is hidden among the suph (reeds) by the bank of the Nile. (See also Isaiah 19-6).

One Egyptian text, known as Papyrus Anastasi III, supposedly even speaks of a “Papyrus Marsh” or “Papyrus Lake” not far from the city of Rameses (=Tanis?), the very place from which the Biblical narrative says the Israelites began their journey out of Egypt (Exodus 12-37).

The “Reed Sea” hypothesis has now become so widely accepted that one can scarcely pick up a handbook or treatise on the Bible, regardless of the author’s theological affiliation or scholarly bent,3 that does not espouse the theory that yam sûp means Reed Sea when used in connection with the body of water the Israelites passed through on their way out of Egypt. The ubiquity of the hypothesis is even reflected in modern critical translations of the Bible. Although English versions normally adhere to the traditional rendering as “Red Sea,” practically every respected translation of the Book of Exodus now includes at minimum an annotation that yam sûp actually means “Reed Sea” when used with reference to the body of water the Israelites passed through and in which the Egyptians drowned.b

This Reed Sea solution is not so simple as it seems, however. Right off the bat, we have the problem of how to translate those passages where yam sûp has nothing to do with the exodus (such as 1 Kings 9-26 cited above) and where the body of water referred to is clearly the Red Sea. Here there is no choice but to translate yam sûp as the Red Sea. And that is what is regularly done when yam sûp obviously refers to the Red Sea or when Reed Sea is a problem in itself because the referent is not clear to the translator. The results are not consistent from Bible to Bible. But in any event, we regularly find yam sûp translated two ways—in the same Bible translation! Check your own Bible translation, for example, at Exodus 15-4 and 1 Kings 9-26.

There is another problem with translating yam sûp as Sea of Reeds based on a supposed etymological connection between sûp and reeds. There are absolutely no reeds in the Red Sea (or in the Gulf of Suez). The ancients would surely not apply yam sûp to what we call the Red Sea if yam sûp were intended to refer to reeds. In short, a translation such as “Sea of Papyrus Reeds” is inappropriate when applied to the Red Sea because papyrus does not grow in those salty waters!

Finally, the connection between yam sûp and Egyptian p´-t_wf will not stand up under scrutiny.

There can be no doubt that the Egyptian word for papyrus, t_wf, passed into Hebrew as a loanword, sûp, with only a slight modification in pronunciation as required by Hebrew phonology. Hebrew sûp has this meaning of papyrus in Exodus 2-3, 5 and Isaiah 19-6. Nevertheless, Egyptian p´-t_wf has nothing to do with Biblical yam sûp.

Let us look more closely at the evidence. The hieroglyphic signs in question are written in Latin letters as p´-t_wf. P´ is the definite article, and t_wf means “papyrus.” The phrase appears a number of times in Egyptian texts. It refers, however, to a papyrus marsh area or district, not to a lake or body of water.4 In some texts p´-t_wf is used to designate a district or area not only where papyrus grows but also where animals are pastured and agricultural enterprises undertaken.

In hieroglyphic writing an unpronounced sign, called a determinative, is often included in the spelling to indicate the class of noun the word falls into. Thus the determinative for god is added to the phonetic signs for gods, so we know which names refer to gods. P´-t_wf is always written with the determinative for plant. Occasionally it is written with the determinative for town, but never is it written with the determinative for lake or water.

Moreover, the term p´-t_wf does not indicate a specific area. Several places in the eastern delta of the Nile are referred to as p´-t_wf.c

The text most often cited in support of the connection between p´-twf and yam sûp is, as I noted earlier, Papyrus Anastasi III, which describes the residence of Pharaoh Rameses II (often identified as the Pharaoh of the Exodus)- “The papyrus marshes p´-t_wf come to it [the Pharaoh’s residence] with papyrus reeds, and the Waters-of-Horus with rushes.”5 This text hardly indicates a single lake or body of water called the Reed Sea.

