Copyright ©1997 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission.
THE GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH"
AND "SEAS" IN GENESIS 1:10
PAUL H. SEELY
When a biblical text is interpreted outside of its historical context, it is
often unconsciously interpreted in terms of the reader's own culture,
time and beliefs. This has happened more than once to Genesis 1: To avoid
distorting Genesis 1 in this way, the serious exegete will insist upon placing
this chapter within its own historical context. When we do this, the meaning
of "earth" and "seas" in Gen 1:10 is found to be quite different from the
modern western notions.
We will look closely at the immediate context of Gen 1:10 and at all the
biblical data bearing upon its meaning; but, we must begin by looking at
it first within its historical context beginning with what might be called the
outer circle of that context, namely, the conception of the "earth" which
human beings in general automatically have until they are informed other-
wise by modern science.
I. The Scientifically Naive View of the Earth in Tribal Societies
Levy-Bruhl, commenting on the beliefs of scientifically naive tribal peoples,
wrote [italics mine], "Their cosmography as far as we know anything about
it was practically of one type up til the time of the white man's arrival upon
the scene. That of the Borneo Dayaks may furnish us with some idea of it.
`They consider the earth to be a flat surface, whilst the heavens are a dome,
a kind of glass shade which covers the earth and comes in contact with it
at the horizon."' Alexander similarly spoke of "The usual primitive con-
ception of the world's form" as "flat and round below and surmounted
above by a solid firmament in the shape of an inverted bowl."1
It is to be noted that in the usual scientifically naive conception of the
universe not only is the earth flat, but the sky is understood as an inverted
bowl that literally touches the earth at the horizon. Thus for the Thonga,
"Heaven is for them an immense solid vault which rests upon the earth.
The place where heaven touches the earth is called bugimamusi ... the place
Lucien Levy-Bruhl, Primitive Mentality (repr.
der, The Mythology of All Races 10: North American (repr.
where women can lean their [cooking] pestles against the vault." For the
Yakuts "the outer edge of the earth is said to touch the rim of a hemi-
Since the sky is usually thought by pre-scientific peoples to be a solid
hemisphere literally touching the earth (or sea) at the horizon, the earth
must necessarily be thought of as flat. It is impossible to conceive of the sky
as a hemisphere touching the earth at the horizon, and yet conceive of the
earth as a globe. If the earth were a globe but the sky just a hemisphere
touching the earth, half of the earth would have no sky. The shape of the
earth is accordingly explicitly or implicitly described by all pre-scientific
peoples as being flat, and usually circular--a single disc-shaped continent.
Thus, to give just a few examples, the earth of the Bavenda and Bathonga
(African tribes) "is thought to be a large flat disk floating in water, roofed
by the dome of the sky, makholi, which meets the circumference of the disk
at the horizon. .." Among the Australian aboriginals "there seems to be
a universal belief... that the earth is a flat surface, surmounted by the solid
vault of the sky." The earth of the South American Yanomamo is described
as "an inverted platter: gently curved, thin, circular, rigid . . ." Indians
or disk ..."3
Scientifically naive peoples everywhere regularly conceive of the earth as
a single continent in the shape of a flat circular disc. There are rare excep-
tions; but, in no case have they thought of the earth as a planetary globe.
The human mind, as clearly evidenced by prescientific peoples, just natu-
rally defines the earth as flat-until informed otherwise by modern science.
Even pre-adolescent children in modern Western societies think of the earth as
flat until informed otherwise by modern science.4
1. The Ancient Far Eastern View of the Earth
Early Japanese writings do not describe the shape of the earth, but like
the Ainu, it was conceived of as floating on water and hence by implication
not our planetary globe.5
The ancient Chinese described the sky as an "inverted bowl" and the
earth as flat or a truncated four-sided pyramid. In this view "Earth is still
and square, while the round sky (with ‘stars fixed to the surface') revolves:
2 Levy-Bruhl, Primitive, 354; Uno Holmberg, The Mythology of All Races 4: Finno-Ugric, 308.
3 Hugh Arthur Stayt, The Bavenda (New York: Frank Cass & Co, 1968) 225; A. W. Howitt,
The Native Tribes of
Chagnon, Yanomamo: The Fierce People (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968) 44; M.
Leon-Portilla, Aztek Thought and Culture (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 1963) 48;
Levy-Bruhl, Primitive, 355.
4 A. J. S. Ray, "The Flat Earth Kids," Omni 10 (Sept, 1988) 30.
5 C. Etter, Ainu Folklore (Chicago: Wilcox & Follet, 1949) 18, 19, note 37.
GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH" AND "SEAS" 233
the yang sky contrasts with the yin earth.”6 Later, more mundane Chinese
maps represent the ocean flowing around the earth in a circle and the earth
as more or less disc-shaped.7 So although the earth in earliest Chinese
thought was considered square-apparently for philosophical reasons, the
concept of a circular earth was also held by many. In both cases, the earth
was considered a single continent that was fundamentally flat, and never
a planetary globe.
The Rig Veda shows the earliest Indian conceptions of the earth. The
earth and sky are compared to two wheels at the ends of an axle, but also
to two bowls and to two leather bags. The concept of the earth as a wheel
is the usual concept of the earth as a single continent in the shape of a flat
circular disc. The Indian concept of two bowls or leather bags represents
the earth as a right-side-up bowl covered at its rim by the inverted bowl of
the sky, the two halves composing the whole universe. Gombrich concluded
from this that the earth was conceived of as concave.8 It is entirely possible,
however, that the concavity of the earth-half of the universe is reflecting
either the earth bulging below to contain the realm of the dead (a common
conception) or perhaps, as was enunciated in later Vedic thought, part of
the bulge is really a subterranean ocean. I think, therefore, that in all
Indian conceptions of the earth the surface of the earth was conceived of as
a single continent that was flat and circular, and in any case never a
planetary globe. Later Indian thought favored the concept of the earth as
a flat disc; and classical Hindu, Buddhist and Jain cosmologies are all in
agreement that "our level is a vast disc...."9
2. The Ancient Near Eastern View of the Earth
The noted Egyptologist, John Wilson, tells us that in Egyptian thought
the earth was conceived of as a flat platter with a corrugated rim. The
inside bottom of the platter was the flat alluvial plain of Egypt, and the
corrugated rim was the rim of mountains which were the foreign lands.10
H. Schafer, although agreeing the earth was conceived of as flat, doubted
there was any sure evidence for the circularity of the earth in Egyptian
6 Anthony Christie, Chinese Mythology (Feltham, Middlesex: Hamlyn House, 1968) 57; cf.
John S. Major, "The Five Phases, Magic Squares, and Schematic Cosmography" in Explo-
rations in Early Chinese Cosmology (ed. H. Rosemont, Jr.;
7 See the Chinese map of the
world in DuJen Li, The Ageless Chinese: A History (
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965) 179.
8 R. F Gombrich, "Ancient Indian Cosmology" in Ancient Cosmologies (ed. Carmen Blacker
and Michael Loewe;
Races 6: Indian, 16.
9 "Cosmology: Hindu and Jain Cosmologies" in The Encyclopedia of Religion (ed. Mircea
10 H. and H. A. Frankfort, J. A.
Wilson, and T. Jacobsen, Before
Penguin, 1949) 54.
thought. Keel, however, noting that the ocean around the earth was long
conceived of by the Egyptians as circular, concluded "This fact suggests
ancient times at least an option." Keel noted that the concept of earth as
a circular disc is supported by Egyptian evidence as early as the fourteenth
century B.C., wherein the figure of Osiris or Geb [the earth god] is repre-
sented as circular.11 In addition, contrary to Schafer, there is evidence for
belief in the circularity of the earth from the time of Ramses II (1304-1237)
and III in inscriptions which speak of ". . . the Circle of the Earth."12
There is good reason, then, for believing that the ancient Egyptians con-
ceived of the earth as a single continent in the shape of a flat circular disc;
and, in any case certainly not as a planetary globe.
was conceived of as a "flat disc." Both scholars are aware that the Baby-
lonian view of the universe, which thought of the earth as a disc, was
probably inherited from Sumer.13 Heidel noted that in an early version of
creation in the An Antum list of gods (which are Sumerian) "Sky and earth
are apparently to be viewed as two enormous discs...."14
of as flat is found in Tablet V of Enuma elish, where half the body of Tiamat,
having been split in two by Marduk, is laid out as a base for mountains
(lines 53, 57). Tiamat's half-body is laid out over the deep from whence the
translates line 62 "Half of her [Tiamat] he made flat and firm, the
The circularity of the earth in Babylonian thought is seen directly in a
sixth century B.C. clay map of the world, which most scholars believe is
derived from much earlier models. Clifford noted that the world in this
map is conceived of "as a disk."16
11 Heinrich Schafer, Agyptische and heutige Kunst and Weltgebdude der alien Agypter (
de Gruyter, 1928) 85; Othmar
Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World
Seabury, 1978) 37.
