The award-winning director Darren Aronofsky has recently transformed a biblical epic into a blockbuster film – “Noah”. Since I had enjoyed his “Black Swan” a lot, I went to watch “Noah” with a lot of expectations. Again, I was not disappointed. “Noah” has the breath-taking scenery, dramatic plot, and above all complex characters. Some of my friends have also watched it. They ask me what I think of this film in relation to the Bible. For them, a natural curiosity is whether this film is biblical or not. For me, this film offers a good opportunity to discuss the open nature of the biblical texts, which often offer gaps for transformations and reinterpretations.
In my opinion, the very term “biblical” is general enough. The Hebrew Bible itself is polyphonic. One aspect of the film that does not fit well with Genesis 6-9 can nevertheless be compatible with another text in the Hebrew Bible. For instance, the silent Creator in the film “Noah” contrasts with the rather talkative God in Genesis 6-9. This portrayal of Creator in the movie, however, seems quite compatible with the “God-less” scenarios in the Masoretic book of Esther, where the name of or the reference to God is not mentioned even once. The Masoretic book of Esther casts the limelight on the actions of the Jewish Queen Esther, her uncle Mordechai and other human characters. Similarly, the human characters are the focus in the movie. Noah on the screen has to take a lot of efforts to interpret the divine will via dreams and visions, to deliberate whether to kill or to spare. If we take the book of Esther as part of the Hebrew Bible, if we accept the seemingly absent God and the relatively active protagonists in the book of Esther as a comparable lens to look at the film, then the cinematic story of Noah can still be counted as “biblical” with regard to this particular aspect.
Rather than asking if the film is biblical or not, we can perhaps be more specific with our question. We can narrow down our options, asking how the film compares specifically with the flood story in Genesis 6-9. In broad outline, both the film and Genesis 6-9 share resemblances. Both of them begin the story with the antediluvian era when human wickedness pervades the earth; both continue the story with a gigantic ark floating on the surface of the water during the deluge; and both end the story with a surviving family in the cleansed land after the flood. In detail, they nevertheless share some interesting and significant divergences. In what follows, I will only pick up a few examples that I have observed so far. I think these examples are useful enough to show that the film “Noah” creatively fills in the gaps, transforming and updating the flood story found in Genesis 6-9.
Let us begin with an investigation of the causes of the flood given in Genesis 6. On the one hand, Gen 6:12 tells that “all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.” Yes, it says “all flesh.” No, the animals are not innocent. They are supposed to be as corrupt as the human beings. The Deluge is the retribution of God on the violence that fills up the whole earth. On the other hand, Gen 6:5 focuses on the “wickedness of man” that makes the heart of Yahweh so sorry that he decides to destroy the whole earth with a deluge. Here, the guilt of other living beings is not mentioned. It is the evil specifically of mankind that incites the divine rage. Ambiguities persist in the interpretation of “the wickedness of man”. Are we supposed to link this wickedness to the preceding enigmatic account of the sexual union between “the sons of God” (commonly understood as the “angelic figures”) and “the daughters of man” (Gen 6:1-4)?
Here, the movie steps in and fills in the gap. It chooses to exonerate the guilt of the animals. According to the film, the animals are “the innocent”. Why are they innocent? “Because they still live as they did in the Garden,” the little Ila (Noah’s adopted daughter) clarifies. In fact, the film picks up the tradition that lays great stress on “the wickedness of man”. In this way, the reason for the flood given in the film aligns more with Gen 6:5. Even more than Gen 6:5, the film offers a more specific interpretation of this wickedness. Reflecting a modern concern, Aronofsky presents the antediluvian evil as about the industrial corruption. Under the leadership of Tubal-Cain (Noah’s archenemy in the film), humanity has learned to make weaponry and applies the newly learned skills to commit more environmental and social damages. The camera constantly zooms out to reveal the vast arid landscape, which is a result of humanity’s “disrespect” for natural environment. And in two scenes (one in a dream, another in reality), the camera zooms in to focus on Noah’s feet, which step on the soil stained with blood shed by the wicked people.
