When 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.
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- Tangibly teaching my children about Easter - April 14, 2014
- Looking for meaning in the Noah film - March 26, 2014
- 022514 quote - February 25, 2014
- Why? - February 24, 2014
- How technology presents opportunities to people of faith - February 23, 2014
- Peace in the Eucharist - February 10, 2014
- When I almost died - January 31, 2014
- People can celebrate what they want - December 16, 2013
- Why who David really was doesn’t matter: A review of Baden’s new book about the historical David - October 24, 2013