Abstract

Two Hebrew words that are commonly translated as “land,” “earth,” or “world,” are erets and tevel. This study examines the meaning and usage of both terms in light of the debate over the extent of the Noachian Flood, whether local or global. In the first instance, erets refers to the entire dry land mass of the globe—i.e. the “earth”—as distinct from the seas. However, in certain contexts it clearly refers to a specific portion of the earth, i.e. a “land.” Tevel, a far less frequent poetic term, is mostly translated “world,” meaning the inhabited world. It is often used in parallel with erets, indicating that there is little, if any, intrinsic difference in their geographical extent. Tevel occurs mostly in the Psalms but never in the first five books of the Bible. Erets, therefore, and not tevel, is the word which we would expect Moses to have used, as indeed he did, in describing a world-wide Flood. The context, particularly of the description of the Flood in Genesis 7, demands that the meaning of erets here is global and not local, and should be translated as “earth” (or “world”) and not “land” (or “region”).


Introduction

For most of Church history, Christians have believed that the great Flood was global in extent. But today we hear many scoffing voices of the kind that Peter warned us about: “scoffers will come in the last days” and “they willfully forget: that . . . the earth . . . perished, being flooded with water” (2 Peter 3:3–6). Certainly the pressure from outspoken secular opponents of the Bible has raised questions in the minds of some Christians about the Scriptural account of the flood. “Perhaps the flood was only local?” they wonder. “Maybe the original word for ‘earth’ didn’t mean the whole globe, but just a region.”

Indeed, those who consult a lexicon or Bible dictionary may be confused to discover that the word erets, in addition to meaning “earth,” can be translated “land.” Furthermore, they may come across the term tevel, which is normally translated “world,” and may wonder why this word was not used instead of erets in the description of the flood if it had indeed been global.

Thankfully, we can obtain clarity on this issue from the Scriptures. By examining the meaning and usage of erets and tevel, and looking at the context of the description of the Flood, we can be left in no doubt about its global extent.

אֶרֶץ (erets)

The word אֶרֶץ (erets)1 occurs in the first verse of the Bible:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth [erets] (Genesis 1:1).2

God uses the term erets here in reference to the entire dry land mass of the planet:3

And God called the dry land Earth [erets], and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas (Genesis 1:10).

In the first 11 chapters of Genesis, which cover the first two millennia (one third of earth's history), erets occurs 96 times.4

  • In 84 occurrences (87.5 percent) the context is global,5 implying any or every part of the entire land mass of the planet:

    and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth [erets]” (Genesis 1:15)
    or “. . . let them have dominion . . . over all the earth [erets] and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth [erets]” (Genesis 1:26).6

  • On 12 occasions (12.5 percent) the context is localized, clearly referring to a particular restricted portion of the land mass, and is usually translated as “land”:7

    Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land [erets] of Nod on the east of Eden (Genesis 4:16).

It is probably with reference to this second, localized context that some got the idea of erets meaning “a block of land.” But the primary, or default, meaning of erets in Genesis 1–11 is the entire land mass of the planet.

תֵּבֵל (tevel)

The Hebrew word תֵּבֵל (tevel)8 is used synonymously in poetry with erets, and it is translated in all but one or two instances as “world.” 9 Tevel often parallels erets. For instance:

The earth [erets] is the LORD's, and all its fullness,
The world [tevel] and those who dwell therein
(Psalm 24:1).

However, whereas erets is the fourth most common noun in the Hebrew Scriptures, used 2,505 times,10 tevel is rare, found just 36 times. Erets is used in all 39 books of the Old Testament;11 tevel is in just 10 (see Figure 1).

Erets & Tevel graphFigure 1 shows the relative usage of the words erets (black text, purple bars) and tevel (red text, red bars). In parentheses are the total instances of the word in that particular book of the Bible, also shown as a percentage of the total number of occurrences in the entire Old Testament. For instance, in Psalms (Psa) erets occurs 190 times, which is about 8 percent of 2,505; tevel occurs 15 times, which is about 42 percent of 36.