12 Adolph Erman, Literature of the Ancient Egyptians (London: Methuen, 1927) 259; James
Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of
13 S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963) 113; W G. Lambert,
"The Cosmology of
14 Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951)
15 AJVET 3d ed., 501-2; Alasdair Livingstone, Mystical and Mythological Explanatory Works of
Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986) 79.
16 See a photograph of the Mappa Mundi in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary I, ed. N. Hillyer,
(Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1980) 168; The two best discussions of the Mappa Mundi that I have
seen are in Lambert, "The Cosmology," 59-60 (although I think the two lines in the center
of the map mark only the Euphrates, not the Tigris
"Babylonische un.d griechische Landkarten," Klio 19 (1925) 97-100; Richard J. Clifford, The
GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH" AND "SEAS" 235
Lambert, noting that the Babylonians were "without any understanding
of a round [spherical] earth," went on to describe the Babylonian universe
as several levels of discs. Heidel also describes heaven and earth in the
Enuma elish as "two great discs. . . ."17
There is no question that the Babylonians thought of the earth as a single
continent in the shape of a flat circular disc. Even later when the Neo-
Babylonians developed a highly sophisticated mathematical astronomy,
they did not develop the concept of a spherical earth.18
We see, then, that in ancient Near Eastern thought the earth was always
conceived of as a single continent in the shape of a flat circular disc, never
as a planetary globe.
3. The Ancient Western View of the Earth
Homer's view of the universe, as well as Hesiod's, is the usual scientifi-
cally naive view: "The sky is a solid hemisphere like a bowl (Il.17,425 ...
5,504, Od.3,2 ... 15,329 and 17,565.) . . . It covers the flat round earth."
The earth is clearly a disc.19 Thales (c. 600 B.C.) and Anaximander (c. 575
B.C.) both conceived of the earth as a disc. Anaximenes (c. 550 B.C.) thought
it was flat, but shaped "like a table." Xenophanes of
believed the earth was flat.20
In the beginning of the fifth century B.C., however, the idea of the earth
as a planetary globe apparently began to emerge. Both the Pythagoreans
(c. 500 B.C.) and Parmenides (c. 475 B.C.) are usually credited with accept-
ing the view of the earth as a planetary globe.21 Anaxagoras, Empedocles
and Leucippus, however, (all c. 450 B.C.) supposed the earth to be flat as did
Democritus (c. 425 B.C.).22
In addition, the majority of Greeks down to 400 B.C. still thought of the
earth as disc-shaped, as is clearly evidenced by the fact that map makers
in the time of Herodotus (c. 400 B.C.) uniformly rendered the earth as a disc
Cosmic Mountain in
17 Lambert, "The Cosmology," 59; Heidel, Babylonian Genesis, 180; cf. Livingstone, Mystical
and Mythological, 81.
18 O. Neugebauer, A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1975)
19 G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic
Press, 1969) 10; "Geographica" in Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities,
ed. Harry Thurston Peck (New York: Cooper Square, 1965) 722; James Oliver Thomson, History
of Ancient Geography (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1965) 94-6; cf. E. H. Bunbury, A History of
Ancient Geography (2d ed., repr.
20 Thomson, History, 96; Bunbury, A History, 122, 123; See original sources in Kirk and
Raven, Presocratic, 133-34; 151-53; J. L. E. Dreyer, A History of Astronomy (2d ed., repr. New
21 Thomson, History, 111, 112.
22 "Anaxagoras" in The
lard (2d ed.;
note 3; Bunbury, A History, 124.
(Herodotus 4:36). As for Herodotus, Thomson says "Nowhere does Hero-
dotus betray a suspicion that the earth may not be flat."23
It is in Plato (c. 375 B.C.) that one first finds a sure clear description of the
earth as a globe. Plato's Phaedo describes the earth as "round" (108E) "like
a ball" (110B) and as his Timaeus (38C,D) shows this is within the context
of a geocentric universe. Thomson says, "Certainly it was Plato's adoption
that gave the globe a wider currency." From Plato on, nearly all philoso-
phers thought of the earth as spherical. However, nonscientific writers and
common people went on believing the earth was flat.24
The ancient western view of the earth's shape from Homer to Plato (or
possibly the fifth century B.C.) was then most commonly that of a single
continent in the shape of a flat circular disc. Further, even into New Testa-
ment times most common people continued to believe the earth was a flat
In summary we have seen that all scientifically naive tribal peoples and
both eastern and western thinkers until the fifth century B.C. (at the earliest)
conceived of the earth as a flat single continent, usually in the shape of a
flat circular disc. No one until the fifth century B.C. conceived of the earth
as a planetary globe, and even then most people went on believing the earth
was a flat single continent.
II. The Historico-Grammatical Meaning of “Earth" in Gen 1:10
This brings us to the meaning of "earth" in Gen 1 and 1:10 in particular.
Gen 1, regardless of when it may have been last edited, belongs concep-
tually to the second millennium B.C.--long before Plato's time and the rise
of the concept of a planetary globe. Within its historical context, therefore,
the conception of the "earth" in Gen 1 is most probably that of a single
continent in the shape of a flat circular disc. In addition the Hebrews were
influenced via the patriarchs by Mesopotamian concepts and via Moses
and their time in
historically probable that the writer and first readers of Gen 1 thought of
the earth as a single continent in the shape of a flat circular disc.
23 Thomson, History, 98.
114; Dreyer, A History, 171-72; R. J.
Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology
J. Brill, 1966) 7:4;
implication of Matt 4:8 that the earth is flat.
25 On the second millennium B.C. background of Genesis 1, see K. A. Kitchen, The Bible in
Its World (London: InterVarsity, 1977) 35-36; W G. Lambert, "A New Look at the Babylonian
Background of Genesis," JTS 16 (1965) 300; William Foxwell Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of
Canaan (Garden City: Anchor,
1969) 91; On the influence of Mesopotamia and
larly with reference to Gen 1, see Lambert, "A New Look," 287-300, and J. D. Currid, "An
Examination of the Egyptian Background of the Genesis Cosmology," BZ 35:1 (1991) 18-40.
GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH" AND "SEAS" 237
There is also archaeological and biblical evidence that the early Hebrews
were technologically and hence by implication generally scientifically infe-
rior to the peoples surrounding them.26 So with all the peoples around them
thinking of the earth as a flat circular disc, it is highly improbable that the
Hebrews were thinking of the earth in modern scientific terms as a plane-
tary globe. Unless then we remove Gen 1 from its historical context, we
must say that the historical meaning of "earth" in Gen 1:10 is very prob-
ably a single continent in the shape of a flat circular disc.
We must now examine the grammatical meaning of "earth" in Gen 1:10.
The Hebrew word for earth (Crx, 'eres) in Gen 1 has several meanings in
the OT, delineated in KB as (1) ground, piece of ground (2) territory, country
(3) the whole of the land, the earth. In light of the universality of Gen 1:1,
the meaning of 'eres in that verse is clearly the third listed meaning. If
isolated from its historical context, 'eres in Gen 1:1 could conceivably be a
reference to the earth as a planetary globe. The word 'eres in Gen 1:10 could
then be a reference simply to the continents on that planetary globe espe-
cially since it is the "dry land" (hwBy, yabbasa) in contrast to the wet sea (cf.
Exod 4:9; 14:16, 22, 29) which God in Gen 1:10 names ‘eres, "Earth."
