Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the editor



Tanner on the Red/Reed Sea

Gavin Basil McGrath, ASA Friend
34 Mill Dr., North Rocks, N.S.W., 2151

From: PSCF 51 (June 1999): 139-140

In his article, "Did Israel Cross the Red Sea" (PSCF 50 [September 1998]: 211-5), William F. Tanner repeatedly argues there is a tension between the translations "Red Sea" and "Sea of Reeds." For example, in Exod. 10:19 we read "Red Sea" in such reputable (though admittedly not inerrant) translations as the Authorized (King James) Version (1611), (English) Revised Version (1881-5), American Standard Version (1901), and New American Standard Bible (1st ed. 1971, 2d ed. 1977, 3rd ed. 1995). But Tanner argues there is an inconsistency between, e.g., the fact that the NASB and NIV have "Red Sea" in the main text, and "Sea of Reeds" in the footnote readings (NASB 1st & 2d editions & NIV). Thus he asks, "If the translators" of the NASB and NIV .... knew the correct rendition and could show it in footnotes, why did they deliberately use an erroneous one in the text?" This claim is intensified in his conclusion where he asks "why translators continue to use `Red Sea,' when the manuscripts provide a totally different identification, and ... the available sources require `Sea of Reeds' and do not permit `Red Sea'?"

The first point I would make is that the term "Red Sea" (AV, NASB, & NIV) or Sea of Reeds (NIV ftn) is used for the Gulf of Akaba (I Kings 9:26-Eloth" & Jer. 49:20, 21-Edom"). That is, the Bible here conceptualized the Red Sea and this Gulf as the same basic body of water. Tanner says "the Red Sea" does not have "extensive coverage of salt grass" and `Sea of Reeds' a descriptive term ... not appropriate for the " Red Sea." What "reeds" would Tanner point to in order to justify this description of the Gulf of Akaba on his line of thinking? (WARNING: THIS IS A TRICK QUESTION. If on the one hand Tanner finds a reason for calling the Red Sea the Reed Sea, he thus undermines his central idea that the Red Sea cannot be called the Reed Sea. If on the other hand he maintains his argument the Red Sea cannot be called the Reed Sea, he thereby shows that it must have been so named due to its association with the Bitter Lakes and so undermines his central idea that the Bitter Lakes cannot also he called the Red Sea.)

Thus it was once conjectured that the marshes at the Gulf of Suez must in ancient times have extended c. 90 km or c. 50 miles further north over what is now covered by the Bitter Lakes (e.g., G. J. Brett's Encyclopedic Index, Concordance, & Dictionary [Illinois: Consolidated Book, 1961]). But the "view that in antiquity both gulfs extended further north" has now "been disproved. No appreciable change in geographical extension has taken place in the last 3,500 years" (Interpreter's Bible [New York: Abingdon Press, 1962], "Red Sea"). But this is not fatal for maintaining the linguistic connection. That is because we know that in the ancient world of Moses' day people sometimes called two separate bodies of water that were geographically near each other by the same name. In fifteenth century B.C. Egypt, both the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea were known as the "Great Green (Sea) (Illustrated Bible Dictionary, vol. 3 [Downers Grove: IVP], 1323-4). (This raises the interesting possibility when Moses said "the Pison " compasseth the whole land of Havilah" and the "Gihon.. compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia," he included in this picture under the names Gihon and Pison at least some of the water of the Mediterranean Sea, e.g., that which is north of the Horn of Africa. [See my map in PSCF 49 (1997): 259.] If so, the Mediterranean Sea was still usually known as "the Great Sea" or "Uttermost Sea [AV], "Western Sea" [NASB & NIV], Num. 34:6; Deut. 11:24; 34:2; Josh. 15:47).

Without entering the debate as to just where the crossing of the Red Sea occurred, if for the sake of argument we work with the Bitter Lakes model, then both the area considered by Tanner and many others as the place of the Exodus around the Bitter Lakes, plus the Red Sea with its Gulfs of Suez and Akaba would both be called the Red/Reed Sea as they were geographically proximate to each other. Tanner misses this point and so erroneously sees a tension between the main text and footnotes of the NASB (1st & 2d ed.) and NIV (although these translations also leave open the possibility of the Israelites crossing elsewhere in the Red Sea). While I agree that in our culture we do not conceptualize these two distinct bodies of water as being the same due to geographical proximity, it seems to me that Bible translators would be going beyond their task to start translating Yam Suph as "Red Sea" in, e.g., 1 Kings 9:26, but then as "Reed Seain, e.g., Exod. 15:22. To do so would be to anachronistically give the idea that the Hebrews of Moses' day conceptualized these two bodies of water as in some way disunited due to their geographical separateness, when-if the Bitter Lakes model is correct-they actually thought of them as in some way united due to their geographical proximity. Thus Tanner's assertion that "printed commentaries" which show "a hypothetical route across Great Bitter Lake.. yet state ... that the pertinent water body was the Red Sea" are in "contradiction": and his similar claims about the NASB or NIV translators putting "the correct rendition... in footnotes but not in the main text" are somewhat misdirected since they are premised on the invalid presupposition that the ancients always conceptualized bodies of water under such names as "Red Sea" (Hebrew) or "Great Green Sea" (Egyptian) the same way Tanner does.

The second point that I would make about Tanner's article concerns the Septuagint and New Testament Greek usage of "Erythrean Sea" which Tanner notes is found in Acts 7:36-although (unlike myself) Tanner thinks "Stephen" may not have thought carefully as he was "in a stressful situation." In answer to Tanner's claim that there is "no compelling reason" for translating it "Red Sea," I note the Greek word eruthros means "red" and so "Erythrean Sea is literally Red Sea. This-together with thalassa meaning "sea-is used in the Septuagint and New Testament for the Hebrew Yam Suph (e.g., Exod. 10:19). The Septuagint is a very uneven translation, ranging from very good to very bad, and everything in between. But some of its accurate parts are quoted in the New Testament. Does Tanner also suggest that the writer of the Book of Hebrews (whom I think was St. Apollos under the immediate supervision of St. Paul, and beyond that the overriding supervision of the Holy Ghost), who frequently cites the Septuagint, was also writing in "a stressful situation""? If so, he is surely in trouble since it is very good Greek and very carefully written. Yet he too says the Israelites crossed the "Erythrean" or "Red Sea (Heb. 11.29).

Furthermore, Tanner rejects any idea of "`walls' of water on each side of the Israelites being accomplished by "a supernatural mechanism as opposed to "a supernatural cause... timing.. a natural mechanism." It seems to me that Tanner is too dogmatic here. Since we do not know how God dried the Red Sea up, I think that even if the Bitter Lakes model were used (rather than, e.g., the Gulf of Suez model), one should keep an open mind to the idea that one possible way God did this was to form two temporary dams either side of the Israelites-perhaps by freezing the water to create ice walls. If so (and possibly this is not how God did it), then admittedly such Bitter Lakes' "walls" would have been more modest than Cecil B. De Mille's ones. (This epic 1956 Hollywood movie, "The Ten Commandments," contains a number of historical inaccuracies, e.g., it uses the late date for the Exodus at somewhere around c. 1300 B.C.; whereas I support the earlier fifteenth century date-I date it at c. 1,486 B.C., whereas Brown's Bible dates it at 1,491 B.C., or Leon Wood dates it to 1,446 B.C.).