Old Testament #6 – Noah

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“When it starts raining, it is too late to begin building the ark. … We … need to listen to the Lord’s spokesmen. We need to calmly continue to move ahead and prepare for what will surely come. We need not panic or fear, for if we are prepared, spiritually and temporally, we and our families will survive any flood. Our arks will float on a sea of faith if our works have been steadily and surely preparing for the future”

– Elder Don Ladd,  Ensign, Nov. 1994, 29

 

Points to Ponder

  • What are we to make of the contradictory / conflicting accounts of the Flood in Gen 6-7?
  • How does understanding the Documentary Hypothesis, and the various Sources, help us understand the Noah account?
  • Given what we understand about the post-exhilic Israelites, what value would the Noah story hold?
  • How would the un-creation and rebirth narratives benefit Israel as they attempted to rebuild their lives after Babylon?
  • What expanded perspective do we gain about God and His attitude towards His children from the Pearl of Great Price?
  • What were the sins of the ante-diluvian people, and how did the Noahic covenant address each of those problematic areas?

Materials Shared in Class

Study Help: “What Do You Really Know About the Noah Story?”

When asked to recite the basic details of the Noah story, most people would likely share the most common facts and figures, e.g., 2 pair of each animals, 40 days of rain, etc. But a closer look at the text itself shows oft-overlooked details that might be confusing when viewed through a modern lens.

Some examples:

1) How many of each animal did he bring?
     a – 2 (Gen 6:19)
     b – 7 ( Gen 7:2-3) 
2) Why did he gather the animals?
     a – to preserve life ( Gen 6:19)
     b – to kill them as sacrifice ( Gen 8:20)
 
3) What was the nature and duration of the flood
     a – rain, 40 days (Gen 7:4, 12)
     b – underground source + rain, 150+ days  (Gen 7:11, 24, 8:14)
4) How deep were the waters?
     a -15 cubits (22’ 6”) (Gen 7:20)
     b – enough to cover all the hills, including Mt. Arrarat (16, 854’) (Gen 8:4)
 
5) Who survived the flood, besides Noah and his family?
     a – nobody (Gen 7:21)
     b – somebody (Gen 6:4)
The resolution to this conundrum is relatively simple – the conflicting info most likely came from at least 2 different sources, written by at least 2 different authors, at 2 different time periods, to 2 different audiences, with at least 2 different viewpoints. Over time the attribution and context of the various accounts was lost / left out and translations and transmissions from group to group changed how to the story was arranged and presented…until eventually it arrived in its current form. Understanding the perspectives of the P and J sources helps illuminate why they chose to include or exclude the passages as they did.
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While some may feel the need to resolve the troubling implications the Flood or have serious questions regarding its scientific plausibility,  the Encyclopedia of Mormonism had this to say about it:

“The Old Testament records a flood that was just over fifteen cubits (sometimes assumed to be about twenty-six feet) deep and covered the entire landscape: “And all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered” (Gen. 7:19). Scientifically this account leaves many questions unanswered, especially how a measurable depth could cover mountains.

Elder John A. Widtsoe, writing in 1943, offered this perspective: ‘The fact remains that the exact nature of the flood is not known. We set up assumptions, based upon our best knowledge, but can go no further. We should remember that when inspired writers deal with historical incidents they relate that which they have seen or that which may have been told them, unless indeed the past is opened to them by revelation.Many Bible accounts that trouble the inexperienced reader become clear and acceptable if the essential meaning of the story is sought out.

The details in the story of the flood are undoubtedly drawn from the experiences of the writer. Under a downpour of rain, likened to the opening of the heavens, a destructive torrent twenty-six feet deep or deeper would easily be formed. The writer of Genesis made a faithful report of the facts known to him concerning the flood. In other localities the depth of the water might have been more or less. In fact, the details of the flood are not known to us [Widtsoe, p. 127].'” (emphasis added)

I suspect the details of the story are not known to us, in part, because they are not the most important thing. Hebrew purpose of scripture was not to convey fact, but to convey lessons.
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Most LDS-centric discussions of the Noah account revolve around common themes like emergency preparedness, obeying prophetic counsel, and being courageous in the midst of a wicked world. While these themes are certainly useful in their own right, we’ll consider 4 additional perspectives of the Noah story and their implications to the post-exhilic Israelite nation.
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The Un-Creation and Rebirth
The Genesis 1 creation account refers to several distinct creative periods, each with their own purpose, and introduces the various creations in an ascending hierarchy of holiness, with humankind at its apex. The story echoes the Babylonian narratives of conflict between the gods of order and chaos, while reasserting Elohim as the dominant deity.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 9.01.13 PMThe Genesis 6 account of the Flood then reverses the creation and undoes everything that Elohim had established. The destruction of the world that had hitherto been deemed ‘very good’ might seem problematic, especially since an omniscient God could have easily foreseen the impending calamity. The world reverts back to chaos and nothing but a token sample of God’s creations were preserved in the portable center of holiness, the Ark.

