Science in Christian Perspective




Did Israel Cross the Red Sea?

William F. Tanner*

The Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL 32306

From: PSCF 50 (September 1998): 211-215.

Many English translations of the Old Testament (especially in the Book of Exodus) state that the children of Israel, fleeing from Egypt and from an Egyptian military force, crossed the Red Sea. Even the sermon of Stephen, on the day of his martyrdom in Jerusalem, includes such a statement (Acts 7:36, as commonly translated into English). From these translations, the reader is entitled to think that the water body crossed was, indeed, the Red Sea. People berate skeptics for not believing plain, clear, pointed statements in the Bible. Let's take a closer look.

Modern Geography

First, let's review some modern knowledge. The Red Sea is 180˝300 kilometers wide, and the long narrow trough, the deepest part, is 1,200˝2,600 meters below the water surface. We may choose to believe that the crossing was made at the narrowest point, along the shallowest bottom (although these two requirements are not compatible). One recorded depth along the axial line is a bit more than 1,200 meters, or 4,000 feet. From the simple geometry of the case, the fleeing people would be required to walk at least 180 kilometers (112.5 miles) if the route were straight. However, the coast is marked by a wide band of coral reefs which provide rugged relief (at many places five hundred or so meters high, at very steep angles), and the sea floor is tectonically-controlled and irregular, with no road or smooth surface for pedestrians to use. Therefore, the path was more nearly 220 kilometers (about 140 miles). The trip from their homes to the edge of the sea, a similar or somewhat longer distance, required four to six weeks. The trip across the sea took less than ten hours (Ex. 14:21˝27). A walk of 220 kilometers in ten hours requires 22 km/hr (13.75 mi/hr), in this example, over extremely rough terrain. This speed is close to the world record for runningˇon an ideal, smooth, and level track, for relatively short race distances.

Even if these fleeing pedestrians could have found a straight smooth path (a first-class paved highway) so that the speed requirement would be only 18 km/hr (11.25 mi/hr), they would need to overcome several major problems: (1) this is much too fast for sustained travel on foot, by ordinary adults and children, even on level ground; (2) the transverse coral reefs have vertical relief of 500 or so meters, which must be climbed in two directions (up and down), providing very inefficient travel; (3) the second half of the trip would involve a climb of perhaps 1,200 meters (4,000 feetˇto the top of a 330-story building), which means that travel would be significantly slower than normal; and (4) crossing the Red Sea places the traveler in the Arabian Peninsula, not in the Sinai Peninsula. The data given here show that a crossing of the Red Sea, within the ten or so hours specified in Exodus, is not possible, and that even the goal is mistaken. Without any other considerations, the ubiquitous coral reefs eliminate "Red Sea" as a viable rendition.

The long, narrow water body between Egypt, on the west, and the Sinai Peninsula, on the east, is the Gulf of Suez. Perhaps in ancient times this water body was known by the name of the larger sea with which it was connected, in which case "Red Sea" might be appropriate. The Gulf of Suez is only about 25˝30 kilometers wide, and up to two hundred meters deep (666 feet). If the terrain were not too rough, ten hours might be enough for the crossing. This appears to be conceptually possible, but probably not practical for a crowd of more than two million people on foot, including small children (Ex. 13:37). Two million people cannot travel down a given road on the same time schedule as twenty or two hundred people. A column ten persons wide, each separated from the persons ahead and behind by one meter respectively (not much room), walking at 5 km/hr, requires forty hours to pass a single fixed point. If the column is one hundred persons wide, the elapsed time is four hours, but this still does not include transit time, and does not permit any rest stops.

None of the discussion in the previous paragraph allows for the problem of crossing the high, narrow, rugged ridge reefs which are present. Therefore, even the Gulf of Suez appears to have been too wide and too difficult for a crossing in a single night. If this were indeed the pertinent water body, then one would have to assume a certain elasticity in the use of names. Nevertheless, translators who believe that "Gulf of Suez" was meant, and who understand the modern designations, should not use "Red Sea."

Modern Translations

Second, let's look at the documents. Where do we get the idea that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, or even the Gulf of Suez? Popular modern English renditions of the Old Testament were translated from the Hebrew version known as the Masoretic text, dating back perhaps about eight hundred years. The Masoretic text uses the Hebrew expression "Yam Suph" ("Sea of Reeds"; note Ex. 10:19; 15:18; 15:4; 15:22; 23:31).

