How Noah's 'Worldwide' Flood Depends On Mistranslating One Simple Hebrew Word - 'Erets' - Christians for Truth
Readers have often asked us if we believe the Great Flood in Genesis was worldwide or localized — as the answer to this question impacts many different issues, especially the extent to which the Bible is a universal book that encompasses the entire planet and everyone in it — or if it is literally what it says it is — the history only of “the generations of Adam” (Genesis 5:1).
What any of us believe about the Great Flood more often than not depends not on what the Bible actually says, but rather on what other doctrines we hold that are affected by the nature of the Flood.
Those whose doctrines are dependent on a literal English translation cannot be reasoned with. They literally believe that their preferred English translation is somehow the infallible word of God — and they will refuse to even consider any alternative and nuanced meanings brought up in the older Greek and Hebrew versions. They tend to approach the Bible like the proverbial bull in a china shop — there is no possible meaning beneath the superficial and literal one.
The same is true of those who cannot tell the difference between metaphorical and literal language — we saw this over and over again in the response to a recent article we published which addressed the meaning of the phrase “all men” in the Bible. Many readers refuse to — or are simply incapable of understanding these figures of speech in any other way than their superficially literal meaning — because to do otherwise would threaten their long-held doctrine of Christian universalism.
We would expect then for many to react to this series on the Great Flood in the same way — most Christians do not want their cherished doctrines challenged — especially with logic and a close reading of the translations. They believe their pastors and priests are just as infallible as the Bible itself — never considering that the Bible’s repeated warnings against “false teachers” could possible apply to their own pastors:
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths.”
2 Timothy 4:3-4
So over the next few weeks we are going to take a look at different chapters from the booklet, Facts And Fictions Regarding Noah’s Flood by Charles A. Weiseman — which raises many fundamental questions about “sacred” doctrines held by universalists and Christian “creationists.”
The Biblical story of Noah, the Ark and the Flood is perhaps the oldest and best known story that exists today. The great Deluge — commonly called “Noah’s Flood” — as recorded in Genesis 6, 7 & 8, has been a subject of intense controversy and debate. Much of this debate surrounds the scope and even reality of the Biblical account. Some contend that it was a literal worldwide flood — while others say it is merely an allegorical story. Certainly if the truth of this one subject were made evident, many of the debates surrounding the Bible would no longer exist.
During the 19th Century, two doctrines gained strength and popularity among Christians regarding what the Bible says: (1) That the earth and all that is on it is very young in age — and (2) that there was a worldwide flood that destroyed all life upon the earth except that which was in Noah’s Ark.
In an effort to support these concepts, a religious sect known as “creationism” has developed — lead by those known as creationists. Creationism is based on Christian “fundamentalism” or “Judeo-Christian” theology — which many are now discovering to be a distortion of Christianity — a mixture of the Bible and humanist precepts.
Without either of these two concepts — that the Earth is very young and that there was a worldwide flood — the doctrine of creationism cannot stand and will quickly vanish from the minds of any rational person. It is the intent of this material to show that the idea of a worldwide flood is neither biblical, historical nor scientific. In this endeavor, we will need to examine exactly what is — and is not — being said today on this matter, and compare it to evidence derived from the Bible, science and history.
‘The Face Of The Earth’
Here we will examine the Bible itself and see if it actually says what the literalists, fundamentalists, and creationists claim it says about a worldwide flood.
From the reading of the Genesis account of the Flood in the English translation, it would seem that it was worldwide in scope — if and only if we take the passages involved strictly literally. Various passages tell us that life was to be destroyed from the face of the “earth” (Gen. 7:12), the waters were on the face of the whole “earth” (Gen. 8:9), etc.
When these passages were written, it would be hard to believe they were made with the understanding of a global planet. We have to recall that it was not much more than only 500 years ago that people believed the “earth” was flat.
The word “earth” used in these passages of Genesis is the Hebrew word “erets” (Strong’s #776). Erets does not actually carry any connotation of a global, spherical planet in its translation. While it has been translated as “earth” many times, it is also translated as “country” 140 times — as “land” 1,476 times — and as “ground” 96 times in the Old Testament. In the various references to erets, it can be shown it is most often used to imply a limited land area rather than the entire planet.
The people living at the time of Moses had no concept of our global planet as we do today. The earth or erets to them would have been the extent of the geographical land area that they knew existed. It thus would not mean the planet, and to apply this literal meaning throughout the Bible causes some real and obvious problems.
[CFT note: compare the Hebrew erets to the Greek word oikoumené (Strong’s #3625), which likewise has often been mistranslated to encompass the entire earth.]
For example, when Cain was cursed by God, he was driven “from the face of the earth” (Genesis 4:14) — yet it is clear that he remained “in the earth” as a fugitive. Cain was driven out of a limited land area — not literally from the planet.
After God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, one of Lot’s daughters stated, “There is not a man in the earth (erets) to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth (erets)” (Genesis 19:31). She could not have meant that there were literally no men anywhere on planet earth — for we know that there obviously were. Rather, she was saying that “there is not a man in erets” or in the land area they were in (the area of Sodom) for they were all destroyed there.
When God had told Abraham, “Get thee out of thy country (erets)….unto a land (erets) that I will show thee” (Genesis 12:1), He did not mean for Abraham to leave the earth and go to another earth or planet. The word ‘erets‘ was referring to a limited land area just as it was in Genesis 7:10 — “the waters of the flood were upon the erets” — or upon the land.
