Teaching and Discussing the Flood

In this weeks Sunday School lesson we will be discussing Noah. I love this story. My second child is named Shem. It is one of the classics.

The class I teach is for high school juniors and seniors. We have a discussion-oriented class. They have had these stories before in seminary and elsewhere. They know the details of the scriptural narrative better than I do. As a result, we have been able to discuss applications and potential meanings of different concepts. It has gone really well (which is my way of saying that I have enjoyed the last few months).

Yet, I have a problem. I do not believe that the flood in the story of Noah covered the entire earth. I do not view this as a big deal. Whether the entire world was flooded or not is not the point of the story. I view the story as being one about obedience and separating ourselves from the world (something like that).

However, I have a few questions about how I will deal with this in my lesson.

Should I mention my interpretation of the flood?

It is not necessary for me to do so. Yet, I am planning on making some comment about it not mattering whether the flood covered the whole world or not. Here I worry that I might be doing this for my own purposes and not out of love.

Does it matter how anyone, including my students and myself, view the flood?

No. It does not really matter. Additionally, I feel no need to disabuse anyone of their view of the flood. I am not claiming that I am right and that they are wrong. I just do not think that the earth was entirely flooded. I think it is great that others think differently than I do.

What has me thinking about this is a recent Facebook interaction with a former member of the Church. He is now a proud atheist and claims to only take “scientific” approach to the world (he in fact has a high school level of the scientific method which he thinks is clever. At every chance he seeks to tear down the beliefs of the Mormon’s he knows (including his family).
While I am very secular in some senses, I cannot relate to this. While I do not view things in a particularly orthodox way, I do not mind if others do. I just hope they give me the same benefit of the doubt.

As a teacher in the Sunday School, I do hope that my students will think about these things, particularly if they have not done so in the past. However, what they think is up to them. They are a great group of kids. I hope not to do anything that messes that up.

33 Replies to “Teaching and Discussing the Flood”

  1. I would mention something about the different interpretations of the bible that are possible. A flood that wipes out every town in the world, or even just those known to Noah, would easily fit with the Genesis record, but be less than every square foot of “earth”.
    Perhaps explain that any modern teenager has a much better concept of the size of the whole earth than people of Noah’s (or Moses’ or Jeremiah’s) time.

  2. I think you should introduce the kids to different perspectives on the flood, including your own. You would be doing them a kindness. If they think they are absolutely required to believe in a universal flood to be good Mormons, and they at some point conclude that such a thing is physically untenable, it will be easy for them to throw the Gospel out with the bath water (flood water?), rather like your scientist friend. Being exposed to different perspectives while they are young in a faithful context is a good thing.

  3. Thanks, Kevin. That is the spirit that I am aiming for.

    “it will be easy for them to throw the Gospel out with the bath water (flood water?)”

    hehe. Nice one. I also share with you this concern.

    el oso, thanks for your comment. Maybe it will be worth considering what “the entire world” would have meant to one in ancient times.

  4. How about trying to explain how 2 of every unclean and 7 of every clean animal were housed, fed, watered and excrement cleaned (by 8 people) in such a small vessel?

  5. I was once caught off guard by a question and began to flail about, but was mercifully cut off by running out of time. Later I realized that a very simple and honest answer would have been: Some people believe X and others believe Y.

    Beyond that, I would let the interest of the students determine further discussion. If you discuss the pros and cons of either position in an honest and matter-of-fact way, I don’t think anybody can legitimately accuse you of stirring up trouble.

  6. I’m planning on having a discussion of the modern arks we build to “to live worthily and avoid the evils of the world” (the stated purpose of the lesson). I know we’ll have to go through the obligatory Sunday School answer of modern ark=food storage (although that has nothing to do with worthiness or avoiding evils), but I’m hoping for a discussion well beyond that.

