Origins 1(2):67-72 (1974).
The phrase "fountains of the great deep" as used in the Genesis flood account is both intriguing and significant. The author presents an analysis which gives insights into the original meaning of the expression.
PLEASE NOTE: Unfortunately, we are unable to reproduce all of the special accent marks that were present in our printed version of the Hebrew transliteration. Our apologies for any inconvenience this might cause.
Two passages in the Genesis flood story speak of "fountains (macyenoth)
of the great deep." The Hebrew term for "fountains" can be rendered into
English either as "fountains" (1) or "springs" (2) of the "great
deep" (Genesis 7:11; 8:2). Some recent versions translate the expression "great
deep" (tehôm rabbah)
with "a great abyss" (3). These English translations reflect the oldest
translation made from the Old Testament (i.e., the Septuagint), which translated this
Hebrew word into Greek with abyssos, the English equivalent of which is
"abyss." The question has arisen whether the phrase "fountains of the great
deep" refers to subterranean water or to the water of oceans. Could it possibly refer
to both subterranean water and oceans (4)? These questions require careful investigation
of the Hebrew terminology and the sentence structure with due consideration of comparative
The term tehôm occurs in the Old Testament a total of 35 times of which 21 usages appear in the singular to which also the two passages in the Genesis flood story belong (5). It is noteworthy that this Hebrew word always appears without the article with the exception of two passages (Isaiah 63:16 [singular]; Psalm 106:9 [plural]). Tehôm occurs for the first time in the Old Testament in Genesis 1:2 and is normally translated with "deep." It refers to the world-ocean, an undifferentiated, unorganized, and passive state of the watery mass (6). Although there are several additional usages of the term tehôm in the Pentateuch (7), let us consider its first usage in greater detail.
In Genesis 1:2 the word tehôm "deep," is the world-ocean. It is used as an expression to indicate that the entire world was covered with water. This agrees with a specific statement in Psalm 104:6: "Thou didst cover it [the earth] with the deep [tehôm] as with a garment; the waters were standing above the mountains." It is striking that the phrase "over the face of the waters [mayim]" at the end of the second half of Genesis 1:2 corresponds and is used parallel to the concluding words of the first half of this verse, "upon the face of the deep." This points clearly to the direction that in this verse the concepts of "deep" (tehôm) and "waters" (mayim) express the same idea (8).
It seems appropriate at this point to digress for a moment and investigate the cognate Semitic term thm (plural thmt, dual thmtm) in Ugaritic literature from about 1400 B.C. (9). There are a number of Ugaritic texts in which the term thm, "deep" is found parallel to the term ym, "sea." There is the parallel expression of the "edge of the sea [yam] and . . . edge of the ocean [thm]" (10). This text equates "sea" (waters) with "ocean" (thm = yam). The same identification between "water" or "sea" and "deep" is found in Genesis 1:2; Job 28:14; 38:16; Jonah 2:6; Proverbs 8:27, 28. In another Ugaritic text one finds the phrase "a source of the rivers [nhrm]" in parallelism with the phrase "the channels of the deeps [thmtm]" (11). The context of this Ugaritic text indicates that the expression "the source of the rivers" refers to the waters that have their origin primarily from the rains which feed the rivers. The expression "the channels of the deeps" seems to refer to the upwelling of the waters from the earth. Another text from ancient Ugarit speaks of a 7-year drought "without dew, without showers, without the upsurgings of the deeps [thmtm]" (12). The "showers" are the waters from above, namely rain, and correspondingly "the upsurgings of the deeps" refer to the waters from below (thmth), namely the waters that gush forth from subterranean sources (cf. 2 Samuel 1:21). In addition to the two evident meanings of thm in Ugaritic, namely ocean and subterranean waters, there is a third meaning completely unrelated. There is a text in which the term "wilderness" (mdbr) is balanced with "wasteland" (thmt) (13). According to M. Dahood the same contrast is found in Psalm 78:15 between "wilderness" and "wasteland." In short, in Ugaritic the term thm can mean 1) ocean, 2) subterranean waters, and 3) wasteland.
