Hebrew words for "the whole earth"

Karen G. Jensen (kjensen@calweb.com)
Mon, 10 Nov 1997 17:05:44 -0600

A few weeks ago someone wrote wondering why Moses did not use the Hebrew
word tebel, which means the whole world, or world globe, in the description
of the Flood.

Here is some insight on that word from someone who studies Hebrew:

Regarding the use of the term tebel, it does appear in the Hebrew Bible
(39 times; it is found in the lexicons under the verbal root ybl), but
all of these occurrences are in poetry. Usually this poetic term is
found in synonymous parallelism with ha-eretz (the word used in Gen 6-9
for the earth). So from the Biblical evidence tebel is simply the poetic
equivalent of eretz. It should be pointed out that while many of the
biblical occurences of tebel are in a univeral context (as with eretz),
this is not always so
(see e.g., Ps 77:18 [Hebrew 19]; 97:4, where the lightning lights up
the "world" tebel, obviously not the whole globe.) Furthermore, the basic
meaning of tebel actually refers to "the inhabited world, the world where
crops are raised" (see Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament,
1:359), and for Moses to use this word might have given just the opposite
impression than intended, i.e., that only the inhabited places in the
"world" were destroyed. Thus, even though tebel does often refer to the
whole world, it is also not free from ambiguity any more than eretz.

But the crucial point is that tebel is never used throughout the whole
Pentateuch, never in Genesis, even in the account of Creation in
Gen 1-2, which is certainly universal in scope. In the Flood narrative,
Moses explicitly repeats terminology from the Creation narrative, so as
to underscore the same universality in the Flood as in Creation. (See my
summary of this terminological evidence in the latest issue of Origins in
the article on the universality of the Flood.) It is the contextal
factors that are decisive here, and the fact that Moses clearly wishes to
describe the Flood in the same terms as Creation indicates unmistakeably
that he intends the Flood to be as universal as creation. (Note in my
article that Moses is not satisfied to use simply the word eretz, which
could be ambiguous, but uses 7 different terms and phrases that simply
cannot be gainsaid as being universal.


Hope that is helpful.

Psalm 29:10