What about the angelic figures who mated with the mortal women in Gen 6:1-4? What about their offspring, the גברים (the “mighty men” who are considered to be the γίγαντες “giants” in the Septuagint, the Greek Bible) mentioned in Gen 6:4? Well, the director downplays the sexual innuendo latent within the biblical texts. Anyway, biblical scholars are still undecided about the connections between the sexuality in Gen 6:1-4 and the wickedness of man mentioned in Gen 6:5. Ingeniously, the director takes up those elements present in vv.1-4 by conflating the angelic figures with their gigantic offspring. In the movie, the six-armed rocky giants are simultaneously the fallen angels, who come not to fornicate with the daughters of man, but to teach mankind about weapon-making. Perhaps to underscore more of the evil nature of humanity, Aronofsky crafts a pitiful group of giants. Despite their physical enormity, these rocky giants are still betrayed by the people they have helped. Amiable enough, these giants help Noah construct the ark later.
Does the movie present a whole new interpretation of the flood story? On closer inspection, the answer is not entirely. Many of the elements are also present in the ancient story of 1 Enoch (c. 3rd century BCE). In 1 En 8:1, the rebellious angels came to the earth to teach the people “(the art of) making swords and knives, and shields, and breastplates”. This knowledge of weaponry supposedly leads to more blood, violence, and oppression. In 1 En 67:2, a group of angels also assists in the building of the ark: “At this time the angels are working with wood (making an ark) and when it is completed, I shall place my hands upon it and protect it, and the seed of life shall arise from it…” To be sure, the Enochic texts contain their own agenda, with a lot of other monstrous details that are not present in the movie. What Aronofsky does is that he creatively draws elements from these Enochic sources, combining them with a biblical framework, in order to elicit a new message that fits with his modern perception. In the movie, the environmental and social degradations wrought by humanity become the pinnacle of human wickedness, which prompt the Creator to lash out and demand his justice. Here comes the flood.
B. The Deluge
Some of the most memorable scenes from the film happen in the ark. Yet, Genesis 6-9 is rather mute about what happens on board during the deluge. The first flood account in the Bible is preoccupied with the construction and the measurements of the ark, the number and kind of animals on board, and the time period of the flood. In Gen 6:15, Noah gets specific instructions for the ark’s dimensions (300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high). The ark is to be made from gopher wood (Gen 6:14). More perplexingly, the texts call for different numbers of animals to go into the ark. On the one hand, without specifying the kind of animals, God prescribes two pairs of animals to enter the ark (Gen 6:19-20; 7:9, 15). On the other hand, Yahweh specifies two pairs of clean animals plus seven pairs of unclean to be imported into the ark (Gen 7:2-3). Similarly intriguing, the texts offer different amounts of time to account for the flood. One segment spells out 40 days and 40 nights for the rain. Another segment offers a broader span of time (150 days), which is the time period for the water coming from “the fountains of the great deep” and “the floodgates of the sky” to remain on the earth (Gen 7:24; 8:3-5, 13-14). Of course, we can follow the text critics to assign these contradictions or duplications to different sources (on the textual criticism of Gen 6-9, see a brief explanation in the bibliography section below). Undeterred by the picture of seemingly innumerable animals aboard the ark, four physics graduate students at the University of Leicester have recently proposed that, following the dimensions given in Genesis, the animal-filled ark could theoretically float on the water (for a report in English, see here, for a report in Chinese, see here). We can delve into many other details given in the biblical texts. But still, we are left with a gap in the Genesis story: What happens exactly when Noah and his family are on board? How on earth can the ark sustain all the animals without them killing over each other during the voyage?
Imaginatively, the film takes up the gap and fills it up with some of the most interesting and dramatic events. Inside the ark, special herbal incense is used to sedate the animals. Therefore, the animals in the film sleep peacefully throughout their voyage during the inundation. Behind the solid walls of the ark, Noah has no use for the lamps. He has special illuminating stones, which lit up the whole ark days and nights. These magical stones represent Aronofsky’s reinterpretation of Gen 6:16a: “A צהר (Zohar) you shall make for the ark.” The noun Zohar in this Genesis verse is a hapax legomenon in the Hebrew Bible, and it is probably to be understood in parallel with the מכסה (“covering” or “roof”) in Genesis 8:13 or the חלון (“window” or “skylight”) in Genesis 8:6. The Talmud preserves an interesting account for this verse:
“A light (tzohar) shalt thou make for the ark” (Gen.6:16). R. Levi said: Tzohar means a pearl of purest ray. Throughout the twelve months that Noah was in the ark, he had no need of the light of the sun by day, nor of the light of the moon by night. For he had a pearl which he hung up: while it was dim, he knew that it was day, and while it glowed, he knew that it was night (Gen. R. 31:11, reproduced in Bialik – Ravnitzky, Legends, 27:121).