Indeed, the identification of p´-t_wf as a body of water owes more to the desire to find confirmation for the hypothetical Reed Sea of the Bible than to the internal evidence of the Egyptian texts. Egyptian p´-t_wf would scarcely ever have been understood as referring to a body of water apart from the Biblical term yam sûp. In Roland de Vaux’s recent classic The Early History of Israel (Westminster Press- Philadelphia, 1978, p. 377), he translates p´-t_wf as “the land of the papyrus.”

I believe there is another, wholly satisfactory way out of the dilemma. Yam sûp for the ancients had a symbolic as well as a historical meaning. Indeed, its symbolic meaning preceded its historical meaning. Symbolically, it means Sea of the End, the sea at the end of the world. Historically, it came to mean the Red Sea and what lay beyond.

Sûp should be connected not with Egyptian p´-t_wf but with the Semitic root sûp, meaning “to come to an end,” “to cease to exist.” The Hebrew word sôp means simply “end.” Yam sûp is the equivalent of yam sôp. This association has been suggested by Norman Snaith, who correctly argues that yam sûp thus refers to “that distant scarcely known sea away to the south, of which no man knew the boundary. It was the sea at the end of the land.”d

What we call the Red Sea came to be known as the yam sûp because it was regarded by the ancients as the sea at the end of the world. Interestingly enough, the Greeks applied the name Red Sea (Erythra Thalassa) not only to our Red Sea but also to the Indian Ocean6 and, later when they discovered it, even to the Persian Gulf.7 The phrase “Red Sea” could even be vaguely used to designate faraway, remote places.8 Likewise in Jewish intertestamental literature the designation “Red Sea” included the Persian Gulf and everything to the south. Thus, both the fragmentary Aramaic text from the Dead Sea Scrolls known as the Genesis Apocryphon (21.17–18) and the famous first-century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 1.1.3) state that the Tigris and the Euphrates empty into the Red Sea. The book of Jubilees (third or second century B.C.) says that Eden and the lands of India and Elam (Persia) all border on the Red Sea (8.21, 9.2). It is thus very clear that these ancients thought of the Red Sea as a continuous body of water that extended from the Red Sea through the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf and that included all connecting oceans to the south. Presumably the earlier Israelites likewise included in the designation yam sûp all those connecting oceans to the south.

The designation yam sûp thus had both a geographical and a symbolic meaning. The “Sea of the End” means not just the sea at the physical end of the world but also the “place” where non-Creation or nonexistence begins.

In the ancient Near East the idea of “the sea” carried with it many mythological connotations. A common theme in cosmogonic myths from Mesopotamia to Egypt was the creation of the cosmos through some kind of primeval battle against the force of chaos. Chaos, variously named Leviathan, Rahab, and the dragon, was most commonly known simply as “Sea” (Akkadian Tiamat, Canaanite Yamm). “Creation” meant that which was most solidly formed, the dry land, out of the chaos of the sea. At the center of the cosmos stood the cosmic mountain, the home of the creator deity. At the opposite pole lay the realm of chaos, uncreated and unformed, the most graphic symbol of which was “the sea.” To these ancients’ way of thinking, this feared and apparently limitless abyss really was the “end of the world.” This was what the Hebrews called yam sûp.

These mythic cosmic elements are surely embedded in the term yam sûp as it is used in the Bible. Indeed these elements unlock new meaning in the Biblical text. Moreover, the “fit” is so good that it provides corroboration for the theory. Consider, for example, the Song of the Sea, Exodus 15, one of the most ancient passages in the entire Bible. This justly famous poem in archaic Hebrew celebrates the deliverance of the Israelites-

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD.

They said-

I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously;

Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

The LORD is my strength and might;

He is become my salvation.

This is my God and I will enshrine Him;

The God of my father, and I will exalt Him.

The LORD, the Warrior—

LORD is His name!

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army

He has cast into the sea;

And the pick of his officers

Are sunk in the yam sûp.

The deeps covered them;

They went down into the depths like a stone.

