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The meaning of Red Sea in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)

(yam-cuph (Exodus 10:19 and often), but in many passages it is simply hayam, "the sea"' Septuagint with 2 or 3 exceptions renders it by he eruthra thalassa, "the Red Sea"; Latin geographers Mare Rubrum):

1. Name

2. Peculiarities

3. Old Testament References

4. Passage through the Red Sea by the Israelites

Objections

(1) Steep Banks of the Channel

(2) Walls Formed by the Water

(3) The East Winds

(4) The Miraculous Set Aside

LITERATURE

1. Name:

The Hebrew name yam-cuph has given rise to much controversy. Yam is the general word for sea, and when standing alone may refer to the Mediterranean, the Dead Sea, the Red Sea, or the Sea of Galilee. In several places it designates the river Nile or Euphrates. Cuph means a rush or seaweed such as abounds in the lower portions of the Nile and the upper portions of the Red Sea. It was in the cuph on the brink of the river that the ark of Moses was hidden (Exodus 2:3, Exodus 2:5). But as this word does not in itself mean red, and as that is not the color of the bulrush, authorities are much divided as to the reason for this designation. Some have supposed that it was called red from the appearance of the mountains on the western coast, others from the red color given to the water by the presence of zoophytes, or red coral, or some species of seaweed. Others still, with considerable probability, suppose that the name originated in the red or copper color of the inhabitants of the bordering Arabian peninsula. But the name yam-cuph, though applied to the whole sea, was especially used with reference to the northern part, which is alone mentioned in the Bible, and to the two gulfs (Suez and Aqabah) which border the Sinaitic Peninsula, especially the Gulf of Suez.

2. Pecularities:

The Red Sea has a length of 1,350 miles and an extreme breadth of 205 miles. It is remarkable that while it has no rivers flowing into it and the evaporation from its surface is enormous, it is not much salter than the ocean, from which it is inferred that there must be a constant influx of water from the Indian Ocean through the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, together with an outflow of the more saline water beneath the surface. The deepest portion measures 1,200 fathoms. Owing to the lower land levels which prevailed in recent geological times, the Gulf of Suez formerly extended across the lowland which separates it from the Bitter Lakes, a distance of 15 or 20 miles now traversed by the Suez Canal, which encountered no elevation more than 30 ft. above tide. In early historic times the Gulf ended at Ismailia at the head of Lake Timsah. North of this the land rises to a height of more than 50 ft. and for a long time furnished a road leading from Africa into Asia. At a somewhat earlier geological (middle and late Tertiary) period the depression of the land was such that this bridge was also submerged, so that the Red Sea and the Mediterranean were connected by a broad expanse of water which overflowed the whole surface of Lower Egypt.

The evidence of the more recent depression of the land surface in all Lower Egypt is unmistakable. Raised beaches containing shells and corals still living in the Red Sea are found at various levels up to more than 200 ft. above tide. One of the most interesting of these is to be seen near the summit of the "Crow's Nest," a half-mile South of the great pyramids, where, near the summit of the eminence, and approximately 200 ft. above tide, on a level with the base of the pyramids, there is a clearly defined recent sea beach composed of water-worn pebbles from 1 inches to 1 or 2 ft. in diameter, the interstices of which are filled with small shells loosely cemented together. These are identified as belonging to a variable form, Alectryonia cucullata Born, which lives at the present time in the Red Sea. On the opposite side of the river, on the Mokattam Hills South of Cairo, at an elevation of 220 ft. above tide, similar deposits are found containing numerous shells of recent date, while the rock face is penetrated by numerous borings of lithodomus mollusks (Pholades rugosa Broc.). Other evidences of the recent general depression of the land in this region come from various places on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. According to Lartet at Ramleh, near Jaffa, a recent beach occurs more than 200 ft. above sea-level containing many shells of Pectunculus violascens Lamk, which is at the present time the most abundant mollusk on the shore of the adjoining Mediterranean. A similar beach has been described by Dr. Post at Lattakia, about 30 miles North of Beirut; while others, according to Hull, occur upon the island of Cyprus. Further evidence of this depression is also seen in the fact that the isthmus between Suez and the Bitter Lakes is covered with recent deposits of Nile mud, holding modern Red Sea shells, showing that, at no very distant date, there was an overflow of the Nile through an eastern branch into this slightly depressed level. The line of this branch of the Nile overflow was in early times used for a canal, which has recently been opened to furnish fresh water to Suez, and the depression is followed by the railroad. According to Dawson, large surfaces of the desert North of Suez, which are now above sea-level, contain buried in the sand "recent marine shells in such a state of preservation that not many centuries may have elapsed since they were in the bottom of the sea" (Egypt and Syria, 67).

