The Hebrew word אָרֶץ (erets) can mean "earth", "land", or "ground" (Strongs H776). For example, in Genesis 2:13, the river Gihon winds through the whole land (אָרֶץ) of Cush.

This word, אָרֶץ, is used throughout the flood account, where all major English translations take the account to be referring to the whole earth.

E.g., Gen 7:24:

The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days. (NIV)

And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days. (ESV)

And the floodwaters covered the earth for 150 days. (NLT)

Since Bible translators are highly educated and all the major English translations seem to agree on this point, I assume there must be clear indications in the text that the author of the passage intended the flood to be understood as covering the whole earth rather than the whole land.

What are the compelling indications in the text itself that this is how the word אָרֶץ should be translated in this passage?

Note: I am not asking for scientific or theological arguments about the interpretation of this passage, but for arguments from this text itself.

  • 2
    Gen 7.19-20 says every mountain under the sky was at least fifteen cubits underwater. I don't see how that's remotely possible except under the premise of a worldwide flood. However, this begs the question of what the author(s) of the text even thought the 'world' was shaped like; by any indication, the ancient Israelites thought the earth was flat under a solid dome, not spherical. – user2910 Nov 9 '17 at 18:09
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    @MarkEdward the phrase "כָּל־הַשָּׁמָֽיִם" isn't any more conclusive than "כל־הארץ" Literally they mean "all of the heavens" and "all of the land" respectively. But the same terms are used to refer to goings on in a particular country. See, e.g., Genesis 13:9; Exodus 8:10, 9:5, 10:5, 10:12, 10:15; Deuteronomy 19:8; Joshua 2:3. – conceptualinertia Jan 8 '18 at 23:26
  • There was no such concept of a "globe" at the time of that literature, which is at the end of ice age - floods. There was no globe but land. – Michael16 Jul 23 at 15:21

From ESV,

Genesis 9:11

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth (אָרֶץ).

Here,"earth" is the same Hebrew word אָרֶץ (erets)- you are referring to, but within the passage, all flesh is cut off. Perhaps more importantly, the statement "never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth" demonstrates that the earth (or the land) will never be destroyed by a flood. We do have local floods that destroy the land, so this promise must not be referring to local flooding.

The word in question has 5 primary definitions used in scripture, two of which are 1) land, country, region (local) 2) earth (global)

(Full List of Definitions)

Definition, along with context, demonstrates that the meaning is the whole earth, rather than a local area or region. Definition and context together give meaning for words, while definition alone can lead to error.

Two examples of context where אָרֶץ is referring to the whole earth and not just a local area:

Genesis 1:1

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.(אָרֶץ)

Isaiah 14:26

This is the purpose that is purposed concerning the whole earth (אָרֶץ), and this is the hand that is stretched out over all the nations.

Within context, the definition must be the whole earth, not only local lands.

  • 1
    I agree that context is important, hence my question. And I see your point about a promise to destroy the earth vs. the land. But if the land vs. earth interpretation was built only on this one verse (Genesis 9:11), I would have expected some English translations to at least give a footnote of the alternative. If you read אָרֶץ in Gen 9:11 as "land" instead of "earth", the verse could still make sense if the flood was large enough to wipe out all humanity, depending on your intepretation of בָּשָׂר (flesh). – talljosh Nov 13 '17 at 1:34

In addition to Matt Zabojnik's answer, the story leading up to 7:24 indicate the entire earth is in view. See chapter 6 verse 7, 12, 13, 17, and so on. God is displeased with all of mankind, and wants to kill all of them, and even all creatures.

