The Red Sea is referenced numerous times in the Bible, most famously when God parts the waters to allow the Israelites to escape from Egypt. But why is it called the Red Sea in the first place? There are a few possible explanations explored by scholars:
- The name could come from the red-brown colored algae that blooms in the sea.
- It may be named for the surrounding red-hued mountain ranges.
- Some historians believe it was named for the direction south, which was represented by the color red.
- Others theorize it gets its name from the ancient Egyptians who called it the “Sea of Reeds.”
Let’s take a deeper look at each of these theories on the origin of the famous Biblical body of water’s name.
Theory 1: Red algae blooms
One common explanation is that the Red Sea was named for the occasional reddish colored algae blooms that occur in the waters. The red algae species Trichodesmium erythraeum is known to bloom in the sea and give it a reddish-brown appearance. Here are some key facts about these algae blooms:
- Trichodesmium erythraeum grows in filaments that can form floating clumps.
- Blooms typically happen in summer when water temperatures are warmest.
- The pigment phycoerythrin gives the algae their distinctive red-brown hue.
- Mass blooms can be seen from satellites and cover thousands of kilometers.
When conditions are right, Trichodesmium algae multiply rapidly, creating reddish patches and streaks across the normally blue-green waters. Ancient sailors may have named the sea “Red” after witnessing the vibrant colors of such algae blooms. Some scholars find this the most plausible explanation for the Red Sea’s name.
Theory 2: Red mountains
Another possibility is that the Red Sea was named for the red-colored mountain ranges that surround it. The sea is bordered by ranges including Egypt’s red granite Gebel Elba mountains and the Eritrean Highlands with russet-toned mountains and cliffs.
Specific geological formations that may have inspired its name include:
- The Harrat Khaybar – An ancient lava field in Saudi Arabia made of reddish volcanic rock.
- The Zabargad Island – Nicknamed “Topaz Island,” this Egyptian island has striking reddish mountains.
- The Bab el Mandeb Strait – Translated as “The Gate of Tears,” this strait features vivid rust-colored cliffs.
When viewed from a distance, these red mountain landscapes stand out and may have been identified with the sea itself. This is a reasonable theory for how the Red Sea got its Biblical name.
Theory 3: Named for the direction south
Some historians believe the Red Sea’s name comes from the direction of south, which was represented by the color red. In ancient times, it was common to name regions based on cardinal directions. Here’s some context on how south and the color red were linked:
- In ancient Egypt, the southern lands were called “dsrt” meaning red.
- Classical Greek writers described southern zones as “erythra thalassa” meaning red sea.
- The Himyarites of ancient Yemen referred to the southern sea as “Baḥr Farj,” meaning sea of the south.
So in ancient times, red and south were strongly associated. As the sea lies south of Egypt, Greece, and the Levant, scholars believe its “red” name identified it as a southern body of water. The association of red with the cardinal direction lends legitimacy to this theory.
Theory 4: Mistranslation of “Sea of Reeds”
The fourth main theory is that the Red Sea’s name comes from a mistranslation. In the ancient Egyptian language, it was called the “Sea of Reeds.” This comes from the Egyptian phrase “p3-jr(w) tj-mḥw” meaning Sea of Reeds. When translated into Greek or Hebrew, this phrase may have become “Red Sea.”
- In Greek “erythra thalassa” can translate to red sea.
- In Hebrew “yam suf” can be translated as Sea of Reeds or Red Sea.
So some linguists believe early translators were confused by the Egyptian “Sea of Reeds” and inaccurately began calling it the Red Sea. This theory helps explain why reeds and rushes are not heavily associated with the sea currently. While a compelling idea, there is still debate around whether this mistranslation actually occurred.
Evidence from ancient texts
Looking at ancient texts mentioning the Red Sea can provide clues to understand its name. Here are some key excerpts:
- The Septuigent Bible from 3rd century BCE translates the Hebrew term as Red Sea.
- The historian Herodotus in the 5th century BCE refers to the “Red Sea” in discussing antiquity.
- The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus in 1st century BCE calls it the Egyptian or Arabian Red Sea.
- In the 1st century CE, philosopher Pliny the Elder writes of the Red Sea’s “reddish waters” in Natural Histories.
These early accounts seem to lean towards the name Red Sea, though the Sea of Reeds translation persists in some texts as well. Looking at similar bodies of water lends more clues.
Related colorful sea names
Examining other colorfully named bodies of water and seas in proximity to the Red Sea provides useful context:
- The Black Sea – Named for dark, deep waters with little life.
- The White Sea – Named for white ice covering it in winter.
- The Yellow Sea – Named for the yellow sand from Gobi Desert land deposits.
Like these examples, the Red Sea may have been named for a distinguishing visual characteristic like algae, mountains, or reeds. This supports the legitimacy of a color-based name, rather than it stemming from a translation error.
Accounts of the crossing
The most famous Biblical story involving the Red Sea is God parting its waters to allow the Israelites to escape Pharoah’s army. Here is a brief summary:
- Led by Moses, the Israelites reach the sea trying to flee Egypt.
- Pharaoh’s army pursues them to the sea, trapping them on the shore.
- Moses raises his staff and God parts the Red Sea with a strong east wind.
- The Israelites cross on dry land then the waters close on the Egyptian army.
This miraculous event is detailed in Exodus 14. Some key descriptions include:
- Verse 21 – “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back.”
- Verse 22 – “And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground.”
- Verse 28 – “The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen.”
Regardless of origins, the Red Sea name was clearly established by the time this seminal story was recorded. This Biblical event cemented the Red Sea as a place of major spiritual importance.
Possible locations of the crossing
Scholars have debated the possible locations for the miraculous crossing described in Exodus. Here are 3 top contenders:
|Northern crossing||Between the Mediterranean Sea and Lake Bardawil||Matches some Exodus route details|
|Southern crossing||The Gulf of Suez||More consistent with certain Exodus chronology|
|Central crossing||Near the Bitter Lakes region||Shorter crossing distance fits some timeframes|
While no consensus has been reached, these three areas have been most credibly argued as potential Red Sea crossing points described in the Bible.
In summary, there are several plausible theories for why this important Biblical sea became known as the Red Sea. Leading possibilities include the red algae blooms it experiences, surrounding red mountains, it being named for the cardinal direction south, or a mistranslation from the Egyptian Sea of Reeds. While its exact origin remains debated, the Red Sea undeniably gained major spiritual significance from the account of Moses parting its waters and the Israelites miraculous crossing. This epic event cemented the Red Sea as an integral location in the scriptures. Moving forward, scholars will continue analyzing clues from ancient texts, geography, and linguistics to help shed light on the famous Biblical body of water’s intriguing name.