Cover image: Illustration of Noah leaving the ark, by Sam Lawlor.
We can learn from the story of Noah how to save ourselves and our families even in a time of turmoil and wickedness: By obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“As the days of Noah were,” says the Lord, “so shall also the coming of the Son of man be” (Matt. 24:37). We live in those latter days when the Lord will come again, and the world we live in has embraced much of the wickedness Noah saw in his time.
It was a culture driven by ambition and violence. “In those days Satan had great dominion among men, and raged in their hearts; and from thenceforth came wars and bloodshed; and a man’s hand was against his own brother, in administering death, because of secret works, seeking for power” (Moses 6:15).
In his heart, every individual had nothing but enmity for his neighbor. “Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Moses 8:22). The Hebrew word translated as “imagination” is yetser: “goal, aim, purpose, intent.” This enmity grew out of deep-rooted covetousness, for their governing goal was to “murder and get gain,” in the tradition of Cain, who slew Abel for his flocks (Moses 5:31).
This kind of wickedness led to genocidal wars and the environmental degradation of Noah’s world. For example, the powerful nation of Canaan utterly destroyed the people of Shum in order to take their land. Such great wars left the earth “barren and unfruitful,” cursed with “much heat,” and its “barrenness went forth forever.” Deadly famine blighted the land. According to an intriguing Middle Eastern legend, no children were allowed to be born in the forty years before the Flood (Etan Kohlberg, “Some Shī’ī Views of the Antediluvian World.” Studia Islamica, no. 52, 1980, 51).
The wickedness of Noah’s people took the form of organized crime. “For, from the days of Cain, there was a secret combination, and their works were in the dark. . . . all of them covenanted with Satan . . . their works were abominations, and began to spread among all the sons of men” (Moses 5:51-52). Jewish legend affirms these things: “The end of the dwellers upon the earth was near because they had learned the secrets of the angels, the misdeeds of Satan, and all the mysteries of the world which should have been hidden from them” (“Noah,” Jewish Encyclopedia). Their rites perverted the temple ordinances as they made covenants with Satan. In summary, “the earth was corrupt before God, and it was filled with violence” (Moses 7:7-8; 8:4, 28).
Knowing the calamity that was coming, the Lord called Noah, ordained him to the priesthood, and sent him to preach repentance to the people (Moses 8:19). We hear that “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). The Hebrew word translated as “perfect” means “complete, full, sincere, sound, and undefiled.” Another possible translation is “whole-hearted” (NIV Gen. 6:9), meaning that his heart was wholly dedicated to serving the Lord. Thus, he “found grace” or favor in the eyes of the Lord.
“He continuously warned the people of the painful doom that was coming, and that nobody but God could save them. He said that the time of the deluge was appointed and could not be delayed, and that the people had to submit to God. As he was building the Ark, the chieftains passed by and mocked him” (“Islamic View of Noah,” Religion Wiki, religion.fandom.com).
They responded with apathy: “Are we not eating and drinking, and marrying and giving in marriage? And our wives bear unto us children, and the same are mighty men, which are like unto men of old, men of great renown” (Moses 8:21). In other words, “Everything’s fine. Our prospects look good. The markets are thriving. All our children are gifted. Why are you so gloomy?”
But according to Middle Eastern lore, they did much more than joke around with Noah. The scripture says, “They hearkened not unto the words of Noah.” The legends give more detail: “The people heeded not his words, they mocked at him, and used vile language; and Noah suffered violent persecution at their hands” (“Noah,” Jewish Encyclopedia). “Noah was constantly beaten by those to whom he preached. . . . He would remain unconscious for days at a time, blood flowing from his ears.”
The Quran says that the poor and powerless minority supported Noah at first, but “when it came to the ultimate crucial test of loyalty and belief, they too failed to rise to the occasion.” Noah complained, “They follow those whose wealth will hasten their perdition” (“Noah,” The Koran, Penguin Classics, 1990, 407). In the end, all people were either apostates or hypocrites. “Those who were destroyed had either called Noah a liar or had failed to oppose those who thus labeled him. . . . Neutrality in the face of injustice is the mark of the hypocrite” (Kohlberg, 49, 51, 52).
One of the striking things about Moses 8 is the close correspondence between its account of Noah and accounts from Middle Eastern sources that do not appear in the Bible. External accounts back up the Joseph Smith translation of Noah’s words below:
Believe and repent of your sins and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, even as our fathers, and ye shall receive the Holy Ghost, that ye may have all things made manifest; and if ye do not this, the floods will come in upon you; nevertheless they hearkened not (Moses 8:24).
There is not a word in the Bible about Noah’s missionary work among his people, yet the Book of Moses and extra-biblical sources tell the story in roughly the same way.
As in the time of Noah, our world is facing its last days. We too have seen titanic wars and genocides, and we will likely see more. As class and race distinctions harden, people divide into hostile tribes just as they did in Noah’s day and Mormon’s (see 4 Ne. 1:35, 40-41). Increasing political contention and the constant threat of warfare plague our lives, too.
In Noah’s day, bloodthirsty “men of renown” “began to sin against birds, wild beasts, reptiles, and fish. And their flesh was devoured the one by the other, and they drank blood. And then the earth brought an accusation against the oppressors.” The archangel Michael saw “much blood being shed upon the earth” (1 Enoch, 7: 5,6; 9:1). “The greatest acts of the mighty men . . . have been at the expense of the lives of the innocent—the blood of the oppressed,” wrote Joseph Smith. “Before them, the earth was a paradise, and behind them a desolate wilderness” (“The Government of God,” Times and Seasons 15 July 1842,” 855, The Joseph Smith Papers). The wicked were “de-creating” the beautiful world God created.
We too face climate upheavals and deteriorating biodiversity—scientists predict that human activity will extinguish more than a million species in the coming decades (“Species Extinction Rates Accelerating,” UN Report, May 6, 2019). In saving the animals, Noah preserved the biodiversity that was threatened by the “men of renown” who died in the flood. Thirst for blood among the wicked might have brought an end to all flesh human and animal even without the flood, but Noah prevented that destruction. How to forestall today’s “Noah’s Ark Problem” is an open question.
Like the people of Noah’s time, our civilization responds with apathy to these threats. Jesus foretold that the day of His coming will be as “the days that were before the flood” when “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark” (Matt 24:38). And so it is. Regardless of great commotion in the world, so many remain indifferent to the calamity that will overtake them if they do not repent.
For Noah’s world, that calamity came in the form of a great flood. Elder John A. Widtsoe said, “The exact nature of the flood is not known” (Evidences and Reconciliations, Bookcraft, 1943, 110). “The waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth” (Gen. 7:18). The Hebrew word translated as “earth” (eretz) could mean the entire globe or a portion of it. In vision, Moses “beheld many lands; and each land was called earth [eretz]” (Moses 1:29), and the land of Israel is known as an eretz. So, we know that the water covered the “earth“ or “the land.”
Intriguingly, cultures around the world retain memories of a great flood. The man who survived the flood is known by many names: Sumerian Ziusudra (“Long Lived One”), Babylonian Utnapishtim (“Preserver of Life”), Indian Manu (“First Man”), Greek Deucalion (“Sweet Sailor”), and Maya Balam Quitze (the “Smiling Jaguar God” ). In each case, the “Survivor” we call Noah signifies the originator of a better world.
A puzzling structure, the ark of Noah was a large rectangular box with no means of propulsion. The Hebrew word tevah, “ark,” means a box, not a ship, and later refers to the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle of Moses. Both arks are plain symbols of the Atonement of Christ. One commentator notes that Noah’s ark “was designed as a temple. The ark’s three decks suggest both the three divisions of the tabernacle and the threefold layout of the Garden of Eden. Indeed, each of the three decks of Noah’s ark was exactly ‘the same height as the Tabernacle and three times the area of the Tabernacle court’” (Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, “The Ark and the Tent: Temple Symbolism in the Story of Noah,” in Temple Insights, Eborn Books, 2014, 25).
The ark’s design suggests a holy sanctuary, and so it was. A great symbol of the power of the Atonement of Christ, the ark carried its precious cargo of life safely through the thundering flood, which represented chaos to the minds of the ancients. In an analogy to baptism, the flood symbolizes cleansing of sin from the earth. It also marks a re-creation of the world after the wicked have “de-created” so much of it.
When the ark lands, Noah carries out his priestly duty of sacrifice on an altar. This ordinance included the making of a covenant. The Lord said to Noah, “I will establish my covenant with you, which I made unto your father Enoch, concerning your seed after you” (JST Gen. 9:15). This covenant encompassed more than simply a promise not to flood the earth again: it was much more far-reaching than that. The covenant of Enoch was the promise of eternal life through the Savior: “Blessed is he through whose seed Messiah shall come; for he saith—I am Messiah, the King of Zion, the Rock of Heaven, which is broad as eternity; whoso cometh in at the gate and climbeth up by me shall never fall” (Moses 7:52).
A token accompanies every covenant, and the token of the covenant of Enoch and Noah is the rainbow. Obviously associated with rain, the “bow in the cloud” symbolizes God’s promise never to flood the earth again. But the rainbow represents much more than that.
In Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly temple, he sees the Lord’s throne encircled by “the bow that is in the cloud of the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezek. 1:29). Likewise in John’s vision in the book of Revelation, he sees a “rainbow round about the throne” of God (Rev. 4:3). The bow in the heavenly temple could signify the “eternal round” of the cosmos, in the center of which God sits enthroned. Perhaps the rainbow of Enoch and Noah symbolizes the promise of exaltation and eternal life as well as the promise of temporal salvation.
What lessons do we learn from the story of Noah? I see at least three insights.
First, we learn to obey the Lord promptly. Noah wasted no time in carrying out the Lord’s very detailed instructions on what to preach and how to save his family. If we want salvation for our families, we can see in the experience of Noah that exact obedience to the words of Christ is the only safe route through the storms of life.
Second, we learn to stay on the path set out by the Lord’s prophet. There would have been space in the ark for everyone who chose to seek safety; instead, people mocked or looked on with indifference. Some may have believed at first, but gradually lost faith and stopped listening.
President Henry B. Eyring has said, “The failure to take prophetic counsel lessens our power to take inspired counsel in the future. The best time to have decided to help Noah build the ark was the first time he asked. Each time he asked after that, each failure to respond would have lessened sensitivity to the Spirit. And so each time his request would have seemed more foolish, until the rain came. And then it was too late” (“Finding Safety in Counsel,” Ensign, May 1997, 25).
Third, we learn that we receive great blessings for keeping our covenants. We can journey securely through the harsh conditions of this life if we do what the Lord asks. The ark symbolizes the hand of the Savior. We are not the pilot or the oarsmen of our own ship. We build, we gather our families around us, we serve faithfully in our stewardships at His command; but He holds us firmly on course. And at the end, we receive all that His throne rainbow promises: peace in this life and eternal life in the world to come.