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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Red Sea

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celebrated chiefly for the miraculous passage of the Israelites through its waters. They were thrust out of Egypt, says Dr. Hales, on the fifteenth day of the first month; "about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside women and children. And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks and herds, even very much cattle," Exodus 12:37-39 ; Numbers 11:4 ; Numbers 33:3 . After they set out from Rameses, in the land of Goshen, in the neighbourhood of Cairo, their first encampment was at Succoth, signifying "booths," or an "enclosure for cattle," after a stage of about thirty miles; their second, at Etham, or Adsjerud, on the edge of the wilderness, about sixty miles farther; "for the Lord led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt: but God led the people about by the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea," or by a circuitous route to the land of promise, in order to train them and instruct them, in the solitudes of Arabia Petraea, Exodus 13:17-20 ; Deuteronomy 32:10 . Instead of proceeding from Etham, round the head of the Red Sea, and coasting along its eastern shore, the Lord made them turn southward along its western shore, and, after a stage of about twenty or thirty miles, to encamp in the valley of Bedea, where there was an opening in the great chain of mountains that line the western coast, called Pi-hahiroth, the mouth of the ridge between Migdol westward, and the sea eastward, "over against Baal-zephon," on the eastern coast; to tempt Pharaoh, whose heart he finally hardened, to pursue them when they were "entangled in the land," and shut in by the wilderness on their rear and flanks, and by the sea in their front. The leading motive with Pharaoh and his servants was to bring back the Israelites to bondage, and of the Egyptians in general, to recover the treasures of which they had been spoiled, Exodus 14:1-5 . So Pharaoh pursued the Israelites by the direct way of Migdol, with six hundred chariots, his horsemen, and his army, and overtook them encamping by the sea, beside Pi-hahiroth, over against Baal-zephon. When their destruction, or their return to bondage, seemed to be inevitable, the Lord interposed and fought for Israel. He opened for them a passage across the Red Sea, where it was about twelve miles wide, and brought them through in safety; while he drowned the Egyptians, who blindly followed them to their own destruction, Psalms 77:18 , &c.

On this memorable deliverance Moses composed a thanksgiving, which he and the Israelites sung unto the Lord. It is also a sublime prophecy, foretelling the powerful effect of this tremendous judgment on the neighbouring nations of Edom, Moab, Palestine, and Canaan, the future settlement of the Israelites in the promised land; and the erection of the temple and sanctuary on Mount Zion, and the perpetuity of the dominion and worship of God.

The precise place of this passage has been much contested. Some place it near Suez, at the head of the gulf; others, with more probability, about ten hours' journey lower down, at Clysma, or the vale of Bedea. The day before the passage, by the divine command, the Israelites encamped beside Pi-hahiroth "between Migdol and the sea, over against Baal-zephon,"

Exodus 14:2 ; Numbers 33:7 . Pi-hahiroth signifies "the mouth of the ridge," or chain of mountains, which line the western coast of the Red Sea, called Attaka, "deliverance," in which was a gap, which formed the extremity of the valley of Bedea, ending at the sea eastward, and running westward to some distance, toward Cairo; Migdol, signifying "a tower," probably lay in that direction; and Baal-zephon, signifying "the northern Baal," was probably a temple on the opposite promontory, built on the eastern coast of the Red Sea. And the modern names of places in the vicinity tend to confirm these expositions of the ancient. Beside Attaka, on the eastern coast opposite, is a head land, called Ras Musa, or "the Cape of Moses;" somewhat lower, Hamam Faraun, "Pharaoh's Springs;" below Girondel, a reach of the gulf, called Birket Faraum; and the general name of the gulf is Bahr al Kolsum, "the Bay of Submersion." These names indicate that the passage was considerably below Suez, according to the tradition of the natives. The depth and breadth of the gulf, from Suez downward, is thus described by Niebuhr: "I have not found in this sea, from Suez southward, any bank or isthmus under water. When we departed from Suez, we sailed as far as Girondel, without fear of encountering any such. We had in the first place, the road of Suez, four fathom and half; at three German leagues from Suez, in the middle of the gulf, four fathoms; and about Girondel, near the shore, even to ten fathoms." Bruce, also, describing the place of passage opposite Ras Musa, or a little below it, says, "There is here about fourteen fathom of water in the channel, and about nine in the sides, and good anchorage every where.