So while erets and tevel may be very similar in meaning, in terms of usage, tevel is 70 times less common, being found nowhere in the first five books, authored by Moses. On the other hand, as already established, in Genesis 1–11 erets refers primarily to the complete land mass of the planet,12 making it an entirely suitable choice for Moses to use in describing a flood of global proportions.13

Genesis 7

Ultimately, the text of Genesis 7 leaves no doubt about the extent of the Flood. For instance, if the Flood had been localized, the birds could have flown to safety beyond the reach of the waters; yet we read that the birds were destroyed along with all other land-based creatures (Genesis 7:21, 23). The text describes in detail, with repetition, the full devastating and global nature of God's judgment:

Now the flood was on the earth [erets] forty days. The waters increased and lifted up the ark, and it rose high above the earth [erets]. The waters prevailed and greatly increased on the earth [erets], and the ark moved about on the surface of the waters. And the waters prevailed exceedingly [literally, “much, much”] on the earth [erets], and all the high hills under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed fifteen cubits upward, and the mountains were covered. And all flesh died that moved on the earth [erets]: birds and cattle and beasts and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth [erets], and every man. All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, all that was on the dry land, died. . . . Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark remained alive. (Genesis 7:17–23)

water cliff

Figure 2 is an amusing representation of the implausibility of a localized flood in which all the high mountains are covered (Genesis 7:19). If the rising water topped the peak of any mountain range, it would naturally flow over and then deluge the adjacent valleys.

Note that it says “all the high hills under the whole heaven were covered” (Genesis 7:19). There are five important elements in this phrase, which together leave no doubt whatsoever about the worldwide extent of the Flood:

  1. The predominant meaning of the original Hebrew word translated by the NKJV here as “hills,” הָרִים (harim; singular, הַר [har]), is in fact “mountains.” Indeed, of the 558 occurrences of har in the Hebrew Scriptures,14 over three-quarters are rendered “mountain” or “mount.”15 So the NKJV (and KJV) choice of “hills” in v. 19 is puzzling and potentially misleading. It is also inconsistent to use “hills” here because in the very next verse (v. 20) the NKJV (together with the KJV) translates the identical word, harim, as “mountains.” Many other versions translate harim as “mountains” in both instances (vv. 19 and 20).16
  2. The word “high” here translates the Hebrew adjective גָּבֹהַּ (gavoah), meaning “high, lofty, exalted.” This removes any possible shred of doubt about whether the Bible is speaking of hills or mountains.17
  3. The phrase begins with “all,” reflecting the original Hebrew כֹּל (kol), meaning “all, every.” According to a straightforward reading of the text, not one mountain was left uncovered.
  4. The Hebrew phrase תַּחַת כָּל־הַשָּׁמָיִם (tachat kol-hashamayim, “under the whole heaven”), occurring just seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures, is paralleled with “ends of the earth [erets]” in Job 28:24. Job says:

    God . . . looks to the ends of the earth [erets],
    And sees under the whole heavens
    [tachat kol-hashamayim].
    (Job 28:23–24; similarly also Job 37:3)

    Furthermore, God Himself says:

    Everything under heaven [tachat kol-hashamayim] is Mine (Job 41:11).

    Clearly, without any exception, nothing on earth is hidden from God's view, and everything on earth belongs to God. So “under the whole heaven [tachat kol-hashamayim]” includes the entire surface of the globe.

  5. The words “were covered” translate the passive form of כָּסָה (kasah), meaning “to cover, conceal, hide.” Sadly, and with respect, it must be noted that the late R. L. Harris was misleading when he stated that “the Hebrew does not specify” what covered the “hills.”18 It is abundantly clear both from the immediate context and the wider testimony of Scripture that it was the Flood waters that covered the mountains. The verb kasah is used a number of times to describe a complete submersion in water:
    • the waters standing above the mountains:

      You who laid the foundations of the earth [erets],
      So that it should not be moved forever,
      You covered [kasah] it with the deep as with a garment;
      The waters stood above the mountains
      (Psalm 104:5–6).19

    • the waters covering the Egyptians who pursued the Israelites into the sea (Exodus 14:28, 15:10; Psalm 106:11)
    • the waters covering the sea, as an image of the future filling of the earth with the knowledge of the Lord and of His glory (Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14).

Had any uppermost areas remained unreached by the floodwaters, then some people or creatures—especially birds and insects—may have survived. 20

But the Bible clearly tells us that “all flesh” was destroyed (Genesis 6:17; 7:4, 21–23) and that “all the high hills under the whole heaven were covered” (Genesis 7:19).

