The Hebrew Term for “The Flood” (TWOT)

 In the famous story of Noah, his family, and the ark, the Hebrew term for flood is not a regular word or phrase for “a lot of water.”  There are other words in the OT that mean “a lot of water” (e.g. מַיִם – “waters”) and there are phrases that mean “a lot of water” (e.g. bursting flood in 1 Chr. 14:11 or mass of waters in Job 22:11).  But the word for “flood” in Genesis 6-11 is not a normal word for “a lot of water.”  The term is “mabbul” (מַבּוּל) and it isn’t overly easy to translate because it’s only used in the story of the flood and one other time in the OT.  Of course, the flood involved a lot of water, as Genesis 6-11 clearly notes. But this word sticks out a bit; it throws some mystery into the flood story.  Here’s the helpful entry in the Theological Workbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) for this word “mabbul” (flood/deluge):

A technical term reserved for the watery catastrophe which God brought on the earth during the days of Noah. That event was so well known that mabbûl usually occurs with the definite article (except in Gen 9:11, 15). mabbûl is used only once outside Gen 7–11. Psalm 29:10 says that “the Lord sits upon the flood, indeed, the Lord is enthroned king forever.” Instead of Baal, the god of storm and thunder who according to the Ugaritic myths defeated yam the sea god, the Lord’s voice is heard in the thunder, and it is he who reigns over the destructive forces of nature, in this case the storm so beautifully described in Ps 29.

All attempted etymologies for this word have failed because of linguistic difficulties. A few of the suggestions have been: the Akkadian root nbl “to destroy,” Akkadian abūbu from the alleged wabūbu “cyclone,” Akkadian bubbulu, biblu, bibbulu “inundation,” which is the best suggestion yet. But it also fails since the term is not used in any of the Akkadian flood stories. Hebrew ybl “to flow, stream” or nbl “waterskin” have also been suggested. But these suggestions are not linguistically supported and appear to be parents to the unwarranted thought that mabbûl refers to a “heavenly ocean” or a “heavenly store of water in jars.”

While God himself brought the waters of the flood on the earth because of man’s sin (Gen 6:17; 7:6), afterward he covenanted never again to destroy the earth with water (Gen 9:11, 15). Thus God’s own can be certain that the earth will endure until the desired eschaton comes.

TWOT, mabbul #1142.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002