🔼The name Red Sea: Summary
- Unclear, but perhaps Where It All Began
- Unclear, but possibly from a reference to the very rudiments of complex human culture anywhere.
🔼The name Red Sea in the Bible
The name Red Sea (ερυθρα θαλασσα, eruthra thalassa, hence the name Eritrea) occurs a mere two times in the New Testament, both times in reference to the crossing of the Israelites just after the Exodus from Egypt (Acts 7:36 and Hebrews 11:29).
People in the New Testament era used this name Red Sea because as such the authors of the Septuagint had translated the Hebrew term ים־שוף (Yam-suph), or Sea of Reeds. Why they had done that can now only be guessed at, but before we make an attempt at that, we should first take into account the following considerations:
🔼Why the Red Sea is called red
There's no definitive answer to why the Red Sea is called that way, but references to a Red Sea go back to antiquity, and several suggestions have been forwarded to explain this name.
The Red Sea may have been called such because of periodically blooming Trichodesmium, a bacterium that covers the water surface red, and which particularly occurs in the Red Sea and around Australia. But although this bacterium may have helped to establish the sea's name, we should probably expect the root idea of this name to come from the Semitic mindset, and the Semites named things after their behavior and not after their appearance (a sea that periodically turns red would be a "Blushing Sea" at best — see our article To Be Is To Do). The color red, to the Hebrews at least, represented stillness and productivity (see our article on the root אדם, 'adam) and if they had called the sea in question Red Sea, it would probably have been handed over to other cultures as Fertile Sea or Pacific Sea.
Others have proposed that our name has to do with a cardinal point, but there's very little evidence to suggest that the Semites associated cardinal directions with specific colors as did the Chinese.
Much more interesting is the reference of Flavius Philostratus (170 - 245 AD), who was a Greek-Roman scholar who lived in the Phoenician city of Tyre for the last 30 years of his life. In his work The Life of Apollonius he explains that the "sea called Erythra" was "named from a king Erythras" (Ap.3.50) which swiftly brings to mind the empire of Edom (means Red), which lay south of Israel and stretched as far as the modern Red Sea (Numbers 21:4, 1 Kings 9:26). If Philostratus was right, then the Red Sea may very well have been the Sea of Edom.
Edom, of course, was the nickname of Esau, the brother of Jacob who became Israel, and many elements of the story that tells of the struggle between Jacob and Esau return in the story of the Exodus of Israel out of Egypt (but more on that below).
🔼The Red Sea then and now
Today, the name Red Sea applies to the stretch of water that sits between Saudi Arabia on one side and Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea on the other. At the bottom end, the leg of the Red Sea forms an ankle and a foot, which is the Gulf of Aden, and at the top end it terminates in two rabbit-ears: the Gulf of Suez points straight towards the Nile delta, and the Gulf of Aqaba points straight towards the Dead Sea. In antiquity, however, the name Red Sea was not applied as unambiguously as it is today, and was not solely used for the body of water we now call Red Sea.
The land of Edom reportedly stretched until the Red Sea (Deuteronomy 2:8, 1 Kings 9:26) but from the archeological, Scriptural and even extra-biblical records (for instance a 14th century BC Egyptian papyrus) we're pretty sure that Edom didn't extend much farther south than the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba.
Likewise, in the fifth century BC, the Greek-Roman historian Herodotus mentioned that according to the ancient Persians, the Phoenicians once lived on the shores of the Erythraean Sea (Hist.1.1.1) while today we are pretty sure they were native Canaanites. In other words: there is some suggestion that in antiquity the name Red Sea was specifically applied to the modern Gulf of Aqaba.
However, a first-to-third century AD work called the Periplus [= a list of ports] of the Erythraean Sea, reveals that this name was applied to the whole, vast north-west corner of the Indian Ocean: the modern Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea up to the coast of India.
Likewise Philostratus' reference to the sea called Erythra obviously refers to the Indian Ocean; in his account Apollonius travels south between the rivers Ganges and Hyphasis until he reached the sea called Erythra. Herodotus has the river Euphrates empty into the Erythraean Sea (Hist.1.180; it empties in what we now call the Persian Gulf), yet calls the sea "in Arabia, not far from Egypt" also the Erythraean Sea (Hist.2.11).
In other words: the name Red Sea was not applied to one single body of water but appears to have been applied in general. This suggests that the name Red Sea was not a specific name but rather a general indicator that described water of a certain quality, use or purpose, perhaps akin to modern English phrases such as "open water" or "the deep blue yonder" or something like that.
🔼The wine-colored sea
Remember the immortal and probably quite relevant quote from Homer's Odyssey:
And jealous now of me, you gods, because I befriend a man, one I saved as he straddled the keel alone, when Zeus has blasted and shattered his swift ship with a bright lightning bolt, out on the wine-dark sea.
Literature worked differently in antiquity, which is (also) demonstrated by the use of colors in ancient texts. As many have noted, blue is very rarely mentioned in ancient texts, red more frequent and green, yellow and brown most frequent. But Homer called the sea upon which Odysseus journeyed dozens of times οινοψ (oinops), vinous, from the noun οινος (oinos), meaning wine. That means that, in a way, even the Aegean Sea was known as the Red Sea.
