Looking for meaning in the Noah film

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noah_movie_posterWhen Hollywood makes a movie about a Biblical story it isn’t long before hackles are raised among those who insist that the stories of creation, flood and exile are historically accurate rather than mythic memories of a pre-literate past that while truthful, may not be factual. The debate between literal and metaphorical interpretations of biblical accounts is a long and twisted one that never ends.  Indeed, each generation brings new research techniques as well as renewed piety to the arguments.

This year Noah finally gets his own movie starring Russell Crowe and directed by Darren Aronofsky.  The film will be released March 28 and already the reviews are drawing attention to the fact that it promotes environmentalism, lacks the name of “God” in the dialogue and features far more family intrigue between Noah, his wife and sons. Religious news outlets are weighing in on whether believers should see it or not, should take their kids or not and of course, whether or not it will be screened at the Vatican.

I am planning to see it in the theater because I am interested in how the story translates to screen when it looses the modern warm-fuzzy Animal Planet vibe common in baby nurseries. I also believe in the importance of retelling stories so we can engage their meaning with changing experiences to decode the even deeper, more mysterious truths. Most importantly, I do not own the flood story nor does my church. The flood story belongs to all of us. Flood stories are common in cultures as diverse as the Yoruba, Samoa, Haida, Mongolia and the Near East.

In particular I am interested to see if Aronofsky makes use of other ancient Near East narratives contemporary to the Noah accout. Did he look to ancient Israel’s neighbors to find compelling plot ideas, such as Atrahasis and Gilgamesh? These stories give credence to the idea that people can share theological creativity and literary structures while also demonstrating the ability to use common symbols and plot to assign significant difference of meaning. Did Aronofsky attempt to use a woven storyline to still draw out the themes and interpretations deemed theologically orthodox in the Jewish-Christian tradition? Will the film mesh and mix ideas only to emerge with exactly the same meaning, if still different in facts?

The three stories of Atrahasis, Gilgamesh and Genesis 1-11 have at least four motifs in common: the natural world, conflict, a flood with a boat and human labor. In both Atrahasis and Gilgamesh the gods are depicted as having human gender, proper names and human functions. It is the gods who are the natural world and it is their relationships with one another that direct natural phenomena. In contrast, while the god of Genesis 1 and 2 is described by male pronouns and is involved with the natural world, this god is not the natural world. God creates the world apart from him and controls the elements of spatial and temporal reality by naming and separating them.

Each of the mythologies use conflict to move the narrative and each story is set in primeval history. In the case of Atrahasis, the conflict is both relational and armed warfare. Lower gods who have been set to labor for the higher gods rebel in word and deed. To stay off this insurrection, the higher gods create man to labor instead. Violence continues to set the pace of the Atrahasis narrative in that man is brought to being through the sacrifice of one of the gods whose blood is mixed with clay. Furthermore, the apparent solution of human labor does not lead to harmony but rather to more conflict as the noise of humanity disturbs the gods.  Gilgamesh also presents the clamor of humanity as distressing to the gods who choose to respond with destruction.  The conflict motif in Gilgamesh is again relational as the gods argue amongst themselves over the course of destruction and its failure to eradicate man.

In Genesis, God’s anger is not aroused from the noise of an increasing human population; in fact he has blessed their fertility. Instead, conflict is created through human disobedience and rather than immediately respond with destruction, God enters into a dialogue with man. Eventually, God will exile man from paradise and conflict will increase in frequency and severity among humans as a symbol of their distance from God. In Genesis 3 and 4, although the conflict is still relational, God does not bring the conflict from within himself nor does it arise from other deities. God is not presented as much angry and he is resigned to allow man to live the consequences of disobedience.

