There was an interesting post in September 2007 about a Dialogue article discussing the usual interpretation of the flood of Noah as being scientifically implausible. A couple of comments touched upon, but did not fully explicate, the way that the scriptures of the Restored Gospel and other insights from Joseph Smith can suggest a more scientifically feasible interpretation of Noahâ€™s flood.
(1) The Book of Moses affirms that Noah was a real individual, the grandson of Enoch, who was chosen to remain behind on the earth and carry on a righteous posterity while the rest of the righteous were translated with Enoch in the City of Zion.
(2) We are told by the Prophet Joseph Smith that Noah is Gabriel, the angel who announced Christ’s birth to Mary and John the Baptist’s birth to his father Zacharias. Again, he is a real person.
(3) The Doctrine and Covenants includes the revelation that â€œSpring Hill is named by the Lord Adam-ondi-Ahman, because, said he, it is the place where Adam shall come to visit his people, or the Ancient of Days shall sit, as spoken of by Daniel the prophet.â€ (D&C 116: 1) Joseph is reported as saying that â€œI saw Adam in the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman. He called together his children and blessed them with a patriarchal blessing. The Lord appeared in their midst, and he (Adam) blessed them all, and foretold what should befall them to the latest generation.â€ (History of the Church, 3:388â€“89; first set of bracketed words in second paragraph in original; punctuation modernized; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith about July 1839 in Commerce, Illinois; reported by Willard Richards.) â€œPresident Brigham Young and others reported that the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.â€ (See Journal of Discourses, 10:235; Matthias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors (1964), 481, 545â€“46; Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 15 Mar. 1857.) So Adam and his descendants lived in a region around what is now western Missouri.
(4) The Book of Mormon tells us that the eight Jaredite barges (is there a relationship to the “eight souls” on Noah’s Ark?) were constructed according to the same pattern as Noah’s Ark: They were “tight like unto a dish”, in other words, they were impermeable to water. A demonstration of how poorly we read scripture is the notion, shown in some Book of Mormon childrens’ books, that the barges were shaped like flying saucers, even though we are told that “the ends thereof were peaked”. Thus they resembled other historical boats we know of in both the old and new worlds. Hugh Nibley points out that extra-Biblical Jewish narratives speak of Noah’s Ark also being lit by shining stones, making the similarity even tighter. Perhaps their knowledge of the nature of Noah’s Ark also suggested to the Brother of Jared how to answer the question the Lord asked him about illuminating the interior of the ships.
Thus, unlike the rest of Christendom, we understand that Adam and his descendants up to Noah were living in the region around the western bend of the Missouri River. Yet we also know from Genesis that Noah ended up in the Middle East, with the descendants of his son Shem spreading into Mesopotamia and modern Palestine.
This seems to me to tell us that Noah starts his voyage in the misnamed “New World” and ends up in the misnamed “Old World.” Whatever else Noah is experiencing, his voyage is one halfway around the world, from one major continent complex to the other. It is the means by which the righteous survivors of a flood that destroyed evil people would move to a new area of settlement, a new “promised land”. The similarities in the length of the voyage (190 days for Noah versus a year for the Jaredites), the intentional similarity in the design of the vessels, the similarity in the means by which they were lighted, and the similarity in how they were propelled by winds and waves (according to ancient Jewish legend cited by Nibley), show that the voyage of the Jaredites was a recapitulation of Noah’s voyage in the other direction.
The former land of Noah, after the flood has destroyed the wicked and receded, has had a chance to rest and return to a natural condition, and can now be reoccupied by people God chooses, and function as their “land of promise.”
Recall that the pattern all through the Bible and the Book of Mormon has the basic elements of (1) Many people in the land are intolerably wicked, (2) God will “destroy” them, (3) God calls a righteous man to lead the righteous remnant out of the land of the wicked so they will escape this destruction, and (4) they are promised that if they are faithful in the journey, God will lead them to a “land of promise”.
This is the pattern with (1) the Israelites leaving Egypt after the wicked people there are “destroyed” by a series of plagues (even though Egypt obviously continued to exist and even thrive); (2) the departure of Lehi’s group from Jerusalem just ahead of the Babylonian conquest; (3) the departure of Nephi from the “land of our first inheritance” to the Land of Nephi; (4) the departure of the righteous Nephites under Mosiah I from the Land of Nephi, finding Zarahemla, their new capital, where he becomes king over the prior inhabitants as well; (5) the destruction of Nephites at the death of Christ, leaving a righteous remnant in charge of the surviving cities; and (6) the final destruction of the Nephites in 385 AD, where the sole righteous survivors are Moroni and the Book of Mormon record.
Moroni also summarizes (6) the history of the Jaredites, who depart from the destructive consequences of the Tower of Babel, and journey to a promised land, culminating in the destruction of the Jaredite nations, except for the short term survival of Ether with his record on gold plates and Coriantumr, who is found by the people of Zarahemla, the capital of what becomes the new Nephite promised land.
Noah’s journey fits into this pattern: The people around him are wicked (if they were righteous, they would have gone with Enoch); they are warned of destruction; they are “destroyed”; the righteous few are led by divine revelation away from the scene of destruction and given a new “promised land”.
Note that the “destruction” in each case is of a nation, not necessarily of every individual in that nation. The Nephite survivors of the battle at Cumorah simply joined the other side (the Lamanites) in order to survive. Nibley and other scholars have pointed to the occurrence of many potentially Jaredite names among the Nephites, indicating that there were other survivors besides the king. The destruction of Noah’s nation is consistent with what is actually described in Genesis.
