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David Ben-Gad HaCohen





The Yam Suph in the Transjordan?





APA e-journal

David Ben-Gad HaCohen





The Yam Suph in the Transjordan?








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בעבר הירדן במדבר בערבה מול (ים) סוף

The Yam Suph in the Transjordan?

Deuteronomy describes the Israelites camped opposite Suph in the Transjordan. However, the Israelites cross a Yam Suph near Egypt. Moreover, King Solomon builds a fleet of ships on Yam Suph near Eilat. Where is Yam Suph?


The Yam Suph in the Transjordan?

Yam Suph in Egypt

One of the first references in the Torah to Yam Suph, literally, “the Lake of Rushes”[1] is when the Israelites are leaving Egypt:

שמות יג:יח וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם סוּף 
Exod 13:18 So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at Yam Suph.

We next hear of this body of water in the Song of the Sea, in which the Egyptians are drowned.[2] Afterwards, the Israelites set off from this place into the wilderness:

שמות טו:כב וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם סוּף…
Exod 15:22 Then Moses caused Israel to set out from Yam Suph[3]

Yam Suph is mentioned again as a stop in the wilderness near Egypt:

במדבר לג:ח יִּסְעוּ מִפְּנֵי הַחִירֹת וַיַּעַבְרוּ בְתוֹךְ הַיָּם הַמִּדְבָּרָה וַיֵּלְכוּ דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים בְּמִדְבַּר אֵתָם וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּמָרָה. לג:ט וַיִּסְעוּ מִמָּרָה וַיָּבֹאוּ אֵילִמָה… וַיַּחֲנוּ שָׁם. לג:יוַיִּסְעוּ מֵאֵילִם וַיַּחֲנוּ עַל יַם סוּףלג:יא וַיִּסְעוּמִיַּם סוּף וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּמִדְבַּר סִין.
Num 33:8 They set out from Pene-hahiroth and passed through the sea into the wilderness; and they made a three-days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and encamped at Marah. 33:9 They set out from Marah and came to Elim… and they encamped there.  33:10 They set out from Elim and encamped by Yam Suph33:11 They set out from Yam Suph and encamped in the wilderness of Sin.[4]

Although biblical texts are divided on whether Yam Suph is the name of the body of water crossed by the Israelites or some later stop in the wilderness, all texts assume that it is body of water near Egypt.[5]

Possible Locations of Yam Suph

Etymology, archaeology, historical geography, and geology have helped identify some plausible identifications for Yam Suph. One possibility is the marshy area east of Pi-Rameses, which the ancient Egyptians called p3 twfy “the rushes.” The Hebrew word Suph “rush” is a Hebraized version of the Egyptian twf, “rush or papyrus,” so this identification is very promising. P3 twfy, however, is a marshy region, not a lake or sea (biblical Hebrew, yam), and thus doesn’t fit the story of the “splitting of the sea.”

Therefore, other scholars, such as James Hoffmeier, have suggested identifying Yam Suph with one of the freshwater lakes located between the Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean Sea that existed in this period.[6]

The Israelite Encampment “Opposite Suph

Deuteronomy opens with a description of the location of Moses and the Israelites when Moses expounded the book of Deuteronomy:

דברים א:א אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף בֵּין פָּארָן וּבֵין תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת וְדִי זָהָב.
Deut 1:1 These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan. — Through the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab.

Some of these place names are well known, such as “the other side of the Jordan” (i.e., the Transjordan), while others are uncertain. The mention of Suph, which commentators and scholars generally assume is shorthand for Yam Suph, is surprising; what is it doing here in a verse about the Transjordan?

R. Joseph Bechor Shor (12th cent.) assumes that the verse is reviewing the Israelites various stops from Egypt to the Plains of Moab, and suggests that this is a reference to the Yam Suph where the miracle was performed. He furthermore assumes that the word mol, which most take as a variant of the preposition mul, “opposite,” is instead related the root used for circumcision (mwl), and thus means “to cut”:

מול סוף – כלומר: לאחר שגזר להם הקב”ה ים סוף. מול לשון גזר…
Mol Suph – meaning, after the Holy One split Yom Suph for them. Mol means “to cut”…

Rashi also assumes that the sea near Egypt is the referent. But this interpretation flies in the face of the plain meaning of the verse, which describes where the Israelites were encamped in the Transjordan. Thus, Suph here cannot refer to any body of water near Egypt.

The Other Yam Suph Is the Dead Sea (Rashbam)

Rashbam, noting that Yam Suph in Exodus 23 describes an eastern border, identifies it with the Dead Sea (Deut 1:1):

שים סוף מתחיל ממזרח ארץ ישראל, שנאמר: ושתי את גבלך מים סוף {ו}עד ים פלשתים וגו’, כלומר: ממזרח ועד מערב, והוא ים המלח, שכתוב בגבול קרן מזרחית דרומית באלה מסעי. וגם בפרשת ואתחנן: וכל הערבה עבר הירדן מזרחה ועד ים הערבה. וזהו ים סוף שאצל ערבות מואב.
For Yam Suph begins the eastern border of the Land of Israel, as it says (Exod 23:31), “I will set your borders from Yam Suph to the Sea of Philistia, etc.” Meaning, from east to west, and this is the Dead Sea, about which Numbers (34:3) writes that it is the south-eastern corner (Num 34:3). So too, in Deuteronomy (4:49), “also the whole Arabah on the east side of the Jordan, as far as the Sea of the Arabah.” This is the Yam Suph that is near the Plains of Moab.

