Lesson 6: Noah Prepared an Ark to the Saving of His House #BCCSundaySchool2018

Readings

Moses 8

Genesis 6-9, 11

Learning Outcomes

To understand the importance of the story of Noah and the flood.

To come away with an appreciation for the complexities of Godhood, prophethood, regularpersonhood.

Introduction

I know there are many spiritual lessons to be learned from the story of Noah and the flood, but what I really want to focus on is exactly how large the ark was, how many cubits deep the water would have been, and how the animals managed to not eat each other.

Haha, just kidding. I don’t really care about any of that. I’ve seen too many lessons get derailed by speculation over details. I know that floats some people’s boats (rimshot) but not mine. Really though, this lesson covers the flood and the Tower of Babel. It will be a miracle to get through it and not be derailed by class member comments. Good luck with that.

Let me start off by noting that I’m not an Old Testament scholar, I don’t know Hebrew, I don’t spend time with ancient texts and I don’t apologize for any of that. What I am is curious and enthusiastic about going beyond surface-level scripture reading in a way that speaks to as many people as possible.  My favorite way to do this is to study the scriptures and pull out discussion topics that we might otherwise skim past in favor of more common talking points.

Noah is one of the first stories that we’re taught as children and probably one of the first that sticks. It has everything a kid could want- animals, a big boat, a rainbow. It paints a vivid picture in the mind. Because of this, we are all well versed in the basics of the story.

The Old Testament, it’s often been said, is a library made of many books. Some books are histories, some are poetry, some are satire or lamentations, some are a call to action, some describe the world as it was. It’s helpful to know what you’re reading and to also be aware of how you’re reading it. Despite how we learned it as young ones, Noah isn’t a children’s story and we are not children. And just like Jonah is not about a man eaten by a big fish, Noah is not about a man on a big boat with a bunch of animals. We’re going to take a look at what kind of story this is and then read it through different lenses to see what insight we may be able to pull out.

Genesis Cosmography & The Flood

We picture and are awed by the image of a worldwide flood covering every bit of this round plant. But we are also in modern times with the benefit of modern scientific knowledge. When reading the Hebrew Bible, we should do as the Hebrews did, so let’s picture the world as they did.

Firmament

As you can see from the picture, the earth is flat, disk shaped, and essentially surrounded by water. During creation, the Lord created the firmament to separate the waters and cause dry land to appear.

How do we read the story of the flood? To answer that, we should first ask how the original writers and audience understood the story of the flood.

Two weeks ago, we learned about Creation myths and how the story of Adam and Eve fit into that genre and what that meant to the ancients. This week, we see another type of ancient narrative that is found across multiple civilizations – the flood myth. A flood myth usually describes a deity, in an act of divine vengeance, sending a flood to totally wipe out a civilization. Often there is a hero who is favored and survives to birth a better civilization more pleasing to the deity.

Why do these exist? Like creation myths, the flood myths were a way to make sense of why things are the way they are. The story of Adam and Eve tell us how we got here, why we sin, why there is wickedness in the world, why patriarchy exists (and should be smashed if we want to progress back towards celestial glory, but I digress).

Now is the story of Noah just a myth? I’m not suggesting that (and I don’t think you should either, if you want to keep your class on track). Frankly, I’m not interested in getting into whether there was an actual historical flood, a more localized but still real flood, or if this is all a metaphor. What I am interested in is discussing how the ancient Hebrews would have understood it and what purpose it may have served for them.

So what might the oral tradition and then the recording of The Curious Incident of the Ark in the Flood help explain to the ancient Hebrews? (And here, we’re just in Genesis)

  • There is justice for the wicked.
  • God is present and involved.
  • God is merciful.
  • Hope exists, even in the darkest (or wettest) of times.
  • Life is not meaningless and random.

Learning From The Book of Moses

But we’re not ancient Hebrews and we have the benefit of modern revelation, including the Book of Moses that resulted from Joseph Smith translating the Bible. Here we gain insight that fleshes out this story in different ways. We’ve read and tried to understand as Hebrews might have with the knowledge, resources, and needs that they had. Now let’s read as Mormons, with the knowledge, resources, and needs that we have.

