[Editor: This is the first article in a series of adaptations from Jeffrey M. Bradshaw’s recent talk at the “Temple on Mount Zion” Conference, sponsored by the Interpreter Foundation (www.mormoninterpreter.com). This and related subjects will be the focus of a forthcoming book of scripture commentary, “In God’s Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel.” This book, which is co-authored with David J. Larsen, will appear in late 2013 or early 2014. See www.templethemes.net for other writings and presentations by the author.]

01-Donald Duck and Noah from FantasiaDonald Duck Gathers the Animals to the Ark [1]

Given their status as targets of humor and caricature, it is sometimes difficult to be taken seriously when discussing the well-worn stories of Adam, Eve, and Noah. However, a thoughtful examination of the scriptural record of these characters will reveal not simply stories of “piety or … inspiring adventures”[2] but rather carefully-crafted narratives from a highly-sophisticated culture that preserve “deep memories”[3] of spiritual understanding. We do an injustice, both to these marvelous records and to ourselves, when we fail to pursue scriptural understanding beyond the initial level of cartoon cut-outs inculcated upon the minds of young children.[4] Hugh Nibley characterized the problem this way:[5]

 The stories of the Garden of Eden and the Flood have always furnished unbelievers with their best ammunition against believers, because they are the easiest to visualize, popularize, and satirize of any Bible accounts. Everyone has seen a garden and been caught in a pouring rain. It requires no effort of imagination for a six-year-old to convert concise and straightforward Sunday-school recitals into the vivid images that will stay with him for the rest of his life. These stories retain the form of the nursery tales they assume in the imaginations of small children, to be defended by grown-ups who refuse to distinguish between childlike faith and thinking as a child when it is time to “put away childish things.”[6] It is equally easy and deceptive to fall into adolescent disillusionment and with one’s emancipated teachers to smile tolerantly at the simple gullibility of bygone days, while passing stern moral judgment on the savage old God who damns Adam for eating the fruit He put in his way and, overreacting with impetuous violence, wipes out Noah’s neighbors simply for making fun of his boat-building on a fine summer’s day.

 02-In Search of NoahsFigure 2. In Search of Noah’s Ark, 1976[7]

Adding to the circus-like atmosphere surrounding modern discussions of Noah’s flood are the sometimes acrimonious contentions among fundamentalist proponents concerning theories about where the Ark came to rest. Nicolas Wyatt reports:[8]

 I once watched a television programme of excruciating banality, in which a camera team accompanied an American “archaeologist” (for so he called himself) on his quest for the remains of Noah’s ark on Mount Ararat. The highlight for me occurred when a rival crew was encountered at several thousand feet… above sea level heading in the opposite direction, on the same quest!

 03-Galzu Helps-Enki Pgm to Noah SitchinFigure 3. Enki Inserts a Computer Disk[9]

 Unfortunately, Mesopotamian studies are no more exempt from such quackery than is Old Testament scholarship. I found the following description on the Web for the figure shown above:[10]

 Galzu tells Enki (depicted with his snake icon) to warn Ziasudra [sic] (touching the “wall”-probably a computer bank, depicted with Xs across the screens and slots for programs) of the Flood. Galzu guides Enki’s arm to convey tablet (possibly a computer or holo disk. The disk leaves Enki’s hand en route to Ziasudra’s computer).

04a-Russell Crowe in NoahRussell Crowe as Noah;[11]04b-Watcher-noah-aronofskyA “Watcher” on the attack[12] Realizing that Noah’s story can be adapted to adults as easily as it can be told to children, Hollywood has made sure that it is not left out of the fun. At left is Russell Crowe as Noah in a film adaptation that Paramount officially has called a “close adaptation of the Biblical story.”[13] Bible readers will, of course, agree with director Aronofsky’s description of Noah as “a dark, complicated character’ who experiences real survivor’s guilt’ after surviving the Flood.”[14] Accordingly, the prophet is portrayed with perfect scriptural fidelity as a “Mad Max-style warrior surviving in a pseudo post-apocalyptic world.”[15] Students of the Bible will also surely recognize the portrait at right of one of the “Watchers,” who are depicted, in exact correspondence to the graphic novel that inspired the movie, as “eleven-foot-tall fallen angels with six arms and no wings.”[16]

This is certainly not your grandmother’s story of Noah!

