Michell First considers the three possible roots of the Hebrew word “mabul,” usually translated as “flood.” One possibility is that the word derives from the root b.l.l., meaning “confusion” or “chaos.” Like the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel where the same root appears (Genesis 11:7, 9), the flood returned the world that God created to chaos.
A second possibility is that the Hebrew word “mabul” comes from the root n.b.l., meaning “destruction.” Conceptually and contextually, this possibility fits. Moreover, this possibility conforms better to the Hebrew orthography. However, in the cases where n.b.l. appears in the Bible, the destruction is gradual, for example, the falling of blossoms from the stem (Isaiah 28:1). The “mabul” was not at all a gradual destruction but a cataclysmic one.
The third possibility is that the Hebrew root of “mabul” is y.b.l., meaning “movement or flow.” The psalmist, for example, asks: “Who will lead me (yovilaini) into the city?” (Psalm 60:11). In the context of the story of Noah, the “mabul” refers to the flowing or movement of the water upon the earth. Understanding “mabul” as a flowing of waters is supported by the Akkadian, as indicated by Hayyim Tawil in his An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew. Accordingly, First endorses this possibility as the likely root.
RaShi, the premiere commentator on the Bible, considers the same question – as First notes. But rather than settling on one alternative, RaShI concludes that the word “mabul” includes all three possibilities. What made the deluge remarkable is that the flowing waters destroyed everything and reduced the world to chaos. Such was the power of this event.