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When translating Genesis, I took pains to preserve the implied flat-Earth cosmology that a naive reading suggests. One of the places where this made a big difference is in the story of Noah. Noah is instructed to build the ark 30 cubits high.

Later, when the flood comes, we find out why (Gen 7:19-20), Wikisource translation

And the water intensified so so much, on the land. And covered every high mountain under the entire sky. Fifteen cubits from above, the waters built, and the mountains were covered.

The actual Hebrew for "Fifteen cubits from above" is:

חֲמֵשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה אַמָּה מִלְמַעְלָה

And this is literally "fifteen cubits from above", as in, fifteen cubits from the top of the dome of the sky.

This is the natural Hebrew reading (at least, I can't by any stretch read it any other way). This reading is consistent with the ordinary interpretation of other words, "Abyss" (tehom), which is the infinite ocean on which the world floats, the "Firmament" (raqia'), which is a malleable substance beaten sky-dome that covers the world, and "Tavel" which is the world-plate. These only make sense in the standard Babylonian flat-Earth cosmology, where the Tavel floats on the Abyss and is covered by the Raqia' which is then covered by more water.

In this context, "fifteen cubits from above" means "fifteen cubits from the top", and this is a fine Hebrew way to express this sentiment. The problem is I can't see any other reading for this. The way you would say "fifteen cubits above the mountains" would be completely different, the mountains would either be embedded or there would be a reference to what you were above.

So the only reading I can see is that the water built up to 15 cubits of the top of the dome of the sky. It seems that other translations go to pains to disguise the flat-Earth cosmology.

How do you read the Hebrew otherwise? How do other people parse this sentence?

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Could you unpack מִלְמַעְלָה for me, in particular the first lamed? I would expect "from above" to be מִמַעְלָה but I'm not an expert. –  Gone Quiet Apr 1 '12 at 3:50
    
@MonicaCellio: "lema'la" means "to up-there", "... mi-le-ma'la" means "(fifteen cubits from) up there". It can also mean "from above" as in "I saw him from above". Your construction "Mi-ma'la" I am not familiar with, and "Ma'la" is not a word AFAIK, the word "ma'aleh" is a lifting root, meaning "lifts", as in "he lifts". The first lamed just makes it a noun, so that you can use it as a noun. The lamed usually means "to" but in this case "le-ma'la" is just a noun for "up-there". –  Ron Maimon Apr 1 '12 at 4:47
    
Thanks. I thought "ma'la" meant "above", and a "mi" prefix would mean "from", but that left me a letter short. –  Gone Quiet Apr 1 '12 at 4:57
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4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The NET Bible notes:

  1. tn Heb “rose fifteen cubits.” Since a cubit is considered by most authorities to be about eighteen inches, this would make the depth 22.5 feet. This figure might give the modern reader a false impression of exactness, however, so in the translation the phrase “fifteen cubits” has been rendered “more than twenty feet.”
  2. tn Heb “the waters prevailed fifteen cubits upward and they covered the mountains.” Obviously, a flood of twenty feet did not cover the mountains; the statement must mean the flood rose about twenty feet above the highest mountain.

The Septuagint reads:

δέκα πέντε πήχεις ἐπάνω ὑψώθη τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ ἐπεκάλυψεν πάντα τὰ ὄρη τὰ ὑψηλά

I can't read Greek myself, but the key words seem to be:

ἐπάνω <1883>—above

ὑψώθη <5312>—to lift up on high, to exalt

To me, this seems like the measurement is from the ground (or rather the peaks of the mountains) to the surface of the water. The sky is introduced in 7:19, but that seems to imply that all the mountains were covered, not as a point from which to begin the measurement.


But let's take a step back and consider what's going on here. From God's perspective, the important thing is to destroy everything with the breath of life on the earth except for Noah, his family, and the contents of the ark. (See Genesis 6:9-22.) A flood 15 cubits above the mountains for 6 months is more than enough to accomplish that. There's no particular need to flood to within 15 cubits of the dome of the sky. If the translation in the question is correct in the face of the weight of scholarship, it doesn't really tell us anything radically different than the standard reading.

