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Red Sea


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, ρυθρ 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 windthe extremely hot desert wind, the siroccowhich 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, 2425, 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, 200405. a. lucas, The Route of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (New York 1938).

[m. j. hunt]

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