Come Follow Me: Genesis 6–11; Moses 8 “Noah Found Grace in the Eyes of the Lord”

How to Read Ancient Stories

I love the first word of the Come Follow Me manual for this lesson: stories. This lesson covers two of the most beloved and oft-repeated stories in the Old Testament: the story of Noah’s Ark and the story of the Tower of Babel.

The manual begins:

Stories in the scriptures can often teach us multiple spiritual lessons. As you read about the Great Flood and the Tower of Babel, seek inspiration about how these accounts apply to you.

—Come Follow Me for Individuals and Families: Old Testament 2022: Genesis 6–11; Moses 8

Notice some keywords in these instructions. There are multiple lessons to be learned from these stories; they can be interpreted in more than one way. These lessons are intended to be spiritual and inspiring (as opposed to literal, historically accurate or scientific). These stories will apply to unique people differently; everyone can be inspired by them in their own way. Notice the word stories. The authors of the Come Follow Me manual point out that Old Testament stories are different from histories.

Don’t expect the Old Testament to present a thorough and precise history of humankind. That’s not what the original authors and compilers were trying to create. Their larger concern was to teach something about God—about His plan for His children, about what it means to be His covenant people, and about how to find redemption when we don’t live up to our covenants. 

—Come Follow Me for Individuals and Families: Old Testament 2022: Reading the Old Testament

  • What is different about a story from other kinds of writings, like history books? 
  • How should our approach be different when we study scripture stories versus other kinds of texts?

Dr. Carol L. Meyers discusses  storytelling in the Old Testament in more detail:

The way people in biblical antiquity accounted for their past is not the same as it is in the modern world. Nowadays we expect “history” to provide an accurate narrative of real events, though we still realize that any two eyewitness observers of an event will recall it in different ways, depending on their individual interests and prior beliefs. But this is a relatively new approach, one that was not present when biblical narratives took shape.

Like other ancient storytellers, the shapers of biblical narratives were not concerned with getting it factually right; rather, their aim was to make an important point. Their narratives could serve many different purposes, all relevant to their own time periods and the audiences they were addressing. They might take a popular legend and embellish it further—the better the story, the more likely that people would listen and learn. They used a variety of sources plus their own creative imaginations to shape their stories.

…Does this understanding of the historicity of biblical texts mean that they are devoid of any validity? Absolutely not. Authentic experiences and events surely underlie many biblical narratives. Archaeology may call the historicity of some texts into question, but it can also indicate the general veracity of others.

…The larger strokes of Israelite history may thereby come into view, but it is likely that relatively few of the narratives can ever be considered history “as it actually happened.” Perhaps the best way to approach the Bible in relation to history is to stop asking whether or not it is true and rather to consider what truths its stories tell.

—Dr. Carol L. Meyers, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies, Duke University

  • How does it change our perspective if we focus on the truths the stories tell us?

These stories come from a different culture and some of their violent content can be disturbing to modern tastes. (I dare say that if ancient people could watch some of our modern movies, they would also be disturbed by the violence of our modern entertainment.)

Rev. Dawn Hyde describes a common reaction she hears to the story of Noah’s ark, in which God kills nearly every person on Earth, with the exception of one family:

Most people view God here as evil. “This can’t be the God I believe in, the God I know in Jesus Christ….” and so we discount this God as the God of the Old Testament. “Not my God.”

—Rev. Dawn Hyde, September 8, 2015, Noah’s Ark

The authors of the Come Follow Me manual acknowledge this discomfort:

When you consider your opportunity to study the Old Testament this year, how do you feel? Eager? Uncertain? Afraid? All of those emotions are understandable. The Old Testament is one of the oldest collections of writings in the world, and that can make it both exciting and intimidating. These writings come from an ancient culture that can seem foreign and sometimes strange or even uncomfortable. And yet in these writings we see people having experiences that seem familiar, and we recognize gospel themes that witness of the divinity of Jesus Christ and His gospel.

—Come Follow Me for Individuals and Families: Old Testament 2022: Reading the Old Testament

  • How can we sift through cultural content that may be disturbing to us to find spiritual insights?
  • How can we distinguish between cultural baggage in scripture and the word of God?

Noah’s Ark

Noah’s Ark on the Mount Ararat, Simon de Myle

Invite class members to read these verses from Genesis 6-9, or to simply describe the Noah’s ark story as they remember it. As you read or talk about the story, consider these questions:

  • Why might ancient peoples have chosen to pass down this story?
  • What truths can we learn from this story that apply to our modern world?
  • How does the story inspire you? How would you apply its truths to your own life?

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.

And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.

But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.

—Genesis 6:5-8

And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

Make thee an ark of gopher wood; brooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.

—Genesis 6:13-14

And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die.

But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives with thee.

And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female.

Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive.

—Genesis 6:17-20

And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth.

—Genesis 7:17

And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man.

—Genesis 7:21

And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged.

—Genesis 8:1

And God spake unto Noah, saying,

Go forth of the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons’ wives with thee.

