Did the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds?

The ten plagues culminated in the death of the firstborn son in every family in Egypt. Israel was driven out out of Egypt by the grief stricken, terror filled Egyptians. Instead of guiding the Israelites directly towards Canaan, God led Israel south into the wilderness. This set the stage for one final showdown between Pharaoh and God. Exodus 14 describes that climactic event which concluded Israel’s dramatic deliverance from Egypt.

The people of Israel were led to a camping place along the shore of the sea and close to a range of mountains. Pharaoh determined to reconquer Israel and he pursued them with all his army. The army of Egypt caught up to Israel at the sea and effectively pinned them against the waterline. God intervened and divided the waters of the sea so Israel could cross safely to the other side. When Pharaoh’s army tried to cross, the waters crashed back onto the Egyptians drowning Pharaoh and his army.

Exodus 14 does not mention the sea by name, but Exodus 13 says God led Israel into the wilderness of the Red Sea. In Exodus 15 Moses sings a song of praise to God for their deliverance. He says, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea; His chosen captains also are drowned in the Red Sea.” (Exodus 15:4) Later books of the Bible also identify the sea Israel crossed as the Red Sea.

Some have argued that Israel did not cross the Red Sea, but that they walked across a now unknown area known as the Sea of Reeds. According to some this sea would have been much shallower than the Red Sea and much more likely to be pushed back or parted by the strong east wind mentioned in Exodus 14. Some have even suggested that this sea of reeds was nothing more than a marshy area through which the Israelites waded.

The word translated “red” can be legitimately translated “reed” as well as “red.” In fact, it is translated as reeds in several places in the Old Testament. (i.e., Exodus 2:3) However, this body of water is also identified as the location of Solomon’s fleet of ships. (1 Kings 9:26) Solomon could not have built a fleet on a marshland, nor are any lakes in the area large enough to be home to a fleet of anything larger than fishing boats. Since the Mediterranean Sea is generally identified as “the sea” or “the great sea” in the Old Testament, then the Red Sea is the only other body of water on which Solomon could sail a fleet of ships. Consequently, the sea the Israelites crossed must be what we know today as the the Red Sea or one of it’s gulfs.

Various places have been identified as the site of the crossing of the Red Sea, but none can be proven. The exact location of the crossing is of secondary importance to certain other Biblical facts. The body of water was near to Egypt and miraculously divided by God for Israel’s deliverance. The Israelites crossed the sea on dry ground with walls of water on either side of them. The Egyptians attempted to follow Israel into the sea and were destroyed by the inrush of water when it collapsed back into it’s normal bed.

The place of Israel’s crossing could not have been a shallow marshy area that was made slightly less damp by the strong east wind. None can say with certainty if the site of this deliverance was the main body of the Red Sea or one of its gulfs. What is certain is the Bible’s declaration that God miraculously delivered His people from their Egyptian enslavers by parting the water for Israel to cross on dry ground.