To understand the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah for what they are, we need to bring our best: the powerful tools of modern scholarship, the additional light shed by modern revelation, and, of no less importance, the consecrated dedication of inquiring minds and honest hearts diligently seeking divine inspiration. The simple fantasies of a “fanciful and flowery and heated imagination”[17] will not suffice.

 05. Swindle-Joseph Smith-Figure 5. Liz Lemon Swindle, 1953-: Go with Me to Cumorah, 1997

Toward a “Literal” Interpretation of Scripture

The Prophet Joseph Smith held the view that scripture should be “understood precisely as it reads.”[18] Consistent with this view, my objective will be to render “literal” interpretations of extracts from the primeval history. In saying this, however, it must be realized that what premoderns understood to be “literal” interpretations of scripture is not the same as what we understand them to be in our day. Whereas we moderns typically apply the term “literal” to accounts that provide clinical accuracy in the journalistic dimensions of who, what, when, and where, premoderns were more apt to understand “literal” in the sense of “what the letters, i.e., the words say.”[19] These are two very different ways of doing interpretation.As James Faulconer observed: “What x says’ [i.e., the premodern idea of “literal”] and what x describes accurately’ [i.e., the modern idea of “literal”] do not mean the same, even if the first is a description.”[20]

Consider, as an example, Joseph Smith’s description of the Book of Mormon translation process. An emphasis consistent with modern interests is reflected in the detailed accounts given by some of the Prophet’s contemporaries about the size and appearance of the instruments he was supposed to have used and the exact procedure by which the words of the ancient text were made known to him.

This kind of account appeals to us as moderns-the more physical details the better-because we want to know what “actually happened” as he translated. On the other hand, Joseph Smith declined to relate such specifics, even in response to direct questioning.[21] The only explicit statement he made about the translation process is a testimony that it was accomplished “by the gift and power of God,”[22] a description that avoids reinforcing the misleading impression that we can understand “what really happened” through detailed accounts by human observers. This is not to deny that the process used instruments and procedures, such as those described by Joseph Smith’s contemporaries. However, in saying that the translation was accomplished “by the gift and power of God,”[23] the Prophet abandons any effort to make these sacred events intelligible to the clinical literalist and instead attempts to point our attention to what mattered most: that the translation was accomplished by divine means. Faulconer argues that insistence on a “literal” interpretation of such sacred events, in the modern clinical sense of the term, may result in “rob[bing that event] of its status as a way of understanding the world.”[24] Elaborating more fully on the limitations of modern descriptions, he observes that the interest of premoderns:[25]

… was not in deciding what the scriptures portray, but in what they say. They do not take the scriptures to be picturing something for us, but to be telling us the truth of the world, of its things, its events, and its people, a truth that cannot be told apart from its situation in a divine, symbolic ordering.[26]

Of course, that is not to deny that the scriptures tell about events that actually happened… However, premodern interpreters do not think it sufficient (or possible) to portray the real events of real history without letting us see them in the light of that which gives them their significance-their reality, the enactment of which they are a part-as history, namely the symbolic order that they incarnate. Without that light, portrayals cannot be accurate. A bare description of the physical movements of certain persons at a certain time is not history (assuming that such bare descriptions are even possible).

 06-Poison into cupPouring Liquid[27]

“Person A raised his left hand, turning it clockwise so that .03 milliliters of a liquid poured from a vial in that hand into a receptacle situated midway between A and B” does not mean the same as “Henry poured poison in to Richard’s cup.” Only the latter could be a historical claim (and even the former is no bare description).

 07-Scale model of Noahs ArkScale Model of Noah’s Ark[28]

This is not to say that precise times, locations, and dimensions will be unimportant to the story of the Flood. Indeed, details given in Genesis about, for example, the size of the Ark, the place where it landed, and the date of its debarkation are crucial to its interpretation. However, in cases in which these chapters reveal such details, you can be sure that it is not done merely to add a touch of realism to the account, but rather to help the reader make mental associations with scriptural stories and religious concepts found elsewhere in the Bible-in the case of Noah, for example, these associations might echo the story of Creation or might anticipate the Tabernacle of Moses. It is precisely such backward and forward reverberations of related themes in disparate passages of scripture, rather than a photorealistic rendering of the Flood, that will be the focus of this series of articles.