From Noah's perspective, all he could see was water. There were no mountain peak to be seen and soundings showed the flood was deeper than his measuring device. I'm not sure how he might have detected the dome of the sky, but it seems unlikely that he could have measured the distance as 15 cubits. I suppose he might have noticed the top of the ark rubbing against the dome of the sky (the ark was 30 cubits high, but probably rode half that tall), but we surely would have gotten a more detailed report if so. It's hard to see how there would be an observable difference between 15 cubits measured from above or from below.

Thinking about it from the perspective of a sailor, there's really no need to make any cosmological assumptions. The way people measure the depth of the water from a boat is with a sounding line. If Noah had a line of 15 cubits and could not find the ground, and if he could not see the peaks of any mountain, it would be natural to say that the water covered the mountains by 15 cubits. It could be considerably more, of course, but unless a longer line could be produced, the 15 cubit sounding is all that he could report.

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That's a really good point about the ark rubbing up against "the dome of the sky" if we go with OP's interpretation. –  Gone Quiet Sep 19 '12 at 21:12
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I will accept this answer, as it is genuinely giving a proper alternative reading: "15 cubits from above" meaning "15 cubits estimated from above". It's a terrible alternative, but at least it's somehow coherent. Regarding "rubbing up against the top of the dome", that explains why the ark is 30 cubits high, half is submerged, the other half bang up against the top. This is what it means, and it's a nice homey image of a huddled mass against the top of the sky, like a flood catastrophe movie. The alternatives here are reasonable, though, so accept. –  Ron Maimon Sep 20 '12 at 1:18
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A translation of the LXX into English has "19 And the water prevailed exceedingly upon the earth, and covered all the high mountains which were under heaven. 20 Fifteen cubits upwards was the water raised, and it covered all the high mountains." I read that as it went up the side of the ark 15 cubits (as they could easily tell that from the deck looking down) and that they didn't drag over the mountains. –  Frank Luke Sep 20 '12 at 18:42
    
@FrankLuke: That's allowed gramatically, 15 cubits from the top of the ark, but it doesn't make sense for a floating object-- the degree of the water rising has nothing to do with how much water there is, so it's no good in context (it really doesn't read well). The correct reading is still 15 cubits from the top of the dome of the sky, but at least these are passable alternatives, better than the rubbish in most translations. –  Ron Maimon Sep 21 '12 at 7:04
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Fifteen cubits above: Above the peaks of all the mountains, after the waters were equal to [at the same level as] the mountain peaks. — [from Gen. Rabbah 32:11] - Rashi

Gen Rabbah is said to be from the third century, long before anyone would have objected to or attempted to cover up a supposed flat earth cosmology.

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I'm betting the Septuagint will also have "above the mountains," and it comes from ca. 200 BC. –  Frank Luke Sep 18 '12 at 20:52
    
I found the Greek of the Septuagint and copied it to my answer. Could you help me determine if it could be translated the way Ron suggests? –  Jon Ericson Sep 19 '12 at 17:20
    
The word in question is used Ex 25:21, 26:14, 36:19 39:31, 40:19-20, and many more which only make sense in the conventional rendering. –  Bob Jones Nov 16 '12 at 18:47
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Yours is the only view that states that the waters must have been to within 15 cubits of the top of the sky from a "flat earth cosmology".

No other English translation gives anything of the kind:

New International Version (©1984)
The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet.

New Living Translation (©2007)
rising more than twenty-two feet above the highest peaks.

English Standard Version (©2001)
The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.

New American Standard Bible (©1995)
The water prevailed fifteen cubits higher, and the mountains were covered.

King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.)
Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

GOD'S WORD® Translation (©1995)
It rose 23 feet above the mountaintops.

King James 2000 Bible (©2003)
Fifteen cubits above did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

American King James Version
Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

American Standard Version
Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

Douay-Rheims Bible
The water was fifteen cubits higher than the mountains which it covered.

Darby Bible Translation
Fifteen cubits upward the waters prevailed; and the mountains were covered.

English Revised Version
Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

Webster's Bible Translation
Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail: and the mountains were covered.

World English Bible
The waters prevailed fifteen cubits upward, and the mountains were covered.

Young's Literal Translation
fifteen cubits upwards have the waters become mighty, and the mountains are covered;

Wycliffe Bible
(yea,) the water was higher, by fifteen cubits, over (all) the hills which it covered.

