A Publication of The Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College
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 its start.”
Southern Baptist 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 iron”).
Tellingly, Noah 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.”
Many midrashic 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 story.”
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 source.
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 depraved one.
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.
By embodying 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.
– November 18, 2014