Tuesday, March 23, 2010

yam suf - red sea or sea of reeds?

I was in Eilat last week, and while there I got to thinking about Yam Suf ים סוף. What's a better translation - Red Sea or Sea of Reeds? Somehow I had always thought that "Red Sea" was a corruption of "Reed Sea", because suf is generally translated as "reed". However, during the trip, I couldn't help notice the red mountains of Jordan, originally belonging to the land of Edom (signifying "red"), and wondered if there was reason to call the sea "red" as well. (And of course, I was curious if this was the same Yam Suf that the Jews passed through on their way out of Egypt, but that appeared to be less of a linguistic question.)

After a little research, it became clear to me that there was certainly no mix up between "red" and "reed", as the name "Red Sea" goes all the way back to the Greek Septuagint, who translated Yam Suf as Erythra Thalassa, whereas suf meaning "reeds" in the Bible (Shmot 2:3) was translated as helos. Since English only came around centuries later, the similarity between "red" and "reed" is only a coincidence.

However, there are those that claim that the term "Red Sea" did originate in a misunderstanding - and that the Greeks thought Edom אדום meant "red", in the verses describing the sea near Edom. These scholars therefore prefer the translation "Sea of Reeds" (or "Reed Sea" or "Sea of Weeds"). They point out that reeds only grow in fresh water, such as in the Nile or in the lakes to the east. This fits in well with the assumption that one of those lakes was the sea parted by Moshe in the Exodus. 

However, this approach seemed difficult to me. Aside from the red mountains that I saw during my visit, it didn't appear likely that a poor translation in the Septuagint would affect how the entire Red Sea would be named - and Erythra Thalassa actually referred to a much larger area - including the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. (And this article claims that Herodotus used the phrase, and he preceded the Septuagint by centuries.)

I was therefore fortunate to find a fascinating new article by Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky, "What’s the Truth about . . . the Translation of Yam Suf?" in the Spring 2010 issue of Jewish Action (here's a PDF of the printed article.)  The article is so comprehensive (and well written) that I was thinking of just linking to it without adding anything at all. And I would like you all to read it, so I won't go into too much detail. But in short, Zivotofsky shows how the tradition of using the name "Red Sea" is ancient and found in many Jewish sources as well. (He also quoted a number of sources that I had seen before I read his article, particularly Sarna's Exploring Exodus and Kaplan's The Living Torah. One source I don't know if he saw - he didn't quote it - but sheds some more light is this entry in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament.)

In the end, there are many unanswered questions about the name (and location) of Yam Suf. Perhaps the best thing is for me to go back to Eilat and think about it some more. Anyone care to join me?

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