Sunday, September 11, 2016

Noah and the Flood - Elder Mark E. Petersen

A number of years ago I had made a goal that I would obtain every book written by or about the Apostles and Prophets. This is still mostly true. There are some books, however, that I'm okay reading once and clearing out of my library, including Elder Mark E. Petersen's set of books on individual prophets and other Biblical and Book of Mormon figures.  

Noah and the Flood is a short book at just ninety-three pages (published by Deseret Book in 1982). A good portion of the book is comprised of all of the relevant quotations from the scriptures regarding Noah, as well as the flood, and includes quotations from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. The book is primarily apologetic in terms of defending the historicity of Noah and a global flood. This is partially in response to the idea that Noah has been considered a "mythical figure created only in legend" (1), and that the "flood was strictly a local tragedy covering only a small area of the earth" (45). Elder Petersen's approach in dealing with these assertions is to affirm that, "We do not argue with scientists or scholars over their defensive views. We tell the story of scripture, and scripture is the word of God, verified by modern revelation over and over again" (45). The majority of his discussion focuses upon reaffirming the truth of Noah's reality and a global flood by citing revelation as the definitive conclusion on the matter. He does acknowledge some scriptural limitations in studying the flood in particular, especially as it relates to reconciling some of the difficulties of the flood story: "We must realize that we do not have the full account of the flood and the ark and its inhabitants. The few hundred words in the Bible on the entire life of Noah are sketchy at most. On thing we must remember is that God was at the helm--and He is a God of miracles!" (58). His conclusion on these topics can best be summarized in his assertion that "It all comes back again to the matter of faith in the scriptures as against the rationale of the critics. Of course, the wisdom of God seems like foolishness to men who ridicule these accounts of miracles in transportation that literally defy all the logic of the scholars" (83).

While the book does not state that the contents represent the sole views of the author, it is interesting to note that each of the books published in the series following this one does include that standard disclaimer. Noah and the Flood presents the author's views rather assertively, almost as though Elder Petersen were writing authoritatively regarding official church doctrine. However, he does not attempt to engage ideas regarding the flood and other topics put forward by other general authorities that may not fully agree with his positions. Elder Widtsoe, for example, provided several thoughts on how the flood might have played out that allows for more nuanced views of this event.1 Thus, it is important to note that while the book does not disclaim the personal relevancy of its contents as Elder Petersen understands and interprets the scriptures, it should be implicitly understood that this book represents his own views and not necessarily the church's positions on these topics.  

A few things worthy of note:
  • To support the position of the historicity of Noah and the flood, in conjunction with the limitations placed upon the (KJV) Bible per the eighth article of faith, Elder Petersen quotes the flood story from various translations of the Bible. This is done to illustrate the consistency between translations regarding Noah and the flood. This is an interesting methodology because it seems that Elder Petersen interprets the idea behind AoF 1:8 as strictly referring to modern translation, rather than the reliability of the underlying text (i.e., the Masoretic Text, LXX, Vulgate, etc.). Nonetheless, this method also speaks to the cultural idea within English-speaking Mormonism that the KJV is the only Bible that Latter-day Saints use. While the KJV is the English-speaking version officially used by the church, Elder Petersen's efforts illustrate that our studies do not need to be limited to the KJV. 
  • Elder Petersen identifies some of Noah's posterity finding reference in Ezekiel's writings. "Among the descendants of Japheth are Gomer, Magog, Tubal, Meschech, Togarmah, and Tarshish. These names are particularly interesting because they appear in the predictions of Ezekiel with regard to the battle of Armageddon, which will be fought before the coming of the Lord" (75). [See Ezekiel 38:1-7; 39:1-7]
  • Corroboration of the flood story is also sought by including Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews (53-54), and other historic flood accounts as cited in The Catholic Encyclopedia [4:704] (85). Elder Petersen also refers to flood traditions among American Indians and Mexicans, as related by President Anthony W. Ivins, who "was an authority on American Indians. He traveled widely among them, learned some of their languages, was the recipient of their full confidence, and was himself a great missionary among them. His labors and travels were particularly extensive in Mexico and Central America" (87). [See Pres. Ivins' account in Liahona, the Elders' Journal 8 (July 12, 1910):51-52]
  • Somewhat unrelated to Noah, or the flood, Elder Petersen comments regarding latter-day inventions and the spread of the gospel: "Inventions have come as the Church has required them in its rapid growth. When fast travel was needed to service distant regions of the earth, jet planes were made available. When means were needed to handle the rapidly increasing membership records and whole libraries of names for temple and genealogical work, computers came. When there was a need for extensive coverage by the spoken word and by picture, radio and television and satellites came. The Lord has inspired inventors of the world to produce their work not only for the good of mankind, but also and especially for the onward movement of His kingdom. Where the Church is, these enlightening processes are put to work for the extension of the Lord's kingdom" (91-92).
Elder Petersen addresses other topics like Noah as Gabriel, similarities between Noah's ark and the Jaredite barges, and various other topics, however, the items noted above are those that stood out to me as interesting contributions from Elder Petersen. Noah and the Flood seems to have been written for an audience that isn't particularly concerned with many of the details or arguments regarding Noah and the flood (or the ark), since the book provides a broad overview of the topic and doesn't engage the detailed arguments of modern scholarship. Again, his emphasis is upon the value of modern day revelation, although I personally believe that modern day revelation allows for more nuance regarding these topics than this book allows for.   

1 John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, 3 Vols., Arr. G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960), 126-128


  1. "We tell the story of scripture, and scripture is the word of God, verified by modern revelation over and over again"
    "No interpretation" is functionally equivalent to "face-value" interpretation, which assumes people can read Genesis in translation, in a radically different culture and worldview, with no context, and still understand it the way it was meant to be. That simply doesn't work. You could argue for Les Miserables to be historical that way. ("It doesn't say it's fiction anywhere, now does it? And Paris and France are real places, right?")
    It's just another example that LDS don't have a good grasp on how to read scripture competently.

    1. Ben,
      Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your participation here as well as your assessment. Generally speaking, I might agree with you to a certain extent that Latter-day Saints read and interpret scripture quite literally. However, this is no different than most Christians, so I wouldn't say that this is an isolated problem, or one that would be fair to criticize Mormons in particular for.

      That having been said, I would suggest that your extrapolation lends itself to being an association fallacy. Is it fair to extrapolate an argument regarding literal scriptural interpretations across all of Mormonism based on a single book? Perhaps you meant (although it wasn't said) that this book is a representative example? I'll leave this for you to answer.

      A few things should be pointed out here if we are going to look at this issue critically, though. First, my post is just a book review and not an endorsement. Second, Elder Petersen's interpretation is only one interpretation and doesn't represent the Church's position (see my reference above to Elder Widtsoe, for example, for an alternate point of view). Third, this book is clearly not written for an academic audience. It is only 93 pages long and seems to have been written for youth, or perhaps adults with little to no familiarity with Noah's story in the scriptures. I personally take exception to some of Elder Petersen's conclusions in this book so it would be well to consider that I'm just an inconsequential Mormon with potentially representative views (if we are going to extrapolate...).

      Additionally, the quotation you provide at the beginning of your comment can be true without implying a literal interpretation of scripture. As the sentence stands, I don't have a problem with it.

      If you'd like a better idea of how Mormons "read scripture competently," you'd probably be better served reading Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, and Studies in the Bible and Antiquity, linked below:

      I'd also recommend Grant Hardy's Understanding the Book of Mormon (published by Oxford):

      and Joseph Spencer's An Other Testament: