Geographical Meaning of "Earth" and "Seas" in Gen. 1:10: Seely

                Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997) 231-55

        Copyright ©1997 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission.   




            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


1 Lucien Levy-Bruhl, Primitive Mentality (repr. Boston: Beacon, 1966) 353; H. B. Alexan-

der, The Mythology of All Races 10: North American (repr. New York: Cooper Square, 1964) 249.




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-

spherical sky."2

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

both in Mexico and North America conceive of the earth "as a large wheel

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 South-East Australia (London: Macmillan, 1904) 426; Napoleon A.

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.; Chico: Scholars Press, 1984) 133.

   7 See the Chinese map of the world in DuJen Li, The Ageless Chinese: A History (New York:

Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965) 179.

   8 R. F Gombrich, "Ancient Indian Cosmology" in Ancient Cosmologies (ed. Carmen Blacker

and Michael Loewe; London: Allen & Unwin, 1975) 112-13; cf. A. B. Keith, Mythology of All

Races 6: Indian, 16.

    9 "Cosmology: Hindu and Jain Cosmologies" in The Encyclopedia of Religion (ed. Mircea

Eliade; New York: Macmillan, 1987) 4:109-10.

    10 H. and H. A. Frankfort, J. A. Wilson, and T. Jacobsen, Before Philosophy (Baltimore:

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

that in Egypt, visualization of the earth as a circular disc was from very

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.

In ancient Sumer, according to both Kramer and Lambert, the earth

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

In Babylonia one of the clearest indications that the earth was conceived

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

Tigris and Euphrates flow out from her eyes (lines 54, 55). Livingstone

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 (Berlin:

Walter de Gruyter, 1928) 85; Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World (New York:

Seabury, 1978) 37.

   12 Adolph Erman, Literature of the Ancient Egyptians (London: Methuen, 1927) 259; James

Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906) 4:38, no.


    13 S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963) 113; W G. Lambert,

"The Cosmology of Sumer and Babylon" in Ancient Cosmologies, 47.

    14 Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951)

172, 180.

    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 and the Euphrates) and B. Meissner,

"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 Colophon (c. 525 B.C.)

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 Canaan and the Old Testament (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972) 21.

    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)

1:550; 2:575-6.

   19 G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge: At the University

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. New York: Dover, 1959) 76.

    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

York: Dover, 1953) 18, 19.

   21 Thomson, History, 111, 112.

   22 "Anaxagoras" in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scul-

lard (2d ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970) 61; Dreyer, A History, 26, 27, especially

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

single continent.

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 Egypt by Egyptian concepts.25 It is, therefore, all the more

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.

    24 Ibid., 114; Dreyer, A History, 171-72; R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology (Leiden:

E. J. Brill, 1966) 7:4; Pliny NH 2:161-5; cf. Seneca, Nat. Quest. 2:1:4 and consider the natural

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 Egypt particu-

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 Chaos (Portland, OR:

Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1974) 46; M. Burrows, What Mean These Stones? (New

York: Meridian, 1957) 99, 140-41, 166-68.

   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 Egypt with reference to the earth as a flat circular disc.29

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)

the Upper Sea (to) the Lower Sea [which means the whole earth conti-

nent]" and adds, "I have made ... the city of Babylon to the foremost

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 Asia (Turkic, Mongols,

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

the ocean."31

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

the world."32

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

In North America both the Navaho and the Zuni believed the earth was

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

Guinea, New Zealand, Micronesia, Polynesia and Japan.36

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

Themes" in The Encyclopedia of Religion 10, 536; Barbara C. Sproul, Primal Myths (New York:

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

York: Washington Square, 1965) 51; "Oceans" in The Encyclopedia of Religion 11:55;

"Cosmogony and Cosmology (American)" in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James

Hastings, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, no date) 4:126.

    36 Freund, Myths, 51, 50; Sproul, Primal, 334; Alan Dundes, The Flood Myth (Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1988) 132; cf. "Earth, Earth Gods" in ERE 5:128 section 2;

Etter, Ainu Folklore, 18.

    37 Nihongi (repr., London: George Allen & Unwin, 1956) 4, 11.

    38 J Needham, "The Cosmology of Ancient China" in Ancient Cosmologies, 88, 89; Christie,

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

the Far East believed the earth was both surrounded by and floating on an

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


In ancient Egypt the primeval ocean was thought to surround the earth

and was called the "the great ring" or "great circuit or circle." This


   39 Christie, Chinese Mythology, 57, 69, 70; Sproul, Primal, 203; Needham, "The Cosmology

of Early China," 89.

   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

(New Delhi: Vikas, 1983) 11, 12, 14, 101; W D. O'Flaherty, The Rig Veda (New York: Penguin,

1981) 29; Sproul, Primal, 177.