 08-Wyatt Typology-trimTypology in Biblical Tradition

Though we can no more reconstruct the story of Noah from geological remains of the Flood than we can re-create the discourse of Abinadi from the ruins of Mesoamerican buildings, we are fortunate, however, to have a scriptural record that can be “understood precisely as it reads.”[30] The literal understanding we seek of the story of Noah will be found in an unraveling of the interconnections among what Hendel calls “the tangled plots of Genesis,”[31] and in an interpretive approach that attempts to comprehend how the individual story plots fit within larger meta-plots throughout the Pentateuch-and sometimes even further afield.[32] This table, derived by Wyatt from the work of A. J. Wensinck,[33] shows “a typological reiteration of the same literary nexus [of chaos/flood, creation/exodus, and covenant] throughout the tradition, canonical and non-canonical.”[34] A neglected aspect of genius in the account of Noah, as in much of scripture, is in the deliberate structuring of the elements of the stories in a manner that highlights important typological patterns for the observant reader. Moreover, when finely-tuned perception meets the insight of prophecy, as in the mind and heart of Joseph Smith, even missing puzzle pieces can be supplied when required. As a stunning example, consider how the Prophet discerned faint illumination through the keyhole of a handful of heavily redacted verses in Genesis and then used his gifts to open the door, revealing roomfuls of light, and expanding these few verses into two brilliant chapters on the ministry of Enoch.[35]

So much for preliminaries. In the next article we will begin a discussion of temple symbolism in the form and function of Noah’s Ark.


Barker, Margaret. The Hidden Tradition of the Kingdom of God. London, England: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), 2007.

Benson, Ezra Taft. “The Book of Mormon-Keystone of our religion.” Ensign 16, November 1986, 4-7.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. “The structure of P.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 38, no. 3 (1976): 275-92. Structure of P.

Faulconer, James E. Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions. Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University, 1999.

—. “Scripture as incarnation.” In Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, edited by Paul Y. Hoskisson, 17-61. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 2001.

—. “Response to Professor Dorrien.” In Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies, edited by Donald W.Musser and David L.Paulsen, 423-35. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007.

Hall, Peter. 2012. Just how much of a fantasy is Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’? (10 July 2012). In Movie News. (accessed September 3, 2012).

Hendel, Ronald S. “Tangled plots in Genesis.” In Fortunate the Eyes that See: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman, edited by Astrid B.

Beck, Andrew H. Bartelt, Paul R. Raabe and Chris A. Franke, 35-51. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1995.

LaCocque, Andr. The Trial of Innocence: Adam, Eve, and the Yahwist. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006.

Lessin, Sasha. Galzu helps Enki save Ziusudra and earthlings (Essay 22). In Enki Speaks – Messages from Enki: Humanity’s Father.  (accessed August 1, 2012).

Nibley, Hugh W. 1980. “Before Adam.” In Old Testament and Related Studies, edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum and Don E. Norton. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 1, 49-85. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1986.

Noah (film). In Wikipedia. (film). (accessed September 3, 2012).

Petersen, Morris S. “Earth.” In Encyclopedia of Mormonism, edited by Daniel H. Ludlow. 4 vols. Vol. 2, 431-33. New York City, NY: Macmillan, 1992.  (accessed November 26).

Photos with Russell Crowe. In IMDb, Noah (2014). (accessed September 3, 2012).

Pratt, Parley P. 1837. “A Voice of Warning.” In Key to the Science of Theology, A Voice of Warning, 1-127. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1978.

Seaich, John Eugene. Ancient Texts and Mormonism: Discovering the Roots of the Eternal Gospel in Ancient Israel and the Primitive Church. 2nd Revised and Enlarged ed. Salt Lake City, UT: n. p., 1995.

Smith, Joseph, Jr. The Words of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1980.

—. 1902-1932. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Documentary History). 7 vols. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1978.

—. 1938. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1969.

Widtsoe, John A. “22. Did the flood cover the highest mountains of the earth?” In Evidences and Reconciliations: Aids to Faith in a Modern Day, edited by John A. Widtsoe. 2nd ed, 109-12. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1943.