What are some things that we learn from the Book of Moses that we didn’t know before?

  • Noah was ordained and commanded to preach the Gospel.
  • Noah calls people to repentance, baptism, else they will be drowned.
  • In the Hebrew Bible, there is no attempt shown to save the wicked. What does it change for you to know that there was a last chance for people?
  • Noah’s grief for people’s wickedness is shown, not just the Lord’s; it is used as a justification by the Lord for the flood.
  • What do we do with this?

Why are these new insights significant to us as Latter-day Saints?

  • Priesthood emphasis
  • The Gospel is central from the beginning
  • God allows for repentance
  • The Lord values ordinary people, works in connection with them not in isolation from them

Optional Discussion Points

Any of these points or the ones above are good jumping off points for discussion. Other interesting points of discussion that can be brought up by this lesson:

  • The interesting way the flood uncreates the world in a reversal of the creation story
    • then Noah and his wife as a new Adam & Eve, leaving safety, reestablishing the covenant, going forth to multiply and replenish the earth
  • What do we do with a God who wipes out a civilization?
  • What do we learn from a God who weeps?
    • Moses 7:28–47
    • Or a God who regrets?
    • What does this tell us about Him? How might we better relate to Him?
  • What does this teach us about hope?
  • Covenants
    • Why does the Lord covenant with Noah?
  • Allusions
    • Cleansing waters as in baptism
    • A similitude of the Day of Judgment
      • Matthew 24:37-39
  • Prophethood
    • What do we learn about this office and calling from the story of Noah?
  • Our own metaphorical arks
    • How does the church function as an ark? The Gospel? Our communities, families, etc?
      • How might the idea of an ark of safety not be helpful?

As I teach through the Old Testament, I also keep a running list of symbols as we go, mainly because I gleefully anticipate teaching my favorite book, Isaiah, and want to be preparing the class to think symbolically. Here we can add water, the rainbow, the dove, and the high mountain to the list. Any others?

Tower of Babel

Finally, let’s briefly touch on the Tower of Babel.

First, go back to that Genesis cosmography. Now the idea of building a tower to breach the heavens doesn’t seem so crazy if this is how you see the world, does it?

What was the purpose of reaching into Heaven?

Where do we go to try and reach Heaven? Compare the Tower and the Temple.

What does it mean to make a name for oneself? Is this in conflict with taking upon yourself the name of Christ?

Why is this not okay with the Lord?

What is the practical purpose of this story to the Hebrews? What do we learn from it?

  • Note that its helpful to understand “confound” as “confuse” or “mix up.” Point out that this doesn’t just refer to language, as we lazily read it, but also mixing of peoples, cultures, etc.

Conclusion

The Hebrew Bible is so much richer if we take the time to read it as it was meant to be read and think about why it was written that way- both form and content. After we’ve done that, we can, by adding the perspective of modern revelation, start to find the connections between ourselves and our world with what is being taught.

Related BCC content:

https://bycommonconsent.com/2014/04/07/noah-the-man-the-myth-the-movie/

https://bycommonconsent.com/2009/05/25/noahs-lament-update/

https://bycommonconsent.com/2014/07/17/hope-a-transformative-power/

Comments

  1. Paul Ritchey says:

    This is wonderful, Melissa. I am excited for Sunday, even though, like you, I won’t be shedding any Hebrew-scholarly light on the subject.

  2. Bodensmate says:

    Genesis seem to be written mostly in third person, while the book of Moses seems mostly written in 1st person (ie: “I the Lord God). If that is true, can we relegate the story of Noah to a simple story passed down through time?
    Moses didn’t hear this story from his parents (did he?). According to my (admittedly limited) understanding, the Lord is the author of this story. If the Lord told this story to Moses, and it didn’t actually happen, why did he do that?

  3. Paul Ritchey says:

    Bodensmate: Perhaps for the same reason that Jesus spoke in parables that may, or may not, have actually occurred.

  4. Stories written in the first person can be passed down and altered just as easily as stories written in the third person. And scribes can change stories written in the third person to first person and vice versa.