Your right hand, O LORD glorious in power,

Your right hand, O LORD, shatters the foe!

In Your great triumph You break Your opponents;

You send forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw.

The floods stood straight like a wall;

The deeps froze in the heart of the sea.

The foe said,

“I will pursue, I will overtake,

I will divide the spoil;

My desire shall have its fill of them.

I will bare my sword—

My hand shall subdue them.”

You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them;

They sank like lead in the majestic waters.

Who is like You, O LORD, among the gods;

Who is like You, majestic in holiness,

Awesome in splendor, working wonders!

You put out Your right hand,

The underworld swallowed them.

In Your love You lead the people You redeemed;

In Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode.

The peoples hear, they tremble;

Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia.

Now are the clans of Edom dismayed;

The tribes of Moab—trembling grips them;

All the dwellers in Canaan are aghast.

Terror and dread descend upon them;

Through the might of Your arm they are still as stone—

Till Your people cross over, O LORD,

Till Your people cross whom You have created.9

You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain,

The place You made to dwell in, O LORD,

The sanctuary, O LORD, which Your hands established.

The LORD will reign for ever and ever!

Modern source critics have identified four different textual strands in the Pentateuch. These four strands are labeled J (for Yahwist in its Germanic form), E (for Elohist), P (for Priestly writer) and D (for Deuteronomist). The Song of the Sea, however, is recognized as independent of all these textual strands that have been interwoven to form the Biblical text as we know it. Moreover, the Song of the Sea is also recognized to be older than even the earliest of these textual strands (J).

The Song of the Sea follows the basic pattern of ancient mythological cycles such as Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian epic about the god Marduk, and the Ugaritic cycle concerning the god Baal. In these mythological texts the creator god overcomes his watery foe of chaos, bringing order out of this chaos and creating a people in the process. The creator god then retires to his mountain sanctuary where as king he rules his newly ordered cosmos.10 As has often been observed, the Biblical description in Exodus 15 is heavily dependent on this mythological language. The defeat of the historical Pharaoh plays only a minor role in the poem. The struggle against Pharaoh is portrayed as part of the larger battle of the deity against the powers of chaos; Pharaoh is identified with those chaotic powers and is destroyed with them. For this reason Pharaoh is submerged into the sea and defeated along with the sea.

In this Biblical poem, the yam in verse 4a is the equivalent of the sea dragon in ancient Near Eastern mythologies. In the second half of verse 4, yam is paired with yam sûp which here means literally “Sea of End/Annihilation.” The yam sûp was the sea at the end of the earth, a sea which in the ancient mind was fraught with connotations of primeval chaos.e

These mythical associations explain the presence of yam sûp in the Song of the Sea. Traditional mythical language is used to express the belief that the emergence of Israel as a people during the exodus was due to a creative act by Yahweh equal to that of the original creation of the cosmos itself. The Egyptians, the evil force which threatens the existence of this new creation, are appropriately cast into the sea to perish. A more powerful symbol for nonexistence can scarcely be found than submergence into the Sea of End/Annihilation.

Specific philological confirmation of these connotations emanating from the word sûp may be found in a passage from Jonah. The word sûp is used there in a prayer of thanksgiving Jonah delivers from the belly of the whale, at a time when he has just been rescued from watery chaos-

I called out in my distress to Yahweh

and he answered me;

From the belly of Sheol I cried

and you heard my voice.

You had cast me into the deep,

in the midst of Sea

and River surrounded me.

All your breakers and your billows

passed over me.

Then I said, “I am driven

away from your presence.

How can I continue to look

to your holy temple?”

The waters engulfed me up to the neck;

the Abyss surrounded me;

sûp was bound to my head.

To the foundations of the mountains I descended;11

the underworld and its bars closed after me forever.

But you brought my life up from the Pit,

O Yahweh, my God.

When my soul went faint within me,

I remembered Yahweh;

And my prayer came unto you,

into your holy temple.

Those who worship vain idols

forsake their true loyalty.