Wyatt, Nicolas. “‘Water, water everywhere…’: Musings on the aqueous myths of the Near East.” In The Mythic Mind: Essays on Cosmology and Religion in Ugaritic and Old Testament Literature, edited by Nicholas Wyatt, 189-237. London, England: Equinox, 2005.

Zornberg, Avivah Gottlieb. Genesis: The Beginning of Desire. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1995.



[1] From the Disney film Fantasia 2000.

[2] J. E. Seaich, Ancient Texts 1995, p. vii.

[3] M. Barker, Hidden, p. 34.

[4] LaCocque observes: “To consider [such stories as tales] for children is only possible when the story is vaguely known, when it is considered from a distance, and with a preconceived feeling that nothing can be learned from so nai?ve’ a tale” (A. LaCocque, Trial, pp. 10-11).

[5] H. W. Nibley, Before Adam, p. 63. Commenting further on simplistic assumptions that believers too often apply to the story of Noah, Nibley wrote (ibid., p. 66):

From where he was, “the whole earth” (Genesis 8:9) was covered with water as far as he could see; after things had quieted down for 150 days and the ark ground to a halt, it was still three months before he could see any mountaintops. But what were conditions in other parts of the world? If Noah knew that, he would not have sent forth messenger birds to explore. The flood as he described it is what he saw of it. “He sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground” (Genesis 8:8). Couldn’t he see for himself? Not where the dove went. It was not until seven days later that he sent it out again; and after flying all day, the bird came back with a green leaf fetched from afar; “so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth” (Genesis 8:11). Still he waited another seven days. When the dove did not return, Noah had his answer. In some distant place, trees were bearing and there was birdfood to be found. But not where Noah was. All that time he had not dared to open up.

Note that the author does not fall into the literary trap of telling where the birds went and what they saw. That became a standard theme of early Oriental literature, faithfully reflected in the classical stories of the sea-eagle and the hoopoe. All Noah tells us is what he saw of the birds and the flood. The rain continued at least in spots, for there was that magnificent rainbow. Why do Christians insist on calling it the first rainbow, just because it is the first mentioned? Who says that water drops did not refract light until that day? Well, my old Sunday School teacher, for one, used to say it. The rainbow, like the sunrise, is strictly the product of a point of view, for which the beholder must stand in a particular place while it is raining in another particular place and the sun is in a third particular place, if he is to see it at all. It is a lesson in relativity.

Of course, Nibley also took issue with skeptics who believed that there was no historical antecedent for the kinds of events reported in the Bible. As Parley P. Pratt wrote about such views in his day (P. P. Pratt, Voice, p. 4):

It was well for Noah that he was not well-versed in the spiritualizing systems of modern divinity; for under their benighted influence he would never have believed that so marvelous a prophecy would have had a literal meaning and fulfillment. No, he would have been told that the Flood meant a spiritual flood, and the Ark a spiritual ark, and the moment he thought otherwise he would have been set down as a fanatic, knave, or fool. But it was so-that he believed the prophecy literally. Here then is a fair sample of foreknowledge, for all the world who did not possess it perished by the Flood.

For LDS perspectives on reconciling scientific findings with the Genesis flood story see M. S. Petersen, Earth, p. 432; J. A. Widtsoe, Flood.

[6] 1 Corinthians 13:11.

[7] www.movieposter.com/posters/, 16 July 2012.

[8] N. Wyatt, Water, p.219.

[9] S. Lessin, Galzu.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Photos with Russell Crowe, Photos with Russell Crowe.

[12] P. Hall, Just How Much.

[13] Ibid.


[14] Noah (film), Noah (Film).

[15] P. Hall, Just How Much.

[16] Ibid..

[17] J. Smith, Jr., Teachings, 25 March 1839, p. 137.

[18] J. Smith, Jr., Words, 29 January 1843, p. 161.

[19] J. E. Faulconer, Incarnation, p. 44.

[20] Ibid., p. 44, emphasis mine.

[21] In response to a request in 1831 by his brother Hyrum to explain the translation process more fully, Joseph Smith said that “it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon; and…it was not expedient for him to relate these things” (J. Smith, Jr., Documentary History, 1:220).

[22] Ibid., 1:315; see also D&C 1:29, 20:8.

[23] Ibid., 1:315; see also D&C 1:29, 20:8.

[24] J. E. Faulconer, Dorrien, p. 426.