Bring forth with thee every living thing that is with thee, of all flesh, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth; that they may breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth.

—Genesis 8:15-17

And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.

—Genesis 8:20

And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying,

And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you;

And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth.

And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.

And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:

I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

—Genesis 9:8-13

After discussing class members’ impressions of the story, share these two different interpretations  to demonstrate what the text can mean to different people from different backgrounds. Some of these thoughts may echo themes class members have already noticed; if so, you may bring up quotes from these interpretations to support class members at the time they mention these themes. If not, you can bring up these texts afterwards to expand their understanding of the multiple layers of meaning within the text.

Noah’s Ark as a Parable about Forgiveness and Second Chances

God created humanity with love. In God’s very own image. With God’s very breath inflating our lungs. God is the natural architect. Designing and delighting in her creation.

And so, I can imagine how God seeing such wickedness and evil coming from us – God’s own creation – would be devastating. How God, like a potter, would need to throw the clay aside and start all over again. Making something new.

But God didn’t destroy everything. God found one good piece in the creation through Noah. And God decided to recycle. To take this one person. This one family. To use for God’s good. To take a few animals of every species and to build for them an ark. A safe place. A haven. To care for their needs and bring them to life on the other side of the storm.

God did destroy. In our story. God saw the wickedness and God destroyed the evil for justice-sake. But, God also saved. God washed clean. God made new.

The story of this flood and of Noah’s ark is a resurrection story for us. A story of God’s immense love for us. God’s desire to give justice out of love and God’s expansive forgiveness that begins first with Noah and by the end extends to all of us.

When Noah disembarks the ark, when he knows it is safe, the VERY FIRST thing he does is build an altar to God to worship and say “thanks.” Let me lay this out a little more…After forty days (or maybe a year) of living in a smelly zoo of animals…. on a boat with sea legs… probably out of food and patience and energy… The VERY FIRST thing Noah does is build an altar to God and say thanks.

…Noah’s act of worship prompts the very best part of the story: The covenant. The promise. The rainbow.

It is then in the story that God tells Noah: I will never destroy the earth ever again. Not only do I forgive you this time. But when you mess up – which you will mess up, God notes – I will forgive you always.

—Rev. Dawn Hyde, September 8, 2015, Noah’s Ark

Noah’s Ark as a Parable about Spiritual Preparation

We all need to build a personal ark, to fortify ourselves against this rising tide of evil, to protect ourselves and our families against the floodwaters of iniquity around us. And we shouldn’t wait until it starts raining, but prepare in advance. This has been the message of all the prophets in this dispensation, including President Hunter, as well as the prophets of old.

Unfortunately we don’t always heed the clear warnings of our prophets. We coast complacently along until calamity strikes, and then we panic.

When it starts raining, it is too late to begin building the ark. However, we do need to listen to the Lord’s spokesmen. We need to calmly continue to move ahead and to prepare for what will surely come. We need not panic or fear, for if we are prepared, spiritually and temporally, we and our families will survive any flood. Our arks will float on a sea of faith if our works have been steadily and surely preparing for the future.

—Elder W. Don Ladd, October 1, 1994, Make Thee an Ark

  • Do either of these interpretations resonate with you?  Why or why not?

The Tower of Babel

Building of the Tower of Babel, Bedford Master

Invite class members to read these verses from Genesis 11:1-9, or to simply describe the Tower of Babel story as they remember it. As you read or talk about the story, consider these questions:

  • Why might ancient peoples have chosen to pass down this story?
  • What truths can we learn from this story that apply to our modern world?
  • How does the story inspire you? How would you apply its truths to your own life?

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

—Genesis 11:1-9

After discussing class members’ impressions of the story, share these two different interpretations  to demonstrate what the text can mean to different people from different backgrounds. Some of these thoughts may echo themes class members have already noticed; if so, you may bring up quotes from these interpretations to support class members at the time they mention these themes. If not, you can bring up these texts afterwards to expand their understanding of the multiple layers of meaning within the text.

 The Tower of Babel as a Parable about the Need for Diversity

When God created the first man and woman, God blessed them: “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth” (1:28). And after the flood, God blessed Noah by reiterating the very same words: “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth” (9:1). If a key part of God’s primordial blessing and charge to humanity is that we spread out and fill the earth, how can God’s scattering humanity be a punishment? It isn’t, exactly. 

…God had made it clear that the divine vision is for humanity to spread out and fill the earth, yet the builders want to stay put, to congregate in one place. In fact their resistance to God’s blessing is clear: they explicitly declare their intention to build their city, and the tower within it, out of fear “lest we be scattered all over the world” (Gen. 11:4). What they most fear is what God most wants.

