The word mabul is typically translated as “flood.” But in order to truly understand the meaning of a word, we must determine its three-letter root.
The word has four letters, the first of which is a mem. Usually, a mem at the beginning of a noun is not a part of the root. It is what is added to turn a verb into a noun. Thus, an initial thought might be that the root of mabul is bet, vav, lamed.
But there is no evidence for a verb bet, vav, lamed in Biblical Hebrew. Therefore, the vav is probably not a root letter here and one of the three original root letters probably dropped out. The dagesh in the bet of mabul also implies that a root letter dropped out. Our task is to determine what that letter was.
One possibility is that the original root was BLL and that the dropped letter was a lamed. (In this view, the original noun was mablul.) If the original root was BLL, the fundamental meaning of the word mabul would be “mixture/intermingling/confusion.”
The fact that the story of migdal Bavel follows shortly after the story of the mabul gives some credence to this approach. The root BLL is a main theme of the migdal Bavel story. But the dagesh in the bet of mabul implies that the dropped letter was the first letter of the root.
Therefore, a more likely possibility for the root of mabul is NBL. (See, e.g., Ibn Ezra, Seforno, and S.D. Luzzatto.) The verb NBL has the meaning of “fall, decay, destroy.” The root letter nun often drops as the first letter of the root.
But the problem with claiming that the root NBL underlies the word mabul is that NBL is typically used in the context of a gradual destruction, such as in the context of leaves and flowers. See, e.g., Is. 28:1: ve-tziz novel, and Is. 40:7: naval tzitz. It seems to mean “wither” and “decay,” rather than “destroy.”
Radak agrees that the root of mabul is NBL, but takes a different approach. In his approach, the fundamental meaning of the root NBL is “fall.” But the word is not being used to describe the effects of the flood (earthly items falling and being destroyed). The word is being used to describe something that is itself falling from the heavens. In Radak’s view, anything that falls from the heavens (e.g., snow, hail and fire) can be called a mabul.
A third approach to the root of mabul is that it is YBL. This is most likely the correct approach. See, e.g., the Daat Mikra commentary, and Hayyim Tawil’s An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew.
Throughout Tanach, YBL is a root relating to movement and flow. See, e.g., Ps. 60:11: mi yovileini ir matzor (who will lead me into the fortified city?), and Is. 53:7: ka-se la-tevach yuval (as a lamb is led to the slaughter).
Another example of the root YBL relating to movement is in the context of the yovel year. At Lev. 25:10 we are told: yovel he tiheyeh lachem ve-shavtem ish el achuzato… Yovel means “ram” in several places in Tanach. Based on the statement in Lev. 25:9 that the shofar is blown to proclaim the jubilee year, Rashi believes that yovel must mean ram at Lev. 25:10, and that the reference is to the blowing of the horn of the ram. But the plain sense accords with the view of the Ramban that the meaning of yovel at Lev. 25:10 is “being brought back,” i.e., a time of being brought back to one’s land.
The root YBL is connected to water in several Biblical verses. See, e.g., Is. 30:25 and 44:4: yivlei mayim (streams of water).
The issue of the root of the word mabul is not just an etymological one. Philosophically, what we are asking is: was the mabul a force meant to cause intermingling/confusion? A force meant to cause things to fall/decay/be destroyed? Or more neutrally, a force of flowing water? Most likely, the root is YBL and the last is correct.
Rashi conducts practically the same analysis of the word mabul that we did. In his explanation of the word at Gen. 6:17, he writes: she-bilah et ha-kol, she-bilbel et ha-kol, she-hovil et ha-kol min ha-gavoha la-namuch… Bilah means “destroy and wear down,” similar to NBL. Bilbel means “mix,” the equivalent of BLL. Hovil means “move” and is from the root YBL. (But Rashi seems to believe that the word mabul was purposely chosen to convey all three connotations.)
Outside of the 12 times the word mabul appears in Parashat Noach, the only other time the word appears in Tanach is at Psalms 29:10: Hashem la-mabul yashav. Many assume that the meaning here is something like “God sat enthroned at the mabul.” But the prefix la- is difficult in this interpretation. An interesting alternative interpretation is provided by Tawil. He cites a scholar who claims, based on a parallel in Akkadian, that la-mabul here means “before the mabul,” i.e., “from time immemorial.” The phrase Hashem la-mabul yashav would then parallel the subsequent phrase va-yeshev Hashem melech le-olam.
An analysis similar to the one we have conducted on the word mabul can also be conducted on Bul, the original name for the month of Marcheshvan. See I Kings 6:38. Is Bul named for some activity in the month relating to mixing (BLL)? Relating to withering (NBL)? Or relating to moving/gathering produce (YBL)? All have been suggested.
Finally, a statement at Midrash Tanchuma, Noach explains the word mabul as based on the fact that it spanned 40 (mem) days in the month of Bul!
(This article is a summary of a longer article that appeared on seforim.blogspot.com in October 2014.)
By Mitchell First