20 November 2012

Temple Symbolism and Noah’s Ark

In considering the role of Noah’s Ark in the flood story, note that it was specifically a mobile sanctuary, 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 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. Rather, it is a representation of a movable “conveyance” in which God could swiftly descend to rescue His people from mortal danger. 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” of God’s own chariot.

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. These were the Watchers or “sons of God”—described variously as angels or mortals. They were given a charge to rescue mankind, having been commissioned to “teach the sons of man, and perform judgment and uprightness upon the earth.” 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.” 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.

Noah’s mission was one that few of us would envy. As Nibley writes:
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,” 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” 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.” 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.” 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.

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