Sunday, April 6, 2014

Noah: The Movie

Noah: The Movie
Tags: Bible, Genesis, Noah, Movie

***Spoilers Below***

Many of you who read this will see the movie Noah. I saw it Monday (3/31) with a group from Christ Lutheran. My guess is that more of you will not like the movie than will like the movie. And you will scratch your head at some of the decisions that director/writer/producer Darren Aronofsky made in bringing the biblical tale to the big screen. I have broken down some of these decisions below into three sections: Details They Got Right, Interpretations that Need Explanation, and Details They Got Wrong.

If you plan on seeing the movie, you may want to watch it first and judge for yourself before reading the rest of this. You will need to accept the “Watchers” with a generous amount of biblical-movie-telling-creative-license/suspension of disbelief. After you see the movie many of these other explanations will make sense to you.

Also, it will be helpful to read not just the flood account in Genesis, but the first 10 chapters of the book.

Bottom Line: If you were planning on going to see the movie, then go and see it. If you were planning on skipping Noah, then it is probably best to go with your original intention.

Details They Got Right

The Wickedness: One of the things that many people will dislike about the movie is the violence. I am not sure how the movie garnered a PG-13 rating (but I have thought that for many other movies as well). The Genesis account is adamant about the wickedness of the world. The movie depicts a violent, male-dominated, immoral world. Children are told to hide whenever strangers appear. The willingness to kill defines manhood.   Even Noah struggles with the awareness of his own sins and those of his family.  Certainly if God grieved for his creation with deep regret, then the audience needs to be uncomfortable with the wickedness of people.

The Ark: Many of us grew up with depictions of the ark as a boat with a curved hull. Actually, however the scriptures give squared off dimensions for the ark in the shape of a huge rectangular box. The New Living Translation gives description an approximation in feet although the original language was for cubits.

6.14Make a boat from resinous wood and seal it with tar, inside and out. Then construct decks and stalls throughout its interior. 15Make it 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high. 16Construct an opening all the way around the boat, 18 inches below the roof. Then put three decks inside the boat—bottom, middle and upper—and put a door in the side.
Genesis 6: 14-16

The Tension around Subdue/Dominion: On the Ark in the midst of the flood, Noah tells his family the story of creation. Included in the story is the blessing of God from Genesis 1:28

God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.'

Throughout the movie, Noah's understanding of this verse is contrasted with Tubal-cain, the film's antagonist. Noah's family seems to be portrayed as vegetarians who live out a role of caretakers of creation. We see Tubal-cain and his followers seek to dominate creation including other people. Tubal-cain as a stowaway on the ark eats from the animals to rebuild his strength and instructs Ham that to rule over creation is to use it for your own ends (paraphrase). The tension of subdue/dominion is very much still an issue in the world today.

Interpretations That Need Explanation

The Watchers: It is best to get this out of the way. The stone, lava and light giants known in the movie as Watchers might be an attempt to depict the “sons of God” of Genesis 6.

6.1When the human population began to grow rapidly on the earth, 2the sons of God saw beautiful women of the human race and took any they wants as their wives....4In those days, and even afterward, giants lived on the earth, for whenever the sons of God had intercourse with human women, they gave birth to children who became the heroes mentioned in legends of old.

The most likely explanation is that Aronofsky took great creative liberty with these verses to introduce the characters of the watchers. The watchers serve two purposes in the movie's interpretation. They protect the righteous and they help to build the ark quickly. I will give a pass on the Watchers, as an ill conceived attempt on Genesis 6.

Noah: Noah in the movie is portrayed as a deeply flawed prophet. We see him battle and kill to protect his family and the ark. We see him struggle with the likelihood of humanity's extinction. He does not intercede for humanity as Abraham did for Sodom and Gomorrah or Moses did for the Israelites. On the ark there is deep estrangement from him and the rest of his family that continues after the ark reaches dry ground. He gets drunk at the end of the movie, which is recorded in scripture. The Jewish teaching tradition regarding Noah is a lot more complex than the Christian tradition. Noah's status as a prophet is not held in as high esteem as some other prophets because he does fail to intercede before the flood comes. This Noah best fits into the biblical description of the Judges, most of whom were deeply flawed. Such a characterization makes for a more interesting movie, but Aronofsky's Noah goes too far to the point of madness.

Methuselah: Biblical scripture tells us little about Methuselah other than his age, his place in the descendents of Adam, and that his death occurred around the time of the flood. I like how the movie portrays him, especially his blessing of Ila. We know from Isaac as well as Israel's blessings at their deaths, that these blessings had power. Also notable, we see Methuselah's acceptance of God's will at the arrival of the flood.

The Tension Between Ham and Noah: This is both right, and wrong as well as needing interpretation In scripture, Ham is the youngest son of Noah. Obviously, in the movie he is the middle son.*  The bible highlights estrangement between the two at the end of the Noah story, without ever being clear as to what Ham did.  In the Bible but not the movie, Noah curses the descendents of Canaan, one of Ham's sons. The movie intersperses the tension from the building of the ark through the end of the story.

Details They Got Wrong

The Number of People on the Ark: Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. Scripture tells us that all three of Noah's sons had wives. Also there is no mention in scripture of a stowaway. Jewish tradition has the story of Og lashing himself to the outside of the ark, and Noah feeding him through an opening. But that story is very different from what is portrayed by Tubal-cain's extended presence aboard the ark.

Here is the creative purpose with Tubal-cain's presence. One of the traditional questions around the flood story is the survival of sin. For example, in the cycle plays of medieval England sin survives in the character of Noah's wife, who is boisterous, surly, rough and resists entering the ark. (In Christian tradition before the cycle plays, Noah's wife is meek and submissive, a pre-cursor to Mary1.) While the movie acknowledges the sinfulness in all of humanity, including Noah, Tubal-cain is the embodiment of sin and wickedness. Just as in how Methuselah's final blessing brings life to Ila, Tubal-cain's dying words to Ham that “to kill is to become a man” (paraphrased) sets in motion the reality of sin even after the flood.

The Madness of Noah Against His First Grandchildren: The last 20 minutes is the major flaw of the movie when Noah madly plots the deaths of his first grandchildren. This is not just unnecessary, it is problematic. In all of scripture, when a barren woman conceives a child it is seen clearly as a gift of God and a miracle worthy of praise. That Noah fails to recognize this as a sign to “be fruitful and multiply” works against the scriptures. Also, that Noah thinks this command to kill the grandchildren comes from God creates doubt about the mercy and grace of the Creator. God is relatively silent throughout all the movie, working through Noah's dreams and visions, Methuselah's wisdom, and the Watchers' presence. This leaves the viewer, especially one with limited scriptural background, uncertain whether or not God is at work here.

I know this is on the long side. I hope it helps those of you who go to see the movie. I have some other thoughts that I will save for the next posting.

Welcome Spring.

Rob McCarty
Christ Lutheran, Staunton, VA
January 27, 2014

1Cawley, A.C. “Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays.” 1993. p 33.

* Correction:  Genesis 9:24 suggests that Ham is Noah's youngest son.  However, whenever the three sons are listed together, Ham is always mentioned in the middle.  Scholarly consensus seems to be that Ham is the middle child.  I am still searching for an explanation of why 9:24 translates youngest.