3. Old Testament References:

The Red Sea is connected with the children of Israel chiefly through the crossing of it recorded in Exodus (see 4, below); but there are a few references to it in later times. Solomon is said (I Kings 9:26) to have built a navy at "Ezion-geber, which is beside Eloth, on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom." This is at the head of the Gulf of Aqabah, the eastern branch of the Red Sea. Here his ships were manned by Hiram king of Tyre with "shipmen that had knowledge of the sea" (I Kings 9:27). And (I Kings 9:28) "they came to Ophir, and fetched from thence gold." But Eloth was evidently lost to Israel when Edom successfully revolted in the time of Joram (II Kings 8:20). For a short time, however, it was restored to Judah by Amaziah (II Kings 14:22); but finally, during the reign of Ahaz, the Syrians, or more probably, according to another reading, the Edomites, recovered the place and permanently drove the Jews away. But in I Kings 22:48 Jehoshaphat is said to have "made ships of Tarshish to go to Ophir for gold: but they went not; for the ships were broken at Ezion-geber"; while in II Chronicles 20:36 Jehoshaphat is said to have joined with Ahaziah "to make ships to go to Tarshish; and they made the ships in Ezion-geber."

Unless there is some textual confusion here, "ships of Tarshish:" is simply the name of the style of the ship, like "East Indiaman," and Tarshish in Chronicles may refer to some place in the East Indies. This is the more likely, since Solomon's "navy" that went to Tarshish once every 3 years came "bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks," which could hardly have come from any other place than India.

See SHIPS AND BOATS, II, 1, (2).

4. Passage through the Red Sea by the Israelites:

Until in recent times it was discovered that the Gulf of Suez formerly extended 30 miles northward to the site of the present Ismailia and the ancient Pithom, the scene of the Biblical miracle was placed at Suez, the present head of the Gulf. But there is at Suez no extent of shoal water sufficient for the east wind mentioned in Scripture (Exodus 14:21) to have opened a passage-way sufficiently wide to have permitted the host to have crossed over in a single night. The bar leading from Suez across, which is now sometimes forded, is too insignificant to have furnished a passage-way as Robinson supposed (BR(3), I, 56-59). Besides, if the children of Israel were South of the Bitter Lakes when there was no extension of the Gulf North of its present limits, there would have been no need of a miracle to open the water, since there was abundant room for both them and Pharaoh's army to have gone around the northern end of the Gulf to reach the eastern shore, while South of Suez the water is too deep for the wind anywhere to have opened a passage-way. But with an extension of the waters of the Gulf to the Bitter Lakes and Lake Timsah, rendered probable by the facts cited in the previous paragraph, the narrative at once so perfectly accords with the physical conditions involved as to become not only easily credible, but self-evidencing.

The children of Israel were at Rameses (Exodus 12:37) in the land of Goshen, a place which has not been certainly identified, but could not have been far from the modern Zagazig at the head of the Fresh Water Canal leading from the Nile to the Bitter Lakes. One day's journey eastward along Wady Tumilat, watered by this canal brought them to Succoth, a station probably identical with Thuket, close upon the border line separating Egypt from Asia. Through the discoveries of Naville in 1883 this has been identified as Pithom, one of the store-cities built by Pharaoh during the period of Hebrew oppression (Exodus 1:11). Here Naville uncovered vast store pits for holding grain built during the reign of Rameses II and constructed according to the description given in Exo. 1: the lower portions of brick made with straw, the middle with stubble, and the top of simple clay without even stubble to hold the brick together (see Naville, "The Store-City Pithom and the Route of the Exodus," Egyptian Exploration Fund, 1885; M. G. Kyle, "A Re-examination of Naville's Works," Records of the Past, VIII, 1901, 304-7). The next day's journey brought them to Etham on the "edge of the wilderness" (Exodus 13:20; Numbers 33:6), probably in the vicinity of the modern Ismailia at the head of Lake Timsah. From this point the natural road to Palestine would have been along the caravan route on the neck of land referred to above as now about 50 ft. above sea-level. Etham was about 30 miles Southeast of Zoan or Tanis, the headquarters at that time of Pharaoh, from which he was watching the movements of the host. If they should go on the direct road to Palestine, his army could easily execute a flank movement and intercept them in the desert of Etham. But by divine command (Exodus 14:2) Moses turned southward on the west side of the extension of the Red Sea and camped "before Pihahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon" (Exodus 14:22 Numbers 33:5-7). At this change of course Pharaoh was delighted, seeing that the children of Israel were "entangled in the land" and "the wilderness" had "shut them in." Instead of issuing a flank movement upon them, Pharaoh's army now followed them in the rear and "overtook them encamping by the sea, beside Pi-hahiroth," the location of which is essential to a proper understanding of the narrative which follows.