    The Book of Moses is Joseph Smith wrestling with Genesis, and trying to make sense of it with his revelatory gifts. If Joseph Smith restored some earlier version of Genesis that was written in the first person, that doesn’t mean that that earlier version is somehow inerrant and has gone from being a poetic origin story to a scientifically accurate account.

  5. Bodensmate says:

    JKC,
    That does make some sense. I think I’ve always had the view that the Lord himself gave Joseph this account, which if true would make it very reliable. If I understand your point, the Lord himself did not give Joseph this account.

    By the way, I’m not arguing that the flood was an actual event, or that every word in scripture is literal. And I’m definitely open to all view points. I just like for things to make sense to me.

    Paul,
    I love that Jesus told parables, but it was usually obvious that he was speaking of fictional characters. I’m just trying to make sense of why God might use a real character (Noah) and tell a fictional story as though it’s historically true.

  6. Paul Ritchey says:

    Bodensmate,
    Sorry to have been cheeky. While at first glance the flood story looks like a lie coming from God, I think it’s significant that no one ever asked Him whether the story was fiction. At least, no one who’s gotten an answer and written it in scripture. I understand that the ancients didn’t think about reality that way, but even if they had, God never made a metaphysical claim about the story, so I don’t think you can say he was misleading them.

    In fact, maybe it’s *because* the metaphysical status of the story was less important to the ancients that God can’t be called a liar in this instance. In which case, perhaps we should expect God’s servants to be more forthright about the (presumably) fictional nature of the myth in our fact-obsessed time.

  7. Bodensmate says:

    Paul,
    No problem. I hope you can understand (and I certainly invite yours and anyone’s comments on this) if what you are saying is true, it could possibly cause one to question whether any particular scripture is actually true. That could be a somewhat scarry situation for someone who has simply assumed all their lives that the scriptures tell true stories.

  8. Bodensmate, that’s why it’s important to know what you’re reading. That slippery slope only exists where someone is assuming all the books in the library are the same. It’s probably the way most people read the Old Testament but it’s a lazy and immature way. If we want a strong, mature faith, then we need to exercise a strong, mature study. I think it’s a positive for someone to question whether a particular scripture is true. That’s what we should be doing! But I know I’m reaching for an ideal, not a reality. Still, I think teaching how to recognize genre is the inoculation that could solve this problem.

  9. Eric Facer says:

    Bodensmate,
    One of the mistakes Mormons and other fundamentalists often make is elevating factual truth over truth that is taught in other ways, such as through myth, song, poetry, and even satire, all of which can be found in our scriptures. The recounting of actual events is not the only means—nor the best one—by which the Lord teaches his children.

    Another mistake we often make is assuming that the authors of these ancient texts were people just like us. In reality, they were predominantly members of tribal cultures who placed greater emphasis on the community than the individual, and who were inclined to attribute to the supernatural any physical phenomena they didn’t understand. Further, when they told a story, factual and historical accuracy invariably took a backseat to a more important message they were trying to convey.

    For me, once I accepted this approach to the scriptures, they became far more meaningful and richer. Simply stated, in my opinion any reading of the scriptures that insists upon scriptural inerrancy is impoverished and will prevent the student from seeing the multiple layers of meaning embedded in the text. If you can accept this possibility, you will be amazed by what you will learn and there’s a very good chance your testimony will be the stronger for it.

  10. Bodensmate says:

    Thank you Melissa for the post. The BCC Sunday School lesson posts are my favorite part of Sunday School. Unfortunately, one would likely not here many of these additional viewpoints in the adult Sunday School class in my ward. I also appreciate all responses to my original question.

  11. I guess that depends what you mean by “the Lord himself gave Joseph this account.” That could mean anything from “God appeared and dictated these exact words,” to “God gave Joseph Smith inspired impressions as he read the Bible, which he then tried to translate into words revising the bible.”

    What we have as the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price is the first several chapters of what we now call the Joseph Smith translation, and you can find lots of good resources here at BCC and elsewhere about what the JST is, but the short answer is that in most places, the JST is nothing more than the prophet wrestling with the scriptures, doing his best to make sense of the apparent contradictions and problems they contain. That said, there are still places in the JST that look more like full-blown additional revelations. The Enoch material, for example, and some of the Moses material. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the Community of Christ publishes these separately as revelations in the D&C in addition to incorporating them into the inspired version (their name for what we call the JST).