But, interpreting Gen 1:10 as a reference to continents on a planetary
globe, although seeming quite reasonable to the modern western reader, is
completely contrary to its historical context. This is bad enough to make
such an interpretation improbable; in addition, there is nothing whatsoever
in the biblical context--either immediate or remote--which defines 'eres in
Gen 1:1 as a planetary globe. This latter meaning is derived purely from
our knowledge of modern Western science and simply read into the text.
Interpreting 'eres in Gen 1:1 as a planetary globe is eisegetical, not exegetical.
The 'eres in Gen 1:1 is indeed the entire earth; and since the 'eres in
Gen 1:2 refers back to the 'eres mentioned in Gen 1:1, the 'eres in Gen 1:2,
is also a reference to the entire earth. So, when the 'eres which had been
buried in water and was barren (1:2) is separated from the water and made
to sprout vegetation in Gen 1:9-12, it too is the entire earth. The dry land
of Gen 1:10 is the entire earth. This fits the historical context like a hand
to a glove. The writer is speaking of the entire 'eres as (flat) dry land, not
as a globe.
The writer of Gen 1 also makes it clear in verses six through eight that
he is not defining 'eres as a globe, even in Gen 1:1 and 2. That is, in
Gen 1:6-8 the entire sky is created in the form of a rock-solid firmament.27
This firmament was understood by all peoples in OT times to be in the
26 See my discussion in "The Firmament and the Water Above, Part I: The Meaning of
raqia in Gen 1:6-8," WTJ 53 (1991) 234; Bruce Waltke, Creation and
Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1974) 46; M. Burrows, What Mean These Stones? (New
27 On the solidity of the firmament see P H. Seely, "The Firmament," 227-40 and notes
shape of a hemispherical dome (or a disc) which literally touched the earth
(or the sea around the earth) at the horizon. Either way, whether the sky
was conceived as a hemi-spherical dome touching the earth at the horizon
or a flat unbending disc above the earth, the earth below cannot be a sphere
because if it were, half of the earth would have no sky. The biblical context,
therefore, not only provides no basis for defining 'eres in Gen 1:1 as a globe
(and in Gen 1:10 as the continents on that globe), it excludes this inter-
pretation by giving us a concept of the sky which coheres perfectly with the
ancient Near Eastern concept of the earth as a flat circular disc but cannot
be harmonized with the modern concept of the earth as a globe.
It is worth noting also that interpreting 'eres in Gen 1:10 as the dry land
on a globe does not fit the context of modern science any better than it fits
the context of Gen 1. For according to modern science the dry land on the
globe preceded the formation of the sea by millions of years; but, according
to Gen 1:1-10, the sea (MOht, tehom) preceded the formation of the dry
land.28 This fact again tells us that the universe of Gen 1 is the universe as
understood by all ancient Near Eastern peoples at that time and not as
understood in our time. The earth of Gen 1:1, 2 and 10 is not a globe but
a single flat continent in the shape of a flat circular disc.
Someone may ask, what about Isa 40:22 which speaks of "the circle of the
earth"? The answer is there is nothing either in the underlying Hebrew word
GUh, hug) or in the context which necessarily implies anything more than the
circularity of the flat earth-disc which the historical context and Gen 1 have
given us as the meaning of "earth." If Isaiah had intended to speak of the earth
as a globe, he would probably have used the word he used in 22:18 (rUD, dur),
meaning "ball." One may recall that the phrase, "circle of the earth," was
also used in
In later biblical writings we also see that the earth was conceived of as
flat. In Dan 4:10,11 (MT 7,8) repeated in 4:20 (MT 17), it is said of a tree
seen in a dream that it was of "enormous height and its top touched the
sky; it was visible to the end of all the earth" ("visible to all the earth,"
4:20). Daniel interprets the tree as a reference to King Nebuchadnezzar
and his kingdom: "your greatness grew until it reached to the sky and your
dominion to the end of the earth" (4:22[MT 19]). Nebuchadnezzar of
course did not really rule the entire earth even as known at that time, but
this does not mean that the phrase "to the end of the earth" should be
interpreted as limited to an area less than the entire earth-continent.
Ancient Near Eastern kings, regardless of the real size of their empire,
were throughout the first millennium B.C. (and earlier) regularly described
as rulers of the entire earth. Thus the kings Tiglath-Pileser I (1114-1076),
Shalmaneser III (858-824) and Esarhaddon (680-669) were all described
28 "Oceans," The New Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Macropaedia (Chicago: Helen Benton, 1982)
13:476; John Wiester, The Genesis Connection (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1983) 50, 52, 202.
29 See note 12.
GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH" AND "SEAS" 239
in inscriptions as "king of the world ... king of (all) the four rims (of the
earth)." Xerxes (485-465) says, "I am Xerxes ... the king of this (entire)
big and far(-reaching) earth." Nebuchadnezzar II himself says, ". . . (from)
nent]" and adds,
"I have made ... the city of
among all the countries and every human habitation."30 As will be seen
below ancient Egyptian kings also regularly claimed to rule over the entire
earth. In all of these inscriptions it is the literal entire earth, that is, the
entire flat earth-disc which is described as the extent of the king's dominion.
Interpreted within their historical context, therefore, the words, "all the
earth," in Dan 4;11 and 20 (being a description of the extent of Nebuchad-
nezzar's empire) refer literally to the entire earth.
The statement in Dan 4:11 that the tree was "visible to the end of all the
earth" means, therefore, that the tree was so tall it was able to be seen by
everyone living on earth. Yet the fact is, no matter how tall a tree might
become it will not be able to be seen by everyone living on a globe (and
many people were living south of the equator in the time of Nebuchad-
nezzar). Nor does the fact that this tree was seen in a dream give us any
reason for obviating the implication of the text that the entire earth was
conceived of as flat, for the universal visibility of the tree is predicated upon
its height, not upon its being seen in a dream. The statement only makes
sense if the earth is defined as a flat continent. Dan 4, therefore, adds
confirmation that "earth" in Gen 1 is properly defined as flat, not spherical.
Job 37:3 similarly implies that when God makes lightning, it is seen to
the corners of the earth, that is, to the extent of the earth in all directions.
The universality of these same terms in Isa 11:11,12 show that Job is speaking
of the entire earth, not just a part of it. But lightning, no more than a tall
tree, could be seen to the extent of a globe. Regardless of the hyperbole the
most natural way of understanding Job 37:3 is that the author was thinking
of the earth as flat.
A final verse of Scripture which testifies that the "earth" was conceived
in the OT as a single flat continent is Job 38:13. In a clearly cosmological context,
not just local, this verse speaks of dawn grasping the earth by its "extremity or
hem" (Jnk, kanap; cf. Num 15:38; I Sam 15:27) and shaking the wicked out of it.
The verse is comparing the earth to a blanket or garment picked up at one end and
shaken. A globe is not really comparable to a blanket or garment in this way. You
cannot pick up a globe at one end. It does not even have an end. The picture fits in
a natural way the concept of the earth as a single flat continent.
A final OT concept which implies the earth is a flat continent, not a
globe, is the belief that it was spread out over the sea. (See the next section).
In summary, there is no OT verse which implies the sphericity of the earth.
Rather, all OT references which imply the shape of the earth confirm the
historico-grammatical definition of "earth" in Gen 1:10: the earth is a
single continent in the shape of a flat circular disc.
30 ANET 3d ed., 274, 276, 289, 316, 307; cf. Cyrus in Ezra 1:2.
III. The Sea that Surrounds and Supports the Earth-Disc
As with the meaning of "earth" in Gen 1:10, one cannot expect to have
a valid interpretation of the word, "sea(s)" in that verse if one removes it
from its historical context. We begin, therefore, with the outermost circle of
that historical context, the normal conceptions of pre-scientific minds, as
seen in the thinking of tribal peoples around the world. Many of these
peoples have no reported concept of the sea; but, all of those who do seem
to agree that the sea surrounds the earth-disc, both around its circumfer-
ence and below it.