The Martin Luther translation into German, as revised in 1951, shows "Schilfmeer" ("Sea of Reeds") in each case, whereas the Spanish version of 1960 shows "Mar Rojo" ("Red Sea") in each case, with no footnotes. The New International Version uses "Red Sea" but has footnotes that provide "Sea of Reeds," as does the New American Standard Bible of 1971. (If the translators, in each case, knew the correct rendition and could show it in footnotes, why did they deliberately use an erroneous one in the text?) The King James version, as revised in 1962, uses "Red Sea" with no footnotes.

The Tanakh (Jewish Publication Society, 1985) is very interesting. It uses "Sea of Reeds" in the text, and provides footnotes to the effect that this expression has been translated, traditionally but incorrectly, as "Red Sea." The Lamsa translation (1933, from an Aramaic version that is not readily available) uses "Red Sea" with no footnotes. The Interlinear Bible (Green, 1976) provides the Masoretic text (in Hebrew), an interlinear word-for-word English rendition immediately below the Hebrew, and a smooth English translation in a parallel column. The "Sea of Reeds" (Yam Suph) is obvious in the Hebrew, the interlinear English usesˇcorrectlyˇ"Sea of Reeds," but the "smooth translation" gives "Red Sea," with no explanation of any kind for the discrepancy.

The "Sea of Reeds" is something quite different from "Red Sea." Neither the Red Sea nor the Gulf of Suez has extensive coverage of salt grass ("reeds"). The Hebrew term suggests that neither of these two water bodies is the pertinent one, and it is unlikely that "Sea of Reeds" would be considered appropriate by anyone living on the shores of, or attempting to cross, either one. Instead, fringing coral reefs are common on the edges of marine water bodies in the area, and steep-sided "ridge reefs" occur in slightly deeper water. Pedestrians cannot "walk" over extensive exposed coral reefs; they would have to climb, without the benefit of suitable hand holds, and the climbing would be difficult and dangerous. No one who crossed either type of coast would ever confuse it with the other.The word for "reef" and the expression for "coral reef" do not occur in the Bible. "Coral" is used in a few places in English versions (e.g., Job 28:18), but (1) this usage may refer to an item of trade, such as red coral which is an attractive oddity, and (2) it is probable that "coral" is not the correct translation.

New Testament Greek

According to the Book of Acts, Stephen preached a sermon which was largely a recapitulation of Jewish history. In Acts 7:36, he referred to the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Presumably he spoke in Aramaic, the language of the community, because he was understood clearly by an angry mob for whom the everyday language was Aramaic. He is reported (in the Greek account which has been preserved for us) to have used the term "Erythrean Sea." This expression is an ancient equivalent of "Eritrean Sea," which in turn refers to the more southerly part of the Red Sea, and which was also used to mean "Indian Ocean." (This last expression is something like what one would get if the residents of New York were to insist on calling the large water body east of them the "New York Ocean.")

However, there are several problems here: (1) we cannot know what Stephen actually said in Aramaic; (2) we do not know how restrictive or how general the translation into Greek may have been; and (3) "Erythrean Sea" may have been used in a sense that is different from what we would infer today. In any case, translators have commonly opted to render this phrase as "Red Sea," with no compelling reason for doing so. The result does not look like a valid interpretation.

Old Testament Hebrew

The Masoretic (Hebrew) text commonly uses the expression "Yam Suph" (the first word means, among other things, sea or coast, and the second, reeds, hence "Sea of Reeds"), which is a descriptive term that is not appropriate for the Gulf of Suez, Red Sea, Eritrean Sea, or Indian Ocean. A few selected references, taken from the Book of Exodus, are given above. In these verses, the expression is typically translated into English as "Red Sea," although the rational connectionˇif there was anyˇis mysterious, at best. Some English versions (as stated above) give the correct translation in footnotes, but not in the text.

Never is "coral reef" or "reef" or "coral" used. If the fleeing Israelites had clambered over the rugged coral reefs along the margins of the Red Sea or the Gulf of Suez, it would have caused many injuries, and would have made an indelible impression on them, so that this fact would have been repeated many times in later accounts. Furthermore, Egyptian charioteers would not have even ventured to follow the refugees, and could not have done so if they had tried. The statement in the Book of Exodus that the Egyptian military force got well into the basin, and then was overwhelmed by the returning water, is consonant with the concept of a salt marsh ("Sea of Reeds"), but not with the idea of coral reefs ("Red Sea").