The farthest side, the eastern, is a low sandy coast, and a very easy landing place." Shaw reckons the breadth of the gulf at this place about ten miles; Niebuhr, three leagues and more; Bruce, something less than four leagues; we may therefore estimate it about twelve miles, from their joint reports. But this space the host of the Israelites could easily have passed in the course of a night, from the evening to the ensuing morning watch, or dawn of day, according to the Mosaical account. And surely the depth of the sea was no impediment, when the Lord divided it by "a strong east wind," which blew across the sea all that night, and made the bottom of the sea dry land; "and the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground, and the waters were a wall unto them, on their right hand and on their left," Exodus 14:21-22 .

In the queries of Michaelis, sent to Niebuhr, when in Egypt, it was proposed to him to inquire upon the spot, whether there were not some ridges of rocks where the water was shallow, so that an army at particular times may pass over; secondly, whether the Etesian winds, which blow strongly all summer from the north-west could not blow so violently against the sea as to keep it back on a heap, so that the Israelites might have passed without a miracle. And a copy of these queries was left, also, for Bruce, to join his inquiries likewise; his observations on which are excellent: "I must confess, however learned the gentlemen were who proposed these doubts, I did not think they merited any attention to solve them. This passage is told us by Scripture to be a miraculous one; and if so, we have nothing to do with natural causes. If we do not believe Moses, we need not believe the transaction at all, seeing that it is from his authority alone we derive it. If we believe in God, that he made the sea, we must believe he could divide it when he sees proper reason; and of that he must be the only judge. It is no greater miracle to divide the Red Sea than to divide the river Jordan. If the Etesian wind, blowing from the north-west in summer, could keep up the sea as a wall on the right, or to the south, of fifty feet high, still the difficulty would remain of building the wall on the left hand, or to the north. Beside, water standing in that position for a day must have lost the nature of fluid. Whence came that cohesion of particles which hindered that wall to escape at the sides? This is as great a miracle as that of Moses. If the Etesian winds had done this once, they must have repeated it many a time before and since, from the same causes. Yet Diodorus Siculus says the Troglodytes, the indigenous inhabitants of that very spot, had a tradition from father to son, from their very earliest ages, that ‘once this division of the sea did happen there; and that, after leaving its bottom some time dry, the sea again came back, and covered it with great fury.' The words of this author are of the most remarkable kind: we cannot think this Heathen is writing in favour of revelation: he knew not Moses, nor says a word about Pharaoh and his host; but records the miracle of the division of the sea in words nearly as strong as those of Moses, from the mouths of unbiassed, undesigning Pagans." Still skeptical queries have their use; they lead to a stricter investigation of facts, and, thereby tend strongly to confirm the veracity of the history they mean to impeach. Thus it appears from the accurate observations of Niebuhr and Bruce, that there is no ledge of rocks running across the gulf any where, to afford a shallow passage. And the second query, about the Etesian or northerly wind, is refuted by the express mention of a strong easterly wind blowing across, and scooping out a dry passage; not that it was necessary for Omnipotence to employ it there as an instrument, any more than at Jordan; but it seems to be introduced in the sacred history by way of anticipation, to exclude the natural agency that might in after times be employed for solving the miracle; and it is remarkable that the monsoon in the Red Sea blows the summer half of the year from the north, the winter half from the south, neither of which therefore, even if the wind could be supposed to operate so violently upon the waters, could produce the miracle in question.

