Partner with as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Red Sea

Additional Links

the usual designation of the large body of water separating Egypt from Arabia. The following account of it is based upon the Scriptures and other ancient and modern authorities. (See SEA).

I. Names. The sea known to us as the Red Sea was by the Israelites called the sea (הִיָּם, Exodus 14:2; Exodus 14:9; Exodus 14:16; Exodus 14:21; Exodus 14:28; Exodus 15:1; Exodus 15:4; Exodus 15:8; Exodus 15:10; Exodus 15:19; Joshua 24:6-7; and many other passages); and specially "the sea of Siph" (יִםאּסוּ, Exodus 10:19; Exodus 13:18; Exodus 15:4; Exodus 15:22; Exodus 23:31; Numbers 14:25; Numbers 21:4; Numbers 33:10-11; Deuteronomy 1:40; Deuteronomy 11:4; Joshua 2:10; Joshua 4:23; Joshua 24:6; Judges 11:16; 1 Kings 9:26; Nehemiah 9:9; Psalms 106:7; Psalms 106:9; Psalms 106:22; Psalms 136:13; Psalms 136:15; Jeremiah 49:21). It is also perhaps written Suphcah', סוּפָה (Sept. Ζωόβ ), in Numbers 21:14, rendered "Red Sea" in the A.V.; and in like manner, in Deuteronomy 1:1, סוּ, without יִם . The Sept. always renders it ) ἐρυθρὰ θάλασσα (except in Judges 11:16, where סוּ, Σίφ, is preserved). So, too, in the New Test. (Acts 7:36; Hebrews 11:29); and this name is found in the Apocrypha (1 Maccabees 4:9; Wisdom of Solomon 10:18; 19:7) and Josephus (Ant. 8:6, 4). By the classical geographers this appellation, like its Latin equivalent Mare Rubrum or M. Erythroeum, was extended to all the seas washing the shores of the Arabian peninsula, and even the Indian Ocean: the Red Sea itself, or Arabian Gulf, was οΑ῾᾿ράβιος κόλπος , or Ἀραβικὸς κ .,, or Sinus Arabicus, and its eastern branch, or the Gulf of Akabah, Αἰλανίτης, Ε᾿λανίτης, Ε᾿λανιτικὸς κόλπος, Sinus Elanites, or S. Elaniticius. The Gulf of Suez was specially the Heroopolitic Gulf, ῾Ηρωοπολίτης κόλπος, Sinus Heroopolites, or S. Heroopoliticus. Dr. Beke (Sinai in Arabia [Lond. 1878], p. 361 sq.) contends (in keeping with his wild notion that the Mizraim of the Bible was not Egypt, but the peninsula of Arabia) that the Gulf of Akabah, and not that of Suez, was the Yam-Suph of the Hebrews, chiefly on the rash assumption that the former only was known to the Israelites, whereas the itinerary of Moses clearly distinguishes Eziongeber on the one from the crossing at the other (Numbers 33:8; Numbers 33:10; Numbers 33:35-36). Among the peoples of the East, the Red Sea has for many centuries lost its old names: it is now called generally by the Arabs, as it was in mediaeval times, Bahr-el-Kulzum, "the Sea of El-Kulzum," after the ancient Clysma, "the sea-beach," the site of which is near, or at, the modern Suez. In the Koran, part of its old name is preserved, the rare Arabic word ya1manm being used in the account of the passage of the Red Sea (see also El- Beydawi, Comment. on the Kuran, 7:132, p. 341; 20:81, p. 602). These Biblical names require a more detailed consideration.

1. Yam, יָם (Coptic, iom; Arabic, yamm), signifies "the sea," or any sea. It is also applied to the Nile (exactly as the Arabic bahr is so applied) in Nehemiah 3:8, "Art thou better than populous No, that was situate among the rivers (yeoraim), [that had] the waters round about it, whose rampart [was] the sea (yam), and her wall was from the sea (yam)?" See also Isaiah 19:5.

2. Yam-Suph, יִםאּסוּ; in the Coptic version, phiom nshapi; A.V. "Red Sea." The meaning of suph, and the reason of its being applied to this sea, have given rise to much learned controversy. Gesenius renders it rush, reed, sea-weed. It is mentioned in the Old Test. almost always in connection with the sea of the Exodus. It also occurs in the narrative of the exposure of Moses in the יְאֹר (yet (yeah); for he was laid in supinh, on the brink of the yen;r (Exodus 2:3), where (in the suph) he was found by Pharaoh's daughter (Exodus 2:5); and in the "burden of IEgypt" (Isaiah 19), with the drying-up of the waters of Egypt, "And the waters shall fail from the sea (yam), and the river (nahloir) shall be wasted and dried up. And they shall turn the rivers (nahar', constr. pl.) far away; [and] the brooks (yeor) of defence (or of Egypt?) shall be emptied and dried up: the reeds and flags (suph) shall wither. The paper reeds by the brooks (yeor), by the mouth of the brooks (yeor), and everything sown by the brooks (yeor) shall wither, be driven away, and be no [more]. The fishers also shall mourn, and all they that cast angle into the brooks (yeor) shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish. Moreover, they that work in fine flax, and they that weave net works (white linen?) shall be confounded. And they shall be broken in the purposes thereof, all that make sluices [and] ponds for fish" (Exodus 2:5-10). Suph only occurs in one place besides those already referred to. In Jonah 2:5 it is written, "The waters compassed me about, [even] to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds (suph) were wrapped about my head." With this single exception, which shows that this product was also found in the Mediterranean, suph is Egyptian, either in the Red Sea or in the yeor, and this yeor in Exodus 2 was in the land of Goshen.

