Many English translations refer to the sea that the Israelites cross in Exodus as the “Red Sea.” The English follows the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate, which both have “Red Sea” (ἐρυθρὰν θάλασσαν; Mare Erythrae). In Hebrew, though, the body of water is called “Yam Suf” (ים סוף), which literally means, “Sea of Reeds.”
The idea that the so-called “Red Sea” was actually a “Reed Sea” is known in Jewish tradition. Rashi (1040-1105) states that the sea was not the large inlet of the Indian Ocean that we call the “Red Sea,” but rather a “pond” or “marsh” (אגם) filled with “reeds” (קנים). Rashi’s note aligns with the ancient Egyptian word sufi, which described the marshlands of the Egyptian Delta. Still, the Bible also uses “Yam Suf” to refer to what we know as the “Red Sea” today: “King Solomon also built a fleet of ships at Ezion Geber… on the shore of the Red Sea (ים סוף; yam suf), in the land of Edom” (1 Kgs 9:26). Yet, this Red Sea “in the land of Edom” could not be the same body of water that the Israelites crossed leaving Goshen. From a geographical perspective, rather than crossing the “Red Sea,” it is more likely that the Israelites crossed a marshy “Reed Sea” in northeastern Egypt. In certain parts of the wetlands in the ancient Egyptian Delta, the bodies of water were large and deep enough for people to drown in — think in terms of lakes with lots of reeds, rather than muddy swamps that one could walk through. Egyptian mythology contains references to the marshlands as “chaos waters” that are the basis for primordial creation — deep, unruly waters in Egyptian thought. Exodus doesn’t preclude “Yam Suf” being both full of reeds, and being big enough to need divine assistance in order to cross.
While geographical debates must remain speculative, there is a much more important reason to translate ים סוף as “Sea of Reeds”. When the baby Moses escaped from Pharaoh, his mother put him in a basket and “placed it among the reeds (סוף) by the riverbank” (Exod 2:3). Moses’ first escape from Pharaoh through the “reeds” foreshadows Israel’s escape from Pharaoh through a sea of “reeds” . Moses’ experience among the reeds in his infancy anticipates his ultimate calling to lead God’s people to freedom.