    One idea might be dealing with challenges to religious thought, so I plan to bring up alternate views of the flood and other stories in Genesis. I’m pushing my class all this year not to mindlessly repeat folk doctrines but to distinguish between doctrine and folk belief by knowing where their doctrine comes. Alternate interpretations of the flood would make good practice for deciding what authorities and ideas each person is willing to accept — if all goes well, people who insist on the traditional interpretation will be alerted to alternatives so that they won’t be taken by surprise later, while others who have already been challenged by an alternate interpretation will find out that it’s not a doctrinal deal breaker. Those are both forms of ark-building against the loss of faith.

  7. Ardis “One idea might be dealing with challenges to religious thought, so I plan to bring up alternate views of the flood and other stories in Genesis.”
    What an up-to-the-minute application of the timeless scripture. I have had some discomfort when the very knowledgeable teacher in our ward passes lightly over the “I had a conversation with a non-member friend about …” comment. These are probably the most widely useful questions here in the bible belt. Keep the great teaching tips coming.

  8. It might be a nice opportunity to discuss how literally we should take Biblical stories in general, the pros and cons of treating them like historical events, etc. That might have already been covered in the Creation Story, but I think thinking about those issues are important to studying the Bible (especially the OT) and starting early is better than dealing with it again and again later on.

  9. One of the problems with teaching the flood story is that in LDS doctrine it is pretty well established as “doctrine” that the flood covered the entire earth. So, to teach otherwise or even to spread doubt as a teacher would not be wise, especially for young impressionable students.

    I would not really dwell on if it was or wasn’t global and focus rather on the point of the lesson being about faith. One of the problems that we face in our day in regards to the flood story is that we as LDS lack the same faith of those who were around Noah in his day. We’re like- “Naw, there wasn’t or can’t be no global flood, ya right….” No difference of todays naysayers as the naysayers in Noah’s day. We should be careful to not discount the flood from being exactly what we teach- that it is and was a global event.

    I don’t have problems with opinions, especially as a teacher, but when we have “strong” opinions that are contrary to what the church puts forth as official, then it makes our credability as a teacher fail. Perhaps it is better to take more of a neutral position and just ask some very basic questions going both ways- toward that of a global flood and even those towards a more localized event. The important thing is that it is ok to put forth your own opinion as long as you couple it with the official church doctrine.

  10. As others have said, discussing issues related to scriptural inerrancy and scriptural literalism is important for your students — they are likely to exposed to a lot of conservative methods that focus on less helpful conclusions. So, yeah, get into it with them. However, to the extent this is not the stated purpose of the lesson, I wouldn’t dwell on it for the entire time. But talk about the various approaches here and there throughout your lessons, yes.

    Also, in the process, by focusing on the meat of the Old Testament stories, the students will, by implication, learn some helpful methods for analzying scripture.

  11. “to teach otherwise or even to spread doubt as a teacher would not be wise, especially for young impressionable students.”

    I agree with Rob here. You are called to teach the curriculum provided by the church. If you worked for McDonalds would you add extra cheese to Big Mac sandwiches because you believe they would taste better that way? You are not called to inoculate the students about difficulties in the scriptures. Do not introduce doubt to these tender minds.

    Let’s be honest, the story of The Flood is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes issues in the Old Testament. Unless they question the validity of a universal flood, it is better to teach the story as we have it and how it applies to the Gospel.

    If you don’t believe certain parts of the Bible are literal or historical, say the story of Job, then teach the Bible as literature. Teach the stories as they have been transmitted to us and explain why those accounts are important to our faith community.

  12. Chris:

    From the small world category, who is your facebook friend? I have a brother-in-law who is doing exactly what you describe on facebook. Initials would be fine.

    Anyway, I might stick close to practical applications for life, and to what the scriptures say. If you feel strongly about it, maybe vaguely say there are different ways to interpret this story.