Nevertheless, the Bible never elsewhere calls the Dead Sea Yam Suph; it is called the Salt Sea (Yam HaMelach), the East or Front Sea (Yam HaQadmoni), or the Aravah Sea (Yam HaAravah).

The Red Sea

Most scholars assume that the (YamSuph near the Transjordan in Deut 1:1 and other texts refers to the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba. This location is clear from the description of Solomon’s Red Sea fleet:

מלכים א ט:כו וָאֳנִי עָשָׂה הַמֶּלֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה בְּעֶצְיוֹן גֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר אֶת אֵלוֹת עַל שְׂפַת יַם סוּף בְּאֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם.
1 Kings 9:26 King Solomon also built a fleet of ships at Ezion-Geber which is near Elot on the shore of Yam Suph in the land of Edom.

Ezion-Geber, near modern day Eilat, was an ancient port city on the shore of the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba.[7]

A Border of the Promised Land

Other biblical passages confirm the identification of ים סוף with the Gulf of Aqaba. For example, the map of the Promised Land described in Exodus 23 reads:

שמות כג:לא וְשַׁתִּי אֶת גְּבֻלְךָ מִיַּם סוּף וְעַד יָם פְּלִשְׁתִּים וּמִמִּדְבָּר עַד הַנָּהָר 
Exod 23:31 I will set your borders from Yam Suph to the Sea of Philistia and from the wilderness to The River.

The Promised Land is described by geographical elements on its four sides. The (Sinai) wilderness and the (Euphrates) River mark the south and north borders respectively,[8] while the Sea of the Philistines (=Mediterranean) and Yam Suph mark the west and east respectively. The identification of Yam Suph as the Gulf of Aqaba fits. The book of Kings has Ezion-Geber as an Israelite port city under Solomon; in keeping with this conception, the verse in Exodus depicts this spot as the southernmost point of the eastern border.[9]

Jeremiah’s Prophecy on the Fall of Edom

Jeremiah 49:7–22 predicts the fall of Edom. Verse 21 of that prophecy mentions Yam Suph:

ירמיהו מט:כא מִקּוֹל נִפְלָם רָעֲשָׁה הָאָרֶץ צְעָקָה בְּיַם סוּף נִשְׁמַע קוֹלָהּ.
Jer 49:21 At the sound of their downfall the earth shall shake, the sound of screaming shall be heard at Yam Suph.

Edom was not far from the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba, and thus this verse confirms the identification of Yam Suph with the Gulf of Aqaba.

Rushes Do Not Grow in Salt Water

Identifying Yam Suph in the Transjordan with the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba, however, is problematic since suph (“rush”) is exclusively a freshwater plant,[10] which cannot grow in the Red Sea, a body of salt water.

The Bible as well describes Suph as a freshwater plant:

  • Suph in the Nile (Exod 2:3)
וְלֹא יָכְלָה עוֹד הַצְּפִינוֹ וַתִּקַּח לוֹ תֵּבַת גֹּמֶא וַתַּחְמְרָה בַחֵמָר וּבַזָּפֶת וַתָּשֶׂם בָּהּ אֶת הַיֶּלֶד וַתָּשֶׂם בַּסּוּף עַל שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר.
When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the rushes by the bank of the Nile.
  • Suph in Rivers (Isa 19:6)
וְהֶאֶזְנִיחוּ נְהָרוֹת דָּלֲלוּ וְחָרְבוּ יְאֹרֵי מָצוֹר קָנֶה וָסוּף קָמֵלוּ.
Rivers turn foul as they ebb, and Egypt’s canals run dry, reed and rush shall decay.

As rushes cannot grow on the shores of the Red Sea, why would it be called Yam Suph? The answer, I believe, lies in how the LXX reads the word סוף.

The Furthermost Sea (Yam Soph) and the LXX

The LXX regularly translates Yam Suph as έρυθρά θάλασσα, “Red Sea.” This is not a literal translation but an example of using the Greek toponym in use then to translate the Hebrew, as when we might translate ים המלח, literally “the Salt Sea,” as “the Dead Sea.”

Nevertheless, in 1 Kings 9:26, which as we noted above, must refer to the Red Sea, the LXX translates Yam Suph as ἐσχάτης θαλάσσης, “the Extreme” or “Furthermost Sea.” Instead of reading סוּף (Suph, “rush”) the translator read סוֹף (Soph, “end”); in Hebrew, both words are written with the same consonants, and vowel points that would distinguish between suph and soph would only be written a millennium later. Thus, ים סוף for the LXX translator of Kings does not mean “Sea of Rushes” but “Sea at the End.”[11]

This name fits with one set of names the Bible uses for certain other seas: the Mediterranean Sea is called ים האחרון, “The Sea in the Back (or West)” and the Dead Sea, ים הקדמוני “The Sea in the Front (or East)” (see, e.g., Joel 2:20, Zech 14:8). The Gulf of Aqaba would have been a faraway sea for the writers of Kings, hence the name “Sea at the End” or “Furthermost Sea.”

