GeoScriptures — Genesis 7:19 — “All the earth” doesn’t always mean “all the earth”

And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. — Genesis 7:19 (ESV)

Many Christians point to the universal nature of some verses in the account of Noah’s flood in Genesis 6-9 to prove that the flood must have been global in extent. For instance, Genesis 6:13 states,

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

We also read,

The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days.

How do old-Earth Christians who hold to a local (rather than global) flood interpret these passages? The answer is by using standard tools of hermeneutics (interpretation), including examining what the text does and does not say, and by comparing Scripture to Scripture. I would like to focus right now on the “let Scripture interpret Scripture” aspect of hermeneutics.

There are a number of passages in the Old Testament (and even in the New Testament) where “all the earth” does not mean “all the earth.” Here are the main ones:

  • Genesis 41:57Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth. — In this case, does “all the earth” mean “all the earth,” or does it mean a widespread area in the Eastern Mediterranean? Most Bible scholars take this as a figure of speech, not as a literal statement. People came from far away, such as from Canaan, but not necessarily from Spain. I was having a conversation with someone about this passage a few months ago, and I asked him if he believed that people from every nation, from the Eskimos to the Zulus, showed up to buy grain from Joseph. He answered that he believed it was a literal “all the earth,” but that mankind had not yet dispersed very far following the Tower of Babel.
  • Deuteronomy 2:25 — This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you on the peoples who are under the whole heaven, who shall hear the report of you and shall tremble and be in anguish because of you.’ — Did the Incas and Chinese hear reports about the Exodus, or again, is “the peoples who are under the whole heaven” to be taken in some sense figuratively?
  • 1 Kings 18:10 — There is no nation or kingdom where my lord [King Ahab] has not sent to seek you. — Did Ahab send emissaries to Japan and Zimbabwe to look for Elijah? If I were a hyper-literalist, I would have to say that he did.
  • 2 Chronicles 9:23 — And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. — Do I have to affirm that leaders of the Australian Aborigines showed up in Jerusalem to listen to Solomon?
  • Jeremiah 27:7 — All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson. — God said that “all the nations” shall serve Nebuchadnezzar. Does this mean that there is some gap in our historical knowledge; a period of time when Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian Empire stretched from Los Angeles to London to Tokyo, and from Murmansk to the Cape of Good Hope? Or was God using a figure of speech?
  • Dan 4:22It is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth. — As in Jer 27:7, does the Bible teach that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire covered the entire planet? (see also Daniel 5:19).
  • Zephaniah 1:2 — “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. (also see v. 18) — Is this teaching the destruction of the entire Earth, or a more limited judgement on unfaithful Israel and the surrounding nations?
  • Similar “universal” passages can be found in the New Testament — Luke 2:1 (all the world to be registered), John 12:19 (the Pharisees were concerned that the whole world was going to Jesus), Acts 2:5 (Jews were present at Pentecost from every nation under heaven), Colossians 1:23 (the gospel has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven).

In each case a more natural reading of the text is something other than “all the Earth.” Only if we bring a rigid, overly-literalistic hermeneutic to the passages do we end up with things like Ahab’s servants trekking through the Himalayas looking for Elijah.

In many ways, Hebrew functions like other languages. It is not a Vulcan-like tongue where everything is mechanical and logical, lacking in word pictures or hyperbole.  In English, if we say “everyone is doing it,” we don’t literally mean “everyone,” unless we are talking about something like breathing. So if I say, “everyone in America likes McDonalds,” most people would not take that to mean “everyone in America likes McDonalds.” The same is true in the foreign language I know best, Romanian. The phrase “toată lumea” literally means “all the world,” which translates into English as “everyone.” If I were to say toată lumea likes going to the beach, I would literally be saying that the whole world likes going to the beach, but I would really mean that many or most people like going to the beach, or most people I know like going to the beach.

I hope that I have demonstrated that “all the Earth” usually does not mean “all the Earth” in the Old Testament. The question then becomes: can we apply this knowledge (letting Scripture interpret Scripture) to the account of Noah’s flood in Genesis 6-9? Are the universal phrases in the passage to be taken in a “literalistic” sense, or is there room for reading these as figures of speech?  I believe I can show that much of the universal imagery of Genesis 6-9 is indeed hyperbolic, and that the passage can be read naturally as a very large, but still limited flood that appeared universal from Noah’s perspective in the middle of it all. I will save that discussion for another time.

Grace and Peace.

