Red Sea or Reed Sea? Part 3

We have to remember that the Red Sea, like the Caribbean and North Seas, is a salty sea, as opposed to, for instance, the Sea of Galilee, an inland freshwater lake. Reeds grow only in freshwater rivers, lakes, and seas, not in saltwater seas. The salty Gulf of Aqaba is reed-free, yet it is called yam suph, Sea of Reeds.

Here is where I have to pause to say something about Colin J. Humphreys, minerals engineer, physicist, chemist, astronomer, geologist, and researcher in microprinting, eternal light bulbs, and computer chips in the brain, as well as amateur archeologist and lay biblical scholar, in brief, a contemporary polymath, and my chief source for an up-to-date analysis of  Exodus.

Humphreys is in the vanguard of scholars who are bringing the disciplined methodology and innovative tools of modern science to the study of the Bible. When it comes to the Red Sea versus Reed Seed controversy, the case he presents in his book, The Miracles of Exodus, is quite compelling.

Nevertheless, there is something left unsaid about his version of Moses route in the desert. Since the Red Sea is a salty sea, why would Moses expect to find fresh water, and plenty of  it, at Aqaba?

Humphreys is an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist and biblical Sherlock Holmes.  Accompanied by his wife,  he spent the Easter week of 1999 at Taba, on the western shore of the Gulf of Aqaba, playing botanical detective. To shorten a long story, he did find great clumps of freshwater reeds, four to six feet high, growing at the northernmost part of the gulf.  He also found evidence that in Roman times the gulf extended farther north than today’s shore and was also and this is quite fascinating a reservoir of considerable fresh water back then. (The details are in The Miracles of Exodus.)

How did Humphreys come to find what no one else had ever found? The answer is startlingly simple: no one had bothered to look. It is in their nature for scientists to bother to look.


Red Sea or Reed Sea? Part 2

In the 4th-century Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Vulgate, St. Jerome rendered yam suph as mare rubrum to designate the Red Sea, and the King James Version of the Bible (1611) also translated yam suph as Red Sea. The translators knew exactly what they were doing.

Indeed, as already confirmed, yam suph means Sea of Reeds, but all the biblical citations imply a Red Sea crossing, not a soggy march through an inland reedy lake, such as Lake Timsah and the Bitter Lakes, a day’s journey from Rameses (q.v.), and two of the modern scholars favorite candidates for the Sea of Reeds.

What lay behind God’s plan in leading Moses and the Israelites in the desert to the Red Sea (as stated in Exodus 13:18)?

Moses began the Exodus from Rameses (modern Qantir) in the Nile Delta and followed the ancient trade route to the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. If you saw Lawrence of Arabia, Aqaba will sound familiar.

But where are we geographically in this account? you’re asking. Well, spread your left forefinger and middle finger as far apart as you can.  Your middle finger, pointing northwest, will be the Gulf of Suez, and your forefinger, the Gulf of Aqaba. The dorsum (back) of your hand represents the main body of the Red Sea. The two gulfs are thus projections or extensions of the Red Sea and as such are parts of the Red Sea. In ancient times, the gulfs themselves would also be referred to as the Red Sea. As for Aqaba, it is at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba (near the tip of your index finger).

During the time of the ten plagues visited upon Pharaoh, Moses and Pharaoh were actually sparring. What Moses wanted from Pharaoh was permission to take the Israelites out into the desert three days march from Rameses to sacrifice to the LORD. It was to be three days out and three days back plus one day for offering sacrifice, one week in all. Only Moses, of course, had no intention of returning. He had secured sufficient provisions from Pharaoh to make it to the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, where he would find plenty of fresh water to be able to continue the journey to Mount Sinai.

Red Sea or Reed Sea?

So God led the people around by the desert road towards the Red Sea (Exodus 13:18).  This will be our starting point.

There’s no problem reading the verse in English, which has  yam suph translated as Red Sea. The Hebrew yam refers to a sea, lake, or river, and raises no translationary issue. But suph translates as reeds, rushes, marshes. Thus, yam suph is quite rightly translated as Sea of Reeds, not Red Sea.

Leading biblical scholars, such as the three Hs, James Hoffmeier, Cornelius Houtman, and James Philip Hyath, maintain that the Israelites waded through  a marshy Sea of Reeds. Most modern biblical scholars have followed suit.

On the other hand, we have the Septuagint, the 3rd-century BCE Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which rendered yam suph as eruthra thalassa, Greek for Red Sea. It should be noted that the translators, 72 Alexandrian Jewish scholars, did not use the Greek words for Sea of Reeds.

They understood only too well that yam suph literally meant Sea of Reeds, but they also knew that yam suph actually was the Red Sea. The tradition from Moses to the time of the Septuagint held that yam suph  was indeed the Red Sea, not the Sea of Reeds.