But I with acclamations of thanksgiving

will sacrifice to you.

What I have vowed I will pay;

deliverance is from Yahweh.

Sûp is usually translated in this passage as seaweed, weeds, or the like. Seaweed doesn’t grow, however, in the depths of the sea. And there is surely no philological basis for a translation like seaweed. What it really means is the “End/Annihilation.” Sûp here is parallel to the abyss that surrounded the prophet and the waters that engulfed him up to his neck. In the same way the End/Annihilation was bound to his head. All the images in the psalm concern the realm of the primeval chaos- Sheol, the Pit, and the underworld as the abode of Death; the Sea-Dragon under its twin names of Sea and River; the primeval Abyss (tehôm) and its associated terms, “the deep,” “breakers,” “billows,” “waters”; the foundations of the mountains in the underworld. Clearly, context requires sûp to have something to do with the cosmic battle against chaos.

In Jonah, as in the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, God rules from his holy temple or mountain. This rule is a continuation of his primordial battle against the nihilistic forces of chaos. God’s holy mountain, where his temple is located, is the center of the cosmos, or orderly creation. To the ancient mind, the further away from the center of the cosmos one goes, the more one moves into the realm of chaos or noncreation. The spatial image is both vertical and horizontal. Vertically, the heavens are the source of existence and creation; the underworld and the abyss are the place of death and nonexistence. Horizontally, the land around the mountain of one’s god is known and understood and therefore thought of as the most “created.” The sea, which lies beyond the limits of the land, is unsolid, nonformed—in other words, “uncreated.” Thus, the sea and the abyss are simultaneously symbolic and real to the ancient mind.

In the same way yam sûp had both a symbolic meaning and a real meaning. When it refers to the body of water that engulfed the Egyptians after the Israelites passed through, it has a symbolic meaning. Elsewhere it refers to a particular body of water, the Red Sea, which for the ancients was really the Sea at the End of the World. But yam sûp never refers to the Reed Sea.

Yam sûp came to refer to the Red Sea because like other ancient peoples, the Israelites did not distinguish the Red Sea from oceans further to the south. To their way of thinking, the Red Sea—the yam sûp—was the sea at the end of the earth. It was a real place, but it also extended to the end of the world and thus carried an enormous symbolic and mythic freight.

It is interesting to note how the sea figures in each of the textual strands that make up the narrative account found in Exodus 13-17 through Exodus 14-30. While there may be some minor disagreements among scholars about how to divide the text, text critics generally agree on the division among the three strands represented in this passage. These three strands are J and E (which were combined into JE by a so-called redactor or editor at an early stage) and P. I have set forth the division among the three strands in a footnote.f

In the J narrative the sea is not identified; it is called simply ha-yam, “the sea” (Exodus 14-21b).g The sea bed is bared by a strong east wind blowing all night. Towards morning God somehow panics the Egyptian army so that it flees headlong into the dried sea bed. At the same time the waters flow back to their normal place and the Egyptians are drowned and the Israelites are free to continue on their way. Of the three textual strands, J is accepted as the oldest (probably about 10th–9th century B.C.), and in this version “the sea” clearly connotes a symbolic significance. The Egyptians are drowned in primeval chaos.

The textual strand known as E is scarcely represented in the sea narrative. There are no clear references to any miracle at the sea in this strand. The only possible reference to the sea is in 14-25a, which talks about chariot wheels clogging. This allusion to God’s clogging the chariot wheels so that the Egyptians could not drive may stem from a setting in a dried sea bed, but it is equally appropriate to a “flight” story. What the original E account contained, we cannot be sure. Not much of it has been left by the redactor.

