RED SEA (Heb. יַם סוּף, yam suf; lit. "Sea of Reeds"). The Hebrew term yam suf denotes, in some biblical references and in most later sources, the sea known as the Red Sea (as in Gr. ʾΕρυθρἁ θάλασσα; Lat. Sinus Arabicus, Mare Rubrum; Ar. Baḥr or al-Baḥr al-Aḥmar). The Red Sea is a long narrow strip of water separating the Arabian Peninsula from the northeastern corner of Africa (Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia) and forming the northwestern arm of the Indian Ocean to which it is connected by the Bāb al-Mandib Straits (whose narrowest point is 21 mi. (33 km.) wide). In the northern part of the Red Sea are the Gulf of Elath (Aqaba) and the Gulf of Suez which enclose the Sinai Peninsula. With the opening of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea was connected with the Mediterranean. Its total area is 176,061.6 sq. mi. (456,000 sq. km.) and its length about 1,240 mi. (2,000 km., excluding the gulfs in the north). For most of its length it is 124–155 mi. (200–250 km.) wide and about 223 mi. (360 km.) at its widest point, near Massawa. Its mean depth measures approximately 1,640 ft. (500 m.); about 70% of its area is more than 656 ft. (200 m.) deep and its maximum depth, 7,741 ft. (2,360 m.), is northeast of Port Sudan. The Red Sea is the warmest and most saline of all open seas. The temperature of the surface water reaches 30°–33° c (86°–91° f) in July–September (near the shores it rises to 36° c (97° f) and drops to 23°–27° c (73°–81° f) in December-February. The average salinity near the surface is 40–41% which increases to 43% on the northern side, in the gulfs of Elath and Suez. Because of the wasteland nature of the area, the shores of the Red Sea are sparsely settled. Its port sites are few and for the most part small; the principal ones are Joba, Suez, Port Sudan, and Hudida.
In the Bible the Red Sea, apart from its problematical appearance in the route of the Exodus (see below), is clearly identified in the description of the borders of the land promised to Israel (Ex. 23:31) and in other passages describing the maritime activities of Solomon (i Kings 9:26) and later kings. In antiquity the two gulfs at its northern tip served as important navigation routes. The Gulf of Clysma (Suez) was used by the rulers of Egypt as the shortest route to the Mediterranean above the Isthmus of Suez. It was connected via the Bitter Lakes with the Nile and the Mediterranean by a canal which already existed in the days of Necoh and which was repaired by Darius I, the Ptolemies, and the Romans. The Gulf of Elath was a vital outlet to the south for the kings of Israel and Judah and their Phoenician allies. David acquired access to the sea and this was maintained by his successors until the division of the kingdom; it was later regained by Jehoshaphat and Uzziah. Still later the Nabateans used it for their maritime trade and overland transport to Petra and Gaza. In the Hellenistic period the discovery of the monsoon wind systems revived direct trade with India via the Red Sea; this trade continued throughout the Roman period. During the Byzantine period the Red Sea was the only trade route to the East open to the empire, which explains the tenacity with which the Byzantines fought for its control against the Jewish kings of Ḥimyar. From the seventh century onward the Arabs dominated the Red Sea, except for a brief period during which Elath was held by the crusaders. The discovery of the sea route to India and Turkish domination put an end to international trade on the Red Sea; it was revived with the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869.
The Red Sea and the Problem of the Exodus
Tradition has identified the sea which engulfed Pharaoh's army with the Red Sea ever since the Septuagint translation of the Bible in the third century b.c.e. This identification was adopted by Josephus and the Christian pilgrims and is still accepted by some scholars. They place the crossing of the Red Sea in the vicinity of Suez and point out the high tides in the Red Sea (up to 6½ ft.), but they fail to explain how an east wind could have driven the waters back at this point (Ex. 14:21). Most of the scholars who accept the southern route of the Exodus maintain that the Red Sea was crossed at the Great Bitter Lake, but here too an east wind could lower the water level by only a few inches at the utmost. This theory, furthermore, is unable to account for the places Pi-Hahiroth, Migdol, and Baal-Zephon which the Israelites passed. The majority opinion today identifies the Red Sea of the Exodus with one of the lagoons on the shores of the Mediterranean. Some locate it at Baḥr Manzala (Gardiner, Loewenstamm) or the Sirbonic Lake (Jarvis, Mazar, Noth) and identify Pi-Hahiroth with Tell al-Khayr, Migdol with Pelusium, and Baal-Zephon with the sanctuary of Zeus Cassius on the isthmus dividing the lake from the sea, the former being occasionally inundated by waves from the latter when an east wind is blowing (cf. also *Exodus).