Old Testament Greek

The Septuagint is an Alexandrian Greek translation of the Old Testament, made long before the birth of Christ, and widely cited in the New Testament. It has been criticized for being what is commonly called an "infelicitous" translation, and in many places it contains what seem to be awkward expressions: what may be Hebrew grammar and/or colloquialisms clothed with Greek words. It also differs markedly, at various places, from the Masoretic text. Most modern scholars have felt that the Hebrew versionˇthough not very old as manuscripts goˇhas the merit of being in the original language, and, therefore, is to be preferred over a translation into some other language, such as Greek, especially where the latter shows various, obvious imperfections. This presumption overlooks the bothersome fact that we have very little information about the manuscripts that necessarily preceded the Masoretic text, and thus we have few clues as to changes that many copyists probably made, either by accident or on purpose. Single words or short phrases, dealing with well-known matters, therefore, may be more accurate when taken from "the Septuagint" which predates the existing Masoretic text by more than one thousand years.

In many places in the Old Testamentˇespecially in the book of Exodusˇthe Septuagint uses the expression "Erythrean Sea," which requires that we recognize these instances as cases of "general, or broad, usage, or incomplete knowledge." For example, a person might be identified as being about 30˝50 years old, whereas he is actually 41. The broader statement is not of itself erroneous, and may be adequate in certain cases, but does not provide any detail, and should not be used for purposes of definition. "Erythrean Sea" is a very broad statement, and therefore not a good source for detailed information. It is even possible that it does not actually include the correct answer. Stephen probably used the Greek Septuagint regularly as his Old Testament (as Paul did); therefore, in extemporaneous speech in a stressful situation, he may have fallen back on the usage "Erythrean Sea" ("Eritrean Sea") without worrying about geographic niceties. Luke, who got Stephen's remarks secondhand at a much later date and then recorded them, would have reported the speech without emendations: he did not edit it, but only reported it.

The Greek word "schoinos" (in which the letters "ch" represent the single Greek letter chi) is equivalent to the Latin word "iuncus," or "juncus," and the word in each language has basically the same meaning as the modern English "Juncus," which is a botanical name referring to a salt-tolerant plant variety. This is a needle grass which is one of the important plant constituents in the coastal tidal marsh. Another important member of the coastal salt-marsh plant community is "Spartina," likewise a generic name. To a casual observer, they look pretty much alike. The two, together, apparently make up most of the plant assemblage identified in ancient writings as "juncus" or "schoinos."

The Greek word "schoinos" appears in the Septuagint at various places. A good example is Micah 6:5, where the desert wanderings of the Israelites are lumped under the expression "from the juncus (but the word is in plural form), to the camp by the River Jordan." In English, we do not ordinarily use the plural expression "juncuses." The plural form of the noun probably indicates that this means from the "place of much juncus, to" The proper English word for "a wetland covered by much grass" is "marsh" (but not "swamp"). Therefore, a smooth and accurate translation would be: "From the salt marsh, to" Another smooth and accurate translation might be: "From the Juncus marsh, to" (Other uses of the same Greek word can be found in the Psalms, Jeremiah, and Joel.)

In this statement, Micah had a first-rate opportunity to make a reference to coral reefs, if they had been part of the history. "From the rugged coral reefs, to" makes a very impressive statement, and recalls the almost-impossible task of getting across those features. Today, we do not appreciate the difficulties that would be memorialized in such a statement, because we never see living coral reefs exposed by a sudden removal of the water. Furthermore, the Greek word for "coral" is well known (korallion); it appears neither in Micah 6:5, nor in Job 28:18, nor anywhere else in the Septuagint. The Septuagint rendition of Job 28:18 is the Greek word "meteora," meaning "high, exalted, lifted up." This may be an accurate translation, because the Hebrew word at this point appears to be closer to "high" than it is to "coral." The reason Micah summarized the nomadic history of Israel as "reeds to Jordan" rather than as "reefs to Jordan" is because the "crossing" was made in a marsh, not in the Red Sea or the Gulf of Suez. (The fact that "reed" and "reef" are, in English, almost the same is not pertinent; the modern similarity is accidental, and does not carry back to either ancient Greek or ancient Hebrew.)

The information available at this point indicates these important facts: The water-crossing was made in an area of salt marsh (Juncus)ˇan area without coral reefs, rocky cliffs, or rough bottom; not too wide or too deep for the huge crowd to get across in ten hours or less; and not too rough for Egyptian charioteers to follow.

The "Dry" Crossing

The history of the crossing, as given in the Book of Exodus, requires a strong wind which could blow a good part of the water out of the basin so that the Israelites could travel on "dry" ground (firm, but not necessarily without moisture). After the refugees had, more or less, reached safety on the other side, the wind would need to subside, leaving the water to return to its usual place, thus drowning the Egyptian military force. This phenomenon is well known today as super-elevation, but it has physical limits.