The P narrative presents the familiar story. Trapped between the sea and the pursuing Egyptians, the Israelites cry to Yahweh for help. Yahweh commands Moses to stretch his staff over the sea, and the sea is split in twain. The Israelites march dry-shod through the middle of the sea, between walls of water to the right and to the left, with the Egyptians in pursuit. After the Israelites have crossed, Moses raises his staff and the waters return; the trapped Egyptian army perishes in the midst of the sea. Here too the place of the miracle is designated simply as “the sea.” Accordingly, some scholars have argued that P, like J, did not connect the miracle with yam sûp. It is more likely, however, that P did identify the sea of the miracle with yam sûp. As I have shown elsewhere,h P is responsible for editing the exodus narrative and the wilderness journey so that it conforms to the list of camping stations listed in Numbers 33. But there is one very important exception. In Numbers 33 the station at the sea of the crossing (verse 8) is quite distinct from yam sûp (verses 10–11), since the Israelites arrive at the latter some three camping stations later. In the exodus narrative, however, P has deliberately suppressed the latter station at yam sûp and changed the setting of the miraculous crossing from an unnamed sea to yam sûp. You can easily observe this for yourself. Compare the stations given in Exodus 13-20; 14-2; 15-22–23; 15-27–16-1 with the parallel list in Numbers 33-5–11. By telescoping the stations at “the sea” and at yam sûp into one, P surely wanted the reader to understand the defeat of Pharaoh as happening in yam sûp.

On the one hand, P clearly intended to historicize his account by providing concrete chronological and geographical referents. It must be assumed, then, that P intended yam sûp as a specific, identifiable body of water.

On the other hand, P also wished to play upon the cosmic and mythic elements connoted by the yam sûp. In P’s retelling of the exodus, the yam sûp is split, and the Israelites—freed from the slavery of Pharaoh—emerge out of its midst as God’s new creation (even as Marduk cleaved Tiamat in twain and out of her carcass created the cosmos). The “splitting” of the sea is clearly reminiscent of the West Semitic myth of the creator god overcoming his watery foe of chaos. Various commentators have noted that P’s account of creation (Genesis 1) contains various allusions to the common Semitic creation myth, including the reference to the “darkness upon the face of the abyss” (Hebrew tehôm, which is a cognate of the Akkadian Tiamat). P describes the universal flood as the irruption of the abyss into creation (Genesis 7-11; 8-2). In P’s flood story, the Creator once again has to defeat the nihilistic power of evil (the waters) encroaching upon the kingdom of God. In P’s version of the exodus story, the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt is another instance of the Creator’s continuing battle against contemporary manifestations of chaos represented by the Sea. In “splitting” the sea so “that the people of Israel might go through the midst of the sea on dry land” (Exodus 14-16), God once more displayed his creative power over chaos. As in the creation and the flood accounts, the Creator caused dry land to appear in the midst of the abyss, in effect making the realm of chaos recede before a superior, positive power. The people of God of course walked in the realm of creation (dry land), while the Egyptians were submerged into the realm of non-creation (sea).

P was not the only Biblical author to portray Egypt as the embodiment of chaos. In Isaiah 30-7, Egypt, again in the role of opponent to Yahweh, is called “Rahab the quelled.” Rahab is one of the names of the primeval sea-dragon. Also, in Ezekiel 29-3, Pharaoh, together with all Egypt, is depicted as “the great sea-dragon” (tannim), an epithet of Leviathan (see Isaiah 27-1; 51-9–11). Thus P, in portraying the exodus from Egypt as an extension of the creative will of God, stood solidly within Israel’s theological traditions.

The cosmological and mythological conceptions embodied in the Biblical account of the miracle of the Sea are foreign to us post-Enlightenment readers, but they were an important source for creative theologizing by Biblical writers, both in Exodus and elsewhere.

