🔼The name Yam-sup: Summary
- Sea Of Reeds (or Egyptian Library Of Knowledge)
- From (1) the noun ים (yam), sea, west or future, and (2) the noun סוף (sup), reed(s).
🔼The name Yam-sup in the Bible
The name Yam-sup (which is Hebrew for Sea of Reeds, in English often translated as Red Sea, which is incorrect; Dutch and German translations speak of a more proper Schelfzee and Schildmeer, from schilf, meaning reed) occurs two dozen times in the Bible, mostly in references to its falling dry and subsequent crossing by Israel under Moses right after the Exodus out of Egypt (Exodus 13:18, 15:22, Numbers 33:10-11, Joshua 2:10, 4:23, Judges 11:16, Nehemiah 9:9, Psalm 106:7-9, Psalm 106:22, 136:13), and how the collapse of the Yam-sup killed Pharaoh and his officers (Exodus 15:4, Deuteronomy 11:4, Joshua 24:6, Psalm 136:15). Once our name occurs with the particle of direction: ימה סוף, yama sup, meaning the "toward the sea of reeds" (Exodus 10:19).
It's not clear where this water called Yam-sup might have been located, but since the Book of Exodus most likely does not describe a physical journey of 600,000 physical men and their families and livestock, but rather the advancement of Yahwism or the knowledge-of-truth (read our article on the name Red Sea for more details) the sea called Yam-sup serves in the Bible much more as a literary device and far less as a reference to a geographical location.
Here at Abarim Publications we're guessing that Yam-sup, or the Sea of Reeds effectively denotes the Sea of Papyri; the whole documented wisdom literature of Egypt (and the word wisdom denotes mostly practical skills: science, technology, arts, etcetera). The demise of Pharaoh, his army and ultimately his culture may coincide with Egypt's detrimental procrastination in adopting the Semitic alphabet. This alphabet made data transfer and thus information retention much easier, but it also lifted literacy out of the realm of the esoteric and made it commonplace among ordinary men. The very high literacy rate of the Semites compared with the Egyptians allowed the Semites to amass and dispense skills and knowledge much more efficiently than the Egyptians, which ultimately meant that Egypt lost its prominence among the nations (because, obviously, where nations compete, not the stronger one or the richer one but the smarter one will win).
We hear first of the Yam-sup in the wake of the eighth Egyptian plague, when YHWH caused a strong west wind to drive the locusts (ארבה, arbeh; may also mean trickery) into the Yam-sup (Exodus 10:19). Then, when Pharaoh finally let the people go, Moses somehow retrieved the bones of Joseph (יוסף; Exodus 13:19), and Elohim led the people to the Yam-sup (ים־סוף) and after a brief circumvention, had them camp at Baal-zephon (בעל צפון; Exodus 14:2), by the sea, and note the preoccupation with the element סף (sup) or צף (sup) in these names.
God did not lead Israel "by the way of the land of the Philistines" even though it was near, but instead had the Shekinah guide them by the way of the wilderness (מדבר, midbar, from dabar, meaning word, as in the Word; this wilderness may symbolize intuition or divine inspiration) to Yam-sup (Exodus 13:17). In Exodus 23:31, YHWH promises that when Israel would invade Canaan, YHWH would fix Israel's boundaries from Yam-sup as far as the Philistine Sea (ים פלשתים) and as far as The River (נהר, nahar). The phrase "Philistine Sea" doesn't occur elsewhere in the Bible, but it's pretty safe to assume that it denotes both the Mediterranean Sea as a geographical boundary and the Philistine culture as a cultural boundary (see 23:32-33). The noun נהר (nahar), meaning river, when preceded by the definite article customarily denotes the Euphrates, but likewise, secondarily the Babylonian-Persian culture. In other words: Israel's promised boundaries neatly enveloped the entire Semitic language area
The "way of the Yam-sup" may possibly denote a highway of sorts (although it's hard to imagine more than a million wandering people sticking to a highway) but it more probably denotes the modus operandi or perhaps worldview associated with the Egyptian wisdom tradition. The Hebrews had lived in Egypt since the days of Jacob, and didn't know anything else than the Egyptian take on things. Right after the spies checked out Canaan and came back grumbling (save for Joshua and Caleb), the Lord sent Israel back to the wilderness by the way of Yam-sup (Numbers 14:25, Deuteronomy 1:40). Right after the destruction of certain Canaanite cities, and in order to avoid Edom, Israel set out from Mount Hor by the way of Yam-sup (Numbers 21:4). The same events are told in Deuteronomy, except that in this account, Israel both set out for the wilderness by the way of Yam-sup, and milled around Mount Seir for many days (Deuteronomy 2:1).