[Moshe Brawer and
In the Aggadah
While the Israelites were threatened by the Egyptians' closing in on them and driving them toward the sea, the angels wanted to sing a song of praise, but God did not permit them to do so, saying: "My sons are in distress and you want to praise Me?" (Tanḥ. Ex. 60; Ex. R. 23:7; the version quoted in Meg. 10b, "The work of My hands are about to drown in the sea," also referred originally to the Israelites, not the Egyptians). Even after the sea was parted and Israel had crossed it safely, God again told the angels to wait, for He desired to hear first the song sung by Israel (Tanḥ ibid.; Ex. R. ibid.). When Moses raised the rod over the sea and commanded it to be parted, the sea refused at first to obey the orders of a human being; it only submitted when it saw the Divine Name engraved on the rod, or – according to another version – when God Himself rebuked it (Mekh. Be-Shallaḥ 4; Ginsburger, Fragmententhargum, Ex. 14:29). In spite of the miracle, the people were at first afraid to enter the receding waters, until *Naḥshon of the tribe of Judah descended first; but another version relates that all were eager to obey the Divine command, competing among themselves until eventually the tribe of Benjamin succeeded in being the first to enter the sea (Mekh. ibid. 5; Sot. 36bff.). When the Egyptians had drowned, the sea tossed their bodies to the shore, but the earth, too, refused to receive them until God swore an oath not to punish it for receiving the corpses (Mekh. Shirata 9; Pseudo-Jon.; Ex. 15:12). According to another version the sea refused to give up the corpses and only agreed to do so when God promised to compensate it in the days of Sisera (Pes. 118b). God's decision that the Egyptians should not be swallowed up by the sea was either in order to give the Israelites the satisfaction of seeing their former masters lying dead at their feet (Mekh. Be-Shallaḥ 6) or because in spite of all they deserved burial in the ground (Mekh. Shirata 9; pdre 39).
Abel, Geog, 2 (1938), 209ff.; Servin, in: Bulletin de l'Institut d'Egypte, 31 (1949), 315ff.; C.S. Jarvis, Yesterday and Today in Sinai (1931), 158ff.; Gardiner, Onomastica, 2 (1947), 201ff.; em, s.v. (incl bibl.); M. Harel, Masei Sinai (1968). In the Aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, 3 (19473), 14–36; 5 (19475), 4–12; J. Heinemann, in: Bar-Ilan Sefer ha-Shanah, 7–8 (1970), 80–84.
In Greek and Roman times, the Red Sea was located at the northwestern reaches of the Indian Ocean including the Persian and Arabian gulfs. The origin of the term (Heb. yam sûp, "Sea of Rushes"; in the Septuagint, ἡ ἐρυθρὰ θάλασσα, "the Red Sea") is obscure. A plausible suggestion maintains that it was derived from the reddish corals that line the sea's bottom and are visible from its shores.
In the Old Testament the term Sea of Rushes refers to either of the two narrow arms of the Arabian Gulf that embrace the eastern and western shores of the Sinai peninsula, whose modern names are the Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez. In 1 Kgs 9.26 it denotes the Gulf of Aqaba, whence Solomon's ships embarked; probably it has this denotation also in Jgs 11.16. In Ex 10.19, where the locusts are carried into this sea by the west wind, it seems to mean some swampy part of the Suez isthmus, a meaning also likely in Ex 13.18; 15.4, 22. The earliest tradition probably referred to a lake or bay full of reeds, but the later Greek translators understood the Sea of Rushes to be a branch of the Red Sea that was familiar to them.
Exodus does not refer to the Gulf of Suez itself, whose water was as deep then as it is now. What the Israelites crossed was very likely a shallow body of water, a marshy, southern bay of Lake Menzaleh or the northern tip of Lake Timsah. The earliest account of the crossing of the sea, found in the yahwist tradition, says that Yahweh caused the sea to recede by a strong east wind—the extremely hot desert wind, the sirocco—which blew all night and dried up the marsh. The chariot wheels of the Egyptians became clogged in the mud, and pursuit of the Israelites, who were afoot, became impossible. By morning, when the wind abated, the waters flowed back to their normal depth. Seeing this marvel, the Egyptians fled, finally convinced that Yahweh was fighting for Israel (Ex 14.21b, 24–25, 27b).
Today the term Red Sea usually signifies the main part of the gulf of the Indian Ocean that separates Africa from Arabia, extending from the Straits of Aden to the Sinai Peninsula and now joined to the Mediterranean by the Suez Canal.
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek, 2004–05. a. lucas, The Route of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (New York 1938).
[m. j. hunt]