[25] J. E. Faulconer, Incarnation, pp. 44-45, emphasis mine. Cf. J. E. Faulconer, Study, pp. 124-128.

[26] A. G. Zornberg, Genesis, pp 31-32.

[27] everyonestea.blogspot.com/2012_, 26 June 2012.

[28] www.icr.org/article/467/, 26 June 2012.

[29] N. Wyatt, Water, pp. 224-225.

[30] J. Smith, Jr., Words, 29 January 1843, p. 161.

[31] See R. S. Hendel, Tangled Plots.

[32] That much of the shaping of Genesis to highlight the interconnections with subsequent biblical stories was done, as seems likely, by authors who lived after the time of Moses should not be a foreign concept to readers of the Book of Mormon, who are familiar with the history of how its inspired editors wove separate overlapping records from earlier times into the finished scriptural narrative. The authors and editors of the Book of Mormon knew that the account was not preserved primarily for the people of their own times, but rather for later generations (e.g., 2 Nephi 25:31; Jacob 1:3; Enos 1:15-16; Jarom 1:2; Mormon 7:1, 8:34-35). More specifically, President Ezra Taft Benson testified: “It was meant for us. Mormon wrote near the end of the Nephite civilization. Under the inspiration of God, who sees all things from the beginning, he abridged centuries of records, choosing the stories, speeches, and events that would be most helpful to us” (E. T. Benson, Book of Mormon-Keystone).

Neither should the idea be disturbing to modern readers that the story of the Flood, as we have it today, might “be read as a kind of parable” (J. Blenkinsopp, The structure of P, p. 284)-its account crafted with specific pedagogical purposes in mind. “If this is so,” writes Blenkinsopp, “it would be only one of several examples in P [one of the presumed redactors of the Genesis account] of a paradigmatic interpretation of events recorded in the earlier sources with reference to the contemporary situation” (ibid., p. 284). More simply put, Nephi himself admitted: “I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23). Nephi left us with significant examples where he deliberately shaped his explanation of Bible stories and teachings in order to help his hearers understand how they applied to their own situations (e.g., 1 Nephi 4:2, 17:23-44).

[33] N. Wyatt, Water, pp. 224-225.

[34] Ibid., p. 224.

[35] Examples of ancient parallels to the book of Moses story of Enoch include the following:

Moses 6: Moses 6:31 calls the 65 year-old Enoch a “lad” (the only use of this term in LDS scripture), corresponding to the somewhat puzzling use of this term to describe Enoch/Metatron in, e.g., 2 Enoch 10:4 and 3 Enoch 3:2, 4:2, and 4:10. Other examples of parallels with pseudepigraphic Enoch literature unknown to Joseph Smith include the following: Mahijah/Mahujah enquires of Enoch; (Moses 6:39-40; cf. Dead Sea Scrolls 4QEnGiants 1:20); Enoch speaks of the existence of the souls of men before they were born (Moses 6:51; cf. 2 Enoch 23:4-5).

Moses 7: This chapter continues the story of Enoch’s preaching, including a vision of the “Son of Man”-a favorite motif in pseudepigraphal book of 1 Enoch. While the identity of the “Son of Man” in 1 Enoch has been a matter of debate, in Moses 7 the title is clearly understood to refer to Jesus Christ. Moses 7 concludes with the story of how Enoch gathered the righteous into a city he called Zion. The city became so righteous that “God received it up into his own bosom.” Other specific parallels with the Enoch literature include the following: Enoch sees all generations (Moses 7:4; cf. 3 Enoch 45); Enoch sees all of men’s deeds (Moses 7:41; cf. 2 Enoch 53;2); the ark protected by the hands of God (Moses 7:43; cf. 1 Enoch 67:2); Enoch weeps over mankind (Moses 7:44; cf. 2 Enoch 41:1); the earth complains of men’s wickedness (Moses 7:48; cf. 1 Enoch 7:6); Enoch is given a right to the divine throne (Moses 7:59; cf. 3 Enoch 10:1-3); the Lord’s house/tabernacle shall be called Jerusalem (Moses 7:62; cf. Testament of Levi 10:4, citing an otherwise unknown Enoch source); Enoch sees all things (Moses 7:67; cf. 2 Enoch 40:1).