    But in any case, it does seem pretty clear to me that Genesis is the source document for the Book of Moses. That’s not to say that the Lord couldn’t or didn’t inspire Joseph Smith to restore things in the text that were there before, or to supplement it with things that were never there at all. But I think it’s not wise (and a little lazy) to think of every word in the Book of Moses as something that God personally dictated to give the “real story” that Genesis only gives pieces of. Rather, I see it as a process of the prophet reading Genesis, thinking deeply and seriously about it, pondering it, fearlessly exploring it, challenging it, cross-examining it, and doing his best, with the benefit of his revelatory gift, to make some sense of it.

  12. Ryan Gotchy Mullen says:

    I love how you approach this narrative with careful attention to layers and sources, especially the distinction between ancient texts and modern revelation. Both are valuable IMO, but we learn different things from each.

    With regards to the Genesis flood narrative, learning about the Akkadian epic Atrahasis casts it in a different light, at least it did for me. In Atrahasis, the god Enlil attempts to kill off humanity several times. Each time, his plan is thwarted by another god, Enki. When Enlil tries to drown humanity, Enki warns Atrahasis and tells him to build a boat. The Genesis accounts don’t feature warring gods, obviously, so we awkwardly have one God who thwarts his own flood by warning Noah. Is this an artifact of Israelite and Judahite scribal schools simply squeezing their new monotheistic wine into old wineskins?

    Or perhaps God hoped to reboot humanity the way we fix computer glitches. Cycle the Earth off and on again, and this time the humans will be well-behaved. But right after Noah and sons exit the ark we read of the funny business between Ham and Noah. It seems they are the same type of flawed humans that God just wiped out. So … the flood doesn’t change anything on earth–even the Nephilim survive somehow.

    Rather, it’s God himself that changes the most from the flood, reversing several of his earlier decrees:
    (*) He changes his mind about eating meat (9:3 cf. 3:18) perhaps induced by the wonderful smells from Noah’s BBQ (8:21, okay, it’s an altar)
    (*) He decides to quit punishing humankind for sin–no more attempted mass extinction (8:21), particularly no more floods (9:11), and he lifts the Adamic curse on earth (8:21-22 cf. 3:17-19).

    This second change highlights that from the garden to the flood, God has actively been trying to get humankind to abandon sin. He threatened death and when that didn’t work tried exile, curses, and now worldwide destruction. This seems to clash with LDS theology, where God prepared for sin in the pre-mortal councils in heaven, but it dovetails nicely when God changes tactics from punishment to covenants (9:8-17 cf 15, 17).

  13. Ryan, thanks, now where do you attend Sunday School?
    I like the ideas that are saying that these are stories that Bronze Age people are telling themselves to make sense of the world and its random happenings. They took them literally, we will account that to them for righteousness . But as for us, we need to take them metaphorically, teaching a higher hidden truth. Tower of Babel and flood are just the hardest thing to pull out a truth that I can build on. I’ll keep thinking about this article and comments to find those great truths. When I read these stories with my Hebrew translator footnotes (Robert Alter) they are so beautiful. I get lost in my visual perception of them and the playing with words and love it. It’s only the beauty in these stories that draws me to God, not their truths.

  14. The best telling of the Tower of Babel is written by Ted Chiang. It’s called the “Tower of Babylon”. The story won the 1991 Nebula Award for Best Novelette, and was reprinted in Chiang’s 2002 anthology, Stories of Your Life and Others.

  15. BlueRidgeMormon says:

    As a former early morning seminary teacher, I was surprised when going through the Old Testament in 2015 by how some youth (as well as their parents) are more “challenged” by nuanced treatments of Old Testament stories than others. I was struck by how challenging it was for some to even consider the possibility that maybe Noah didn’t have millions of species (across all climes) on one wooden vessel! I shamelessly employed a few “handouts” from BCC to help lighten things up – – and if you haven’t seen them, you should.

    bycommonconsent.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/arkchart_web1.jpg
    bycommonconsent.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/noahsark_tiny.jpg