The Exodus narrative should not be read as a historical account of what actually transpired in those days. Biblical writers were less interested in reporting historical data than in symbolizing for their contemporaries the salvational significance of their traditions. The significance of those original symbols, so meaningful when first written, has been lost in our modern scientific and technological world. Nevertheless, if we are to understand the exodus as the ancient Israelites did, we must also learn to understand the meaning of their symbols.

a. It is also referred to as the Song of Moses or the Song of Miriam by some scholars.

b. The Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible are examples of Bibles containing this annotation. The New English Bible gives Sea of Reeds as an alternative translation. The editors of the New International Version append a corrective note at each occurrence- “Hebrew Yam Suph; that is, Sea of Reeds.” The New Jewish Publication Society translation and The Jerusalem Bible both translate yam sûp as “the Sea of Reeds.”

c. Much of this evidence comes from the preeminent authority on hieroglyphics, Sir Alan Gardiner; he thus refutes his own conclusion that the connection between p´-twf(y) and Biblical yam sûp is “beyond dispute.” A. Gardiner, Ancient Egyptian Onomastica (Oxford University, 1947) 2, pp. 201–202.

d. “¹ws-sy- The Sea of Reeds- The Red Sea,” Vetus Testamentum 15 (1965), pp. 395–98, esp. 397, 398. See also J. A. Montgomery, “Hebraica (2) yam sûp (‘The Red Sea’) = Ultimum Mare?” Journal of the American Oriental Society 58 (1938), pp. 131–132. It has been objected that sôp is an Aramaic word which was introduced into Hebrew at a late date (M. Wagner, Die lexikalischen und grammatikalischen Aramaismen in Alttestamentlichen Hebräisch [Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 96; Alfred Töpelmann- Berlin, 1966], p. 87). However, the occurrence of verbal forms of this root in Amos 3-15; Psalm 73-19; Jeremiah 8-13 and Zephaniah 1-2, 3 indicates that sôp need not be considered a late Aramaism in Hebrew; see G. Ahlstrom, “Joel and the Temple Cult in Jerusalem,” Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 21 (1971), pp. 2–3.

e. One is reminded that in the Israelite conception, the earth was an island of dry land surrounded on all sides by, and floating in, the primeval waters of chaos (Psalms 24-1–2; 104-5–7; 136-6). E. Levine (The Aramaic Version of Jonah [Jerusalem- Jerusalem Academic Press, 1975], pp. 75–77) relates that in later midrashic tradition Jonah while in the belly of the fish was shown the path of the Israelites through the Red Sea (b. Sota 45b; Midrash Jonah, h.l.; Yal. 551 Rashi, Comm. ad h.l.); this was possible, according to Ibn Ezra and Kimchi ad h.l., because “the Red Sea extends to, and mingles with the waters of Jaffa.”

f. To J, I assign the following verses 13-21–22; 14-5b–6, 9a, 10b, 11–14, 19b, 20, 21b, 24, 25b, 27b, 30–31. To E, I assign the following 13-17–19; 14–5a, 7, 19a, 25a. To P, I assign the following- 13-20; 14-1–4, 8, 9b–10a, 10c, 15–18, 21a, 21c–23, 26–27a, 28–29.

g. The small b indicates the second half of the verse. Scholars divide Biblical verses into colons or parts, designated a and b, and sometimes a third colon designated c.

h. “The Reed Sea- Requiescat in Pace,” Journal of Biblical Literature 102 (1983), pp. 27–35.

1. A. M. Silberman, ed., Pentateuch with Rashi’s Commentary Translated into English- Exodus (London- Shapiro, Valentine & Co., 1930), p. 67.

2. H. Brugsch, L’Exode et les monuments Égyptiens (Leipzig, 1875); see H. Cazelles, “Les localisations de l’Exode et la critique littéraire,” Revue Biblique 62 (1955), p. 323. The identification of p´-twf with Biblical yam sûp is also espoused by R. Caminos (Late Egyptian Miscellanies [London, 1954], p. 79) and R. Montet (Egypt and the Bible [Fortress- Philadelphia, 1968], p. 64).