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A representation of the ancient Hebrew understanding of Creation’s shape

Some traditions view this as symbolic of a rebirth, recreation, even understanding the Ark as a divine uterine symbol and Noah as simultaneous midwife / 1stborn.

 

One can find further symbolism of the rebirth narrative by understanding the Hebrew perspective of the shape of the cosmos as described in Gen 1 – earth and its creations wrapped in a body of celestial waters…)

 

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 9.01.28 PMTo the post-exhilic Jews, the story of YHWH remembering a small portion of his creations, even when all around them has been completely undone, would be immensely comforting. Theirs was a God who would still triumph over the forces of chaos and is willing to start everything over again, create the world around them anew, no matter how badly things may devolve.

 

 

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Commonly used symbolic numbers in Hebrew literature

It’s also helpful to understand the Hebrew tradition of layering meaning and message within the numbers of their stories. In this case, the ’40 days of rain’ could likely not referenced any measurable duration of time, but rather be indicative of the rebirth and recreation that God was commencing, after a long period of trial and testing.

 

 

Victory over Chaos & A Light in the Darkness

The Hebrew word translated as the Ark of Noah was not the same word used to describe the Ark of the Tabernacle, but it WAS the same word used to describe the basket or boat in which the Baby Moses was placed. Note the parallels and foreshadowing / references made across storylines of victories over chaotic waters, single families preserved in righteousness amidst an idolatrous nation, and YHWH’s remembering His covenant people.

Also, pay special attention to footnote a in the LDS KJV Gen 6:16 – the ‘window’ was likely not a window at all, but a glittering stone or pearl or gem, holding the primordial light of creation. Some esoteric traditions also mention this stone being passed from Adam down to Abraham; it’s quite likely that this glowing stone was the source of inspiration for Mahonri Moriancumr and his attempts at building boats to cross a similar body of waters.

Why would this be useful to the Hebrews and what additional morals might we draw from this perspective?

The God Who Weeps

The OT version of the Noah story shows little more than an angry God who selects 1 man and his family to save; apocryphal sources, including our own Pearl of Great Price, show instead a reluctant and sorrowful God who had little desire to punish His rebellious children, but instead allowed them to make their own choices, warned them of the consequences, and let agency and natural reaction take their course. Note how Moses 8 shows that Noah becomes the center of the narrative, is the person who warned the wicked people, and who ‘repented’ that God had created them. It’s especially touching in Moses 7:28 to see that God weeps about his children’s impending suffering and is pained by their choices.

What does this add to our understanding of the Nature of God?

The God Who Connects Via Covenants

The Noahite covenant is revealed in Gen 9, wherein Elohim repeats frequently his desire to establish, remember, and honor covenants with his children. The story is further illuminated in the Pearl of Great Price as we see that the covenant was first established with Enoch.

Given what we know about the great tragedy of the Babylonian captivityhow would this story benefit its audience?

Interpretations of the Flood narrative in Mormonism

There is a wide range of beliefs on the subject of the flood, whether it was a literal, universal event, or a regional localized event, or whether the entire story is more folklore than fact. Those differences of opinion are allowed, and we have freedom to accept whatever historical or scientific conclusions we may entertain, and we respectfully acknowledge the freedom of expression of, and tolerance for, those with differing conclusions on the nature of the flood. If nothing else, we are joined in the quest to find truth – belief in HOW the Noah story happened is not a litmus test of faith nor index of worthiness. 
Indeed the purpose of the Bible isn’t to clarify the HOW of anything, but moreso the WHY it happened.
As one internet friend recently said: “I believe that that the Flood narrative, especially as amplified in PofGP Moses, relates a profound message: there is nothing that deeply wounds God more than the complete absence of love and total, depraved apathy for our fellow being.”
The one thing that makes the creator of the Cosmos weep is when he sees his children will have to endure pain and sorrow because of choices they made. He is powerless to stop them, for he will not override agency.
But through it all he remembers them, provides a manner for them to repent, and he will bear them up in their trials should they obey. He will be their light in the darkness, their refuge from the storm, and will bear those who wait on him on to a glorious rebirth. Noah was a new beginning…a new Adam…and liberated Israel was attempting to re-connect to the same YHWH.

Additional Resources

Encyclopedia of Mormonism | “Noah”

Encyclopedia of Mormonism | “Earth”

Feb 1998 Ensign article on Noah

Maxwell Institute | Ships, Stones, etc.

Oxford University Press | “Reading Genesis After Darwin”

Patheos blog post on Noah

Times and Seasons blog post addendum to Noah

Sunstone | “Noah’s Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions”

Dialogue Journal | “The Noachian Flood Story”

Mormon Sunday School | “Of Babies, Boats, and Arks”

 

 

Posted in Old Testament, Sunday School.

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