In Genesis 6-9, God’s disappointment in human behavior has brought the world to the point of destruction. God is grieved at human action, yet is able to find a redeeming man, Noah. God still needs to allow the consequence for human wickedness to take place but displays mercy in choosing one man to survive and in essence, to help God re-create the world. The flood in both Atrahasis and Gilgamesh depicts raging winds, rent skies, bellowing rain, the return of darkness and a picture of humanity in death thralls. The gods are shown pulling out the mooring poles, loosening the dikes, rumbling overhead.  The flood in Genesis 7 is eerily quiet. Instead of wind and rain, the waters swell and rise until everything is submerged. It’s as if the God of Genesis isn’t using the flood to cruelly inflict destruction as personal justice on a people who annoy him, rather calmly, distantly directing the necessary destruction of his own creation.

Only Gilgamesh and Genesis 8 illustrate a resolution to the flood with re-creation and a measure to withhold future destruction. Both Ut-napistim and Noah open a window on the boat to look outside once they perceive calmness.  Ut-napistim is visibly emotional, “tears streaming down my cheeks”, when he sees what the flood has wrought  Adversely, Noah seems only to function rather than feeling; he opens a window, he looks out, releases and waits for birds but does not respond. He waits for God to welcome him out of the boat and he makes a sacrifice for God without ever talking. It appears that God sees that it is good again with creation and man since he makes a covenant from his own motivation with Noah to never again bring total destruction to the world. In Genesis 1-11, God creates the world but is not embodied in creation and intends man from the beginning to be in harmonious relationship with creation.  It is this God who actively seeks a relationship with man, not other gods, in an effort to dispel conflict.  This is the meaning that I will be looking to find in Aronofsky’s Noah film. His creativity with the plot, characters and details about animals will not matter to me if his Noah is still the righteous new human with whom God wants to recreate the world and reestablish relationship that I believe him to be from Scripture.

About Colleen McLean

Colleen McLean is a life long Roman Catholic with a few pagan adventures along the way.  She has been active in lay ministry in two states and four dioceses.

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13 comments

  1. Colleen,
    I’m one of those who was disappointed to hear that the movie did not attempt to recreate the actual bible version of the account of Noah and the flood that God brought onto the earth. My view of scripture may affect that opinion because I actually believe that the bible is God’s story, not mine, yours or the church’s, to re-write to make a profit (which is probably questionable at this point).

    It really brought me down when I read a quote from Aranofsky saying, “this is not your f*#ing bible story!”

    Also, I couldn’t quite understand what you meant by this statement,

    “In contrast, while the god of Genesis 1 and 2 is described by male pronouns and is involved with the natural world, this god is not the natural world. God creates the world apart from him and controls the elements of spatial and temporal reality by naming and separating them. ”

    Anyway, I don’t think I’ll let this one taint the awesome truth that God has already revealed about this piece of His-story. 🙂

    Blessings Colleen!

    • Dennis – I agree that the phrasing is awkward. I meant to say that while Jews and Christians believe that God is the “unmoved mover” who creates out of nothing and in his image – God himself is not present in trees or rocks – the trees and rocks are not incarnations of God although they represent his love and care for us. Creation can reflect divine love and order while the individual elements of creation (ocean, bird, mountain) are not divine themselves.

      I agree that the Bible is God’s story but I wonder if we have read it with as much passion and imagination as God intended? Sometimes it takes many re-tellings to find the version that is the most faithful and truthful. And you are right in drawing attention the to profit motive of movie making – controversy drives attendance. I am interested to see if I feel differently after seeing the movie.

      Blessings to you as well. Take care. Colleen

      • Colleen,
        Thanks for the clarification. In the new format I totally agree.

        I love the application of passion to God’s story, it is the most awesome story in the universe and totally undeserving of dull boring presentation. I do have reservations about imagination, because it is His story and the wisdom of proverbs warns us not to add or take away from His truth.

        Let us know what you think after watching!

  2. If there was a catacylismic flood on earth, I’d imagine many places would have such an event referenced in their own literature, I guess they do.