The signification of סוּ, suph, must be gathered from the foregoing passages. In Arabic, the word with this signification (which commonly is "wool") is found only in one passage in a rare lexicon (the Mohkam MS.). The author says, "Suf-el-bahr (the suf of the sea) is like the wool of sheep. And the Arabs have a proverb, I will come to thee when the sea ceases to wet the suf," i.e. never. The סוּ of the יָם , it seems quite certain, is a sea- weed resembling wool. Such sea-weed is thrown up abundantly on the shores of the Red Sea. Furst says, s.v. סוּ, "Ab A Ethiopibus herba qumdam supho appellabatur, quae in profundo Maris Rubri crescit, quae rubra est, rubrumque colorem continet, pannis tingendis inservientem, teste Hieronymo de qualitate Maris Rubri" (p. 47, etc.). Diodorus (3 c. 19), Artemidorus (ap. Strabo, p. 770), and Agatharchides (ed. Muller, p. 136, 137) speak of the weed of the Arabian Gulf. Ehrenberg enumerates Fucus latifolius on the shores of this sea, and at Suez Fucmus crispus, F. trinodis, F. turbinatuts, F. papillosus, F. caiaphamnus, etc., and the specially red weed Trichodesmium erythnrceum. The Coptic version renders siuph by shari (see above), supposed to be the hieroglyphic sher (sea?). If this be the same as the sari of Pliny (see next paragraph), we must conclude that shari, like suph, was both marine and fluvial. The passage in Jonah proves it to be a marine product, and that it was found in the Red Sea the nummerous passages in which that sea is called the sea of suph leave no doubt.

3. The "Red Sea," ἐρυθρὰ θάλασσα . The origin of this appellation has been the source of more speculation even than the obscure suph, for it lies more within the range of general scholarship. The theories advanced to account for it have been often puerile and generally unworthy of acceptance. Their authors may be divided into two schools. The first have ascribed it to some natural phenomenon, such as the singularly red appearance of the mountains of the western coast, looking as if they were sprinkled with Havana or Brazil snuff, or brick-dust (Bruce), or of which the redness was reflected in the waters of the sea (Gosselin, ii, 78-84); the red color of the water sometimes caused by the presence of zoophytes (Salt; Ehrenberg); the red coral of the sea; the red sea-weed; and the red storks that have been seen in great numbers, etc. Reland (De Mare Rubro, Diss. Miscell. i, 59-117) argues that the epithet red was applied to this and the neighboring seas on account of their tropical heat; as, indeed, was said by Artemidorus (ap. Strabo, 16:4, 20), that the sea was called red because of the reflection of the sun. The second have endeavored to find an etymological derivation. Of these the earliest (European) writers proposed a derivation from Edom, "red," by the Greeks translated literally. Among them were Fuller (Miscell. Sacr. 4 c. 20); before him Scaliger, in his notes to Festues, s.v. "AEgyptinos" (ed. 1574); and still earlier Genebrard (Comment. ad Psalms 106). Bochart (Phaleg, 4:c. 34) adopted this theory (see Reland, Diss. Miscell. [ed. 1706] i, 85). The Greeks and Romans tell us that the sea received its name from a great king, Erythras, who reigned in the adjacent country (Strabo, 16:4, § 20; Pliny, H. N. 6 c. 23, § 28; Agatharch. i, § 5; Philostr. 3:15; and others). The stories that have come down to us appear to be distortions of the tradition that Himyer was the name of apparently the chief family of Arabia Felix, the great South Arabian kingdom, whence the Himyerites and Homeritae. Himyer appears to be derived from the Arabic "ahmar," red (Himyer was so called because of the red color of his clothing; "aafar" also signifies "red," and is the root of the names of several places in the peninsula so called on account of their redness (see Marasid, p. 263, etc.); this may point to Ophir: φοίνιξ is red, and the Phoenicians came from the Erythraean Sea (Herod. 7:89).

II. Physical Description. In extreme length, the Red Sea stretches from the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb (or rather Ras Bab el-Mandeb), in lat. 12° 40' N., to the modern head of the Gulf of Suez, lat. 30° N. Its greatest width may be stated roughly at about 200 geographical miles; this is about lat. 16° 30'. but the navigable channel is here really narrower than in some other portions, groups of islands and rocks stretching out into the sea between thirty and forty miles from the Arabian coast and fifty miles from the African coast. From shore to shore, its narrowest part is at Ras Benlas, lat. 24°, on the African coast, to Rias Beridi opposite, a little north of Yembo', the port of El-Medineh; and thence northwards to Rias Mohammad (i.e. exclusive of the gulfs of Suez and the Akabah) the sea maintains about the same average width of 100 geographical miles. Southwards from Ras Benas it opens out in a broad reach; contracts again to nearly the above narrowness at Jiddah (correctly Jeddah), lat. 21° 30', the port of Mekkeh, and opens to its extreme width south of the last- named port.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Red Sea'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Red Heifer