Erets Divided

Much about the erets changed after the Flood. We read that “the nations were divided on the earth [erets]” (Genesis 10:32) and “the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth [erets]” (Genesis 11:9). Wherever a clan settled became their own little enclave of erets, their own world within a world. Thus erets, previously a predominantly global term, is used increasingly to refer to localized portions of the erets—“lands,” “nations,” or “countries.” Yet God's original definition of erets being “the dry land” in a global context (Genesis 1:10), far from being superseded, prevails throughout the entire Old Testament (see Figure 3).

occurrences chartFigure 3 shows the relative occurrence (as a percentage of all occurrences) of the three main categories of translations of erets: (1) “earth” or “world”; (2) “land,” “nation,” “country,” “countryside,” “region,” or “territory”; and (3) “ground,” “dust,” or “floor”; plus a handful of other miscellaneous renderings (which account for less than 0.5 percent). Comparison is made among translations of erets for the 96 occurrences in Genesis 1–11 (purple), for the remaining occurrences between Genesis 12 and the last chapter of Malachi at the end of the Old Testament (blue), and throughout the entire Old Testament (red). The data comes from the KJV, though a similar pattern of usage is found in the NASB and NKJV.

Conclusion

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16), including Genesis, and is utterly reliable. And just as we can be sure that the waters once covered the entire planet at the time of the Flood, so also we can be confident that our Messiah and Savior will one day return to the erets and reign in glory—over all of it!

And the Lord shall be King over all the earth [erets] (Zechariah 14:9).
For the earth [erets] shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea
(Isaiah 11:9).

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Footnotes

  1. There is no universally accepted system for transliterating Hebrew words in English (i.e., writing Hebrew words using English letters). Consequently, different authors and textbooks may represent the same Hebrew word in a number of different ways. The Hebrew word אֶרֶץ (erets) can be written legitimately as ’ere, ’erets, ’eretz, ere, erets, or eretz.
    Contrary to English, the emphasis in most Hebrew words is placed on the final syllable. However, in a significant number of words, including אֶרֶץ (erets), the stress is located on the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable. And since erets only has two syllables, the penultimate syllable is in fact the first syllable (the first e). Back
  2. The precise vowel formation of Hebrew words beginning with guttural letters, including אֶרֶץ (erets), alters slightly when prefixed by the definite article, הַ (ha, “the”). So “the earth” in Hebrew is הָאָרֶץ (ha’arets) (not הַאֶרֶץ  (ha’erets)). However, throughout this article, for the sake of clarity and simplicity (particularly mindful of readers with no knowledge of Hebrew), rather than fully transliterating the definite form, ha’arets, I have represented it as “the erets” or “the earth [erets].” Back
  3. This contrasts with the English term earth, which is routinely used to refer to the whole globe, including the sea and the full extent of the atmosphere. During the Flood, the erets was temporarily submerged in water, but these were extraordinary circumstances, never to be repeated (Genesis 9:11–17). (Likewise, many would interpret Genesis 1:1–2, supported by passages such as Psalm 104:5–6, as depicting a similar global covering of the erets with water.) Normally, however, throughout the rest of the Bible, a distinction is made between the erets and the sea and the heavens. For instance, we read phrases such as “the Lord made the heavens and the earth [erets], the sea, and all that is in them” (Exodus 20:11; similarly Psalm 146:6; and in the New Testament, Acts 4:24 and 14:15, which use the Greek equivalent of erets, θάλασσα [thalassa]). We are told that God “assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters would not transgress His command, when He marked out the foundations of the earth [erets]” (Proverbs 8:29). And the Lord says that He has “placed the sand as the bound of the sea, by a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass beyond it” (Jeremiah 5:22).