Super-elevation, caused by the wind blowing steadily and strongly for hours, can drive much of the water out of a very shallow basin. The height of super-elevation (from one side of the basin to the other) may be one to two or so meters. However, it is not a reasonable mechanism for water one hundred meters deep, or one thousand meters deep, and, therefore, is not applicable to either the Gulf of Suez, or to the Red Sea. And since the historical text is very clear about what happened, the reader is not entitled to use a "miraculous augmentation." Thus, the reader should be careful to distinguish between (1) a supernatural mechanism (which requires no rational physical limitations or causes, and therefore cannot even be discussed in any detail within a rational framework), and (2) a supernatural cause for the timing of a natural mechanism. The writer of Exodus clearly chose the latter.

Such a shallow basin is precisely what is needed to have a "Sea of Reeds." Neither Juncus nor Spartina grows in water more than about a meter deep.

The evidence includes: (1) the actual words used (e.g., schoinos, in the Greek, but in plural form; "Juncus," or "juncuses"), and these words are definitive rather than very broad in meaning; (2) by implication, the width and relief of the area to be crossed; (3) the number of people, traveling on foot, who had to make the crossing; (4) the time available for the crossing; and (5) the mechanism for removing the water from at least a good part of the basin. The water body that we should deduce from these constraints was shallow (not more than a very few meters deep), partly covered by salt tolerant grasses such as Juncus (and Spartina), and only a few kilometers wide. Most modern coastal salt marshes have runnels or other channels occupied (especially at high tide) by water more than one to two meters deep. Therefore, they are not actually quite 100% covered by salt-tolerant plants, but this fact does not keep such an area from being a marsh ("juncuses," to follow the Greek usage).

An extensive Juncus cover (although not necessarily 100%) requires salt water, but Juncus ordinarily thrives in salinities less than normal marine, or in areas where seawater reaches the plants only briefly at high tide. Waters along the coasts of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez are typically saltier than average seawater, because of the very high evaporation rate in the area (about two meters per year).

There is, in fact, one wide, shallow lake which meets these requirements, as well as a few smaller such lakes, on the route of the Exodus. These lakes are now crossed by the Suez Canal. The largest, by far, is Great Bitter Lake; it is about forty kilometers long, north-to-south, and about ten kilometers wide at the widest place. This lake would be an ideal place for a large group of people to cross on their way from Egypt eastward into the Sinai Peninsula to escape a pursuing army provided they could benefit from a strong, properly-timed wind that would drive much of the water from the shallow basin so that they would have an avenue of escape. Then as the water returned to the basin proper, the pursuers would be turned back or drowned. According to the Exodus account, this is what happened.

In Hollywood lore, the escape from Egypt was made through the "Red Sea" (following the popular mistranslation in various English versions). The very impressive movie footage showed the actors traveling between towering vertical walls of "water," which actually were masses of soft and apparently unstable gelatin, photographed as part of a double exposure procedure, using two widely different scales (that is, the actors were photographed on a set having neither walls nor other visible background, and the "walls of water" were photographed in a miniature set of wet gelatin, with no actors present; the two scenes were then superimposed). The famous result is precisely what many people have in mind when they refer to the subject, but this is Hollywood, not Exodus. The Bible does indeed state that the water appeared to the Israelites as "walls" of water on each side; and this seems to be an accurate rendition of their perception of matters. However, other details in the account, reviewed above, indicate that the crossing was made through Great Bitter Lake ("Sea of Reeds" or "Sea of Juncuses"). The movie footage did not include anything remotely like the rugged coral reefs that would have been in the way, and thereforeˇalthough it looked good on the silver screenˇit did not actually represent what it purported to show (if "Red Sea" was to be followed strictly).

A number of printed commentaries (in English) include maps showing a hypothetical route across Great Bitter Lake (apparently correct), yet state in the text that the pertinent water body was the Red Sea. This contradiction apparently did not bother either writers or editors.


The thesis that the route of the Exodus crossed Great Bitter Lake, but not the Red Sea, was advanced many years ago, in part perhaps because of some of the constraints of distance and time that have been reviewed here, but perhaps largely because of the Hebrew and Greek words that are used in the various manuscripts.

One of the most interesting aspects of this discussion is not whether "Sea of Reeds" is correct (it is, as is easy to verify), but rather why translators continue to use "Red Sea," when the manuscripts provide a totally different identification, and when the additional details in the available sources require "Sea of Reeds" and do not permit "Red Sea." How is it that, in many versions, the correct rendition can be given in footnotes, but not in the main text? How does a scholar justify a deliberate switch? And how does the reader, who has no access to the ancient languages, know which version is correct?