3. Representative examples include the following- Y. Aharoni and M. Avi-Yonah, The Macmillan Bible Atlas (Macmillan- New York, 1968), p. 40; B. W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 3d ed. (Prentice-Hall- Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1975), p. 68; J. Bright, A History of Israel, 2d ed. (Westminster- Philadelphia, 1972), pp. 120–21; H. Cazelles, “Les localisations de l’Exode et la critique littéraire,” Revue Biblique 62 (1955), pp. 321–64, esp. 340–43; B. S. Childs, The Book of Exodus, Old Testament Library (Westminster- Philadelphia, 1974), p. 223 et passim; F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Harvard University- Cambridge, Mass., 1973), p. 128; J. Finegan, Let My People Go (Harper & Row- New York, 1963), pp. 17–89; S. Herrmann, A History of Israel in Old Testament Times (Fortress- Philadelphia, 1975), pp. 62–64; J. E. Huesman, “Exodus from Egypt,” New Catholic Encyclopedia 5, pp. 741–48, esp. 145–46; N. Lohfink, Das Siegeslied am Schilfmeer (Joseph Knecht- Frankfurt, 1965), pp. 102–28; J. L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (Bruce- Milwaukee, 1965), p. 723; J. L. Mihelic, “Red Sea,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 4, pp. 19–21; M. Noth, Exodus, Old Testament Library (Westminster- Philadelphia, 1962), pp. 107–11; J. C. Rylaarsdam, “Exodus- Introduction and Exegesis,” Interpreter’s Bible 1, pp. 930–31; G. E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology, rev. ed. (Westminster- Philadelphia, 1962), pp. 60–62; “Exodus, Route of,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 2, pp. 197–99. The Reed Sea hypothesis is given as a possibility, without endorsement, by M. Brawer and M. Avi-Yonah, “Red Sea,” Encyclopedia Judaica 14, pp. 14–16; G. Cornfeld, ed., Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia (Macmillan- New York, 1964), pp. 302–303; B. Oded, “Exodus,” Encyclopedia Judaica 6, pp. 1042–50, esp. 1048–50.

4. The eight certain references in Egyptian texts have been carefully collated and annotated by A. Gardiner, Ancient Egyptian Onomastica (Oxford University, 1947), 2, pp. 201–202.

5. Translated by R. Caminos, Late Egyptian Miscellanies (London, 1954), p. 14.

6. Herodotus, 1, 180, and Pindar, Pythian Odes 4, 448 in the fifth century B.C.

7. Xenophon, Cyropaedia 8.6.10, fourth century B.C.

8. See Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, under the word erythros II.

9. Am zû qanîta means “the people whom you have created,” not “the people whom you have purchased” (Revised Standard Version) or “ransomed” (New Jewish Publication Society). Although qanâ normally does mean “to acquire,” a second meaning of “to create” is now established from extra-Biblical texts wherein one of the titles of the god El is “Creator of heaven and earth”; see F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman, “The Song of Miriam,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 14 (1955), p. 249. The reluctance of P. Humbert (“Qana en hébreu biblique,” in Opuscles d’un hébraïsant [Université de Neuchatel, 1958], pp. 166–174), to accept this meaning because of the parallel to ‘am zû ga’al ta “the people whom you have redeemed” (verse 13) is unwarranted; ga’al (to redeem) is elsewhere paralleled by verbs of “creation” (Deuteronomy 32-6 and Isaiah 43-1; Isaiah 44-24; Isaiah 54-4). The concept of God creating Israel as a people is present elsewhere in Malachi 2-10 and frequently in Second Isaiah; for the latter see C. Stuhlmueller, “Creative Redemption in Deutero-Isaiah,” Analecta Biblica 43 (Rome- Biblical Institute Press, 1970), pp. 193–229.

10. See Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, pp. 138–44; P. Miller, The Divine Warrior in Early Israel (Harvard University- Cambridge, 1973), pp. 113–117; S. Norin, “Er Spaltete das Meer- Die Auszugsüberlieferung in Psalmen und Kult des Alten Israel,” Coniectanea Biblica, Old Testament Series 9 (C.W.K. Gleerup- Lund, 1977), pp. 77–107.

11. The punctuation of the Masoretic Text followed here yields better sense than the common modern practice of editing the text according to strictly metrical considerations (Biblia Hebraica [Kittel], Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, etc.).

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