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Red Sea

The north-west arm of the Indian Ocean

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Red Sea (Heb. Yàm-Sàph; Sept. Greek: e eruthra thalassa; Greek writings of the Old and New Testaments e eruthra thalasse; Vulg. Mare rubrum)—The name of Red (or Erythraean) Sea was used by classical historians and geographers to designate the waters of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. In modern geography, it is applied to the northwest arm of the Indian Ocean, some 1400 miles long and lying between Arabia on the east and Africa on the west. Understood in this latter sense, the Red Sea stretches from the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, in lat. 12° 40′ N., to the modern head of the Gulf of Suez, lat. 30° N. Its greatest width is 205 miles, and its greatest depth about 1200 fathoms. At Ras Mohammed, in lat. 27° 45′ N., the Red Sea is divided by the Peninsula of Sinai into two gulfs: that of Suez (anciently Heroopoliticus sinus) on the west, now about 130 miles in length with an average width of about 18, and that of Akabah (anciently Elaniticus sinus) on the east, narrower and only about ninety miles long. The Red Sea receives no river of importance, and is noted for its heat. Formerly its commerce was great, and it has much increased since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

The derivation of the Hebrew name Ydm-gtlph is uncertain. The meaning of S 2ph is probably “reeds”, and the title Ydm-S’t2ph (Sea of Reeds) appears to have been given originally to the upper end of the Gulf of Suez, which was probably shallow and marshy, and abounding in reeds. More uncertain still is the derivation of the Graeco-Roman name, Erythraean (or Red) Sea. It has been variously explained by the red corals it contains; by the color of the Edomite and Arabian Mountains, bordering its coasts; by the glow of the sky reflected in its waters; by the word edom (red), which the Greeks may have rendered literally; by the name of King Erythras, who reigned in the adjacent country.

The Scriptural references to the Red Sea are directly connected with its northern gulfs. Those which concern the Gulf of Akabah, on the northwest, are comparatively few and unimportant. In Ex., xxiii, 31, that gulf is simply given as the southern limit of the Holy Land; in III Kings, ix, 26; II Par., viii, 17, it is spoken of in connection with Solomon‘s maritime commerce, and in III Kings, xxii, 48, in reference to Josaphat‘s unsuccessful attempt in the same direction; finally, in Jer., xlix, 21, it is mentioned in a prediction of the utter ruin of Edom. The Scriptural references to the Gulf of Suez, on the northeast, are on the contrary both numerous and important, for it is the miraculous passage of that arm of the Red Sea which is described in Ex., xiv, celebrated in MosesCanticle (Ex., xv), and repeatedly referred to in other parts of Holy Writ, despite the recent theories framed to disprove the traditional identification of the Gulf of Suez with the Red Sea crossed by Israel, at the time of the Exodus. Brugsch and others have indeed argued that the water which was dried up to let Israel pass was the northern end of the Sirbonian Bog, on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, between Egypt and the southwest extremity of Chanaan, but this theory is untenable because contrary not only to the statements of the Biblical narratives but also to the recent discoveries which have settled the position of Gessen, whence the Israelites set out for Palestine. Again, Beke and others have advanced the view that the eastern arm of the Red Sea, i.e. the Gulf of Akabah, and not the Gulf of Suez, is that which the Hebrews crossed. But this view also is inconsistent with the most natural interpretation of the Biblical data concerning the Exodus. The traditional identification of the Gulf of Suez with the Red Sea crossed by Israel should therefore not be given up.

It remains true, however, that the scholars who most readily admit this identification are still divided with regard to the actual place of crossing. Their disagreement is chiefly due to the difficulty of ascertaining the exact extent of this western arm of the Red Sea at the time of the Exodus. On the supposition that at that time the Gulf of Suez extended northward through the large Bitter Lake to the Timsah Lake, many writers maintain that the crossing was effected at a point between these two lakes then joined only by a shallow connection. To establish this position, they put forth various arguments (historical, geographical, geological) which, when closely examined, are found not to substantiate it. In fact, every attempt at proving that the Gulf of Suez extended in Moses‘ time as far as the Timsah Lake, or even as far as the great Bitter Lake, seems to be irreconcilable with the fact that Egyptian inscriptions of the Twelfth Dynasty speak of this latter body of water as an undrinkable “lake”, so that, several centuries before the Exodus, the great Bitter Lake itself was no part of the Arabian “Gulf”. Apparently, then, those scholars are in the right who. think that in the time of Moses the northern limit of the Gulf of Suez did not vary much, if at all, from what it is at the present day, and who maintain that Israel crossed “the sea” at some point in the vicinity of the present Suez. This point is, indeed, at a considerable distance from the place where Moses was bidden to change his eastern march and to “turn and encamp” (Ex., xiv, 2); but this very distance is required to give time to convey to Pharao the intelligence that the Israelites had fled, and to enable his army to overtake them at a spot whence, humanly speaking, they could not escape (Ex., xiv, 5 sqq.).

The passage of the Red Sea was ever, and indeed rightly, considered by the Hebrews as a most important event in their national history, and also as one of the most wonderful miracles of the Almighty in behalf of His Chosen People. Endeavors to explain away the miraculous character of the event have signally failed, for none of the documents, regarded by criticism as embodied in Holy Writ and as describing this historical fact, treats it as the mere result of natural forces. In I Cor., x, 2, the passage of the Red Sea is referred to as a fitting type of Christian baptism.


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