Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Reed Sea

James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai, pp. 81, 84-85:

Readers of the Bible may be confused when it comes to understanding the name of the body of water to which the exodus story refers. First, some passages call the sea in question simply "the sea" (hayyam) (Exod. 14:2, 9, 16, 21, 23; 15:1-4; Num. 33:8; Ps. 78:13). In other texts, yam sup is used in the Hebrew (MT) of Exodus 13:18; 15:4b, 22; Joshua 2:10; Psalm 136:13, 15. Sup clearly means reeds or rushes, as can be seen in Exodus 2:3 when the mother of Moses places him in a basket among the reeds (sup) on the Nile's shore. Isaiah 19:6 also mentions reeds (sup) in the Nile. In the Septuagint, the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, sup is rendered as "red," and this is the tradition followed in the Latin Vulgate, where the sea is called mari Rubro. Moshe English translations have followed this translation tradition (e.g., KJV, AV, RSV, NRSV, NASB, NIV), but a few have followed the Hebrew reading (e.g., JB, NJPS). There is no convincing explanation for why the Greek translators did not literally translate sup, although it might have been their aim to locate the sea at the place they thought the text was indicating, that is, the Red Sea, the present-day Gulf of Suez.

Despite the uncertainties surrounding the reasons for the Septuagint's translation of sup, and the inability of scholars to explain why the Gulf of Aqaba should be called yam sup (e.g. Deut. 1:40; I Kings 9:26), one thing is certain: that the word sup derives from the Egyptian word twf of twfy... What is equally important is that there is a geographical term known in Ramesside period texts called pz twfy, which is thought to have been somewhere in the northeastern Delta or the Isthmus of Suez area...

[E]arly exegetes and commentators of the book of Exodus did suggest this meaning [sea of reeds] for the Hebrew sup without knowledge of ancient Egyptian. Included here would be Christian scholars such as John Calvin and Martin Luther, as well as such Jewish sages as Jonathan Ben Uzziel and Rashi. Even earlier evidence for understanding yam sup as meaning "Sea of Reeds" is found in the Bohairic (Northern) Coptic translation of Exodus...

Clearly the modern discovery of the Egyptian word twfy is not the only reason modern scholars translate yam sup as "sea of reeds." There is a long history of rendering the Hebrew in this manner. The realization that Hebrew sup is the proper writing for the Egyptian term twf--regardless of whether it is originally a Semitic loanword into Egyptian--simply confirms the translation, and adds an important Egyptian background element to the story.

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