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Genesis 7:21 reads:

וַיִּגְוַ֞ע כָּל־בָּשָׂ֣ר ׀ הָרֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ בָּעֹ֤וף וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבַ֣חַיָּ֔ה וּבְכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְכֹ֖ל הָאָדָֽם׃ (WLC)

The ESV translation is fairly typical:

And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind.

I have been picking @Susan's brain on this verse for several days in The Library chat room, so I thought I'd go ahead and make this into a question so the results of those thoughts are more visible and to possibly also gain additional insight...

The phrase "all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth" is a bit strange in English, not just because of the "swarming" repetition (which I understand to be somewhat normal in Hebrew) but also because it is conjoined with several simple nouns. A basic principle of English (and as far as I know all language's) syntax is that you can only conjoin like with like. While both "birds" and "all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth" are noun phrases and thus conjoining them does create a grammatical sentence, it is a combination that gives the reader a different impression because the phrase "sticks out".

The sentence is certainly grammatical and doesn't need explanation, the construction makes me think the author was doing something that would be obvious to native speakers but is opaque in English. There is also the repetition of "on the earth," which may or may not provide a clue.

What, if anything, is the author of Genesis 7:21 doing with the phrase "all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth"?

Some suggestions:

  • Nothing, it would be a normal, idiomatic phrase in ancient Hebrew. Paraphrasing, something like:

    And all creatures on the earth died: birds, livestock, beasts, swarmers, and mankind.

  • Using the phrase to make the verse more poetic
  • (My own unlikely suggestion, inspired by YLT's use of "teeming" which meant prolific in Young's day) Summing up the previous conjuncts (finishing the thought bracketed by "on the earth") back into the first to emphasize all the animals died.

    And all creatures on the earth died, the birds, the livestock, and the beasts, that is all of the many the abundant/prolific creatures, and mankind also.

  • (Susan's solid suggestion) Bracketing off the animals from mankind. That is, putting them in separate classes

    And all flesh on the earth died: all the animals - birds, livestock, beasts, and swarmers - and all of mankind.

  • (John Martin's solid suggestion) Specifying it is only the land swarmers in mind (Lev 11:10 talks of שֶׁ֣רֶץ הַמַּ֔יִם, potentially "swarmers in the water" although not usually translated that way).

    And all creatures on the earth died: birds, livestock, beasts, land swarmers, and mankind.

  • Some other form of emphasis
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Challenges to Some of the Solutions Noted

  • Idiom: Idioms have points to them; reasons they become idioms and a meaning adding distinction otherwise from a non-idiomatic statement. Here, there is nothing indicating the statement of the swarmers are to be taken in some idiomatic fashion. Simply saying "the swarmers" would have been sufficient.

  • Poetic: There is no reason to consider this to be merely for poetic purposes in this narrative context.

  • "Summing up" Suggestion: This view leaves out mentioning one of the four distinct kinds of creatures from the creation account in Genesis 1, the רֶ֫מֶשׂ ("creeping thing"), noted also in Gen 6:20 and 7:8, 14 (i.e. in immediate context) as finding refuge on the ark. That is, summing it so would leave the reader wondering what happened to this group if swarm is taken to refer to the other three groups. That the word here is not רֶ֫מֶשׂ ("creeping thing") but שֶׁ֫רֶץ ("swarm") does not break the conceptual connection back to chapter 1, 6:20, or 7:8. The "creeping things" usually congregate in "swarms," and the latter term does show the proliferation of the small creatures on the earth.

  • "Bracketing" Suggestion: The structure does not point toward that. The animal groupings are set off from each other by the בְ preposition (generally left untranslated in English) before each set (so four sets), but the additional כָל ("all") emphasis before the fourth group sets the following phrasing off as distinct from the initial opening כָּל before the other three sets. In other words, if the כָּל had followed the הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ ("the swarmers") and preceeded just the verb phrasing הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ ("swarming upon the earth"), then I believe the bracketing would be a viable option. But it precedes the final group noun, and so is not distinctly set between the four groups and mankind.

  • Specifying it is only the land swarmers in mind: This new addition to the suggestions is on the right track, and parallels exactly the solution taken in this answer.

Specific Language

One approaching Scripture with a literal hermeneutic,1 such as I, would recognize the use of specific language to isolate a subset group for the statement to remain true. The water swarmers (e.g. Lev 11:10) and probably some or all of the air swarmers (Lev 11:20, 21, 23; Dt 14:19) are specifically removed from the equation of what "all" died. It is those earthbound that were in jeopardy, and the רֶ֥מֶשׂ הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה ("the creeping thing of the earth") that went on the ark (Gen 6:20), more specifically those who existed "upon the earth" (Gen 7:8, 14).

The effects of the flood as not being on the totality of the creatures in these other swarming groups is truthfully communicated. The water creatures are more obviously less effected (though undoubtedly many of those perished as well, given the fossil record), and the air creatures able to escape to some extent as well by retreating as long as possible to the higher islands of land beginning to form, and once those were gone, the debris fields floating on the water covering the entire earth.

So the breakdown of the verse is like so:

    וַיִּגְוַ֞ע כָּל־בָּשָׂ֣ר       and all flesh perished:
        הָרֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ      that which moved upon the earth
          בָּע֤וֹף              among the birds,
          וּבַבְּהֵמָה            and among the cattle,
          וּבַ֣חַיָּ֔ה             and among the beasts,
          וּבְכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ         and among all the swarms,
            הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ       those ones swarming upon the earth,
          וְכֹ֖ל הָאָדָֽם          and all mankind

The בְּ preposition is reflected here in the "among" for the four animal kinds. Since collective (singular) terms are being used, it most likely is indicating that the varieties of creatures existing "among" that type are being referenced in total (chickens, doves, crows, etc. / cows, sheep, goats, etc. / elephants, mammoths, T. rex's, etc. / snakes, ants, lizards, etc.), the only ones surviving being those groups of that animal present on the ark.

The omission of the בְּ before אָדָֽם is because there are no varieties of mankind "among" mankind like there are of the other kinds of creatures—all descended from Adam (and Eve, who came from him). The additional כָּל before mankind also helps set mankind off from the more inclusive כָּל that governs the whole set of "flesh" at the beginning of the verse.

Conclusion

The words are added to very specific about the kinds of creatures destroyed in the flood. There were swarming kinds not represented upon the ark that would survive, but these little creatures that "swarm upon the earth" were wiped out, except those representatives sustained with Noah and his family by God upon the ark.


NOTES

1 That the flood event is telling true history, informed correctly by God's inspiring of the author of the text, and this language in v.21 has a specific purpose regarding that fact.

  • Thanks for the answer (+1). If I understand correctly, you are grouping (that swarm on the earth) to modify (swarming creatures) and then all modifies that noun phrase, as opposed to grouping (on the earth) as a modifier for (swarming creatures that swarm), with all modifying that noun phrase. Correct? (Either is possible in English; I don't know about Hebrew.) Also, you seem to agree that mankind is a separate group (i.e. four groups of animals & man as opposed to five groups of flesh). If that is correct, could you address how mankind is set off grammatically for completeness? – ThaddeusB Nov 12 '15 at 21:49
  • @ThaddeusB: Correct, and I have edited to clarify. – ScottS Nov 12 '15 at 22:27

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