Creationists have arrogantly quoted Genesis 8:9 — “for the waters were on the face of the whole earth” — and stated that it obviously means a global flood. As the creationist Dr. Morris states:
“It almost seems frivolous to try to show that the Bible teaches a worldwide Flood. This fact is obvious in the mere reading of Genesis 6:9 — and one who does not see it there will hardly be influenced by other reasoning.”
Henry M. Morris, Scientific Creationism, (1974) p. 252
Perhaps the most common error made in understanding the Scriptures is allowing inconsistencies to exist in the underlying principles it teaches. Creationists are no exception to this problem — and such statements as that above clearly reveal their lack of Biblical study and understanding. Their aim is to support traditions of men over Scripture. In doing so, they allow a misinterpretation of a verse to contradict other verses.
In the Bible the word ‘erets‘ rarely means the planet earth. For instance, during the plagues upon Egypt, we read that “the rain was not poured upon the earth [erets]” (Exodus 9:33). Everyone understands erets here to mean only a local land area — the land of Egypt. Why, then, in reading in Genesis that “the waters of the flood were upon the earth [erets]” — or that “the rain was upon the earth [erets]” (Genesis 7:10, 12) — should we assume the whole planet is meant? The rain that fell on the earth at the time of the Flood was also confined to a local land area.
In Exodus 10, verses 5 through 15, we read of a plague of locusts in Egypt:
5 And they shall cover the face of the earth [erets], that one cannot be able to see the earth [erets]…
15 For they covered the face of the whole earth [erets] …through all the land [erets] of Egypt.
Again it should be evident that this locust plague covered only the limited land of Egypt, as shown in verse 15 — and also in verse 14 which states “the locusts went up over all the land (erets) of Egypt.” Why, then, should anyone insist that when it says the flood waters “were on the face of the whole earth (erets)” in Genesis 8:9, it must necessarily mean the waters were of a worldwide scale? It is the same wording used in both cases — and interpreting erets to mean a limited land area maintains consistency in such verses.
At the time when Joseph was in Egypt, there existed a “famine over all the face of the earth [erets]” (Genesis 41:56). Was there a famine in Greenland, in the tropics of Africa and South America, in Antarctica, in the Hawaiian Islands? There is no evidence of a global famine at this period of time.
However, there was a famine in all the lands that had contact with Egypt at that time. Because of the famine, the Bible states “all countries [erets] came to Egypt—to buy corn” (Genesis 41:57). Certainly the Eskimos and Polynesians never came to Egypt.
Erets is often used in the plural in many instances — for example, Genesis 10:5, Leviticus 26:36, Ezra 9:7, 2 Kings 19:11. If erets meant the planet earth, then all planets must have suffered from the famine and came to Egypt to buy corn. To have erets mean the planet earth makes the entire context an absurdity — and the plurality has a limited rather than universal meaning.
Likewise, when we read about “all the hills” being covered or “all flesh” destroyed, it is referring to “all” that existed in the “whole” land or erets only where the Flood was — not all that were on the planet earth.
When God spoke of destroying “all flesh,” He said he “will destroy them with the earth” (Genesis 6:13). The planet earth was not destroyed nor was all flesh on the planet — only that particular flesh and land (erets) where Noah lived was destroyed. The words “all” — “whole” — and “every” — are not to be taken in a universal context. If they are, then it can be said that all the hills on all of the other planets were also flooded.
After the Israelites had been delivered from Egypt and settled in Canaan, they were described in Scripture as “a people….which covereth the face of the earth [erets]” (Numbers 22:5, 11). Not even creationists could say that Israelites covered every square foot of the earth’s surface — both land and sea — yet the Bible says so, does it not? The Israelites did not cover the planet, but rather only the expanse of land — or erets — where they were then dwelling.
When such events were originally written — whether it be of the Flood or the locust plague in Egypt — the land area in which they transpired was the center of attention and encompassed the total scope of intent and field of understanding. In this context, a local affair or event can appear to have a universal meaning. Once this is understood, the entire account of the Genesis Flood — as well as these other events mentioned — make sense and become more credible and in line with history and science.
Jeremiah once spoke of a flood overflowing the erets — and though he used “flood” to figuratively describe an invading army, it provides us with an interesting comparison:
“Thus says the LORD; Behold, waters rise up out of the north, and shall be an overflowing flood, and shall overflow the land [erets], and all that is therein; the city, and them that dwell therein; then the men shall cry, and all the inhabitants of the land [erets] shall howl.”
If the word ‘erets‘ in this passage were translated “earth” — as it was in Genesis 7 — it would sound like a universal flood. It thus could read, “an overflowing flood shall overflow the earth….and all the inhabitants of the earth.” This sounds worldwide in scope, but we know it was a flood covering only the land [erets] of the Philistines.
We find many instances in the Bible where it speaks of “the earth” — or “the face of the earth” — in which it clearly refers to a limited land area or country. When we thus read the Genesis account of the Flood, the erets should be read as “land” as a more meaningful and correct expression:
“And the flood was forty days upon the land.”
“And the water prevailed exceedingly upon the land.”
The waters of the Flood prevailed upon the “land” in which Noah lived — and not the entire planet.