Let us turn our attention next to the various usages of the Hebrew term tehôm (deep) in order to discover its range of meanings. This term appears in about one fourth of its usages in the Old Testament parallel to the word for "sea" (yam) (14). In these instances the meaning of tehôm seems to mean generally "waters" or "ocean" as a designation for a phenomenon in nature. To this particular range of meaning we have to assign also Job 38:30: "Water becomes hard like stone, and the surface of the deep (tehôm) is imprisoned." The idea of the Hebrew verb here translated "imprisoned" means "to become compacted" (15), i.e., it freezes. This means that "deep" (tehôm) is something that is exposed to the elements of nature and its surface can freeze like water. There seems to be no doubt about the fact that "deep" here means a body of water such as an ocean. Furthermore, the "deep/waters/ocean" is God's creature which can give praise to Him (Psalm 42:8; 148:7), tremble at His command (Habakkuk 3:10), or can lament (Ezekiel 31:15).
There are a number of passages in which the term tehôm designates the Red Sea of the Exodus event when the Israelites crossed the sea (Exodus 15:5, 8; Isaiah 51:10; 63:16; Psalm 106:9). In these contexts it simply means "deep waters" normally impassable to men and horses (cf. Psalm 135:6) (16).
Finally, we have to discuss the passages in which the word tehôm refers to "subterranean water" (17). In Deuteronomy 8:7 Moses describes the good land of Canaan as a land of water-brooks, fountains, and springs (literally "deeps" = tehômôth) which had their sources in valleys and hills. This is a description of land watered by means of wells which are fed by subterranean water. In Ezekiel 31:4 the picture is drawn of tehôm pouring its streams round about the place where the cedar was planted and sending out brooks to all the trees of the field. Tehôm is used here to signify the source or starting point of the rivers and channels and seems to refer to the subterranean waters (18).
Having surveyed the various meanings of the word tehôm, we can now return to our text in Genesis 7:11. The term tehôm is here joined with the adjective rabbah which means "great" (19). It is the regular adjective applied to tehôm in the Old Testament. As examples we may cite the following: Isaiah 51:10: "Was it not Thou who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep (tehôm rabbah)"; Amos 7:4: "And it consumed the great deep (tehôm rabbah) and began to consume the land"; Psalm 36:6 (Hebrews 6:7): "Thy judgments are like a great deep (tehôm rabbah)"; cf. Psalm 78:15. It appears that the phrase tehôm rabbah became a compound noun and was stereotyped and therefore always used without the definite article (20).
This views finds support by the usage of the verb form baqac which means in the Niphal form in which it appears in Genesis 7:11 "to split, to burst, to break forth" (21). This verb is found frequently in Biblical literature in connection with the bringing forth of water. In Psalm 74:15 one reads "Thou didst break open (baqac) springs and torrents." According to the context this seems to mean that God split open the earth so that waters could come forth which could feed the springs of rivers. In Exodus 14:16 Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea and divided (baqac) it. The idea is a splitting apart of the waters. According to Judges 15:19 God "split open" (baqac) the hollow place and water came from it. In Isaiah 48:21 it is stated that He "cleft" (baqac) the rock and waters gushed out. In these verses the same verb appears as in Genesis 7:11 and has consistently the meaning of bursting forth, dividing, cleaving, splitting open. On the basis of these and other passages (22), it appears safe to suggest that in Genesis 7:11 the meaning of "burst forth" refers to a breaking open of the crust of the earth to let subterranean waters pour out in unusual quantity. Accordingly the whole clause "all the fountains of the great deep burst forth" may be taken to refer to the fountains, which in normal times furnished sufficient water for the needs of men and animals and the irrigation of the fields. At the beginning of the flood these fountains burst open and poured out such terrific quantities of water which together with the water raining down from the heavens brought about the flood which destroyed all life on earth.
This interpretation, based upon the study of the designation "great deep" and the term "burst forth," is further supported by the parallelism of the clause in the second part of Genesis 7:11. The writer has used a classic chiastic structure which is well attested in Hebrew literature. It may be translated literally as follows:
"There burst forth all the fountains of the great deep, and the windows of the heavens were opened."
The words "burst forth" correspond to the words "were opened" and
the expression "the fountains of the great deep" corresponds to the
"windows of the heavens." This chiastic parallelism indicates that the waters
below the ground came forth as the waters above the ground broke loose (23).
In short, on the basis of comparative philology and the Hebrew terminology as used in Genesis 7:11 and 8:2 as well as consideration of the literary structure of 7:11, it appears that the bursting forth of the waters from the fountains of the "great deep" refers to the splitting open of springs of subterranean waters with such might and force that together with the torrential down-pouring of waters stored in the atmospheric heavens a worldwide flood comes about.
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