Speaking of the nomadic Altaic peoples of inner
Tungus), for example, Dupre writes, "The earth is thought to be a circular
disc surrounded by an immense ocean." Holmberg says all Asiatic peoples
have this concept of an ocean around the earth; and then relates creation
stories which show that these Asiatic peoples believed the earth floated on
the sea that surrounded it. These stories all mention "the little earth-disc
just formed upon the surface of the water," "on the surface in the middle of
Edward Seler, speaking of ancient Mexican beliefs, said, "In the manner
of other peoples, the earth was conceived by Mexicans as a large wheel or
disc completely surrounded by water." The creation myths of the Chorti,
Mayas of Guatamala, speak of "four seas that are surrounding and beneath
Similarly, "according to the cosmology of the Finno-Ugrians, a stream
encircles the world. . . ." This stream is called by some of them "a vast
ocean." In their creation story the earth is "spread out over the primal sea."33
The west African Dan tribe say heaven (an enclosing dome) "ends all
around in the sea." Another African tribe (unidentified) says, "At the be-
ginning everything was water." Then a god came to create the dry land,
bringing some pieces of iron and earth with him. He "placed the iron on
the water" and "spread the earth over it." The Bavenda and the Bathonga
say the earth is "a large flat disk floating on water."34
encircled by an ocean; and, the "earth-diver" myths which are often found
among American Indians describe the earth as an island that "floats upon
31 W. Dupre, Religion in Primitive Cultures (The Hague: Mouton, 1975) 85; Holmberg, My-
thology of All Races 4:310, 315, 319, 328-29; cf Howitt, The Native Tribes, 426 and "Water" in
The Encyclopedia of Religion 15:351.
32 Leon-Portilla, Aztek Thought, 48; "Mesoamerican Religions: Postclassic Cultures" in The
Encyclopedia of Religion 9:421; "Oceans" in The Encyclopedia of Religion 11:55.
33 "Finno-Ugric Religions: An Overview" in The Encyclopedia of Religion 5:334; "Finnic
Religion" in The Encyclopedia of Religion 5:325; cf. "Khanty and Mansi Religion," in The
Encyclopedia of Religion 8:281.
34 H. Himmelheber, Die Dan (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1958) 202; The Origin of Life and
Death: African Creation Myths, ed. Ulli Beier (London: Heinemann, 1966) 47; Stayt, The Bavenda, 225.
GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH" AND "SEAS" 241
the primeval waters." The earth is explicitly described as an island floating
on the surrounding sea by the Huron, the Cherokee, the Bilquala, the
Winebago and the Athapascans.35
Island peoples naturally think of the earth as surrounded by and floating
on the sea. This is documented in the reports of tribal peoples in New
In every pre-scientific cosmology which I have seen that mentions the
sea, the earth is described as circular, floating in a circular sea. The concept
of a circular earth set in a circular sea is, of course, the natural result of a
scientifically naive person observing the circular horizon of both earth and
sea. Since the prescientific mind naturally concludes that the earth is a flat
disc, it also just naturally concludes that since this disc is surrounded by a
flat circular sea, it must be floating upon that sea. Thus it is that all over
the world we find the belief in the earth as a flat circular disc floating in the
middle of a single circular sea.
1. The Ancient Far Eastern Belief in a Floating Earth
Early Japanese writings perceived the earth as an island in a surrounding
ocean. The oldest Japanese sources also say, "of old when the land was
young, it floated about as [if] it were floating oil."37
The oldest Chinese view of the universe clearly involved a "rim ocean"
surrounding a square earth, with the sea circular at the far edge to meet the
inverted bowl-like firmament that touches down on all sides. Thai cosmol-
ogy also has a clearly circular ocean surrounding the earth.38
There is no explicit statement in early Chinese literature which says the
earth is floating, but since being surrounded by sea made the earth a large
island, and since we know the Chinese thought of islands as floating on the
sea, it is a fair presumption that they thought of the earth as floating. This
is implied in the relatively early Tao Te Ching which speaks of the impor-
tance of the power of "the One" without which the "settled earth might
35 Alexander, Mythology of All Religions 10:159; "North American Indians: Indians of the
Southwest" in The Encyclopedia of Religion 10, 517; "North American Religions: Mythic
in The Encyclopedia of Religion 10, 536;
Barbara C. Sproul, Primal Myths (
Harper & Row, 1969) 246-47, 254; "North American Indians: Indians of the Southeast
Woodlands" in The Encyclopedia of Religion 10:486; Philip Freund, Myths of Creation (New
"Cosmogony and Cosmology (American)" in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James
36 Freund, Myths, 51, 50; Sproul, Primal, 334; Alan Dundes,
The Flood Myth (
Etter, Ainu Folklore, 18.
Chinese Mythology, 57, 69; Li, The Ageless Chinese, 179; Richard Davis, Muang Metaphysics: A
Study of Northern Thai Myth and Ritual (Bangkok: Pandora, 1984) 106.
sink." In later Chinese cosmological systems we are specifically told "the
earth floats on the water;" and we might add that this water is the sea that
surrounds the earth.39
With regard to Indian thought the Rig Veda seems to refer to a surrounding
ocean in texts like 1:116:5, "that ocean that has no beginning" (circular)
and 5:85:6 which mentions "the one single ocean." Sproul says the word
Rasa in Rig Veda 10:121 is a reference to the "earth-encircling stream."
Later Vedic texts state explicitly that the earth is surrounded by water.
Buddhist and Hindu cosmologies have a circular ocean around the earth.40
Gombrich says the concept of waters under the earth is not found in the
Rig Veda though "alluded to several times in later Vedic literature, and we
shall meet them in the earliest Buddhist texts." Kuiper, in contrast, believes
the Rig Veda refers to the earth floating on the primeval waters. Kuiper's
view seems to be confirmed by other scholars who interpret the word Rasa
in the Rig Veda to mean a river that goes around the earth and surrounds
the earth from below. The earth thus floats on the sea that surrounds it. I
conclude that the concept of water under the earth is envisioned in the Rig
Veda but only clearly enunciated in later Vedic texts such as the one which
says the earth "while still floating on the surface of the water began to
The concept of a floating earth was incorporated into early Buddhism.
The Maha-Parinibbana-Sutra (c. 300 B.C.) says, "This great earth, Ananda,
is established on water. . . ." Another Buddhist sutra says, "On what rests
the earth?"--"On the circle of water." Later Hindu thought also con-
ceived of the earth as a floating island.42
We conclude that although early texts are not always explicit, people in
ocean. This concept is clearly spelled out in later texts.
2. The Ancient Near Eastern Belief in a Sea that Surrounds and Supports the Earth-Disc
and was called the "the great ring" or "great circuit or circle." This
39 Christie, Chinese Mythology, 57, 69, 70; Sproul, Primal, 203;
40 Sproul, Primal, 177; Satapatha-Brahman, 301; "Cosmogony and Cosmology (Buddhist)"
in ERE 4:131; "Cosmology: Hindu and Jain Cosmologies," 109.
41 Gombrich, "Ancient Indian Cosmology," 117; F B. J. Kuiper, Ancient Indian Cosmogony
Delhi: Vikas, 1983) 11, 12, 14, 101; W D. O'Flaherty,
The Rig Veda (
1981) 29; Sproul, Primal, 177.
42 Buddhist-Sutras, The Sacred Books of the East 11, ed. F M.
sidass, 1963) 45; cf. the Buddhist book, The Questions of King Milanda 111:5, The Sacred Books
of the East 35, 106; "Cosmogony and Cosmology Buddhist" in ERE 4, 131; "Cosmology: Hindu
and Jain Cosmologies" in The Encyclopedia of Religion 4, 108-109.
GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH" AND "SEAS" 243
earth-encircling sea has been directly compared by Egyptologists to the
earth-encircling Greek Okeanos.43 A Victory Hymn for Thutmose III
(1490-1436) speaks of him trampling down "the ends of the lands; that
which the Ocean encircles...." Similarly a stela of Amenhotep II (1439-
1406) in the context of world dominion ("His borders reach the rim of
heaven") says, "His portion is that on which Re shines; To him belongs
what Ocean encircles." An inscription for Queen Hatshepsut (1486-1469)
likewise lays claim to universal dominion saying "the lands were hers, the
countries were hers, all that the heavens cover, all that the sea encircles."
Finally in the most explicit terms a hymn praising Ptah in the time of
Rameses III (1195-1164) says, "who founded the earth ... who surrounded
it with Nun, and the sea."44
In addition, Morenz tells us that in the ancient Egyptian cosmology,
"The earth rests on or in the primeval ocean." The Egyptologist, John
abysmal waters below on which the platter rested, called by the Egyptians
rounding the earth and supporting it.... the earth floats upon Nun."45
There does not seem to be any question that the Egyptians believed the
earth floated on the ocean that surrounds it.