  • 1
    The fact that God was displeased with all of mankind doesn't mean that the entire earth was in view here, given that we don't have to assume that the entire earth was populated at the time. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Jan 8 '18 at 22:20
  • @EJoshuaS you're correct, I'm just saying that the context indicates the entire earth is in view. This is debatable. – Jason Fry Jan 10 '18 at 12:47

There is not a textual basis for the flood being "global" as opposed to local. All such bases are the result of two misconceptions:

  • Thinking that because, in English, the word "earth" means both soil, and planet earth, that the Hebrew word "eretz" must have the same two meanings. The Hebrew word "eretz" just means "land", as there was not a single word, let alone a conception of "planet earth" at the time Genesis was written. Thus it is always risky to translate eretz as "earth" if there is a risk that english readers will think the word is referring to "planet earth" rather than to "land".

  • Thinking that quantifiers in the narrative texts of Hebrew are to be understood in scientific terms rather than narrative terms. That is a Hellenistic view of the world that is not appropriate to superimpose on pre-Hellenistic texts. E.g. when I say "I threw a party and everyone came", that is a narrative statement where "everyone" is understood to quantify over all the social people in my life that could come to such a party, or all the people previously mentioned in the narrative. It does not quantify over all people on earth, or all people past, present, and future, or all sentient beings in the universe, etc. All narratives have a certain stage. In that stage, "land" refers to the land of the stage. "heavens" refer to the sky above the stage. The stars are viewed as lights illuminating that stage. "All the nations" are nations that come into play in that narrative. Etc.

In short, quantification has to be interpreted as over a specific narrative setting, which is not going to be "planet earth" as there was no notion of "planet earth" at that time.

For example, look at the famine of Joseph, which uses very similar language to Noah's flood:

Gen 41.56-57:

And the famine was over all the face of the earth [kol pene ha eretz]: And Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold unto the Egyptians; and the famine waxed sore in the land of Egypt. And all countries [kol ha eretz] came into Egypt to Joseph for to buy corn; because that the famine was so sore in all lands [kol ha eretz].

So we have three uses of the quantifier Kol ("all") and three uses of eretz ("land") yet the action is only taking place in Egypt and Canaan. But that is the stage of the story of Joseph and his family, which is the account being described here. It is not true that all countries on the planet came to Egypt, or that there was a famine on the entire planet earth.

And we don't need to establish some creation institute to argue that representatives from Central America, Native Americans, and Japanese visited Egypt to buy bread, because we understand that "all the land" and "all the countries" refers to Egypt and its environs, not to the planet earth.

Yet for some reason when it comes to the flood, suddenly everything has to be interpreted in Hellenistic terms and now every single country does need to come into play and a lot people spend a great deal of effort on "proving" Noah's flood but very few seem to be bothered by proving Joseph's famine.

Now I'm not saying that this proves Noah's flood was local. Only that there is no textual proof the flood was global simply because there are no universal quantifiers in the language of Genesis. All quantifiers are relative to a certain stage on which the action was happening.

This also includes the creation account, e.g. God is credited with creating "the sky and the land". He is not credited with creating a planet, per se. The directions of creation as described are vertical -- above and below. Not horizontal. All the action is happening from a certain stage, and all the quantifiers need to be understood with respect to (or from the point of view of) that stage. Much (but not all) of the difficulties people face when trying to reconcile Genesis with modern science is due to their attempts to treat Genesis as a scientific book rather than a collection of narratives, with quantifiers appropriately scoped to each account.

  • +1 "quantification has to be interpreted as over a specific narrative setting" Such an obvious but important point. – One God the Father Jul 22 at 23:22
  • Very well argued point. I'd like it if you'd interact with another person's answer that the promise in Genesis 9:11 only makes sense if the flood was global and not local. – Austin Jul 25 at 4:11
  • @Austin You can look for similar grammatical constructions. E.g. "all flesh" (kol basar) in Ezek 21.4-5 is referring to people in Israel. Eve was not the mother of all living things - kol hay in Gen 3.20 - as that would include grasshoppers (Gen 1.21). Etc. I didn't want to argue against other answers, but to offer perspectives on quantifiers. I have no idea if Noah's flood was a reference to a planetary flood, but the text does not require it, and it'd be overkill to just get rid of Adam's progeny which hadn't even scattered yet. Genesis is not a simple text. – Robert Jul 25 at 5:50

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