Orthodox Jewish Bible
Fifteen cubits upward did the waters rise; and the harim were covered.

Lexham English Bible
The waters swelled fifteen cubits above the mountains, covering them.

Easy-to-Read Version
The water continued to rise above the mountains. The water was more than 20 feet[a] above the highest mountain.

Complete Jewish Bible the water covered the mountains by more than twenty-two-and-a-half feet.

Amplified Bible
[In fact] the waters became fifteen cubits higher, as the high hills were covered.

Compared to the work of thousands of scholars across hundreds of years, I would state that your view, the "naive reading" of an "implied flat-Earth cosmology", is suspect.

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Excellent point. If a diverse population of translators agree on one rendering, the "odd man out" has probably gone wrong somehow. –  Jon Ericson Sep 18 '12 at 16:38
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Except, no I didn't go wrong. The King James, Darby, English-revised, Orthodox Jewish are roughly accurate, but the rest are made up interpretations of something they didn't read right because of their round-Earth bias: milema'la means 'from above', and "fifteen cubits from above the water built up" is accurate. The interpretation is completely obvious in the Genesis cosmology, and I can't read it any other way. So sorry, every other translation is wrong (except King James et al, which are roughly ok) and mine is right. Accuracy of translation is not determined by polling, but by reading. –  Ron Maimon Sep 18 '12 at 23:51
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The interpretation is demonstrably not "completely obvious" since no one else seems to share it. Without sources you're just asking us to take your word for it. Ron, can you support your interpretation? –  Gone Quiet Sep 20 '12 at 22:10
    
@MonicaCellio: I am not asking you to take my word, I am asking you to read it and come up with a good alternative. The crappy translations above do not do this, they just ignore the problem. The alternative "15 cubits above the mountains" is wrong, "15 cubits from above" meaning "upper estimate" is weird usage, but perhaps, and "15 cubits as judged from above" meaning from the perspective of the Ark, is also supportable. But far and away the natural reading is 15 cubits from the top, and with no prior exposure to the idea, this verse tips you off that Genesis is flat-Earth. –  Ron Maimon Sep 21 '12 at 7:10
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Later, when the flood comes, we find out why (Gen 7:19-20)...

חֲמֵשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה אַמָּה מִלְמַעְלָה

And this is literally "fifteen cubits from above", as in, fifteen cubits from the top of the dome of the sky.

The Hebrew word [מִלְמַעְלָה] is often translated 'from...' If this were the correct translation there would be a dagesh forte in the lamed. There isn't. And since the word is used again and again throughout the Scriptures, it obviously wasn't omitted in error. My guess is that it is a word in its own right, related to its root עָלָה.

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Hi Kim and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics. Could you say more about the dagesh forte and what it would mean? Not everybody here is a Hebrew grammarian, so if you can spell it out a little more that'll help. Thanks! Also, I edited your post (formatting only) to make it clearer that the first part is a quote from the question; this confused me at first, so now that I'm un-confused, I wanted to head off anybody else's confusion. –  Gone Quiet Mar 31 '13 at 20:55
    
Thanks Monica. The dagesh forte is a dot in the middle of the following consonant. If the first mem of the word [ מִלְמַעְלָה] was 'from' [mem-nun] it would have the lamed in the middle of the lamed, doubling the consonant when the nun merges with the lamed. –  Kim McCooeye Apr 1 '13 at 6:20
    
I did some furthur research, comparing what I could find in my books and on the internet. It looks to me like the word is an adverb meaning 'atop.' –  Kim McCooeye Apr 1 '13 at 6:55
    
Kim, thanks for the elaboration. (I know what a dageish is but not the specific grammar point you're bringing. And, of course, others might not know what the dageish is.) You might want to edit what you said in comments into your answer to make it stronger; comments don't necessarily stick around long-term. (They're meant primarily to support the kinds of clarification we're doing here, not to live forever as answer adjuncts.) –  Gone Quiet Apr 2 '13 at 2:26
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@KimMcCooeye I'll echo what Monica said. Welcome! Also, when you do elaborate on an answer, please just edit the answer itself so that it becomes a well-rounded response and not a forum thread. :). Thanks again, and welcome! –  swasheck Apr 5 '13 at 14:58
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