by Seth Sanders
The tale of a man chosen
to survive an inundation that destroys the world as he knows it—first found
in Sumerian sources dating back four millennia—has a long-lasting appeal. In
our time, with ice caps melting daily, Darren Aronofsky’s flood blockbuster
Noah promised a most relevant biblical epic.
But the account Genesis
6-9 gives of the ark-building patriarch is both unusually thin and unusually
messy. It contains not a single word of dialogue. After a few portentous
divine commands, everything just blows up.
It’s also wildly
incoherent. As biblical scholars have long noted, each major plot point
happens in two incompatible ways. Two different Gods—the flustered Yahweh
and the serene Elohim—give two different reasons for destroying everything.
They command two different amounts of animals to save, and make two
different promises never to do it again.
In fact, Noah
turned out to be a shockingly beautiful example of how art can draw its
greatest strength from incoherence. God’s revelations require
misinterpretation to translate into cinematic action. Noah’s selfless
devotion ends up making him a heartless fanatic who only succeeds in
redeeming all of life because of his family’s resistance.
The movie’s added scenes
and dialogue, pieced together from ancient Jewish and Christian legend and
the screenwriters’ imaginations, introduced more biblical themes than the
Genesis account contains. The daughter-in-law Noah rescues is barren, like
the mothers of biblical heroes from Isaac to John the Baptist. And, like
Abraham, he shows a deeply unsettling—perhaps even evil—willingness to
sacrifice what is dear.
The movie was generally
pilloried by evangelicals as being contrary to the Bible. “Ultimately, there
is barely a hint of biblical fidelity in this film,” creationist flag-bearer
Ken Ham (whose Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, combines “biblical”
and “scientific” history into a Flintstones-like world where humans can ride
dinosaurs) told Time magazine. “It is an unbiblical, pagan film from
megachurch pastor Rick Warren similarly blasted the film as unbiblical. But
is there really such a thing as a biblical film?
Many noted that Noah
was full of characters who were marginal or nonexistent in the biblical text
of the flood.
In Genesis, Methuselah
stands out only for his world-record age, but he whooshes through the
movie’s scenes like an antediluvian Gandalf. Genesis’ flood has no villain
(the biggest killer is God himself), so Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel
pulled in Tubal-Cain, a forebear from a little earlier in the story (whom
Genesis 4:22 identifies as the “forger of all instruments of bronze and
was embraced by most Jewish writers for the same reason most evangelical
writers rejected it. For them it was midrash, the traditional Jewish
form of exegesis that adds detail and background to biblical
narratives—revising as much as retelling them.
“The movie contrives much
of its drama, but it’s not completely Hollywood imagination,” blogged
Eliyahu Fink, the Orthodox rabbi at the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice,
California. “Many of the superimposed conflicts and stories have roots in
Torah and Jewish tradition.”
interpretations take the apparently incomplete or incoherent nature of
biblical passages as their starting point. God’s speech not only can
be retold, it must be: There is no upper limit to its meaning, but it
requires our explicit and active work to unfold. This is already happening
in the earliest Rabbinic interpretation of the flood story: Before a single
Jew set foot in Hollywood, Genesis Rabbah helped make the flood
filmable by giving Noah his first lines of dialogue and bringing in
Tubal-Cain (as Noah’s father-in-law).
If there was one thing
everyone agreed on, it was that a strictly “Bible-based” film of the Noah
story would last 20 minutes. The absence of dialogue, Yale Bible scholar
Joel Baden told NPR, would make a literal version practically unfilmable.
“It’s not that ‘Noah’
strays from the text—of course it does, the actual text is only a few pages
long,” acknowledged evangelical blogger Matt Walsh, “it’s that the movie
completely and utterly distorts the message and meaning of the original
Whatever the evangelical
criterion of “biblical” exactly meant, when it came down to brass tacks,
there were two substantive complaints about how Aronofsky and Handel
expanded on the story: paganism and environmentalism.
Given that no other gods
are even mentioned, let alone worshipped, in the movie, the wide circulation
of the “paganism” charge was odd—and oddly unexpounded. Some straight-ahead
trolling could be found, such as John Nolte’s charge on Breitbart’s Big
Hollywood site that the movie worshipped “the pagan god Gaia.” Since no such
creature existed in the ancient Near East (the Sumerian Enki, whose name
literally means “Earth-Lord,” is more like “Mister Underworld), all Nolte
seemed to mean was that environmentalism amounts to Gaia-worship.
There was only one
detailed account of the paganism charge—but it’s a doozy.