Always the Red Sea?

As noted above, the LXX always understands the term ים סוף as the Red Sea (ἐρυθρὰν θάλασσαν). This understanding was followed by the Latin Vulgate (mare Rubrum). According to this interpretation, the Israelites crossed the Gulf of Suez when escaping from the Egyptians. This is the origin of the common English translation of ים סוף as “Red Sea” and has remained the most popular understanding of the verse until modern times.[12]Nevertheless, as above, most scholars assume that the Yam Suph near Egypt is meant to be one of the ancient lakes north of the Gulf of Suez and not the gulf itself. 

Another Yam Suph in the Transjordan?

Thus far, we have identified two different bodies of water called ים סוף in the Bible:

  1. Yam Suph – A lake in the region near Egypt between the Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean.
  2. Yam Soph – The Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba.[13]

Yet neither of these locations fit the itinerary texts that describe Israel walking towards Yam Suph/Soph in order to skirt the land of Edom:

  • Num 21:4
וַיִּסְעוּ… דֶּרֶךְ יַם סוּף לִסְבֹב אֶת אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם
They set out […] by way of Yam Suph to skirt the land of Edom.
  • Deut 1:40
וְאַתֶּם פְּנוּ לָכֶם וּסְעוּ הַמִּדְבָּרָה דֶּרֶךְ יַם סוּף.
As for you, turnabout and march into the wilderness by way of Yam Suph.
  • Deut 2:1
וַנֵּפֶן וַנִּסַּע הַמִּדְבָּרָה דֶּרֶךְ יַם סוּף
We marched back into the wilderness by the way of Yam Suph.

In these texts, the Israelites are encamped in Kadesh (=Petra) and are told to skirt the land of Edom. Identifying this Yam Suph with the Gulf of Aqaba is possible, but unlikely as the route would be very roundabout.[14] This suggests that the Yam Suph in these verses is yet a third body of water, namely a freshwater lake with rushes in the Transjordan on the east of Edom.

Qā' al-Jafr: A Lake of Rushes in the Transjordan

al-Thulaythuwat is located to the south of the al-Jafr Basin. Credit: South Eastern Badia Archaeological Project

A sunken area named Qā’ al-Jafr exists in the Jordanian Desert, on the southern part of the Jordanian Heights. The catchment area (i.e., the area from which rainfall flows into a river or lake) of that inner valley is about 12,000 square km (1 eighth of the total land of Jordan). Relics of ancient coastlines indicate the presence there 26,000 years ago of a large lake.[15]This lake certainly existed 12,000 years ago,[16] and probably up to 6,000 years ago.[17] After that, the lake no longer existed as a permanent feature, although it existed seasonally, as reflected in extensive human activities there in the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze ages.[18]

This seasonal lake continued—and still continues—to appear on and off, depending on the amount of rain in a given winter. For example, the winter of 1992 was especially rainy, and the heavy rain formed a lake for several months at Qā’ al-Jafr.

The biblical writer would have known of this seasonal lake, and could have referred to such an area as Suph or Yam Suph, “lake of rushes.” Rashi (Exod 13:18) already suggested that any lake that grows rushes could be called Yam Suph:

וסוּף הוא לשון אגם שגדלים בו קנים
Suph – a lake that grows rushes.

I suggest that all the texts referring to the Israelites skirting Edom/Mount Seir or travelling in the direction of Yam Suph, refer to this seasonal lake.

Skirting Edom on the East

The three verses describing Israelites skirting Edom upon leaving Kadesh (Petra) envision the Israelites walking along the west, south and east of Edom, towards the seasonal body of fresh water there, Qā’ al-Jafr/Yam Suph.

This same Yam Suph may also be mentioned in Judges 11:16:

וַיֵּלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמִּדְבָּר עַד יַם סוּף וַיָּבֹא קָדֵשָׁה
Israel traveled through the wilderness to/towards Yam Suph and came to Kadesh

The Hebrew word עד means either “to” or “toward.”[19] If we read in this verse “to” the meaning is: Israel got to the Gulf of Aqaba/Yam Soph and marched on to Kadesh/Petra. If we read “toward,” the meaning is: Israel traveled toward Qā’ al-Jafr/Yam Suph, but never got there because they stopped at Kadesh/Petra.

Opposite Suph

Returning to Deuteronomy 1:1: What does the verse mean when it states that the Israelites were encamped “opposite Suph”? It cannot refer to a lake near Egypt, which is nowhere near the Transjordan. Similarly, it cannot refer to the Red Sea, which is not in the Transjordan either. Thus, I would argue that the phrase refers to the third Yam Suph of the Bible, the Qā’ al-Jafr.


July 27, 2017


Last Updated

June 6, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.