Through the creative mixture of traditions, the movie audience are led into a magical world, where everything seems to be possible.
More dramas are in store in the ark. First, Tubal-Cain, the leader of the wicked people, has successfully sneaked into the ark. Unrepentant, he still thinks himself as a god. He still thinks that he alone is the definition of justice, and that the whole world should be subjugated under his own definition of justice. Second, Noah’s second son Ham attempts to murder his father on the ark. It is Noah who fails to find Ham a wife. It is also Noah who chooses not to save Na’el (Ham’s would-be-wife). For this, Ham seeks revenge and justice from his father. Finally and most dramatically, Noah decides that none of the human beings is righteous. Humanity does not deserve to live. After the flood, after saving the animals and plant life, Noah and his family are to die alongside the rest of humanity. To an extreme, he actively seeks to kill the twin babies given birth by Ila. Noah thinks that death and destruction become the only way to carry out the Creator’s justice. In sum, Aronofsky’s characters all seek and yearn for their own definitions of justice. Ironically, in their earnest quests for justice, their actions become the very evil in the others’ eyes. What stands out most starkly in this episode is this one message: That evil persists inside the very ark!
This persistence of evil depicted in the film, however, does not deviate too much from what can be gleaned from Genesis 6-9. Too often, we are preoccupied with the fantastic “rainbow covenant” recorded in Gen 9:1-18. There, God blesses Noah and his family: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” There, God is generous enough to establish a rainbow covenant with Noah, his descendants, and all the living creatures on earth. He promises that never again will he send a flood to destroy the earth. And indeed, the sons of Noah again populate the whole earth (9:18). It seems that all unpleasant things have been cleansed and washed away by the deluge. It seems that “everybody lives happily ever after” (you can find this view recorded in this report here and in this video here). Too often, we forget the surrounding passages, which present a bleaker view in store for humanity. The story in Genesis 9 does not have a fairy-tale like ending. Not all live happily ever after. After the dissipation of the water, Noah lays in a state of drunken stupor (9:21). Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” (9:22, for an excellent article that lucidly discusses various interpretations for this act of Ham, see here). Near the end of the story, Noah curses the son of Ham, Canaan, to be “a servant of servants” (9:25). See, not everybody is happy! In another paragraph, Yahweh states:
I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done (Gen 8:21).
Look, Yahweh explicitly explains that the problem of humanity is not solved! (If you know the flood story in China, this is a very important difference. For a brief summary of this Chinese version, see the bibliography section below). Yet, Yahweh is merciful enough. He promises that he shall never again send the flood.
Initially, I thought the movie is too soft in its ending. Yes, Noah in the film is also drunken with guilt. But, after a short conversation with Ila, Noah is able to get back to life and reconcile with his wife. In the final blessing of Noah given to his sons, the rebellious Ham seems to be included as well. Every problem seems to be solved. Life seems to get back to normality. It is not until I think back at the eerie snake-skin tefillin, that I finally seem to grasp what Aronofsky is trying to convey. Now, I do not know whether you will agree with me in this interpretation. And I do not know whether Aronofsky will agree with me either. But, this is how I understand it. You see, binding tefillin on the arm and on the forehead is one of the Jewish practices, being passed down from generation to generation. In the film, Noah has received a glowing tefillin-like strip from his grandfather, and he later binds it on his arm in his blessing to the sons. The troubling question is: Why should this tefillin-like strip be made from snakeskin? And more disconcertingly, this epidermis comes from that infamous snake in Paradise, which flashes a couple of times in the movie! And this terrifying skin is passed down for generations in the movie. It appears once again, at the end of the movie, after the flood, when Noah is giving his blessing to the sons. Come to think of it, Aronofsky perhaps wants to convey that the problem of evil, symbolized by the snake, is not solved. From generation to generation, humanity will continuously be plagued by this problem. As the song “Mercy is” plays along at the end of the movie, I cannot help but think that Aronofsky is telling us this message, which is embedded also in the biblical text: Perhaps what makes us survive in this ever problematic world is that bit of mercy…
To sum up, Aronofsky’s film “Noah” is one truly excellent example of the retelling of the flood story in Genesis 6-9. To be acknowledged, biblical texts do certainly impose boundary at various junctures (perhaps we can talk more about the boundary another time). What I want to stress from the above examples is that biblical texts also contain many gaps that render creative and imaginative transformations and reinterpretations possible. More and more, I have come to realize that, sooner or later, we all need to choose in our lives on how we want to understand, interpret, update and live out those gaps. Yes, we need to make the choices. Just like Noah in Aronofsky’s film.