In Exodus 14:2, Pi-hahiroth is said to be "between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon." Now though Migdol originally meant "watch-tower," it is hardly supposable that this can be its meaning here, otherwise the children of Israel would have been moving directly toward a fortified place. Most probably, therefore, Migdol was the tower-like mountain peak marking the northeast corner of Jebel Geneffeh, which runs parallel with the Bitter Lakes, only a short distance from their western border. Baal-zephon may equally well be some of the mountain peaks on the border of the Wilderness of Paran opposite Cheloof, midway between the Bitter Lakes and Suez. In the clear atmosphere of the region this line of mountains is distinctly visible throughout the whole distance from Ismailia to Suez. There would seem to be no objection to this supposition, since all authorities are in disagreement concerning its location. From the significance of the name it would seem to be the seat of some form of Baal worship, naturally a mountain. Brugsch would identify it with Mr. Cassius on the northern shore of Egypt. Naville (see Murray's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, "Red Sea, Passage of") would connect it with the hill called Tussum East of Lake Timsah, where there is a shrine at the present day visited every year about July 14 by thousands of pilgrims to celebrate a religious festival; but, as this is a Mohammedan festival, there seems no reason to connect it with any sanctuary of the Canaanites. Dawson favors the general location which we have assigned to Pi-hahiroth, but would place it beside the narrow southern portion of the Bitter Lakes.

Somewhere in this vicinity would be a most natural place for the children of Israel to halt, and there is no difficulty, such as Naville supposes, to their passing between Jebel Geneffeh and the Bitter Lakes; for the mountain does not come abruptly to the lake, but leaves ample space for the passage of a caravan, while the mountain on one side and the lake on the other would protect them from a flank movement by Pharaoh and limit his army to harassing the rear of the Israelite host. Protected thus, the Israelites found a wide plain over which they could spread their camp, and if we suppose them to be as far South as Cheloof, every condition would be found to suit the narrative which follows. Moses was told by the Lord that if he would order the children of Israel to go forward, the sea would be divided and the children of Israel could cross over on dry ground. And when, in compliance with the divine command, Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, "Yahweh caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left. And the Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, and his horsemen" (Exodus 14:21-30). But when the children of Israel were safely on the other side the waters returned and overwhelmed the entire host of Pharaoh. In the Son. of Moses which follows, describing the event, it is said that the waters were piled up by the "blast of thy (God's) nostrils" (Exodus 15:8), and again, verse 10, "Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them." Thus 3 times the wind is mentioned as the means employed by God in opening the water. The competency of the wind temporarily to remove the water from the passage connecting the Gulf of Suez with the Bitter Lakes, provided it was only a few feet deep, is amply proved by facts of recent observation. Major General Tullock of the British army (Proc. Victoria Inst., XXVIII, 267-80) reports having witnessed the driving off of the water from Lake Menzaleh by the wind to such an extent as to lower the level 6 ft., thus leaving small vessels over the shallow water stranded for a while in the muddy bottom. According to the report of the Suez Canal Company, the difference between the highest and the lowest water at Suez is 10 ft. 7 inches, all of which must be due to the effect of the wind, since the tides do not affect the Red Sea. The power of the wind to affect water levels is strikingly witnessed upon Lake Erie in the United States, where according to the report of the Deep Waterways Commission for 1896 (165, 168) it appears that strong wind from the Southwest sometimes lowers the water at Toledo, Ohio, on the western end of the lake to the extent of more than 7 ft., at the same time causing it to rise at Buffalo at the eastern end a similar amount; while a change in the wind during the passage of a single storm reverses the effect, thus sometimes producing a change of level at either end of the lake of 14 ft. in the course of a single day. It would require far less than a tornado to lower the water at Cheloof sufficiently to lay bare the shallow channel which we have supposed at that time to separate Egypt from the Sinaitic Peninsula.