4 thoughts on “GeoScriptures — Genesis 7:19 — “All the earth” doesn’t always mean “all the earth”

  1. I am probably in a minority of one on this issue but nevertheless I will have my say.
    The words ‘earth’ and ”heaven’ are both defined in Gen.1. The ‘earth’ is the supercontinent or ‘dry land’ that emerged from under the sea on Day 3 (Gen.1:9)
    The ‘Heaven’ is the ‘Firmament’ that God brought into existence on Day 2 (Gen.1:6)
    The term ‘under the whole heaven’ is in my opinion the supercontinent that was under the ‘dome’ of the firmament. It was this dry land that became flooded again in Noah’s Flood and the flood did cover all the land under the whole heaven. The dome collapsed soon after the tower of Babel affair.
    As I said I am among the small number of people that believe this but it is what the Bible says and it has a very good scientific explanation which would take me too long to explain. Blessings


  2. I’ve read a bit about the way people used hyperbole in Biblical cultures and generally it would be used to compound the sincerity of the person speaking. This applies to your post pretty well, because it would mean that the hyperbole in the flood narrative indicates how serious God’s wrath and intention of punishment was. Great piece by the way!


  3. obsfo

    Hi Kevin,

    Great blog you have here, keep up the good work.

    “All the earth” doesn’t always mean “all the earth”

    It would appear to depend upon which version (translation) of the Holy Bible one studies.
    I tend to use the AKJV – this version appears to adhere more to the original texts than many others, especially those so-called modern easy to read versions.

    All quotes from AKJV

    Gen. 41:57 ‘All the earth’ should read ‘ALL COUNTRIES’

    Countries – Can mean different areas of land dependent on the context of the verse or passage. It can also mean the whole earth in context of a particular verse, but not this one.

    In context of Gen. 41:57 – countries – Strong’s H776 – ‘erets – meaning – 1) country, territory 2) district, region 3) tribal territory 4) piece of ground 5) land of Canaan, Israel 6) inhabitants of land 7) Sheol, land without return, (under) world 8) city (-state).

    In context of Deut. 2:25 – ‘you on the peoples’ – should read ‘THEE UPON THE NATIONS’.

    Nations – Strong’s H6440 – paniym – 1) face a) face, faces b) presence, person.
    Strong’s H5971 – `am – 1) nation, people a) people, nation b) persons, members of one’s people, compatriots, country-men 2) kinsman, kindred

    No indication that this verse is referring to all the nations of the earth.

    In context of 1 Kings 18:10 – ’There is no nation or kingdom where my lord has not sent to seek you’.

    Nation – Strong’s H1471 – gowy – nation, people a) nation, people 1) usually of non-Hebrew people 2) of descendants of Abraham 3) of Israel.

    Kingdom – Strong’s H4467 – mamlakah – 1) kingdom, dominion, reign, sovereignty a) kingdom, realm b) sovereignty, dominion c) reign

    Again, no indication that the verse is referring to all the nations of the earth.

    2 Chron.9:23 ‘all the kings of the earth’ – Same explanation as in Gen.41:57 above.
    ‘Earth’ and ‘countries’(Gen.41:57) translated from same Hebrew word – ‘erets.

    Jeremiah 27:7 – ‘All nations’ – translated from same Hebrew word – Strong’s H1471 – gowy, as that in 1Kings 18:10 above.

    Enough examples to show that context matters, along with trying to avoid personal interpretation and allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture.
    You are correct in your assertion that too many people personally interpret the Scriptures literally.

    Regards John


    1. The crux of this thread is whether the word ‘earth’ means the whole of our planet or only a part of the land surface. I consider myself to be an OEC but with regard to Noah’s flood I believe the word ‘earth’ means all of the land surface which at that time was joined up in a relatively flat lowlying supercontinent called ‘Pangaea’ wnich means in Greek ‘All Earth’ Gen.1:2 tells us that this land mass was submerged and became lifeless as a result of a flood known by some Bible scholars as ‘Lucifer’s Flood’ We should not be surprised about this because if all the water in our oceans was evely distributed it would cover the entire globe to a depth of about 4000m.
      Hence to find about a third of the Earth’s surface to consist of dry land is something of a miracle anyway. Noah’s Flood was another destruction of the entire land surface (Pangaea)and this seems to occurred only about 1600 years after Adam was made.
      The Genesis account of Noah’s Flood can be perfectly lined up with science and all the scriptures if we understand the mechanism that caused the flood. In brief (I have explained this elsewhere) Noah’s Flood was caused when the shape of our planet became only slightly altered by its own internal heat from near spherical to very slightly ellipsoidal.This left two circular (in plan) areas of much deepened ocean and a band of exposed ocean bed that encircled the whole planet. It was in this band that the ocean bed was stretched and this cracked up to form the ‘fountains of the great deep’ Unfortunately one of the circular areas was where Pangaea was but it is just possible that those who lived on the fringe of this area may have escaped the flood. The description of the flood makes reference to the ‘windows of heaven’. If the work of God on the second Day of the Genesis creation accout is properly understood then we also know exactly what the windows of heaven were and why they cracked open during Noah’s Flood.
      I am one of those who accept the literal sense of scriptures if it makes sense and is accordance with other scriptures and our knowledge of science. I do not however believe that Noah’s flood resulted in the formation of new layers of sediments or any fossils. Blessings


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