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