Wishing to diminish, though not to deny, the miracle, Niebuhr adopts the opinion of those who contend for a higher passage near Suez. "For," says he, "the miracle would be less if they crossed the sea there than near Bedea. But whosoever should suppose that the multitude of the Israelites could be able to cross it here without a prodigy would deceive himself; for, even in our days, no caravan passes that way to go from Cairo to Mount Sinai, although it would considerably shorten the journey. The passage would have been naturally more difficult for the Israelites some thousands of years back, when the gulf was probably larger, deeper, and more extended toward the north; for, in all appearance, the water has retired, and the ground near this end has been raised by the sands of the neighbouring desert." But it sufficiently appears, even from Niebuhr's own statement, that the passage of the Israelites could not have been taken near Suez; for,

1. He evidently confounded the town of Kolsum, the ruins of which he places near Suez, and where he supposed the passage to be made, with the bay of Kolsum, which began about forty-five miles lower down; as Bryant has satisfactorily proved, from the astronomical observations of Ptolemy and of Ulug Beigh, made at Heroum, the ancient head of the gulf.

2. Instead of crossing the sea at or near Ethan, their second station, the Israelites turned southward, along the western shore; and their third station at Pi-hahiroth, or Bedea, was at a full day's journey below Ethan, as Bryant has satisfactorily proved from Scripture, Exodus 14:2 . And it was this unexpected change in the direction of their march, and the apparently disadvantageous situation in which they were then placed, entangled in the land, and shut in by the wilderness, with a deep sea in front, the mountains of Attaka on the sides, and the enemy in their rear, that tempted the Egyptians to pursue them through the valley of Bedea, by the direct route from Cairo, who overtook them encamping by the sea, beside Pi-hahiroth, opposite to Baal-zephon, Exodus 14:2-9 .

Niebuhr wonders how the Israelites could suffer themselves to be brought into such a disadvantageous situation, or be led blindfold by Moses to their apparent destruction. "One need only travel with a caravan," says he, "which meets with the least obstacle, namely, a small torrent, to be convinced that the orientals do not let themselves be led, like fools, by their caravan baschi," or leader of the caravan. But the Israelites went out of Egypt with "a high hand," though led by Moses, yet under the visible guidance and protection of "the Lord God of the Hebrews," who "went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, and by night in a pillar of fire;"

and who, for their encouragement, to enter the passage of the sea miraculously prepared for them, removed the cloud which went before the camp of Israel hitherto, and placed it behind them. "And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to the one, but gave light by night to the other: so that the one came not near the other all the night," Exodus 14:8-20 .

Niebuhr wonders, also, how Pharaoh and the Egyptians could be led to follow the Israelites. "Pharaoh must have wanted prudence. if, after having seen so many prodigies in Egypt, he had entered into a sea of more than three leagues wide: all the Egyptians, too, must have been bereft of understanding, in wishing to pursue the Israelites into such a sea.

Doubtless they knew their own country well enough to distinguish the bottom of a large sea, which bounds Egypt on that side, from a desert." But Pharaoh and the Egyptians probably did not know their situation. The cloud which separated them from the Israelites increased the darkness of the night; and they probably did not enter into the sea till about midnight, by which time the van of the Israelites might have reached the eastern shore. Meanwhile the bed of the sea, now beaten by the feet of the immense multitude of men and cattle that had gone before, might not have been easily distinguishable from the desert. If we ask, Why did the Egyptians venture to pursue the Israelites by night? Why did they not wait till day light, when they could see whither they were going? Niebuhr himself has unwittingly answered the question: Pharaoh wanted "prudence," indeed, and the Egyptians were "bereft of understanding." And this is the Scriptural solution; for God hardened the heart of Pharaoh to follow after them, that he might be honoured upon Pharaoh and all his host; and that, by their miraculous destruction, the Egyptians might know that he was the Lord supreme, Exodus 14:4-18 . The Egyptians did not find out their mistake till the "morning appeared," or till day-break, when the rear of the Israelites had gained the shore, and the Egyptians had reached the middle of the sea, and their whole host had entered into it: then, indeed, they attempted to fly back, but in vain; for "their chariot wheels were broken off, so that they drave them heavily, and their host was troubled" by the Lord, who looked or frowned upon them through the cloudy pillar of fire, and overwhelmed all their host in the midst of the sea; when the sea suddenly returned to his strength at the signal of Moses stretching forth his hand over it, Exodus 14:24-28 .