…If everyone speaks “the same language” and utilizes “the same words,” then perhaps by implication they think the same thoughts and hold the same opinions. Perhaps, then, this story isn’t really about unity but about uniformity, which is much different.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (commonly known as the Netziv, 1816–93) observes that although the opening verse tells us that the builders all had “the same words,” it never tells us anything about what those words actually were. That, he argues, is precisely the point: “God was not distressed by what they said, but by the fact that their words [and by implication, their thoughts] were all the same” (Ha’amek Davar to Gen. 11:1). God finds this unanimity alarming, because total uniformity is necessarily a sign of totalitarian control—after all, absolute consensus does not happen naturally on any matter, let alone on every matter.

Soon enough, the Netziv tells us, God’s concerns prove to be well founded: the builders refuse to let anyone leave their city (“lest we be scattered all over the world”). “This was certainly related to the ‘same words’ they all shared,” the Netziv argues. “They feared that since not all human thoughts are alike, if some would leave they might adopt different thoughts. And so they saw to it that no one left their enclave.”

…The builders wanted Babel to be the capital of the world, the Netziv contends, and the center of ideological enforcement: “It is inconceivable that there would be only one city in the whole world. Rather, they thought that all cities would be connected and subsidiary to that one city in which the tower was to be built.” This enforced consensus, he says, explains the building of the tower: the skyscraper would serve as a watchtower from which to monitor the residents and keep them in line (Ha’amek Davar to Gen. 11:4).

…An attempt to root out human individuality is an assault on God. Jewish theology affirms that each and every human being is created in the image of God and that our uniqueness and individuality are a large part of what God treasures about us. To try and eradicate human uniqueness is to declare war on God’s image and thus to declare war on God. The story of Babel ends with God’s “reversing an unhealthy, monolithic movement toward imposed homogeneity,” writes Hamilton, and thus with God’s reaffirmation of the blessings of cultural, linguistic, and geographical diversity.

—Rabbi Shai Held, October 24, 2017, The Babel story is about the dangers of uniformity

The Tower of Babel as a Parable about the Dangers of Pride

The tower itself wasn’t the problem. The sin was in thinking they could build a tower that could reach to God in Heaven. (St. Augustine sees pride in that they thought they could avoid a future flood (as if anything could be too high for God!) (Tractates on John 6.10.2).) The later verse calling this place Babel is significant. Babel is a Hebrew word meaning “gate of God,” or by extension, “gate of (to) heaven.” What they really think they can do is to ascend to Heaven, and God, by their own strength. Bad idea! Remember, Adam and Eve had been barred from paradise because they could no longer endure the presence of God. Never think that you can walk into God’s presence by your own unaided power. Only grace can do this. We cannot achieve Heaven by our power. We do not have a ladder tall enough or a rocket ship powerful enough. To make matters worse, they say, let us make a name for ourselves. Not only are they seeking to enter Heaven by their own power, but also to make a name for themselves.

…The text goes on to say,And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. This great tower, so high as to reach to the heavens, was really so puny that God had to come down to see it.

What is God worried about? The text describes God’s concern for the growing pride of the human race: If now … they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do.

…Our greatest enemy is pride. In terms of our salvation, the greatest virtue is humility. Unity is indeed a good to be sought, but if it fuels our pride, we’ll all just end up all going to Hell together! In this case God saw fit to humble us by scattering us and confusing our language. Unity in wickedness is best scattered. Only unity for good is praiseworthy. Of this St. Jerome says,

Just as when holy men live together, it is a great grace and blessing; so likewise, that congregation is the worst kind when sinners dwell together. The more sinners there are at one time, the worse they are! Indeed, when the tower was being built up against God, those who were building it were disbanded for their own welfare. The conspiracy was evil. The dispersion was of true benefit even to those who were dispersed (Homilies 21).

Bringing it close to home. To those who like to build and to make a name for themselves, St. John Chrysostom has this to say:

There are many people even today who in imitation of [the builders at Babel] want to be remembered for such achievements, by building splendid homes, baths, porches, and drives. I mean, if you were to ask each one of them why they toil and labor and lay out such great expense to no good purpose, you would hear nothing but these very words [Let us make a name for ourselves]. They would be seeking to ensure that their memory survives in perpetuity and to have it said, “this house belonged to so-and-so,” “This is the property of so-and-so.” This, on the contrary, is worthy not of commemoration but of condemnation. For hard upon those words come other remarks equivalent to countless accusations—“belonging to so-and-so, the grasping miser and despoiler of widows and orphans.” (Homilies on Genesis 30.7).

—Msgr. Charles Pope, July 29, 2019, Towering Pride: What the Story of the Tower of Babel Can Teach Us

  • Do either of these interpretations resonate with you?  Why or why not?

April Young-Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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3 Responses

  1. Beth Young says:

    And what of our building temples in prominent places to be seen and noticed by all? Are we doing the same thing as the builders of the Tower of Babel? Constructing a “gateway to God”? And it’s actually our behaviors, as judged by others, that allow us to enter or not. Same as the tower, it’s all about uniformity, not unity.

  2. Rachel Helps says:

    Thank you. the This is a wonderful collection of diverse interpretations

  3. Hazel says:

    I love the beautiful sources curated here and these reflection questions! Thank you for your work on this, I’m so grateful I came across it.

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