This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Red Sea, Reed Sea...and the Persian Gulf*

The conclusion of Passover has traditionally focused on celebrating the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. There will certainly be some purists among my readers who are already jumping to correct me: The Hebrew "Yam Suf" should be rendered more precisely "the Sea of Reeds," a translation which has been adopted by some recent English biblical commentaries.

I have heard the accusation that the common English usage of "Red Sea" is nothing more than the result of the ignorance of early Bible translators, or perhaps an old typographical error. This is not the case at all.

Actually, the name "Red Sea" is a lot older than the English language, and can be traced at least as far back as the 5th-century B.C.E. Greek historian Herodotus. It is used standardly in the Septuagint, the oldest Greek translation of the Bible, and by Jewish writers such as Philo and Josephus Flavius.

If one reads these ancient authors one soon realizes that the body of water being referred to is not necessarily the one which currently bears that name. It seems to be applied to the entire maritime area between Africa, Arabia and south Asia, extending at times as far as the Indian Ocean.

Some of the sources make a clear distinction between the more expansive Red Sea and the smaller Reed Sea. The latter lies in the region between Arabia and the Egyptian coast, especially in the Gulf of Eilat--the area that we normally think of now as the "Red Sea."

It is likely that the Red Sea was so named by ancient sailors as a result of the peculiar colouring created by the mountains, corals and desert sands (though the Egyptians called the same body of water the "Green Sea"); whereas the "Reed Sea" takes its name from the papyrus reeds and bulrushes that proliferated along the nearby Nile.

The distinction between the two seas is made very clearly in a remarkable document preserved among the "Dead Sea Scrolls" that is known to scholars as the "Genesis Apocryphon." This Aramaic text retells the stories of the Hebrew Patriarchs, much of it presented as an autobiographical account narrated by Abraham himself.

In one episode, Abraham tells us how he travelled along the frontier of the land which God had promised him, progressing from the Gihon River (apparently identified with the Nile), to the Mediterranean, south Lebanon and along the Euphrates River. Following that river through what is now Iraq Abraham arrived at the Red Sea in the east, which he traced through to "the tongue of the Reed Sea, which goes forth from the Red Sea."

From this itinerary it is evident that the Reed Sea is an inlet of the Red Sea. The fact that Abraham reached the Red Sea from the mouth of the Euphrates shows us that what is being referred to is in fact none other than the Persian Gulf!

The implications are quite remarkable. While I do not believe that we necessarily have to begin speaking of the "miraculous parting of the Persian Gulf," it is intriguing to observe that the story places both Iraq and Saudi Arabia within the perimeters of the Promised Land, a view which will warm the heart of the most extreme Israeli right-wingers.

As for myself, I will be perfectly satisfied if people simply stop correcting me whenever I speak of "the Red Sea."


This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers


Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, March 29 1991.

Bibliography:

  • N. Avigad and Y. Yadin, A Genesis Apocryphon, Jerusalem 1956.
  • M. Copisarow, "The Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Hebrew Concept of the Red Sea," Vetus Testamentum 12 (1962).
  • J. A. Fitzmyer, The Genesis Apocryphon of Qumran Cave I: A Commentary, 1966.