In 1 Kings 9:26, we read,  And King Solomon [c. 1000 BCE] made a navy of ships in Ezion Geber, which is besides Eloth, on the shore of the Red Sea [yam suph], in the land of Edom (KJV). Solomon was building fighting ships to sail on a body of water and not through marshland!

A thousand years later, we have New Testament references to the Red Sea    in Acts 7:36 ([Moses] brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea) and Hebrews 11:29 (By faith they passed through the Red Sea)  that use eruthra thalassa, the Greek for Red Sea, and not the Greek words for Sea of Reeds. The authors of these two books were Jews who, after all, were fully cognizant of their tradition.

Why the Cultural Determination Argument for Atheism Fails: But if you were born in India, you would have been a Hindu!

Most people have the religious beliefs into which they were born.  Most Christians grew up in Christian cultures, most Muslims grew up in Islamic cultures, most Buddhists into Buddhist cultures, etc.  Conversion from one faith to another happens but it is extraordinarily rare.  If you give your race, gender, cultural background, the level of education, etc. to a knowledgeable statistician, then she can predict your religious views (and how fervently you hold them) with a high degree of accuracy.

This has led to an influential argument for atheism:  You are a sincere Christian believer.  But if you had been born in India, then you would have been a Hindu.  You would have held your Hinduism as firmly as you now hold your Christianity (with a high degree of probability.)  The likelihood that you would be a Christian is extraordinarily low.  Thus, you should be deeply skeptical of your Christian beliefs.  Just as the Hindu should be skeptical of her beliefs.  The most likely explanation for all of this is that these religions are a cultural phenomenon and are basically all equally wrong.  Reflecting on this fact should lead you eventually to atheistic naturalism.

This argument seems compelling to many people.  But there is a serious flaw here.  It is the same flaw that occurs in the argument from religious pluralism to universalism examined in an earlier post the atheistic naturalist wrongly excludes himself.  If the atheist were born in India, he too would very likely be a Hindu.  He would hold his Hinduism as passionately as he now holds his atheistic naturalism.  It is extraordinarily implausible that he would be an atheistic naturalist. So if this fact should cause the Christian to doubt his views, then it should likewise cause the atheistic naturalist to doubt his.  Thus, this kind of argument cannot be used in favor of atheistic naturalism.

What should we take away from this argument?  The fact that your beliefs (whatever they are) are largely predictable in advance based on your socio-economic background is disturbing. It suggests that we are often not forming our beliefs on the basis of good reasons.  None of us.  Be careful to avoid the temptation to use this conclusion as an argument against opposing views, but exempting yourself.  
From all of this we ought to conclude, I think, that knowing the truth is hard.  That we all need to be humble about our own views.  That very few things can be known with certainty (or anything approaching certainty.)  That we ought to read widely and try to see ourselves as others see us.  These conclusions, I think, hold for everyone including, of course, atheistic naturalists.

Why Faith? Why Not Proof?

A common objection to Christianity goes something like this:  Why do you base everything on faith?  Why don’t you offer some proof?  If God really does exist, then it should be far more obvious than it is.  There should be conclusive evidence.  Everyone should know it.  If it were actually true, then faith would be necessary.

I believe that the problem with this objection comes from two mistakes.  First, concerning the faith.  Second, concerning God.  Let’s start with faith.  Faith is a kind of trust.  Now the trust is required whenever something is hidden from us.  For example, I believe that my wife is not cheating on me anytime I leave the house.  Trust is required here because I cannot directly verify what she is doing when I am not around.  Similarly, I trust that she really does love me and doesn’t secretly hate me inside her own mind.  I cannot see directly into her own mind.  So I have to have faith that when she says I love you she means it.  So faith is required anytime something is hidden from me.

Now let us turn to God.  In Karl Rahner’s phrase, God is the Absolute Mystery meaning that God surpasses all conceptualization.  A conceptualization is a classification of something into a kind or type.  Since God is utterly unique, he is not classifiable into a higher kind or type.  But if God is not conceptualized, then God cannot be reasoned about.  All reasoning involves classification.  Reasoning concerns placing individual objects into larger categories and relating those categories to one another.  For example, Happy people eat oatmeal takes two classes or kinds of people (the happy ones and the oatmeal eaters) and claims that a certain relation exists between both groups (all those in the happy class are also in the oatmeal eating class.)  Reasoning involves classification.  So if God cannot be classified, then he cannot properly be speaking be reasoned about.  That means that we cannot directly prove that God exists.  Proof is impossible because proof requires reasoning.  Anything that can be proven (and so reasoned about) cannot be God.

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