Gospel Doctrine Lesson #6Moses 8:19–30Genesis 6:5–227:1–10Genesis 7:11–2489:8–17

“The shore is an ancient world, for as long as there has been an earth and sea there has been this place of the meeting of land and water. Yet it is a world that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and of the relentless drive of life. Each time that I enter it, I gain some new awareness of its beauty and its deeper meanings, sensing that intricate fabric of life by which one creature is linked with another, and each with its surroundings.”[1]

Naturalist Rachel Carson wrote these words in 1955, but the beauty of creation and its power to convey profound truth can be found in the earliest ancient stories of the Old Testament. Like Carson’s encounter with the seashore, the Genesis story of the flood describes a natural world rich with meaning, where all living things are connected and spiritual truths are embedded in a natural, physical environment. Early Christians read it as a deeply symbolic story: the flood was a type and figure of baptism (1 Peter 3:21) and Noah’s dove a prefiguration of the Holy Ghost. We are not bound to this one early Christian interpretation, (the Old Testament invites a multiplicity of other fruitful readings and applications, some of which are presented in the Gospel Doctrine manual), but I find particular meaning in the spiritual symbol of the dove.

In this story, it is the dove who links humanity, the heavens, and the natural world. This dove is the second significant animal character in Genesis and a kind of foil to that first notorious biblical creature, the serpent of Eden. While the serpent contributes to humanity’s fall, the dove’s role in the earth’s renewal after the flood is one of mediation and peace.

In Genesis 8, doves are classified as “clean” animals, consecrated for burnt offerings (Gen 8:20). Noah’s messenger dove is also identified with a feminine noun in Hebrew, rendered in the King James Version of the Bible with feminine pronouns. She is Noah’s special envoy, sent to scout out the flooded landscape for signs of life. The dove makes three trips: First, she comes back without finding “rest for the sole of her foot” (Gen 8:9). After seven days (an echo of the earth’s week of creation) the dove sets out again, this time returning with an olive leaf. On her third departure, she flies free and does not return to the ark.

If we read the dove as the early Christians did, as a type or symbol of the Holy Ghost, then Noah’s interactions with the dove can serve as a model of our personal spiritual lives. I find three simple lessons in their story:

Seek God’s Spirit: When confronted with the ruin of his world and an uncertain future, Noah doesn’t act alone. Needing a helper, he looks for a creature not only set apart for a holy purpose but also capable of moving beyond his own limited sphere. Noah knows that he is in over his head, so to speak, so he seeks the dove.

And while I hope I’ll never be stranded on a mountain, surrounded by water, and tasked with founding a new civilization, we all have challenges that we can’t face alone. How do we seek the dove in our lives? Do our prayers reflect the desire for inspiration? Do we recognize our communities, families, and friendships as sources of the Spirit, and do we do our part to foster peace in these relationships? Do we look for God’s Spirit in the beauty of creation? How do we seek the dove?

Receive, recognize, and act upon the Spirit: When Noah welcomes the dove back from her second trip, “lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf” (Gen 8:11). Taken literally, this olive leaf is simple evidence of a habitable home. But the olive branch by the time of the Christian era was a symbol of peace, a hallmark of the Spirit. Paul writes, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance…” (Galatians 5:22-23:). The dove offered cooperation, communication, peace, and life, and Noah stood ready to receive and act upon her gift.

How can we ready ourselves to receive God’s help and peace? Can we free up our busy schedules so that we can act on his Spirit? Does this mean skipping mindless entertainment and spending a few minutes in meditation? Does it mean counting our blessings? Does it mean offering our time, talents, and means to help others? Does it mean thanking the people who have blessed us, who have acted the part of the dove in our lives? How do we receive the dove?

Resist the need to constrain the Spirit: Noah’s dove disappears from the narrative after her third departure from the ark. Rather than offer her as a sacrifice, Noah sets her free to fly unrestrained. What does this freedom have to do with attuning ourselves to spiritual things? Do we recognize that the Spirit can’t be mastered as a formulaic solution to all problems? It can be hard to let go of the need to dictate God’s will. For that matter, it’s difficult to grapple with the free choices of our fellow creatures. But freedom is fundamental to the gospel. The power of the Spirit cannot thrive in the context of “control or dominion or compulsion” (D&C 121:37).

How do we honor the freedom of those around us so that we can live with the Spirit? Can we say, like Eliza Hewitt in her hymn, “the dove of peace sings in my heart,”[2] even when things aren’t going according to our plans? Even when our future is uncertain or we aren’t in complete control?

I find the story of Noah, the flood, and the dove intensely moving. It will always remain a little mysterious to me, but in this, it is like the rest of God’s creation–beautiful, sometimes baffling, and yet full of meaning. It tells me a story of Spirit, of connectedness, and of peace.

[1] Carson, Rachel. “The Edge of the Sea.” The Best American Essays of the Century. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. Houghton Mifflin, 2000. (215)
[2] Hewitt, Eliza “There is Sunshine in my Soul Today” Hymn 227.