    Under normal circumstances, therefore, the sea is separate from the erets. At God's intervention, however, the waters covered the whole erets in the Flood (Genesis 7:17–19), and the waters were divided so that the Israelites could pass through on dry ground (Exodus 14:21–22; Joshua 3:17). Also, Jesus showed His divine power, even over the waters, in calming the stormy Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:26–27; Mark 4:39–41; Luke 8:24–25) and in walking on its surface (Matthew 14:24–33; Mark 6:47–51; John 6:16–21). Back
  4. For this study of Genesis 1–11, I examined the KJV, NASB, and NKJV translations. As a matter of interest, it is remarkable how close these three mainstream Bible versions are, certainly in their renderings of erets. Apart from just one deviation, which does not affect the ratio of global to local contexts, their translations of erets were identical. In other words, 287 out of 288 renderings (i.e., 96 occurrences in each of the three Bible versions) were the same, which is a correlation of 99.65 percent. The one minor difference is in Genesis 10:20, where the KJV has “nations,” whereas the NASB and NKJV have “lands.” Back
  5. Context is extremely important for understanding words in any language. Take, for example, the English word earth. When we say that a gardener is “digging the earth,” we probably mean his backyard and certainly not the entire world. Similarly, if we say that astronauts in outer space have a “great view of the earth,” we clearly mean the planet and not a patch of soil. This does not mean that the primary meaning of a word changes. Indeed, thinking about the examples just given, whether we're talking about a backyard or the continents of the world, it's all part of the same basic stuff (though admittedly, in English “earth” often incorporates the seas and atmosphere). In Hebrew, words can also have more than one nuance of meaning depending upon the context, without necessarily detracting from the primary or root meaning. Back
  6. In this third example, which speaks of “every creeping thing that creeps on the earth [erets],” it may be argued that erets here means “ground.” But the fact that erets, as the land mass of the planet, includes the ground does not detract from its global extent. And the context of this, and of other similar references in Genesis 1–11 (notably Genesis 7:14 and Genesis 8:17), is clearly not localized but refers to any part of the total land mass of the earth. Furthermore, there is another Hebrew word, אֲדָמָה (adamah), which more closely resembles the word ground in the sense of the soil directly beneath our feet; so when erets is used in Genesis 1–11, it implies that the intended scope is non-localized or global. Back
  7. It is not that the meaning of erets has changed to something completely different in these local contexts where it is translated as “land.” It is simply that the text is referring to a designated part of the whole. A similar thing happens with the word ocean: its primary definition, according to Dictionary.com Unabridged (Ocean. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ocean, accessed: June 10, 2012), is “the vast body of salt water that covers almost three fourths of the earth's surface,” which can include, under its secondary definition, “any of the geographical divisions of this body, commonly given as the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic, and Antarctic oceans.” The secondary, more localized usage of ocean, as of erets, does not negate its primary and fullest extent. Back
  8. As already stated in note 1, there is no universally accepted system for transliterating Hebrew words in English (i.e., writing Hebrew words using English letters). The Hebrew word תֵּבֵל can be written legitimately as ēl, tēbēl, tēvēl, teel, tebel, or tevel. Tevel is my personal preference for reasons of clarity and simplicity. As with most Hebrew words, and in contrast to erets, the emphasis in tevel is placed on the final syllable (“vel”). Back
  9. Out of its 36 occurrences in Scripture, tevel is translated as “world” or “inhabited world” 35 times (97 percent) by the NKJV, KJV, and NASB. A lucid definition of tevel is given by W. Wilson in Wilson's Old Testament Word Studies (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1990), p. 489:

    the earth, as fertile and inhabited, the habitable globe, world, οἰκουμένη [oikoumene, “inhabited world”]; the whole earth, the world in general, especially where the founding of it is mentioned; meton[ym] for the inhabitants of the earth.

    Incidentally, the Greek word oikoumene is the source of the term ecumenism.

    An intriguing aspect of tevel, only noticeable in the original Hebrew text, is that in all 36 occurrences, not once is it prefixed by the definite article (the, which is mostly inserted in English translations). Furthermore, it is always used in the singular, without pronominal suffixes (endings which indicate possession), and arguably only ever in the absolute (simple, ordinary) state. This perhaps suggests that tevel is functioning as a poetic name for earth, in much the same way as we give names to the planets in our solar system, such as Venus or Jupiter.

    Those who are unfamiliar with Hebrew may be wondering why this is not immediately obvious, as it is in English when we see an initial capital letter, like in “Israel” or “David.” The reason is that Hebrew does not have the equivalent of lower and uppercase forms of letters. This ambiguity is why, for example, in Genesis 1:10 some versions (e.g., KJV and NKJV) translate erets as Earth with a capital E (“And God called the dry land Earth [erets]”), whereas other versions (e.g., HCSB and NASB) translate it as earth with a lowercase e.

    Back
  10. Different sources give slightly different word counts, but the figure of 2,505 is found in both the BibleWorks program (version 7) and in Miles V. Van Pelt and Gary D. Pratico’s The Vocabulary Guide to Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003), p. 3, which utilized the Accordance program. BibleWorks and Accordance are two premier software programs for Bible study and research. Back
  11. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew (except for about 200 verses, i.e., less than 1 percent, which is in Aramaic). The New Testament was written in Greek. Back
  12. Except for a small number of clear exceptions. Back
  13. Furthermore, even if Moses had been familiar with the word tevel (and this we cannot say with certainty, particularly as he never once used it), it would not have been any more fitting than erets in describing a worldwide Flood. In fact, tevel is defined by some, and even translated once or twice, as the “inhabited world” (see note 9), arguably an area of smaller size than the full land surface of the planet (though personally I would not wish to stretch the semantics this far); so, if anything, tevel is perhaps less suitable than erets for conveying the global extent of the Flood. Back
  14. The figure of 558 occurrences of har is found in both the BibleWorks program (version 7) and in Miles V. Van Pelt and Gary D. Pratico’s The Vocabulary Guide to Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003), p. 6. Back
  15. For example, har is rendered as “mountain” or “mount” in 89 percent of occurrences in the KJV and in 79 percent in the NASB. Back
  16. Including the ESV, HCSB, LEB, NASB, NCV, NIV, and YLT, to name but a few. Back
  17. Our present world is different from the pre-Flood world, due to catastrophic changes during and after the deluge. Most creation geologists do not believe that the pre-Flood world contained lofty mountain ranges of the magnitude that exist today, such as the towering Himalayas, which were produced by the Flood. Nevertheless, the Hebrew word har is the same word used to speak of both pre-Flood and post-Flood mountains. So, even if the pre-Flood mountains were different, or even lower, than present-day peaks, they were still the highest points of land—all of which, according to Genesis 7:19, were completely covered by the rising waters of God's judgment. Back
  18. R.L. Harris, in his entry on כָּסָה (kasah) in the widely used Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (1980. Eds. R.L. Harris, G.L. Archer, and B.K. Waltke. Chicago: Moody Press.), wrote:

    In Gen 7:19-20 the hills were ‘covered;’ the Hebrew does not specify with what. The NIV specification of water goes beyond the Hebrew. The Hebrew may merely mean that the mountains were hidden from view by the storm.

    While generally I have found the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament to be an extremely helpful resource, and wish no disrespect to the late Dr. Harris, nevertheless I find this statement on kasah to be quite incredible and untenable. Furthermore, it concerns me, especially given the popularity of this lexicon, that it could easily mislead many readers with little or no knowledge of Hebrew into thinking that the text does not support a global Flood. I can only assume, though would be happy to be enlightened otherwise, that R.L. Harris had a preconception about the Flood, which prevented him from accepting the plain meaning of the text.
    First, one only needs to examine the immediate context. The first half of v. 19 (“And the waters prevailed exceedingly on the earth . . .”) and the very next verse (“The waters prevailed fifteen cubits upward, and the mountains were covered”) clearly indicate that the covering was with water. Any objective reading of the text could come to no other conclusion.
    Second, the statement that the “NIV specification of water goes beyond the Hebrew” is unfounded. The common Hebrew word for “water,” מַיִם (mayim), is used in both v. 19 and v. 20. And among the various editions of the NIV, none that I could find—including the NIRV (1988), NIV (2011), NIV1984 (1984), NIVUK (1984), or TNIV (2011)—could be deemed to go beyond the Hebrew by explicitly stating that the mountains, for example, “were covered with water” (or any words of similar effect). On the contrary, I found that four editions (the NIV, NIV1984, NIVUK, and TNIV) omitted the word “waters” from v. 19. Nevertheless, in substituting “they,” the overall sense of the text is still retained in these four editions so that none of the NIV versions can be said either to exaggerate the global extent of the Flood, as suggested by R. L. Harris, or to detract from it. Back
  19. The context of these verses from Psalm 104 seems to be Creation, though in places the language may be construed as hinting at the Flood. Back
  20. Those who favor a localized flood may contest this statement, saying that even a non-global extensive deluge could wipe out virtually all life. Indeed, drowning is not the only killer in a flood. Isolation as a result of rapidly rising water levels would increase the risk of the following, any combination of which may have been potentially fatal:
    • exhaustion, from constantly having to flee to higher ground;
    • serious injury, as a result of the dangerous terrain, or of fast moving floodwaters containing debris such as trees (and even boulders);
    • starvation, as regular food sources dwindle;
    • and fighting over limited resources.
    Consequently, it is true that the vast majority of people and animals would probably have perished before the waters reached the highest peaks, which most creation scholars believe would have been significantly lower than the tallest mountains today. Nevertheless, the fact remains that an incomplete covering of water (i.e., a non-global flood), devastating though it may be, would not guarantee the destruction of every last land-dwelling creature “in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life” (Genesis 7:22). If Almighty God, the all-powerful Creator of earth and all its life, had decided “to destroy from under heaven all flesh” (Genesis 6:17), why would He opt for an incomplete flood? It makes sense neither of His character nor His Word. Back