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Interpreting Interpreter
A Sea of Red

This post is a summary of the article “Joseph Smith and the “Red Sea” in 2 Nephi 19:1” by E. Jan Wilson in Volume 60 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. All of the Interpreting Interpreter articles may be seen at An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Wilson seeks to address a difference between Isaiah 9:1 and 2 Nephi 19:1 by suggesting that the difference arises due to a misunderstanding by later Hebrew scribes. Specifically, the word “sea” in Isaiah may have been originally represented by the term sufah as a place name, which could have then been translated within the Book of Mormon as “Red Sea”. This would have required that the word be changed by a later scribe to the current yam.


The Summary

In this article, E. Jan Wilson focuses on a proposed error within the KJV quotations of the Book of Mormon, specifically a difference between Isaiah 9:1 (“afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee”; italics added) and the corresponding passage in 2 Nephi 19:1 (“afflict by the way of the Red Sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee”; italics added). The term “Red Sea” is the source of the apparent error, as the geographic context seems to refer to the Sea of Galilee. Critics suggest that it is thus unlikely that the change in 2 Nephi reflects the text as it would have actually existed on the brass plates.

The nature of biblical quotations within the Book of Mormon is far from straightforward, with preference generally given to the King James translation, but with additional changes introduced, sometimes of theological and doctrinal importance. There are indeed cases where the Book of Mormon’s changes appear to align with renderings in prior texts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. But the difference in 2 Nephi 19:1 presents a puzzle that has yet to receive a satisfactory answer. Some have suggested that the change represents a scribal error by Oliver Cowdery, as he may have been influenced by instances of “Red Sea” earlier in the book. Others suggest the “way of the sea” references the King’s Highway, an extent of which does lead out of Egypt by the Red Sea. Wilson finds neither of these solutions convincing.

What Wilson does instead is add a new proposal relying on a set of misunderstandings of the text by translators and scribes. He first presents his own translation of the Isaiah passage, which instead renders “Galilee” as “district”, allowing it to plausibly refer to the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea instead of to Galilee itself. He then posits the following series of events:

  • The brass plates version of the text of Isaiah may have had the word Sufah instead of the present yam. This word has been elsewhere (and mistakenly) translated (link to Number 21:14) in the Old Testament as “Red Sea”. It is also used as a place name for a location on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, potentially aligning with Wilson’s translation of “the district of the nations”.
  • The word was then translated in the Book of Mormon as “Red Sea”, using the translation of the term in the Old Testament as precedent.
  • Sometime prior to the creation of the Dead Sea scrolls, a Hebrew scribe unfamiliar with the word Sufah decided to replace it with the word yam.

As to why the Book of Mormon does not then render the term correctly as Sufah, Wilson suggests that:

“perhaps there were constraints such as limits to what people were able to accept during his day, or perhaps more significant changes to clarify the verse were not viewed as necessary at that time. Yet perhaps by changing “sea” to “Red Sea,” the translation leaves a hint concerning the original verbiage of that verse and what Isaiah was actually saying.”


The Reflection

Wilson presents an interesting conjectural emendation of Isaiah 9:1, though I’m not sure what makes it a more satisfying proposal than those that have come before. In terms of parsimony, both a scribal error by Cowdery and a reference to the King’s Highway seem like simpler explanations, and the explanation would be a bit more complete if it included a compelling reason for a Hebrew scribe to insert yam in place of Sufah (rather than any other word). Nevertheless, what Wilson describes isn’t an impossible scenario, even if it requires a few intervening steps.

Though Wilson briefly acknowledges alternative perspectives, the choice of including the word “Red” is often framed as Joseph’s, based on his revealed understanding of the underlying text. In doing so, Wilson excludes someone else with potential control over the text of 2 Nephi, that being Nephi himself. In my own article on the book’s King James quotations, I wonder aloud why we don’t generally allow Nephi to be responsible for introducing changes to the text. After all, other quotations by Nephi and Jacob suggest that they did not always quote Isaiah with absolute fidelity—perhaps Nephi’s practice of likening scriptures extended to inspired alterations of what was present on the text of the brass plates.

If so, we should at least consider the possibility that Nephi is responsible for the change to Isaiah 9:1, and if he’s likening Isaiah to his own situation, he could have had good reason to do so. Nephi certainly experienced afflictions by the way of the sea—the Red Sea in particular. Adding that word in may have served as another reminder to him and future generations of the tribulations they suffered in their exodus from Jerusalem. No matter which explanation is ultimately correct, its clear that that a number of options exist for those curious about the Book of Mormon and its relation to the King James.

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