Friday, March 11, 2016

Fact-Checking the Torah -- when is a Yam not a Yam

Your assignment for this week was to read Exodus 13:18, 15:4 and 22.  These verses refer to the escape over Yam Suf.
Where is Yam Suf?
The original urban legend, created by the Septuagint (don’t get me started, I’ll say more about Septuagint in part III), was that it was the Red Sea.  Two problems. 
The Septuagint translators chose this.  In Greek.  Yam Suf does not mean Red Sea, it means Reed Sea. 
Second problem.  The Red Sea is on a different bearing from Ramses than Tell el-Maskhuta and the mountain currently believed to be Mt. Sinai.
Understand that Reed cannot be mistaken for Red except in English, a language which became official in England only about 1364 CE when the king declared it the official language of law courts.  Before that the courts operated in Latin, most of the clerks being clergy who, of course, were Catholic.
There is no way to mistake Red for Reed in Greek.
The word suf for reed shows up in Exodus 1:4 when Moshe’s mother puts his basket in the reeds, and also in Isaiah 19:6 in parallel with a kenning, qaneh, also meaning reed.  There’s no way to mistake suf for the Hebrew for “red,” adom.
What’s more, yam is used elsewhere in the Bible with other non-maritime meanings.  Kings II 25:13 uses it for the basin of water in the temple from which the priests washed their hands and feet.  So yam doesn’t exclusively mean a natural body of water, or a large one, or a body of salt water; it was fresh water in the yam in the temple.
If the yam had suf growing around it, it wasn’t nearly as salty as sea water.  It also wasn’t necessarily deep.  This would be typical of a body of water in the process of disappearing through desiccation.
The shallow parts could blow dry given the famous parching winds from the east that also destroyed crops, immortalized in the second dream of Pharaoh in Genesis 41:5-6.  Once the wind stopped, the water in the rest of the lakes would fill in the dried part, turning the mud into soup and dragging chariots to a halt.  Unless and until the panicked horses ran mad and went deeper into the water.  The way they will sometimes plunge into a fire instead of running away from it.
Me being an Israelite, I’m not going to look back until I’m sure I’m far enough away that the water won’t get me, and even then the pressure of people behind me will probably keep me from seeing the end of what happened.  All I know is that the pursuit breaks off and we get to Sinai relatively safely.
So to answer the title, a yam is always a yam, but what it yam might not be what you think.
Next week I’ll bust the modern urban legend about this event.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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