   42 Buddhist-Sutras, The Sacred Books of the East 11, ed. F M. Muller, (Delhi: Motilal Banar-

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

Wilson says, "This platter [the earth] floated in water. There were the

abysmal waters below on which the platter rested, called by the Egyptians

‘Nun'." Frankfort says Nun, the primeval ocean, "became Okeanos, sur-

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

(CT 714).46

That the earth was thought to rest on the primeval waters (Nun) is also

seen in the Egyptian belief that Nun is the source of the Nile (and all other


   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 Egyptian 12:47; S. A. B. Mercer, The Pyramid Texts (New York: Long-

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 (Berkeley: University of

California, 1976) 2:41; Breasted, Ancient Records 2:89 no. 220; 137 no. 325; Breasted, Ancient

Records 4:163 no. 308; there are also various pictures from ancient Egypt which illustrate the

belief in an earth-encircling ocean: see Keel, The Symbolism, 38 (fig. 33), 40 (fig. 34), 42 (fig. 38).

   45 Morenz, Egyptian Religion, 8; Frankfort, et al., Before Philosophy, 54; Frankfort, Kingship

 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,

Genesis in Egypt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) 4; cf. Plumley, "The Cosmology,"

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.

Frankfort, Before Philosophy, 30, 60.



earthly waters). One Egyptian text describing the Nile as it gushes forth at

its source interchanges the words "Nun" and "Nile": ". . . the Nile which

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 the pure Euphrates he

(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 Euphrates. But being fresh water does not mean that

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.


   47 Plumley, "The Cosmology," 26; Mercer, The Pyramid Texts 4:65; Frankfort, Kingship, 154;

William Foxwell Albright, "The Mouth of the Rivers," AJSL 35 (1919) 167; Otto Kaiser,

Die Mythische Bedeutung des Meeres in Agypten, Ugarit and Israel (Berlin: Topelmann, 1959)

28; L. H. Gray, The Mythology of All Races 12: Egyptian, 47.

   48 Kramer, The Sumerians, 13; Samuel Noah Kramer, "Review of Frankfort, Intellectual

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 elis" und Hexaemeron (Rome:

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: 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

Legend, an eagle carries Etana (a king of Kish) up to heaven. As Etana

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 the "Bitter River." All

scholars I have seen who discuss this map understand the "Bitter River"

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

Euphrates (and) Tigris" (5:54,55). (Cf. the Sumerian text cited above where

the Euphrates is "the product of the Apsu.") That Tiamat has water below

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 Euphrates. In

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 (London: Kegan

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; W Heim-

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 Wilson, "The Fifth Tablet of Enuma Elish," JNES 20

(1961) 161.

   56 M. Weinfeld, "Gen. 7:11, 8:1, 2 Against the Background of Ancient Near Eastern Tradi-

tion," Die Welt des Orients 9 (1978) 242-48; "Water, Water Gods (Babylonian)" in ERE 12:708.

    57 Riekele Borger, Die Inschriften Asarhaddons Konigs von Assyrien (Osnabruck: Biblio

 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 Euphrates.


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 Euphrates.


   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 Egypt. Moses, in fact, was "edu-

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

earth-disc floated.

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 Tyre was located only in the Mediterranean Sea, yet

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 Mediterranean Sea. The phrase, "sand of

the sea" (Jer 33:22) also seems interchangeable with "sand of the seas"

(Jer 15:8).

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," ‘One Place', Maqom 'ehad, in Gen i:9: Read miqwim, ‘Gatherings'," VT

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

the sea of Gen 1:2, having been divided (Gen 1:6-8) into an upper and

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. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1961)

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 Solomon's Temple was intended as a replica of the cosmic

sea.... 66

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

that in Mesopotamia where a universal sea was understood to be surrounding

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 Israel (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1967)

59, 60; King, Babylonian Religion, 31; William Foxwell Albright, Archaeology and the Religion

of Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1956) 148-149.

   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 Old Seas," JQR 68 (1977) 5-77;

A. J. Wensinck, The Ocean in the Literature of the Western Semites (repr., Wiesbaden: Dr.

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 Red Sea as we understand that name nor to the

more popular "Sea of Reeds." Rather, it is a reference to the yam sop, the

"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 waters."

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

prepositional. 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. Montgomery, "Hebraica (2) yam sup ('The Red Sea') = Ultimum Mare?" JAOS

58 (1938) 131-32; N. H. Snaith, "JOs-My: The Sea of Reeds: The Red Sea," VT 15 (1965)

395-398; B. F Batto, "The Reed Sea: Requiescat in Pace," JBL 102 (1983) 27-35.

   71 R. L. Harris, "The Bible and Cosmology," Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 5

(1962) 15.

GEOGRAPHICAL MEANING OF "EARTH" AND "SEAS"                      251


ofal 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, NEB, Berkeley, Am-

plified, Moffat, Jerusalem, and NIV)73.

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

thatal 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

Ps 93:3.74

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

Near East as an inexhaustible source of water for springs, wells and rivers,

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

Jehovah blessing the land of Joseph "with the precious dew of the heavens and

with the deep sea (tehom) lying below." Harris tried to make Gen 49:25 refer

simply to the fact that seas like the Mediterranean are lower in level than

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 Mediterranean Sea a source of water to make

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 Cos-

mology," 14-15.

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 (Grand Rapids: Baker,

1966) 9.



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)

69-71; John Gray, The Legacy of Canaan (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1965) 281.

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

(italics ours)


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



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Portland, OR 97214


   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 kingdom of Christ on earth

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

of Psalms Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949) 3:109.




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