Scholars who try to come to grips with a vinous sea generally concentrate on how people could consistently perceive a similarity between the color of the sea and that of wine, but it may very well be that the similarity wasn't in the appearances of both but rather in activities associated with them. Homer applies the adjective οινοψ (oinops), meaning vinous, a few dozens times to the sea but also twice to plowing oxen (Od.13.32 and Il.13.703), which are then assumed to be red of color. The red heifer also appears in the writings of Moses, where it serves as a sin offering (Numbers 19). The difference between Moses' red heifer and Homer's vinous oxen is that Homer's oxen plow while Moses' heifer typically has never felt a yoke (Numbers 19:2), but the obvious similarity between Moses' red heifer and Homer's vinous oxen is that they are domesticated and not wild creatures.
The adjective that describes the color of Moses' heifer is אדמה ('adamah), but another root that deals with the color red is חמר (hmr), from which comes the noun חומר (hamor), literally meaning red-one but denoting the ass or donkey. Scholars have wondered why the donkey would be called red-one (as Levantine donkeys aren't red), but here at Abarim Publications we surmise that this animal wasn't named such because it was red of appearance, but rather because the color red signified the rudiments or beginnings of civilization, settlement and domestication. We're guessing that both the red donkey and the red heifer were called red because they were domesticated, and played a phenomenal role in man's early cultural evolution.
And that leads to the plausible conclusion that the title Red Sea was given to any body of water on which shores mankind began to build its first settlements.
Note that in the Hebrew scriptures, a vineyard (כרם, kerem) and wine (יין, yayan) subsequently were symbols of rudimentary civilization. After Noah and his family left the Ark, the first thing Noah did was build an altar (Genesis 8:20); the second thing he did was plant a vineyard and make wine (Genesis 9:20).
🔼The crossing is a metaphor
Here at Abarim Publications we are wholly certain that the Bible, including Exodus, describes real events. Yet we are equally certain that the tale of the Exodus is not about 600,000 physical men and their families and animals leaving Egypt and forty years later invading Canaan. If the full skills-and-labor core of Egypt (around a third of the entire population) would have departed and its Pharaoh and his army been annihilated, the Egyptian administrative records would have mentioned it, the artists would have told it and the archeological record would have shown it. They don't. What we do see, however, is (a) a clear but gradual decline of Egypt's dominance of the region, as well as her proverbially grandiose art and wisdom tradition, and (b) according to Brad C. Sparks close to a hundred references in Egyptian literature that reflect the concerns discussed in the Exodus story (Sparks Egyptian Text Parallels to the Exodus).
The story of the Exodus, as well as the genealogies and wars mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, are not about physical activities or descendance, but tell of the evolution of Yahwism — which in turn is not a religion but rather a proto-science; the study of the Way Things Are, the wisdom tradition of how man fits in, where man is going and ultimately how man will one day rightly govern creation (remember that one of the source texts of the Pentateuch was called the Book of the Wars of YHWH — Numbers 21:14).
The story of the crossing of the Red Sea, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, doesn't play in physical space but in literary space. Here at Abarim Publications we're guessing that the Exodus tells how Semitic writing (by means of the alphabet) gave the Semites a tactical advantage over Egypt, and ultimately defeated Egypt as the fitter contender.
With their alphabet, the Semites could transfer data quicker and more efficiently, but possibly more importantly: because of the much more efficient and thus simpler script, the literacy rate shot up. In Egypt, texts were dealt with by elite and thoroughly trained priests (who probably were more interested in maintaining the status quo that provided them with a livelihood than to adjust beliefs or overthrow norms), while in the Semitic language area pretty much every common man could read, write and most importantly, add to the growing body of wisdom, that is skills, science, technology and artistic expression.
If the Red Sea denotes the rudiments of civilization, breaching and crossing the Red Sea denotes a distinctive leap forward; not a gradual evolutionary growth but a sudden and deep alteration of and qualitative improvement on how society works. In Hebrew the Red Sea is called the Sea of Reeds, or rather: the Sea of Papyrus, and since Egyptian texts were primarily written on papyrus, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds obviously tells of the same transcendence over the reigning wisdom tradition of Egypt.
🔼Etymology of the name Red Sea
The Greek word ερυθρος (eruthros) comes from a widely attested proto-Indo-European root that also spawned the Sanskrit rudhira, the Germanic rot and thus the English "red". Red appears to be the only color with such a hugely common root, which demonstrates that red was probably the earliest named color (which in turn suggests that red was the earliest seen color by the human species, which in turn suggests that our species goes through the same kind of "evolution" as does every human individual), or at least that the color red had a kind of cultural significance that all early Indo-European cultures agreed on.
The Latin word for red is the cognate ruber, but our proto-Indo-European root also formed the more adjacent adjective rudis, which means rough or wild (that is: uncultivated — hence our English words "rude" and "rudiment"). This adjective is comparable to the adjective crudus (hence our word "crude"), which literally means uncooked or raw [meat; bloody, trickling with blood] and secondarily unripe, immature or unprepared, which in turn comes from the Greco-Latin root κρυ, kru-, which also yields words like κρυπτω (krupto), meaning hidden or concealed (hence our word "crypt").
🔼Red Sea meaning
All over the proto-Indo-European and Semitic language spectrum, the color red denotes a primary or preliminary state of sophistication, a primitiveness from which civilization sprang. The name Red Sea means Rudimentary Human Society and denotes the sea shore(s) where urban civilization first got started, probably by what we now call the Natufian or even the Kebaran culture.