Question: Should the phrase "Red Sea" in the Book of Mormon actually be the "Reed Sea" based on a suspected mistranslation in the Bible?

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Question: Should the phrase "Red Sea" in the Book of Mormon actually be the "Reed Sea" based on a suspected mistranslation in the Bible?

The Book of Mormon's intent in referring to the crossing of the "Red Sea" is not to clarify the location of the crossing but to identify the miracle that occurred

KJV Bible: Critics cast doubt on Moses' miraculous parting of the Red Sea by asserting that this belief arose due to a mistranslation of the Hebrew phrase yam sûp. The critics argue that the phrase should read "the Reed Sea," and that the Israelites actually just crossed a marshy inlet while the Egyptians' chariots got stuck in the mud.

Book of Mormon: Having "proved" that the popular understanding of the KJV is inaccurate, the critics then conclude that the Book of Mormon's use of "Red Sea" is evidence that Joseph was not producing an inspired translation, but simply copying from the (mistaken) King James text.

The location of the crossing remains unknown today. Modern linquists continue to debate the interpretation of yam sûp. The term, "Red Sea", used in the KJV to designate what was crossed, also includes the Gulf of Aqaba (1 Kings 9:26) and by extension, the Gulf of Suez. The Book of Mormon's intent in referring to the crossing of the "Red Sea" is not to clarify the location of the crossing but to identify the miracle that occurred. Thus, the translation of the Book of Mormon reflects their intent, not the preoccupations of modern linguists.

Book of Mormon: Even if the King James translation of "Red Sea" were in error, one would be unable to draw conclusions about the correctness of the Book of Mormon translation. Just as the Apostle Paul's New Testament writings used the language of the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), despite the existence of earlier, more accurate manuscripts known today, Joseph Smith used the language of the King James Bible. In both cases, a prophet used the language of the most commonly used version of scripture for the time.

KJV Bible: Ironically, despite its irrelevance for the issue of Book of Mormon accuracy, the "Reed Sea" claim is, itself, the product of a modern error in understanding.

According to an article in Biblical Archaeology Review, the popular idea that the Hebrew phrase yam sûp actually means "Sea of Reeds" is erroneous and unsupported by linguistic evidence

According to an article in Biblical Archaeology Review, the popular idea that the Hebrew phrase yam sûp actually means "Sea of Reeds" is erroneous and unsupported by linguistic evidence. Other passages use the same term, and clearly refer to the body of water which modern readers call the "Red Sea," such as 1 Kings 9:26:

And king Solomon made a navy of ships in Ezion-geber, which is beside Eloth, on the shore of the Red sea, in the land of Edom. The BAR article's author, Bernard F. Batto, agrees that yam sûp does not literally mean "Red Sea" (that would be yam adam). Rather, he believes that it is related to the Hebrew root sûp, meaning "to cease to exist," or the word sôp, meaning simply "end." Thus, a literal translation of the Hebrew name for this body of water would be "the Sea at the End of the World." This name is appropriate, since the ancients considered the "Red Sea" to be at the frontier or edge of known geography, or their "world." This usage is confirmed in extra-biblical Jewish literature, where the phrase yam sûp is used to refer to the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean; i.e., "all those connecting oceans to the south." [1]

Thus, the title "Sea at the End of the World" is fitting, since it was on the edge of the known world.

Regardless of the Hebrew intricacies, since the body of water being described is known to the modern reader as the Red Sea, it is appropriate to translate yam sûp as such. The goal of the Book of Mormon's translation is surely to communicate meaning, not the fine points of Hebrew idiom. Clearly, the Book of Mormon's use of "Red Sea" accords with modern usage and the intent of its ancient authors.


Notes

  1. Bernard F. Batto, "Red Sea or Reed Sea?: How the Mistake Was Made and What Yam Sûp Really Means," Biblical Archaeology Review 10:4 (July/August 1984): 56–63.