The particulars of this transaction demonstrate, that neither the host of the Israelites, nor the host of Pharaoh, could possibly have passed at the head of the gulf near Suez; where the sea was only half a league broad, according to Niebuhr's own supposition, and consequently too narrow to contain the whole host of Pharaoh at once; whose six hundred chariots alone, exclusive of his cavalry and infantry, must have occupied more ground. Manetho, and the Egyptian writers, have passed over in silence this tremendous visitation of their nation. An ancient writer, however, Artapanus, who wrote a history of the Jews, about B.C. 130, has preserved the following curious Egyptian traditions:— "The Memphites relate, that Moses, being well acquainted with the country, watched the influx of the tide, and made the multitude pass through the dry bed of the sea. But the Heliopolitans relate, that the king, with a great army, accompanied by the sacred animals, pursued after the Jews, who had carried off with them the substance of the Egyptians; and that Moses, having been directed by a divine voice to strike the sea with his rod, when he heard it, touched the water with his rod; and so the fluid divided, and the host passed over through a dry way. But when the Egyptians entered along with them, and pursued them, it is said, that fire flashed against them in front, and the sea, returning back, overwhelmed the passage. Thus the Egyptians perished, both by the fire, and by the reflux of the tide."

The latter account is extremely curious: it not only confirms Scripture, but it notices three additional circumstances:

1. That for their protection against the God of Israel, the Egyptians brought with them the sacred animals; and by this means God executed judgment upon all the bestial gods of Egypt, as foretold, Exodus 12:12 , that perished with their infatuated votaries; completing the destruction of both, which began with smiting the first-born both of man and beast.

2. That the recovery of the jewels of silver and jewels of gold and raiment, which they asked and obtained of the Egyptians, according to the divine command, Exodus 12:35-36 , was a leading motive with the Egyptians to pursue them; as the bringing back the Israelites to slavery had been with Pharaoh and his servants, or officers.

3. That the destruction of the Egyptians was partly occasioned by lightning and thunderbolts from the presence of the Lord; exactly corresponding to the psalmist's sublime description: "The waters saw thee, O God, the waters saw thee; they were afraid: the depths also were troubled. The clouds poured out water, the air thundered, thine arrows also went abroad. Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; he shot forth lightnings, hail stones, and coals of fire, and discomfited them. Then the channels of waters were seen, and the foundations of the world were discovered, at thy rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils," Psalms 77:16-17 ; Psalms 18:13-15 .

The Red Sea derived its name from Edom, signifying "red," a title of Esau, to whom the bordering country of Edom, or Idumaea, belonged, Genesis 25:30 ; Genesis 36:31-40 . It was also called Yam Suph, "the weedy sea," in several passages, Numbers 33:10 ; Psalms 106:9 , &c, which are improperly rendered "the Red Sea." Some learned authors have supposed that it was so named from the quantity of weeds in it. "But in contradiction to this," says Bruce, "I must confess, that I never in my life, and I have seen the whole extent of it, saw a weed of any sort in it. And indeed, upon the slightest consideration, it will appear to any one, that a narrow gulf, under the immediate influence of monsoons, blowing from contrary points six months each year, would have too much agitation to produce such vegetables, seldom found but in stagnant water, and seldomer, if ever, found in salt ones. My opinion then is, that it is from the large trees, or plants, of white coral, perfectly in imitation of plants on land, that the sea has taken the name ‘weedy.' I saw one of these, which, from a root nearly central, threw out ramifications in a nearly central form, measuring twenty-six feet diameter every way." This seems to be the most probable solution that has been hitherto proposed of the name. The tides in this sea are but moderate. At Suez the difference between high and low water did not exceed from three to four feet, according to Niebuhr's observations on the tides in that gulf, during the years 1762 and 1763.


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Red Sea'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wtd/r/red-sea.html. 1831-2.

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