Editor: This is the third 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). Read Part One: Taking the Stories of Adam, Eve, and Noah Seriously and Part Two: Temple Symbolism in the Form of Noah’s Ark.

01-Turner Joseph-Shade and darkness

Figure 1. Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775-1851: Shade and Darkness: The Evening Before the Deluge, 1843

In considering the role of Noah’s Ark in the flood story, note that it was specifically a mobile sanctuary,[1] as were the Tabernacle and the ark made of reeds that saved the baby Moses. Each of these structures can be described as a traveling vehicle of rescue that was designed to parallel in function God’s portable pavilion or chariot.

Scripture makes a clear distinction between the fixed heavenly temple and its portable counterparts. For example, in Psalm 18[2] and D&C 121:1, the “pavilion” (i.e., booth or canopy; Hebrew sukkah) of “God’s hiding place” should not be equated with the celestial “temple” (i.e., palace; Hebrew hekal) to which the prayers of the oppressed ascend.[3]Rather, it is a representation of a movable “conveyance”[4] in which God could swiftly descend to rescue His people from mortal danger.[5] The sense of the action is succinctly captured by Robert Alter: “The outcry of the beleaguered warrior ascends all the way to the highest heavens, thus launching a downward vertical movement”[6] of God’s own chariot.

02-Blake-PrimevalGiants Figure 2. William Blake, 1757-1827: The Primaeval Giants Sunk in the Soil, 1824-1827

Such a “downward vertical movement” had already been urgently undertaken in response to the sorry state of humanity not long before the Flood. In a vision foreshadowing this event, Enoch is said to have seen “many stars descend” from heaven.[7] These were the Watchers or “sons of God”[8]-described variously as angels or mortals. They were given a charge to rescue mankind,[9] having been commissioned to “teach the sons of man, and perform judgment and uprightness upon the earth.”[10] Tragically, however, they “corrupted their way and their ordinances,” the discharge of their missions thus serving to accelerate rather than halt the increase of “injustice… upon the earth.”[11] It was in view of the utter failure of this attempt to save humanity at large that God resolved to rescue Noah and his family.

03-noahs-flood2Figure 3.Terrible Winds and Titanic Seas

Noah’s mission was one that few of us would envy. As Nibley writes:[13]

If we fancy Noah riding the sunny seas high, dry, and snug in the Ark, we have not read the record-the long, hopeless struggle against entrenched mass resistance to his preaching, the deepening gloom and desperation of the years leading up to the final debacle, then the unleashed forces of nature with the family absolutely terrified, weeping and praying “because they were at the gates of death,”[14] as the Ark was thrown about with the greatest violence by terrible winds and titanic seas. Albright’s suggestion that the flood story goes back to “the tremendous floods which must have accompanied the successive retreats of the glaciers”[15] is supported by the tradition that the family suffered terribly because of the cold, and that Noah on the waters “coughed blood on account of the cold.”[16] The Jaredites had only to pass through the tail end of the vast storm cycle of Noah’s day, yet for 344 days they had to cope with “mountain waves” and a wind that “did never cease to blow.”[17] Finally, Noah went forth into a world of utter desolation, as Adam did, to build his altar, call upon God, and try to make a go of it all over again, only to see some of his progeny on short order prefer Satan to God and lose all the rewards that his toil and sufferings had put in their reach.

04-Turner Joseph-Light and Colour

 Figure 4. Joseph Turner, 1775-1851: Light and Colour: The Morning After the Deluge, 1843

Despite its ungainly shape as a buoyant temple, the Ark is portrayed as floating confidently above the chaos of the great deep. Significantly, the motion of the Ark “upon the face of the waters”[18] paralleled the movement of the Spirit of God “upon the face of the waters”[19] at the original creation of heaven and earth. The deliberate nature of this parallel is made clear when we consider that these are the only two verses in the Bible that contain the phrase “the face of the waters.” In short, this tells us that the presence of the Ark symbolized a return of the same Spirit of God that hovered over the waters at Creation-the Spirit whose previous withdrawal was presaged in Genesis 6:3.[20] “Where [that Spirit] is withdrawn, chaos flourishes unchecked.” “Where it hovers, there is order, and chaos is restrained.”[21]


The keys to understanding the symbolism of the movement of Noah’s ark on the water are found in the creation story. In Moses 2:2, God says: “I caused darkness to come up upon the face of the deep.”[22]Unlike Genesis 1:2 where the origin of the darkness is left obscure, Joseph Smith’s translation of the verse tells us that God purposefully introduced the darkness. A corresponding statement in the book of Abraham asserts that the “darkness reigned upon the face of the deep,”[23] recalling ancient creation accounts that portray darkness not merely as the absence of light but as an active entity in its own right.[24]

05-Escher-First day of creationFigure 5. M. C. Escher, 1898-1972: First Day of Creation, 1925

Far from representing the stirrings of evil and opposition, as one may initially suppose, the darkness upon the waters of creation was meant to represent a vital manifestation of God’s goodness. Indeed, Nicolas Wyatt’s careful analysis of Genesis 1:2 concludes that the element of darkness was nothing less than a description of “the veil for the divine glory”[25] surrounding the Lord as He descended from heaven to earth to begin the work of Creation.[26] This is the same kind of imagery we encounter in Psalm 18, where God is portrayed as riding on the cherub throne of His chariot[27] with “darkness under his feet.”[28]Just as in the moment immediately preceding the Creation, when God descended and “his pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skies,”[29] so Noah then rode in his glorious Ark over the stormy deep as a prelude to the remaking of the world.

[30] Nibley notes that in such accounts, where torrential waters and thick darkness above and beneath occlude the horizon, “the distinction between earth-travel and sky-travel often disappears.”[31]

06-Earth Floating on WatersFigure 6. A Mini Replica of Creation[32]

In the story of the Ark’s motions upon the waters, however, we are witnessing something more grave than a blurring of the distinction between earth-travel and sky-travel. Rather, we can understand that, figuratively speaking, the very sky has fallen and the “habitable and culture-orientated world lying between the heavens above and the underworld below, and separating them”[33] has vanished.[34] In the words of 1 Enoch, “heaven… fell down upon the earth. And when it fell upon the earth, … the earth was swallowed up in the great abyss.”[35] After that violent crash, what remained was a jumbled, watery confusion-with one exception: The motion of the Ark “upon the face of the waters,”[36] like the Spirit of God “upon the face of the waters”[37] at Creation, was a portent of the appearance of light and life. Within the Ark, a “mini replica of Creation,”[38] were the last vestiges of the original Creation, “an alternative earth for all living creatures,”[39] “a colony of heaven”[40] containing seedlings for a second Garden of Eden,[41] the nucleus of a new world. All these were hidden within a vessel of rescue described in scripture, like the Tabernacle, as a likeness of God’s own traveling pavilion.

Just as the Spirit of God patiently brooded[42] over the great deep at Creation, and just as “the longsuffering of God waited… while the ark was a preparing,”[43] so the indefatigable Noah endured the long brooding of the Ark over the slowly receding waters of the Deluge.[44]

07-Cole-SubsidingFigure 7. Thomas Cole, 1801-1848: The Subsiding Waters of the Deluge, 1829

At last the dry land appeared.[45] Note that the Hebrew describes the final parking of the Ark in terms of “rest,”[46] reminding us of the verb that underlies Noah’s name.[47]

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.


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