Brian Mattson, a
neo-Calvinist theologian-blogger in hair gel and Edward-Snowden-ish glasses,
claimed to catch Aronofsky in a sinister deception. Writing on his website,
Mattson contended that the movie wasn’t based on the Bible at all but rather
on “Jewish Gnosticism.”
“I dusted off (No,
really: I had to dust it) my copy of Adolphe Franck’s 19th century work,
The Kabbalah,” he wrote, “and quickly confirmed my suspicions.”
For anyone remotely
familiar with the study of Jewish mysticism, this would be like dusting off
your grandfather’s slide rule to do some serious number crunching. Written
at a time when there were so few published manuscripts that we literally did
not know what Kabbalah was all about, Franck is nobody’s idea of a reliable
Anyway, from a book
subtitled “the religious philosophy of the Hebrews,” Mattson concluded that
the movie was “a thoroughly pagan retelling of the Noah story direct from
Kabbalist…sources.” Never mind that, as evangelical film critic Peter T.
Chattaway wrote on the religion website Patheos, “[A] film that celebrates
the created world and all the animals in it—to the point where some have
accused the film of promoting anti-human nature worship—is out of sync with
Gnostic theology at a pretty fundamental level.”
As for the charge of
environmentalism, the problem is the hero himself. Noah’s love of animals is
there, but inseparable from a cold, near-psychopathic contempt for humans.
By the film’s climax, he has become a dead-eyed monster poised to gut his
own granddaughters using their mother’s bosom for a cutting board.
He’s the Unabomber, not
Jane Goodall, and a pretty lousy poster child for environmentalism. And in a
detail that none of the critics mention, what snaps him out of his viciously
principled trance is a very human connection: The lullaby his daughter sings
to calm them is the same one he remembers hearing from his own father, lost
to murder, as a child.
In fact, in Genesis Noah
does rescue animals without manifesting any sympathy for the human race. As
God announces, twice, that he plans to exterminate all life, Noah utters not
a word of protest.
Here Scripture offers
clear counterexamples: Abraham and Moses, who both confront God in fear and
trembling when a threatened punishment seems to go too far. Indeed, in the
Bible Noah speaks only once—to curse his own son.
The biblical Noah is not
only cold compared to other biblical heroes. He’s far less feeling than the
earlier, “pagan” flood heroes. His Mesopotamian ancestor, a figure sometimes
called Uta-Napishti, weeps uncontrollably at the loss of life.
On the biblical account,
Noah is the “good German,” who passively follows orders assisting in what
the great French graphic novelist David Beauchard referred to as “the gods’
invention of genocide.” Some Rabbinic sources acknowledge this with a wink:
Genesis 6:9’s claim that Noah “was blameless among his generation” just
means that Noah was blameless for his generation—an otherwise utterly
A contrast to Genesis’
obedient but heartless Noah appears in the Sibylline oracles from late
antiquity, a set of apocalypses shared by Jews and Christians. These texts
put an urgent warning to his fellow men in Noah’s mouth: “Be sober, cut off
evils, and stop fighting violently with each other!”
The Sibylline Noah
anticipates his own misery at human suffering, tempered by awe at the
flood’s sheer apocalyptic wonder: “But as for me, how much will I lament,
how much will I weep in my wooden house, how many tears will I mingle with
the waves? For if this water commanded by God comes on, earth will swim,
mountains will swim, even the sky will swim.”
Noah, it seems, must be
read in two mutually exclusive ways: If he is biblical, he is not
particularly good. But if he is good, he is not particularly biblical.
The secret motivating
both alternatives is that to read a character like Noah requires that we
pick one of two irreconcilable readings. What is unique about the Bible
among ancient literatures is that it is written in such a way that it can
never really be read, in the sense of producing a single coherent story, let
alone be obeyed.
This is not a fanciful
notion, but demonstrable in the hard-edged world of law: A pious slave-owner
is obliged to set his Hebrew slaves free—but only the men—after six years
(Exodus 21:2, 7), and also to set both sexes free (Deuteronomy 15:12, 17),
and in addition to not have Hebrew slaves at all (Lev 25:39-40).
It is thus the Bible
itself that requires biblical interpretation to be “nonbiblical,” because in
order to provide a coherent account, the interpreter must either add things
that are not in the text or exclude things that are. This most read and
least readable book in Western tradition is contradictory or indecisive on
so many key issues that it remains an amazingly volatile document. Most
charges of being non-biblical thus say less about the Bible than about who’s
doing the interpreting.
indecisiveness even as it claims absolute authority, the Bible forces its
readers into interpretive license. In this way, Noah might be the
most biblical movie ever made.