The idea of the earth floating upon Nun is related to the Egyptian
concept of a hillock being the first earth to arise out of the primeval ocean:
"The huge mound which emerged from Nun at the very beginning. . . ."
This primeval hillock was understood to be an island which floated
That the earth was thought to rest on the primeval waters (Nun) is also
seen in the Egyptian belief that Nun is the source
43 Siegfried Morenz, Egyptian Religion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1960) 25; J. M. Plum-
ley, "The Cosmology of Ancient Egypt" in Ancient Cosmologies, 20; Keel, The Symbolism, 37;
A. Erman, Die Religion der Agypter (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1934) 16; W M. Muller, The
Mythology of All Races
12:47; S. A. B. Mercer, The Pyramid Texts (
mans, Green & Co., 1952) 2:307; 4:60; see especially Pyr 366; Breasted, Ancient Records 31, 2:137
et al.; Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) 155.
44 ANET 3rd ed., 374; M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature (
4:163 no. 308; there are also various pictures from ancient
belief in an earth-encircling ocean: see Keel, The Symbolism, 38 (fig. 33), 40 (fig. 34), 42 (fig. 38).
Egyptian Religion, 8;
and the Gods, 155-56.
46 A. Saleh, "The So-called ‘Primeval Hill’ and other Related Elevations in Ancient Egyp-
tian Mythology," Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archaologischen Instituts Abteilung Kairo 25
(1969) 118; E. 0. James, Creation and Cosmology (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969) 17; James P Allen,
26. Interestingly, just as Gen 1:9 speaks of letting the dry land "appear," the first land in Egypt,
the floating hillock, was called "hillock of appearance" because it appeared out of the waters.
earthly waters). One Egyptian text describing
its source interchanges the words "Nun"
and "Nile": ". . . the
comes out of both mountains, the Nun, which comes out of the cavern...."
Gray displays an Egyptian drawing that shows Nun "emitting the two or
four sources of all waters from his mouth...."47
Kramer tells us that the Sumerians conceived of the earth as being sur-
rounded by water. We also know that Babylonian cosmology was heavily
indebted to Sumerian concepts, and Babylonian cosmology clearly has a
sea around the earth, as mentioned in the epic of Gilgamesh which cer-
tainly goes back to Sumerian sources.48 So, it seems probable that the
Sumerians did believe in an earth-surrounding sea.
As to the earth floating on the sea, Lambert tells us that the Sumerians
conceived of the earth as a flat disc which overlaid the Apsu [Sumerian,
abzu]. Deimel says the Abzu is "the sweet-water abyss in which the earth
swims." Jacobsen says the Sumerians imagined the underground waters as
a vast subterranean freshwater sea, which they called Abzu or Engur.49 Al-
bright defines the home of Enki (Ea), that is the Abzu, as "the subterranean
fresh-water ocean whence the rivers flow"; and he gives a Sumerian text
which he translated in part: "Water which down
(Ea) had guided, the product of the apsu ... [Sumerian text, abzu].50
The Sumerians then believed that the earth rested on an ocean, a fresh-
water ocean that was the source of all pools, fountains, marshes and rivers,
including the great
this ocean was not a part of the sea around the earth. As Tsumura pointed
out, the Sumerians did not sharply distinguish their concept of water under
the earth from their concept of the surrounding sea. The two concepts
overlapped so that in Sumerian cosmology, as Pope said, "The sea was
conceived as a single body of water."51 Thus the earth was thought to float
on the sea that surrounds it.
"The Cosmology," 26; Mercer, The Pyramid Texts 4:65;
William Foxwell Albright, "The Mouth of the Rivers," AJSL 35 (1919) 167; Otto Kaiser,
Bedeutung des Meeres in Agypten,
28; L. H. Gray, The Mythology of All Races 12: Egyptian, 47.
48 Kramer, The Sumerians, 13; Samuel Noah Kramer, "Review of
Adventure," JCS 2 (1948) 43 note 6 and 44 note 8; Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972) 39; T Jacobsen, The Treasures of Dark-
ness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976) 204.
49 W. G. Lambert, "The
Cosmology," 47; A. Deimel, 'Enuma
Papstliches Bibelinstitut, 1934) 22; T. Jacobsen, "Mesopotamian Religion" in The Encyclopedia
of Religion 9:455; cf. Repertoire Sumerien, ed. De Chossat, (Lyon: Louis Perrin, 1882) 5 and
G. Komeroczy, "The Separation of Sky and Earth," Acta Antiqua Academia Scientiarum Hun-
garicae 21 (1973) 36 note 68.
50 Albright, "Mouth of the Rivers," 165, 177-78.
51 David Toshio Tsumura, The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2 (Sheffield:
Academic Press, 1989) 61; Marvin H. Pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts (Leiden: Brill, 1955) 63.
GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH" AND "SEAS" 245
As to Babylonian cosmology, there is evidence that the Babylonians be-
lieved in an earth-encircling sea. In a neo-Assyrian version of the Etana
an eagle carries Etana (a king of
looks down, he comments on how the land and sea appear. He says, "The
wide sea is just like a tub," thus indicating that the sea was conceived of as
circular in shape or at least encircling the earth.52
The Babylonian map of the world called the Mappa Mundi clearly shows
the flat circular earth surrounded by water called
scholars I have seen who discuss this map
understand the "
to be the earth-encircling ocean.53
Since the Babylonians inherited the concepts of the Sumerians, they also
believed that the earth floated on an ocean. This is documented in a crea-
tion text apparently from Eridu which begins with a primeval sea. To create
the earth Marduk constructs a reed raft "on the surface of the waters," then
creates dirt and piles it up on the raft.54 This same picture of the earth
spread out over the waters in found in Enuma elish where Marduk uses half
of the body of Tiamat to construct the earth. Then he opens "the deep"
which is obviously below her body and "caused to flow from her eyes the
her is also evidenced by Enuma elish 5:56 where Marduk "closed up her
nostrils, reserved the water" and in 5:58 where he "drilled fountains in her."55
Other Babylonian texts also make reference to rivers coming up from the
deep below. The Code of Hammurabi and several sections of the Atrahasis
epic mention "floods [rising] from the abyss."56 In Babylonian thought
then, the earth floated on an Ocean, a Deep, an Abyss (Apsu). This ocean
was spoken of as being as deep under the earth as the sky was high over the
earth.57 Accordingly, it was an inexhaustible source of water for all springs
and lakes as well as for mighty rivers like the
Tigris and the
addition, this Apsu upon which the earth floated was thought of as the same
sea that encircled the earth.58
52 ANET 3d ed., 118; cf. L. W King, Babylonian Religion and Mythology (
Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1899) 28.
53 E. Unger, "Ancient Babylonian Maps and Plans," Antiquity (1935) 314; Meissner, "Baby-
lonische and griechische,"
98; Thomson, History, 39; Lambert, "The Cosmology," 60;
pel, "Das Untere Meer," ZA 77 (1987) 67.
54 R. Labat, "Les Origines et La Formation de la Terre dans Le Poeme Babylonien de la
Creation," An Bib 12 (1959) 213; cf. the African story above where iron is placed on the water
and earth is spread over it; Heidel, Babylonian Genesis, 62.
55 B Landsberger
and J. V Kinnier
56 M. Weinfeld,
"Gen. 7:11, 8:1, 2 Against the Background of
tion," Die Welt des Orients 9 (1978) 242-48; "Water, Water Gods (Babylonian)" in ERE 12:708.
Verlag, 1967) 5.
58 Lambert, "The Cosmology," 59.
In summary it is clear that ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians be-
lieved that the earth, a flat circular disc, was surrounded by a single circu-
lar sea. In addition they believed that the earth floated on this sea and that
it was this underlying sea which supplied the water in springs, wells and all
rivers including the mighty Nile and
3. The Ancient Western Belief in a Surrounding and Supporting Sea
In Homer (Il 14:200-1; 18:483-607; Od 11:21) the earth-disc is sur-
rounded by Ocean. Bunbury, like other classical scholars, concluded,
There can be no doubt that Homer in common with all his successors down to the
time of Hecataeus [c. 500 B.C.], believed the earth to be a plane, of circular form,
surrounded on all sides by the Ocean ....59
There are also hints in Homer (Il 9:183) that the sea was thought of as
upholding the earth. And, just as Babylonians and Egyptians thought of the
sea below as the source of springs and rivers, Homer (Il 21:195-7) speaks of
the ocean being the source of all seas, rivers, springs and wells.