  13. On my blog, I’m doing a weekly on the OT lesson. I do cover the main views on whether the Flood was global or not, though I do not press either view. I do bring up interesting points that both sides discuss. Then I state that it doesn’t matter, as neither science nor religion currently has all the minute answers regarding such things.
    The key is to keep an open mind to all the possibilities, and then it further enriches one’s study and religious experience.

    Of course, since it is my blog, I also discuss things like the Watchers, how Noah’s story is affected by the Documentary Hypothesis, etc. Several of these I probably would not discuss in Sunday School (at least not indepth).

  14. I think it’s clear that the traditional position of the Church is worldwide flood. I think it’s equally clear that this is not a deal breaker, since I know people at the Stake President level who do not believe in a world-wide flood.

    I think it’s also clear that this position is one of received tradition, and not revelation, and further, that it’s position that’s misguided.

    The flood in Genesis is meant to be a cosmic (i.e. “global”) flood that resets the universe to a state of re-creation, as the land slowly emerges from the cosmic waters. If there’s any historical kernel at the root of the story (I’m ambivalent on whether there was something specific) before it was shaped into its current form, it’s of a very limited flood. The story as we have it has been shaped, retold, edited, etc.

    I don’t think I would get in to that at all in GD class. On the other hand, in an Institute class full of RM PhD students in Physics and Chemistry (as I’ve had), I laid out the various options for them, as I saw them.

  15. You are called to teach the curriculum provided by the church.

    Actually, he’s called to teach the youth. If they have questions about literal interpretations of the story I would address those questions. If your class is as discussion oriented as you claim I imagine they probably would voice these questions if they have them.

    Personally I think Ardis has found a good way to relate some of these issues to the material in the lesson. I quite like that approach.

  16. Chris,
    I was just rereading Kant’s “What is Enlightenment” this morning and came across an interesting passage:

    “a clergyman is bound to deliver his discourse to the pupils in his catechism class and to his congregation in accordance with the creed of the church he serves, for he was employed by it on that condition. But as a scholar he has complete freedom and is even called upon to communicate to the pulbic all his carefully examined and well-intentioned thoughts about what is erroneous in that creed and his suggestions for a better arrangement of the religious and ecclesiastical body.” (8:38) He goes on to suggest that in the duty is to teach what the church teaches in church, but that outside that context, in the public realm, the teacher has the obligation to use his (or her) reason.

    I’m not sure that a universal flood in any could be said to be a “creed” or even a “doctrine” of the LDS church, but I think the ethical issues at stake are interestingly touched on by Kant.

  17. TT,

    Love it and not just because Kant, who I love, said it. I think that it reflects my rather disorganized thoughts, not just of this issue, but in teaching this class in general.

    I do not think the universal flood is doctrine, but it is conventional wisdom. I am not looking to stir up trouble for the sake of stirring.

    So, are you reading Kant as part of your daily scripture study? 🙂

  18. If you present some of the different views held by Mormons (limited flood is obviously the view of many Mormons) then I think that is very useful to high school students who may have never heard that there was an issue to debate.

    I like to follow that up with a question like: “If it turned out that the flood was not a global phenomenon that covered the top of every mountain, would this challenge your faith? Why?”

    I asked my priests this same question about the flood, about the authorship of Hebrews, about the historicity of the book of Jonah, etc. I don’t try to convince them of one view over another, but I think it is very valuable for them to have considered what ideas are central to their testimonies of the scriptures. I think you do them a disservice if you don’t bring it up at all.

  19. If you’d like a different perspective, I grew up thinking that the flood was intended to wipe out all of the abominations (giants) that grew out of Satan’s demons procreating with human women. (Jehovah’s Witnesses)

    /not intending to threadjack, just pondering

    Now that I think about it, I wonder how that worked in the JW universe. Did demons have physical bodies? If not, how could they effect such a change? If they did, are they running around now, masquerading as people. Hmmm, problematic.