It seems to me that God does not arbitrarily destroy people unless they have “ripened in iniquity.” The people in Noah’s day had done so, both by becoming wicked, and by having the righteous removed from their midst with the people of Enoch. To say that people on all parts of the earth were destroyed is to assert that (1) there were people all over the globe (How did they migrate? Genesis does not say), (2) they were wicked, and (3) they had been taught sufficiently what righteousness was so their rejection of it was culpable and deserving of God’s sanction. We are told that Noah was telling people to repent, but how many people could hear Noah’s warning? Who was in the zone of culpable rebellion against God? We are told nothing specific about people in the far reaches of the earth (e.g. central Asia and the area near the Himalayas that were supposedly covered by the same flood) being wicked and being warned to repent to avoid destruction.
Assuming the narrative of Noah is based on a real account (whether originally oral or written), it appears to me that the viewpoint was that of Noah or another of his surviving group, and not of an omniscient observer (God). What we see is the destruction from the perspective of the cabin on the Ark. “All the earth” within sight of the Ark was flooded and the people destroyed.
Now how much destruction was there? What does Genesis actually say? It says that it rained for 40 days and nights, and killed all men and their cattle. Then Noah’s Ark sailed on the waters, without a great rain, for half a year. He then lands somewhere, and establishes a new nation, just as the Jaredites later did.
Forty days and nights of steady heavy rain is more than we have experienced in modern times. No historical storm could sustain itself over that length of time. The great sustained storms of hurricanes can cover large areas over the ocean, but the same force that powers the cyclonic movement also forces it to migrate, staying over one place for only a few days at most, and petering out when it travels over land, where it does not receive power from evaporating seawater. To have a heavy rain that continues for 40 days would take extraordinary weather. However it was formed, that storm was miraculous in nature. Some of the scenarios that have been worked out for comet strikes on the earth have speculated that a large comet hit in the ocean could heat it so much that enormous clouds of water vapor would be generated for a sustained period. It could form a self-sustaining superstorm that could maintain itself for a long time.
I note that the only depth of water that is given in Genesis indicates 30 to 40 feet. That surely does not fill up the valleys between mountains. But anyone who has seen the impact of a 20 foot storm surge associated with a Hurricane like Katrina knows how its mass and movement will mow down anything in its path. Any civilization in that era was likely near rivers that would have swollen and flooded as the rain far exceeded their capacity of flow. We have seen intense rains over the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers create flooding that spreads out for miles beyond the banks, and the effect would be many times greater from a sustained inundation of 40 days. Certainly, if the rain were sustained for 40 days, the affected “mountains would be covered” with water. Every square inch would be very wet. Edible plants would be destroyed, both crops and many trees. Stores of food in the ground would be washed away, spoiled, or contaminated by the sewage in the floodwater (a constant problem even today). People without well stocked boats would starve to death, if they were not physically swept away or drowned or dead of hypothermia. There could be very widespread destruction of mankind, without having to cover the earth with five miles deep of new but temporary ocean. That notion is an unnecessary reading of the Genesis story, one that comes more from our traditional depictions and summaries of the story than from the actual scripture.
A steady heavy rain of 40 days would clearly cover all of the affected land, including mountains, with water. Looked at in this way, it was not necessary to create a new sea level of 25,000 feet above current sea level just to cover mountains in water. Even in the usual interpretation, the tops of the mountains are barely covered with water, so varying depth is already assumed.
The theme that the flood of Noah â€œbaptizedâ€ the earth does not have to drive us to the â€œnew sea levelâ€ scenario. You are immersed at baptism if your big toe is under a half inch of water, period. You are not required to be held down at the bottom of the baptismal font. When we are discussing symbolic baptism, we should also note that the crossing by Israel of the Red Sea, and 40 years later of the Jordan River, has been referred to as a â€œbaptismâ€, even though the narrative insists they went through â€œon dry groundâ€.
Note that the context of Noah’s narrative does not seem to place the location of the original of the Ark anywhere near a sea. If there had been a fleet of fishing boats or merchant ships nearby, people would obviously resort to them, and fishermen might live off the food in the sea (though massive fresh water overlaid on the sea would disrupt the salt water ecology). The civilization destroyed around the Ark seems to have been a dry land culture, unprepared to float above the flood as Noah was. This also indicates that this was a local or regional destruction. If Noah lived near the former location of Adamâ€™s Eden and Enochâ€™s Zion, he would have been near the Missouri or its tributaries. As the flood waters rose to 30 feet, it would have lifted the Ark and carried it down to the ocean, presumably right through the Mississippi Delta and across the site of New Orleans.
The story of sending out birds to find evidence of nearby dry land is consistent with sailing across the sea. No dove would be able to fly very far in the course of a day. Noah was checking for the presence of land within a short distance of the Ark. He did not know the location of the shore, had not sailed those waters before, so was guessing about the location of a landing. The description of both Noah’s Ark and the Jaredite barges gives no indication of a steering mechanism, or of sails and a keel to direct the ship at an angle across the wind. Without steering, Noah was waiting for the ship to run aground when land got in the way of the Ark’s wind-driven path. Knowing that land was close would let him brace for impact.
Placed in the context of modern revelation, the voyage of Noah’s Ark is one of many examples of local destruction of the wicked, and travel by a righteous remnant under divine guidance and with miraculous aid to a promised land, where a new nation is founded. Noahâ€™s experience can thus be seen as the original voyage, to which the Jaredite voyage is a mirror image.
Why is Noah’s flood important? Belief in the flood is not a prerequisite to salvation or exaltation, and in particular belief in the flood as creating a temporary 5 mile change in the depth of the ocean is not explicitly required by Christ. Peter testified that during Christ’s ministry to the Spirit World, he preached to the spirits of people destroyed in the flood, but the flood can be a real event without the assumptions that we lard onto the story to make it seem more spectacular. And it can have its full weight as a lesson in the differential fate of the wicked and the righteous without insisting on perceptions that are not required by the text.