    • One of my favorite flood stories is a Peruvian version from a great children’s series, Legends of the World, called “The Llama’s Secret” especially since it explains how foxes got the end of their tails darkened.

  3. I’d be curious how many of our readers believe the flood actually happened?

  4. Iv’e always seen the interplay between shadow and reality at work in the themes, stories, prophecies and rituals of religion, pantheons and philosophies as a fulfillment of the truth highlighted in Colossians 2:17: “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” The bible is a book of prophecy too. It foretells and portrays much in type and shadow, it’s a book of imagery, pageantry and symbol and needs Christ as the final interpreter and explanation as Hebrews 1: 1-2 so beautiful puts it:
    “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.”

  5. Here’s the poll!
    Do you believe in the Noah story? http://bit.ly/1jYqOsU

  6. A poll would be an interesting thing to see, though it should be broken down into whether the Biblical Flood story is taken literally versus some otherwise natural phenomenon that may have been embelished by legend, or as a purely allegorical exercise. There is a good case to be made for the middle ground, for example, that the Bible story is an amalgam of two circumstances: the catastrophic infilling of the Black Sea as the Ice Age waned, merged with much later local Mesopotamian river inundation experiences, in turn folded into the developing Bible version following the Babylonian Captivity.

    More generally, peoples with flood tales usually live by the sea (risking the occasional tsunami) or on rivers that are prone to capricious flooding (Tigris/Euphrates and Yangtze being prominent cases). Notably absent from this category is the Nile, where Egyptians have no tales of bad flooding as far as I can see (though Young Earth creationists keep insisting they do, I have yet to see them cite primary sources for them). To the contrary, the regular nature of the Nile’s inundations meant that it was when the Nile fails to flood on schedule that people started gnashing teeth and rending garments, in despair over the failure of the life-giving silt to replenish their fields. There have also been cases of “local” flood stories being picked up by traveling ethnographers, unaware that missionaries had been through the region years before and so some of the “tradition” being reported was just filtering these stories back to them.

  7. I’m going to go with good old Peter’s word on the issue:

    2 Peter 2:5 “…if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others;”

    2 Peter 3:5-6 “But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed.”

  8. Ditto, bro!!

  9. There have already been found enough physical evidence of the Deluge that covered the earth at one time, such as the animals that usually don’t herd together, yet have been found frozen in the ground in some artic areas, with food still in their mouths, as they were at one time all swept together and frozen. There are versions of references to a flood that happened long ago in many different cultures around the world. The earth itself, at present time is about 70 % water as compared to the amount of dry land of about 30 %. All of the species of animals and birds, etc. that we see today were able to descend from basic kinds. The movie Noah might have been very well acted and put together, but was very much lacking in accuracy of details. There were no” rock people” – or ” watchers”, but there were giants who lived then who helped to perpetrate the violence and trouble on the earth as the people took no note of the warning of Noah, so continued in their course of evil deeds, just as we are now living at another special time in history, ” the last days”, note the thinking and attitudes that are popular in our time, – 2 Timothy 3 : 1 through 5. Also, in the movie, Noah was made out as a ” mad man” , as he was about to murder his two grand children because he had the futile idea that humans were so bad that there was no future chance or hope for them ever and earth would never be populated again by humans. That was wrong, – Isaiah 45 : 18, God originally formed and purposed the earth to be inhabited, ( but not by evil). So Noah already knew God’s purpose, long before this was recorded in Isaiah’s time. There were a few other details that were in the movie that were changed, such as the number of individuals that were on the ark, there were originally 8 adults, making it 4 couples, instead of just 2 couples and 2 single men making only 6 people, also there were no ” stowaways” – no one could “sneak” in, Gen. 7 : 16, because it was God who shut the door behind them. 2 Peter 3 : 13 explains that the earth will become the peaceful enjoyable place it was intended to be after this present system has been brought to and end, but not by a flood this time. * also, Revelation 11 : 18 and 21: 3 through 5.

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