See EXODUS, THE.

Objections:

Several objections to this theory, however, have been urged which should not pass without notice.

(1) Steep Banks of the Channel:

Some have said that the children of Israel would have found an insuperable obstacle to their advance in the steep banks on either side of the supposed channel. But there were no steep banks to be encountered. A gentle sag leads down on one side to the center of the depression and a correspondingly gentle rise leads up on the other.

(2) Walls Formed by the Water:

Much has also been made of the statement (Exodus 14:22) that "the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left"; but when we consider the rhetorical use of this word "wall" it presents no difficulty. In Proverbs 18:11 we are told that "The rich man's wealth is his strong city, And as a high wall in his own imagination." In Isaiah 26:1 we are told that God will appoint salvation "for walls and bulwarks." Again Nahum (Nahum 3:8) says of Egypt that her "rampart was the sea (margin "the Nile"), and her wall was of the sea." The water upon either side of the opening served the purpose of a wall for protection. There was no chance for Pharaoh to intercept them by a flank movement. Nor is there need of paying further attention to the poetical expressions in the Son. of Moses, where among other things it is said "that the deeps were congealed in the heart of the sea," and that the "earth (instead of the water) swallowed them."

(3) The East Winds:

Again it is objected that an east wind does not come from the right direction to produce the desired result. On the other hand it is an east wind only which could have freed the channel from water. A north wind would have blown the water from the Bitter Lakes southward, and owing to the quantity of water impounded would have increased the depth of the water in the narrow passage from the southern end of Suez. An east wind, however, would have pressed the water out from the channel both ways, and from the contour of the shore lines would be the only wind that could have done so.

(4) The Miraculous Set Aside:

Again, it is objected that this explanation destroys the miraculous character of the event. But it should be noted that little is said in the narrative about the miraculous. On the other hand, it is a straightforward statement of events, leaving their miraculous character to be inferred from their nature. On the explanation we have given the transaction it is what Robinson felicitously calls a mediate miracle, that is, a miracle in which the hand of God is seen in the use of natural forces which it would be impossible for man to command. If anyone should say that this was a mere coincidence, that the east wind blew at the precise time that Moses reached the place of crossing, the answer is that such a coincidence could have been brought about only by supernatural agency. There was at that time no weather bureau to foretell the approach of a storm. There are no tides on the Red Sea with regular ebb and flow. It was by a miracle of prophecy that Moses was emboldened to get his host into position to avail themselves of the temporary opportunity at exactly the right time. As to the relation of the divine agency to the event, speculation is useless. The opening of the sea may have been a foreordained event in the course of Nature which God only foreknew, in which case the direct divine agency was limited to those influences upon the human actors that led them to place themselves where they could take advantage of the natural opportunity. Or, there is no a priori difficulty in supposing that the east wind was directly aroused for this occasion; for man himself produces disturbances among the forces of Nature that are as far-reaching in their extent as would be a storm produced by direct divine agency. But in this case the disturbance is at once seen to be beyond the powers of human agency to produce.

It remains to add an important word concerning the evidential value of this perfect adjustment of the narrative to the physical conditions involved. So perfect is this conformity of the narrative to the obscure physical conditions involved, which only recent investigations have made clear, that the account becomes self-evidencing. It is not within the power of man to invent a story so perfectly in accordance with the vast and complicated conditions involved. The argument is as strong as that for human design when a key is found to fit a Yale lock. This is not a general account which would fit into a variety of circumstances. There is only one place in all the world, and one set of conditions in all history, which would meet the requirements; and here they are all met. This is scientific demonstration. No higher proof can be found in the inductive sciences. The story is true. It has not been remodeled by the imagination, either of the original writers or of the transcribers. It is not the product of mythological fancy or of legendary accretion.

LITERATURE.

Dawson, Egypt and Syria; Hull, Mt. Seir, Sinai and Western Palestine; Naville, "The Store-City Pithom and the Route of the Exodus," Egyptian Exploration Fund, 1885; Kyle, "Bricks without Straw at Pithom: A Re-examination of Naville's Works," Records of the Past, VIII, 1901, 304-7; Wright, Scientific Confirmations of Old Testament History, 83-117.

George Frederick Wright


See more on the meaning of Red Sea in the Bible:
Red Sea {Easton's Bible Dictionary}

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