In summary, we see that all scientifically naive tribal peoples (who bring
an ocean into their cosmology), all Eastern peoples and Western thinkers
down to the fifth century B.C. believed that the sea was a single circular body
of water that surrounded the flat earth. In addition (except for later Western
thinkers) all of these peoples believed that the flat earth floated on the sea
that surrounded it, and that the underlying sea upon which the earth
floated was the source of all springs, wells, and rivers on earth including the
great Nile and
IV. The Historico-Grammatical Meaning of "Sea (s)" in Gen 1:10
Being a scientifically naive people, it is probable that like other scien-
tifically naive tribal peoples the Hebrews thought of the earth as being
surrounded by a circular sea and floating upon that single surrounding sea.
The writer and first readers of Gen 1 also inherited Mesopotamian concepts
about the natural world from the patriarchs and no doubt were influenced
by Egyptian concepts during their stay in
cated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (Acts 7:22; Exod 2:10). It is
highly probable, therefore, that the writer and first readers of Gen 1 defined
the sea in the same way that all people in the ancient Near East did, namely,
as a single circular body of water in the middle of which the flat earth-disc
floated and from which all wells, springs and rivers derived their water.60
59 Bunbury, A History, 33; cf. Aeschylus (c. 450 B.C.) "Ocean who coils his energetic current
all round the world" (Prometheus Bound, 148-49).
60 See notes 25 and 26 above.
GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH" AND "SEAS" 247
It is very improbable from a historical point of view that the writer and
first readers of Gen 1 defined the sea as a body of water embedded in a
planetary globe; and the burden of proof lies on anyone who says they did
define it that way since there is no evidence that any one in the ancient
world before the fifth century B.C. defined it that way. I conclude, therefore,
that only a clear statement from Scripture could overthrow the highly
probable historical conclusion that the sea in Gen 1:10 was defined by the
writer as a single circular body of water in the middle of which the flat
Turning to the grammatical side of our study we find that the "sea(s)
(Mym.y, yammim) in Gen 1:10 is the name God gave to the "gathered waters."
The "gathered waters," Gen 1:7 and 1:9 tell us are the waters which were
"under the firmament" as a result of creating a firmament "in the midst
of the waters" (Gen 1:6). "The waters of Gen 1:6 in turn refer back to "the
waters" of 1:2, that is the Deep (MOht, tehom). The "Deep" (tehom) as is seen
in other biblical passages (Ps 104:6; Isa 51:10) and in Semitic cognates
(Akkadian, Ugaritic, Eblaite) is a sea. So, the sea of Gen 1:10 is half of the
sea of Gen 1:2. That it is half of the sea is the most natural interpretation;
and this is confirmed by the parallel in Enuma elish (IV: 137-8) where Tiamat
is split in half.61
It seems odd, however, that although the lower sea is gathered into one
place (1:9), God names it "seas," plural (1:10). T. L. Fenton was so sure
this was contrary to Hebrew usage, he thought the word "one" (dhx, 'ehad)
was not part of the original text.62 He argued that the Israelites would not
use a plural for a single body of water.
But, KB lists the same singular meaning, "sea," for the plural of yam as
it does for the singular. Further there is good reason to believe that KB is
correct. The city of
Ezek 27:4 and 28:2 describe the city as being located "in the heart of the
seas," plural. Further, the singular yam and the plural yammim are occa-
sionally used almost interchangeably in the OT. Compare Jer 47:7 to
Judges 5:17 with regard to the
the sea" (Jer 33:22) also seems interchangeable with "sand of the seas"
In any case, one sea, as Judg 5:17 and Ezek 27:4 and 28:2 in particular
show, can be called "seas." Given the fact observed by GKC 124a that "The
plural is by no means used in Hebrew solely to express a number of indi-
viduals or separate objects, but may also denote them collectively," it is not
surprising that the overwhelming majority of Hebrew scholars have had no
61 This is one of the few sections in Enuma elish which we can be sure is a genuine parallel
(Lambert, "A New Look," 293).
62 T. L. Fenton," ‘
34,4 (1984) 438-445.
problem accepting the plural yammim in Gen 1:10 as perfectly good Hebrew
with the singular meaning "sea."63
We conclude that the Hebrew text of Gen 1:9 is sound and means that
lower half, the lower half was gathered together into "one place," which
as the historical context shows, is a single circular body of water surround-
ing the earth-disc.
Further, there is a good reason why this one body of water surrounding
the earth is called "sea(s)." It is because like the earth-surrounding Ocean
in Homer's cosmology (Il 21:195-7) as well as in Pliny's geography (NH
2:68:173) and, in fact, in all ancient geography this single body of water
surrounding the earth was thought of as connected to all inland seas.64
Hence, it is quite appropriate to call the whole gathered collection "Sea(s)."
Indeed, given the ancient concept of one earth-encircling sea with all of the
known seas as inlets off of it, it is difficult to think of a more apt name to
describe this single yet many-armed sea than the collective name given to
it in Gen 1:9,10--"Sea(s)."
As to the shape of this one collection of seas, various OT references show
that the Hebrews conceived of it as circular. Prov 8:27b, speaking of cre-
ation, says that Wisdom was present "When he (God) inscribed a circle on
the face of the Deep.” Job 26:10 similarly says, "He has inscribed a circle on
the face of the waters as a boundary of light and darkness." Pope, I believe
rightly, regards this verse as a parallel to Prov 8:27 and says it refers to the
primaeval ocean of Gen 1.65
The bronze hemispherical (or cylindrical) sea which was set up in the
temple courtyard in I Kgs 7:23 also seems to indicate by its shape that the
earthly sea was conceived of as circular. For although a circular water
container would not be unusual, this basin of water could easily have been
called simply a basin or laver, as was the case with the simpler original
(Exod 30:18). Instead, it was called a sea (yam). This name "sea" for the
laver parallels the name of the laver which was set up in Babylonian temples
63 Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary
on the Book of Genesis (repr.
1:40; GKC no. 124a,b. Cf. J. Skinner, Genesis (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1910) 23; O. H. Steck,
Der Schopfungsbericht der Priesterschrift (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975) 84 note
321. Franz Delitzsch, A New Commentary on Genesis (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1890) 1:89.
64 Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities ("Oceanus," 1119) tells us that
Oceanus in Homer signified "an immense stream, which ... circulated around the terraqueous
plain, and from which the different seas ran out in the manner of bays. This opinion, which
is also that of Eratosthenes, was prevalent even in the time of Herodotus (iv. 360)."
65 Marvin H. Pope, Job (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965) 184; cf. Babylonian and
Egyptian texts which relate the rising and setting of the sun to the sea that surrounds the earth:
Livingstone, Mystical and Mythological, 77: "The upper sea of the setting sun ... the lower sea
of the rising sun . . ."; Egyptian Book of the Dead 5739: "I praise thee [the sun] at thy setting
in the Deep; Praise to thee who rises from the Deep."
GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH" AND "SEAS" 249
and called apsu, the word for the water surrounding and under the earth.