Right after the completion of the Solomonic Temple and just prior to the visit of the queen of Sheba (both events obviously to do with the wisdom tradition), Solomon is mentioned to have built a fleet of ships in Ezion-geber, near Eloth on the shore of the Red Sea in Edom (1 Kings 9:26). We know from the archeological record that Solomon's magnificent wealth was a wealth in wisdom (only metaphorically represented as commercial wealth), and he used his Red Sea fleet to obtain gold from Ophir. We don't know where Ophir was, but he was one of the highly regarded Semites of the Joktan branch, whose wisdom was not on a par with the Peleg branch (which produced Abraham and thus Israel and Solomon) but which was still potent enough to yield 420 talents of gold for Solomon.
In Joshua 4:23 the drying up of the Sea of Reeds is compared to that of the Jordan. The first event let the people out of Egypt and destroyed Egypt's economy, government and military, and the second one let them into Canaan, which decimated the indigenous Canaanite culture(s). The archeological record doesn't show a cataclysmic annihilation of the Canaanites but rather a gentle transition. Note that the Phoenicians were indigenous Canaanites, and they both invented the alphabet and built Solomon's temple (see our articles on the names Hiram and Hannibal).
🔼Etymology of the name Yam-sup
The name Yam-sup consists of two parts. The first part is the noun ים (yam) meaning sea:
The noun ים (yam) means sea, and was also used as synonym for west (sea-ward) or the future (as "east" corresponds to "past"). Its plural form, ימים (yamim), is identical to the plural of the word יום (yom), meaning day.
The second part of our name comes from the highly portent root cluster that's formed around the segment סף (sp). Our noun סוף (sup), means reeds:
Root ספף (sapap) has to do with creating, marking or temporarily reaching through the border between two essentially distinct realms that nevertheless have a common origin; this border circles around the smaller of the two so that this smaller realm sits within the larger. It's the verb that describes any such formation from the palisade around a tribal territory to the fence around a single house, the skin of a person or even the cellular wall of a eukaryote.
Noun סף (sap) means threshold or sill (and is also the word for a kind of goblin or based bowl). Verb סוף (sup) means to come at an end. Noun סוף (sop) means end. Noun שפה (sapa) denotes the edge of things. Noun סופה (supa) describes a violent storm (perhaps a tornado, in form comparable to a goblin or based bowl).
Noun סוף (sup) refers to reed, which grows at, and thus marks the border between water and dry land. From reed comes papyrus, and books mark the border between the howling outer dark and the enlightened space within. The industrial production of papyrus, of course, was an absolute marvel and a milestone in information technology (easily comparable with the invention of floppies and disk drives in our age).
Verb ספה (sapa) means to sweep away (across the threshold, out the door) and so does verb שפה (shapa). The latter may also mean to skim, to shave or to border-mark by means of a protruding beacon or mark. From the latter comes the verb שפת (shapat), which describes some kind of setting or placing just outside the realm of civilization, and that usually by means of a ring of conspicuous, guiding and protecting fires. Proverbially, both the contagious and the extremely poor, and of course the shepherds, their flocks and wild animals abided on the dark side of these fires. The latter verb also yields noun שפי (shepi), which describes bones sticking through the skin of an emaciated man, or hills that likewise conspicuously mark some border, presumably in an otherwise flat landscape.
Verb שוף (shup) appears to mean to violate in the sense of illicitly entering one's personal space (or body). This verb became associated with the bite of a snake, and the noun שפיפן (shepipon) denotes some sort of snake, presumably one that attacks by darting from its burrow and then swiftly retreating.
The name Yam-sup literally means Sea Of Reeds but its literary meaning clearly goes far beyond that: Egyptian Library Of Knowledge.