Honestly, I couldn’t have come to learn more and arrive at my own position on Gen 6-9 and the film “Noah” without these amazingly learned books, articles, websites and blog posts. I have enjoyed reading them very much. Here I share them with you and hope that you will enjoy them as much as I do! 🙂
Books and Articles:
- Bosshard-Nepustil, E., Vor Uns die Sintflut: Studien zu Text, Kontexten und Rezeption der Fluterzählung Genesis 6-9 (BWANT 165), Stuttgart 2005. [This book contains a very detailed textual analysis of Genesis 6-9. Do you know that the Hebrew Bible contains other flood traditions? In addition to Genesis flood story, this monograph will also tell you more about other biblical texts related to the flood. As noted briefly above, Genesis 6-9 contains several duplications and incongruities. Traditionally, biblical scholars attribute the passages to two sources. One that presents God more verbose is called the priestly (the P-source); another that presents Yahweh as more volatile is thought to be composed by the Yahwists (the J-source). Some will date the J-source to c. 10th century BCE, which is earlier than the compositional date proposed for the P-source. More recent scholars, who are mostly a group of German-speaking scholars, would suggest the P-source as the Grundschicht, the basic layer. What is considered to be the J-source are now named the nP (nicht-Priesterschriftliches or the non-priestly), which does not necessarily come from the same literary strand. Note, for instance, that the narrative about the building of the ark appears in P- but not in nP- materials (Gen 6:14ff). This latter group of scholars comes to the conclusion that the nP serves to expand and supplement the narrative given in the P-source in Genesis 6-9. That is to say, these scholars date the nP to be later than the P-source. Bosshard-Nepustil belongs to this latter group of scholars.]
- Dimant, D., “Noah in Early Jewish Literature,” in: Biblical Figures outside the Bible, Harrisburg 1998, 123-150. [A very informative article on Noah in the post-biblical traditions. Do you know that Noah also appears in texts such as 1 Enoch, Jubilees, Ben-Sira and the Genesis Apcryphon? Often, these texts contain more monstrous, spicy and creative details that are not found in the Hebrew Bible. If you are interested in these texts, spanning from 300 BCE to 100 BCE, you will enjoy this article.]
- Pleins, J. D., When the Great Abyss Opened: Classic and Contemporary Readings of Noah’s Flood, Oxford 2003. [An excellent introductory overview to the many issues related to Noah’s Flood. This book is not very detailed in its textual analysis. But, it contains a very lucid summary of the major issues and texts related to the flood, such as the Black Sea inundation, the geographical location(s) of the ark, the Genesis, the Qumran, and the Talmudic accounts of the flood. It even summarizes the Mesopotamian flood tales, including that of Ziusudra, Utnapishtim, Atrahasis. More broadly, it examines the flood story in Gen 6-9 in relation to the concepts of myth and science. Very broad but interesting.]
- 杜涛，“灾害与文明：中西洪水神话传播比较,“ in: 前沿 (2012) 16, 162-164. [This article is written by a lecturer of history in a univeristy in Peking. A balanced comparison of the flood story in Gen 6-9 and that in the Chinese culture.The Chinese also have their own version of an ancient flood story. The hero is not named Atrahasis, Utnapishtim, Ziusudra, or Noah. The hero is named 大禹 “Da Yu.” The narrative setting of this Chinese flood story is placed in a period around 2000 BCE. The earliest record about his story is about 1046 -771 BCE. Subsequently, this story is also recorded, transformed, and passed down in various different versions. The difference between the Chinese and the Hebrew flood story is that the former tends to be more political and the latter more religious. The Chinese version discusses very little about the cause of the flood. Although one version does talk about the flood as a result of the conflict between the fire god and the water god. Generally, the flood is thought to be a natural disaster. And the focus is on the actions of Da Yu, who worked hard and systematically organized the people in China to avert this natural disaster. He is later deemed as an exemplary ruler. The Hebrew version stresses that the evil in creation is the reason for the flood. Ultimately, the flood is about the establishment of the relationship between man and God. I heartily thank my lovely fiance for directing my attention to this flood story in China, for helping me to find many interesting materials related to this flood story (including this article).]
© 2014 by Lydia Lee