  20. Nice post. I suppose I would say that you shouldn’t mention your interpretation at all, since it goes beyond the scope of your stewardship as a Sunday School teacher and you risk hanging them up on something that doesn’t matter. It’s unfortunate that people let literalism get in the way when it doesn’t need to. There is no doubt that God could flood the whole earth if he so desired. As to whether or not that’s what happened, I agree that it matters little. It’s been taught that the flood was the symbolic baptism of the earth, and the destruction preceding the second coming will be its baptism by fire. Some people might get hung up on the earth having to be fully immersed for it to be a legitimate baptism. As for me, I think that the whole earth was indeed flooded, but won’t get bent out of shape when I’m wrong.

  21. I think the real crux here is not to use Sunday School to disabuse either youth or adults of their biblical literalism. That’s a path that in my experience only ends up creating problems for the teacher. What is essential is to be open to those who on their own (or at least from outside influence) no longer are certain of the absolute truth content of gospel stories. I have always been grateful that I had enough teachers who allowed me to combine my heterodox ideas about what might have happened with an active church life which has maintained me for 60+ years. Those teens who have doubts generally seem to have ways of making this known to the perceptive teacher. When they raise the issues that is the time to say well most Mormons seem to believe this way, but there are active believing Mormons who don’t. The beliefs of the majority of the church seem pretty unshakable, We need to provide a path forward in the gospel for those who come to doubt some of those widely held beliefs.


  22. Lesson went well. No discussion of the flood. I ended up presenting Noah’s invitation to enter the ark as a symbol of Christ’s invitation to come unto him. We also talked about warnings that the prophets have given us in our day. One student mentioned that their parents are like Noah pleading with them to do what is right.

    Not sure how I did, but I love these young men and young women. They are great.

  23. Rob, Steven B, Shledon, if all the biblical literalists feel perfectly comfortable promoting and assuming biblical literalism in Sunday School I don’t see why I shouldn’t feel free to disabuse them of those views. This idea that we have to let people believe crazy things without upsetting them by presenting the other side of the story drives me up the wall. Why assume that people will fly to pieces like glass if they are presented with the problems raised by the text and some options which don’t require a rejection of everything we know through science?

    Chris, glad your lesson went well, sounds like you are doing a fantastic job.

  24. Great discussion. We’ll be having our Noah lesson this coming Sunday. Just a few thougts: While we say that it isn’t that important whether or not it was a local or universal flood, isn’t it however important to seek truth? I don’t think we should set out to disabuse people’s beliefs on this issue, but I think it does do well, if the issue comes up, to suggest there are different interpretations and that one can hold a non-orthodox view on this and still be a devout member. I’ve also been thinking about how we take a very literal interpretation of the flood/baptism while at the same time we use baptism by fire as a metaphor. We claim a litteral burning of the eart (baptism by fire) yet we are not litterally burned when confirmed and given the gift of the Holy Ghost. How do we apply litteral interpretations to the flood and how do we apply metaphors? Just some thoughts.

  25. “. . . if all the biblical literalists feel perfectly comfortable promoting and assuming biblical literalism in Sunday School I don’t see why I shouldn’t feel free to disabuse them of those views.”

    Jacob, it is not a matter of what either of us “feel comfortable promoting.” The issue has to do with what we are called to teach.

  26. The issue has to do with what we are called to teach.

    I agree to a certain extent; but I think the larger issue is who we’re called to teach. If our students ask questions we should answer honestly and in line with their maturity to cope with our answer.

  27. My Gospel Doctrine teacher, who is also the Institute director here, talked about how the continents divided in the days of Peleg. Yikes! I cringed at that, though the rest of his lesson was excellent. I didn’t make a scene then and there, but did email him later to share my thoughts on it. I told him that I believed that to be as much speculation as a limited flood, which we didn’t get into, either.

    I then shared with him the original belief that the earth was divided up among the divine council of gods by El Elyon/Elohim, into 70 kingdoms. Jehovah received Israel as his kingdom. Since I didn’t bother discussing it in his class, I was hoping he would leave such concepts alone, also.

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