Thus A. R. Johnson having mentioned that in the Hebrew cosmology the
earth is supported on the cosmic sea said,
Moreover, it seems clear that the "bronze sea" which figured so prominently in
the furnishings of
Prov 8:27, Job 26:10 and I Kgs 7:23, thus, testify that when the sea was
gathered into one place in Gen 1:9 that one place was conceived of as
circular in shape. This biblically derived definition of the "sea" as a single
body of water circular in shape is in perfect agreement with its historical
The biblical picture of the earth surrounded by a sea seems to be reflected
in several different phrases used in Scripture. Rudhardt introduces us to
one of those phrases. After noting that in the cosmographies of many people
waters "make up a vast expanse, in the middle of which lies the earth, like
an island," he goes on to say that these surrounding waters "may be di-
vided into two oceans, on either side of the world. . . ."67 The phrase which
he thereby introduces is "from sea to sea" as found in Ps 72:8 and Zech 9:10b,
both of which describe the geographically universal rule of the coming
Messiah as being "from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the
The context of these verses which are clearly speaking of the geographic-
ally universal rule of the Messiah over all nations on earth (Ps 72:9-11;
Zech 9:10b; Cf. Ps 2:8 and Mic 5:4) implies that the phrase "from sea to
sea" is a reference to the "two oceans on either side of the world", which
enclose within their grasp the entire earth, the two oceans "in the middle
of which lies the earth like an island." The phrase "from sea to sea" refers
to two specific bodies of water, but not to these bodies of water just in
themselves but as representative parts of the "two oceans on either side of
the world." This understanding of the phrase is strengthened by the fact
the world, the phrase "from the lower sea to the upper sea" [both under-
stood as parts of the sea surrounding the world] denotes the entire known
66 A. R. Johnson, Sacral Kingship in Ancient
59, 60; King, Babylonian Religion, 31; William Foxwell Albright, Archaeology and the Religion
67 "Water," The Encyclopedia of Religion 15, 354; notice that referring to the water around
the earth in terms of two oceans is common.
68 TDOT 6, 88; TDOT 1, 396;
M. Lubetski, "New Light on
J. Wensinck, The
Ocean in the Literature of the Western Semites (repr.,
Martin Sandig, 1968) 22.
The biblical terms "eastern sea" and "western sea," especially as used
in Zech 14:8, where the context is one of apocalyptic universality, also seem
to refer to the eastern and western halves of the ocean that surround the
Finally, there is reason to believe that the yam sup of Scripture is not
simply a reference to the
more popular "
"Sea of the End," that is the sea at the end or edge of the earth.70
The biblical data is thus in complete agreement with the historical data
that "earth" and "sea(s)" in Gen 1:10 refer to a single continent in the
shape of a flat circular disc lying in the middle of a circular sea.
1. The Earth as Floating on the Sea
With regard to the earth floating on the sea, we are in the happy position
of having Ps 136:5, 6 and 7 refer back respectively to the events of the
second, third and fourth days of creation as recorded in Gen 1. Ps 136:6 is,
thus, parallel to Gen 1:10. Harris recognized this but construed Ps 136:6 as
referring "to land masses above the shoreline, that surely is all."71
But Harris made no attempt to exegete Ps 136:6 either historically or
grammatically. Instead he lifted the Psalm out of its ancient Near Eastern
context wherein the earth does float on a sea, set the Psalm down in the
context of modern western science and thereby made verse 6 refer to "land
masses" when, as we have seen above, the historico-biblical meaning of
"earth" is a single land mass. In addition, he ignored the verb "spread
out" (fqr, raqa’) and thereby made verse 6 say simply "the earth is above
The verb in Ps 136:6, raqa', according to KB can mean "stamp, beat out"
(e.g., II Sam 22:43; Ezek 6:11) or "spread out" (e.g., Isa 42:5). The meanings
of the verb are derived from working with metals which when beat out,
spread out. The meaning "stamp, beat out" for the verb raqa' does not fit
the context of Ps 136:6 and virtually no one has attempted to translate it
that way in this verse. This leaves the meaning "spread out," which commen-
tators and translators have regularly employed for this verse. We conclude,
thus far, that Ps 136:6 should be translated, "[The Lord who] spread out
the earth (lf, ‘al) the waters."
The exact relationship of the earth to the waters is expressed by the
preposition ‘al. The preposition cal usually means "upon" and that is the
first meaning given for it in both KB and BDB. Further, the other meanings
69 See note 65 above.
70 J. A.
(1938) 131-32; N. H. Snaith, "JOs-My: The
B. F Batto, "The
71 R. L. Harris, "The Bible and Cosmology," Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 5
GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH" AND "SEAS" 251
of ‘al all flow out from the meaning "upon." Thus the first thing BDB says
about the preposition ‘al is that its meaning is "upon, and hence ... [then
follows a list of its other meanings]." The meaning, "upon," therefore, is
an appropriate translation of 'al in a text like Ps 136:6 where the immediate
context does not lead us to any other meaning. The meaning "upon" is also
the one most often chosen by modern translators of this verse including the
translators of the NIV, even though Harris was a major editor of the NIV.
The Hebrew invites this translation, and there is no contextual reason to
translate the verse differently.
Unfortunately, the only time the verb raqa’ is used with the preposition
‘al in the OT is in Ps 136:6. But, raqa' has a close synonym, namely (iii,
radad) which also apparently means "beat" or "spread out;" and, this
synonym is used with the preposition ‘al in I Kgs 6:32 where it describes
overlaying the cherubim with gold plating: "he spread out the gold over
or upon (‘al) the cherubim." It seems very probable, therefore, that the
synonymous phraseology in Ps 136:6 (especially in the light of Isa 40:19
which uses raqa’ in the sense of "overlay") means that the earth is spread
out over or upon the sea. As gold overlays the cherubim in I Kgs 6:32 so the
earth overlays the sea in Ps 136:6.72
Ps 24:2 also speaks of the creation of the earth and, hence, is indirectly
referring back to Gen 1:10. The Psalm says, God "founded" the earth-
continent (lbt-Crx, 'eres-tebel, v.1) "upon the seas." The word, "upon," is
the same Hebrew word, ‘al, as was used in Ps 136:6. Modern scholars of
Hebrew regularly translate ‘al in Ps 24:2 as "upon" and so do all English
translations that I have seen (KJV,
ERV, ASV, NASV, RSV,
The verb, "found," (dsy, yasad) which is used in Ps 24:2 means to lay
down a foundational base for a building or wall (I Kgs 5:17 [31 ]; 7:10; 16:34;
Ezra 3:10-12) or to set something upon a foundational base (Cant 5:15;
Ps 104:5). With either meaning the most natural meaning of ‘al would be
its primary meaning, "upon." This is confirmed by the three other times
that ‘al is used in the OT with the verb "found" (yasad): Cant 5:15;
Ps 104:5; Amos 9:6. In all three cases, the meaning, "upon," is demanded
by the context. Ps 104:5 especially demands that ‘al be translated "upon" in
Ps 24:2 because just like Ps 24:2 it is speaking of the founding of the earth.
Ps 24:2 is saying, then, that God "founded," that is, firmly placed the
earth upon the seas, the seas being a foundational base. The flat earth-
continent is resting on the seas. The word "seas" (yammim) reminds us of
72 Compare the language of the Finno-Ugric and African descriptions of the earth given
above (notes 33 and 34); and see the same language used in Satapatha-Brahman 7:4:1:8 in Sacred
Books of the East 41, 364.
73 Cf. Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50 (Waco: Word, 1983) 209; M. Dahood, Psalms I (Garden
City: Doubleday, 1965) 150; Hans-Joachin Kraus, Psalms 1-59 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988)
310; A. Weiser, The Psalms (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962) 231.
Gen 1:10b where God called the gathered waters of the tehom "Seas" (yam-
mim); and this again tells us, as did Ps 136:6 that Gen 1:10 is saying that the
flat earth-continent was founded "upon" (or on top of) the sea, fixed in
place but floating on the sea, in exact accord with the historical meaning.
The word, "rivers," (tvrhn, neharot) in 24:2b is known from Ugaritic to be
simply a synonym of seas, and neharot is clearly used to mean seas in
The picture given to us in Ps 24:2 and 136:6 is quite clear; but there is
still more biblical evidence that the earth was thought to float on the sea.
For just as the sea below the earth was thought of in the rest of the ancient
so it is in the OT. In the blessings of Joseph first by Jacob (Gen 49:25
[MT 24]) and later by Moses (Deut 33:13) there is a reference to the "deep
sea (tehom) lying below" as the source of spring and/or river water for
Gen 49:25(24) speaks simply of the "blessings of the heaven above;
blessings of the deep sea (tehom) lying below." Deut 33:13 speaks more fully of
with the deep sea (tehom) lying below." Harris tried to make Gen 49:25 refer
simply to the fact that seas like the
the land masses.75
The context of Gen 49:25 and Deut 33:13, however, has to do with
fruitfulness (Gen 49:22, 25), especially agricultural fruitfulness (Deut 33:13-
16). The "dew from the heavens above" was a prime source of the water
necessary to make agriculture flourish (Gen 27:28; I Kgs 17:1; Hos 14:5;
Zech 8:12); so the context implies that the blessing of "the deep sea that lies
below" was also to make agriculture flourish (cf. Ezek 31:4). The question
is then, were seas like the
agriculture flourish? Being salt water, the answer is, of course, no; and even
if we force the text to refer to a small fresh water sea like the sea of Galilee,
the answer is still, no. Harris's interpretation of the "sea that lies below"
in Gen 49:25 and Deut 33:13 is clearly out of context-both historical and
biblical. In context both verses are clear references to a sea (tehom) below
the earth. So these verses show us again that the earth was understood in
the OT to be floating upon a sea, from which, as in all ancient Near Eastern
thought, springs, wells and rivers derived their water.
There is yet another reason why we know Gen 49:25 and Deut 33:13 refer
to a sea below the earth: it was customary in the ancient Near East to pair
79 Cf. Dahood, Psalms I, 151; Psalms II (Garden City: Doubleday, 1968) 120-121; J. C. L. Gib-
son, "The Last Enemy," SJT 32 (1979) 158.
75 Section 2495a in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament 2, ed. R. Laird Harris, Glea-
son L. Archer, Bruce K. Waltke,
(Chicago: Moody Press, 1980) 966; Harris, "Bible and
GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH" AND "SEAS" 253
references to fertilizing water from above with references to fertilizing water
from the sea below the earth. In the Akkadian Atrahasis epic D: 4:54,55, for
example, we read,
Above Adad made scarce his rain
Below was dammed up the flood,
So that it rose not from its source.76
In the Ugaritic Aqhat C: 1: 45, 46, we read,
No dew. No rain.
No welling up of the Deep77
In Weinfeld's instructive paper there are more examples and discussion
of this ancient Near Eastern pairing of references to water from above with
references to water from the deep sea below the earth.78 Since there is no
question that the paired ancient Near Eastern references are references to
the sea beneath the earth, it is most probable that when such pairing occurs
in the OT, the references are also to the sea beneath the earth. This confirms
that Gen 49:25 and Deut 33:13 are referring to the sea beneath the earth.
Gen 49:25 and Deut 33:13 lead us to the realization that other biblical
references to water below are also references to the sea beneath the earth.
For example, in Gen 2:5,6 where the 'ed-water from below is contrasted
with no rain from above, we believe that Tsumura rightly concluded,
"Since the 'ed-water flooded out of the subterranean water in Gen 2:6, in
this regard it is related to the tehom(ot)-water, the water of the subterranean
We see the same thing in Gen 7:11 and 8:2 where the water for Noah's
flood is described as coming both from above and from "all the springs of
the great deep (tehom)." The great tehom is, of course, the sea mentioned in
Gen 1:10 which was half of the original tehom mentioned in Gen 1:2. It has
been suggested that "the springs of the great deep" in Gen 7:11 simply
refer to the springs of the visible sea, not to earthly springs from a sea below
the earth.80 But, this interpretation removes the verse from its historical
context wherein the phrase "springs of the great deep" would be under-
stood as inland earthly springs. This suggestion also overlooks the fact that
the pairing of this phrase with reference to the waters from above indicates
biblically (Gen 49:25; Deut 33:13) as well as historically that the reference
is to the earthly fresh-water springs that come up from the sea that was
believed to exist below the earth. Earthly fresh-water springs were, in fact,
76 ANET, 3rd ed., 106.
77 ANET, 3rd ed., 153.
78 Weinfeld, "Gen. 7:11, 8:1, 2 Against the Background," 242-248.
79 Tsumura, The Earth and the Waters, 122.
80 John C. Whitcomb, Jr.
and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood (
so closely linked in people's minds with the great to tehom below the earth
(Gen 49:25: Deut 33:13) that the earthly springs were themselves some-
times called tehom (Ezek 31:4) or tehomot (Deut 8:7). In context-both his-
torical and biblical--Gen 7:11 is speaking of the water for Noah's flood not
only pouring down from above, but, as Wenham put it, "water gushing
forth uncontrollably from wells and springs which draw from a great sub-
terranean ocean ("the great deep" )."81
Prov 3:20, another verse that pairs water from above (in the form of dew)
with water from below, parallels Gen 7:11's reference to the water from
below grammatically for it uses the same verb (fqb, baqa’) to speak of
splitting open the springs as was used in Gen 7:11. In addition, the springs
in Prov 3:20 are called tehomot which parallels the description of springs in
Gen 7:11 where they are called "springs of the great tehom." The springs of
Prov 3:20 are thus identified with the springs of Gen 7:11. Since the springs
mentioned in Prov 3:20 are in a context of agricultural blessing (paired
with "dew"), they must be earthly fresh-water springs. Prov 3:20 thus
shows us that the springs of Gen 7:11 are also earthly fresh-water springs
and reciprocally Gen 7:11 shows us that the fresh-water springs (tehomot) of
Prov 3:20 were fed by the great tehom (sea) of Gen 7:11. The grammar, the
historical context, and the fact that the pairing of water from above with
water from below regularly refers the water from below to the sea beneath
the earth, makes this interpretation sure. Scott, therefore, correctly com-
ments on Prov 3:20: "An echo of Gen vii 11 where the water which sub-
merged the world in the days of Noah is said to have surged up like a tide
from the subterranean ocean and fallen from sluices in the sky."82
Gen 2:5, 6; 7:11; 8:2; Prov 3:20 (and II Sam 1:21 as emended by Gordis)
all make reference to earthly fresh-water springs having their water sup-
plied by a sea (tehom) beneath the earth.83 These verses all thus indicate that
the earth in Gen 1:10 was understood to be resting on a sea.
In summary, according to Pss 24:2 and 136:6, the earth of Gen 1:10 was
founded upon the sea, spread out upon the sea. The earth of Gen 1:10 is,
thus, a flat earth-continent floating upon the sea. Gen 49:25 (MT 24) and
Deut 33:13 speak of a tehom, a deep sea, lying below the earth; so, they also
testify that the earth was conceived of as floating upon a sea, a subterranean
sea which served as the source of water for springs, wells and rivers just as
was believed by everyone in the ancient Near East. Various other OT
references confirm still further that the earth in Gen 1:10 was conceived of
as floating on a sea.
In conclusion, we see that when Gen 1 is interpreted within its biblical
context, the "earth" and the "sea(s)" of Gen 1:10 do not refer to the
81 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word, 1987) 181.
82 R. B. Y Scott, Proverbs-Ecclesiastes (Garden City: Doubleday, 1965) 48.
as On II Same 1:21 see P Kyle McCarter, Jr., II Samuel (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984)
John Gray, The Legacy of
GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH" AND "SEAS" 255
continents and oceans on a planetary globe for there is no contextual basis
--either historical or biblical--to see a planetary globe in Gen 1. Rather,
the historico-grammatical meaning of "earth" and "sea(s)" in Gen 1:10 is
that the earth is a single continent in the shape of a flat circular disk floating
in the middle of a circular sea, which sea was thought to be the source of
water for earthly springs, wells and rivers.
V. Post Script
One might ask the question, does interpreting Gen 1:9, 10 as well as 49:25
(24); Deut 33:13; Pss 24:2 and 136:6 and others according to their historico-
grammatical meaning impinge negatively on the biblical doctrine of inspi-
ration? I think not. The biblical references to a flat earth-disc floating in a
circular surrounding sea are simply references to the ordinary opinions of
the writer's day and a fulfillment as it were of the words of B. B. Warfield,
who, as he defined biblical inerrancy, said that an inspired writer could
share the ordinary opinions of his day in certain matters lying outside the scope
of his teachings, as, for example, with reference to the form of the earth, or its
relation to the sun [or, mutatis mutandis, its relation to the sea]; and, it is not
inconceivable that the form of his language when incidentally adverting to such
matters, might occasionally play into the hands of such a presumption.84
84 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, "The Real Problem of Inspiration" in The Inspiration
and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1948) 166-67; cf. Calvin's
comments on Ps 72:8 with regard to the
geographical extent of the
being described in Scripture as of significantly less geographical size than is actually the case:
"... David obviously accommodates his language to his own time. .." (Commentary on the Book
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