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“NOAH”: How the Movie Tells the Story (part 2)
June 28, 2014Posted by on
The 2014 “Noah” movie, written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, has become a very controversial motion picture, something like the way “The Passion of the Christ” did 10 years before. Critics on all sides were denouncing the movie even before it came out – which is great for publicity, but potentially confusing when it comes to actually seeing the movie and learning anything from it.
This article series is a guide to learning from the original “Noah” story of the Bible, and from the “Noah” movie. We’re not writing to “denounce” or “defend” the movie – many other writers can provide that for you. This series won’t evaluate it “as a movie,” in terms of acting, production, etc., either. Instead, we’re going to look at the original story, and at several themes in the movie’s portrayal of the original story.
There’s much more that’s worth saying beyond what these articles can provide. But we hope that these thoughts will move your studies and thoughts about the story – and about God and His creation, and about your own life – into a constructive direction.
In part 1, we’ve tried to get a clearer picture of the Biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood – click here to read it. We highly recommend that you read part 1 before reading this article.
Welcome to part 2! Here we’ll identify some of the themes covered by both the story and the movie. We’ll do some simple comparing and contrasting between the Biblical story of Noah and the movie, to note how the movie developed the original story and its later traditions. In part 3, we’ll summarize what we’ve seen, and we’ll consider some things we can learn from the “Noah” movie’s presentation of the story.
As we work our way through the article, please note that when we’re talking about the original Flood story from the Bible, we’ll refer to “the Genesis Noah,” “Genesis Tubal-Cain,” “God,” the “sons of God,” etc. When we’re talking about the movie, we’ll say “the movie’s Noah,” “the movie’s Tubal-Cain,” “the Creator,” “the Watchers,” etc.
We’ll be going through several themes of the movie in some detail – so consider this a “spoiler alert.”
1. “Where do the movie’s ideas come from?”
There are 3 principal sources: the Bible’s story in Genesis, which might have come through Abraham in 1900 BC; later traditions from a first-century BC book called 1 Enoch and related traditional sources; and The Zohar, a 13th century AD book of Jewish mysticism. The movie writers have also taken artistic license to change some of the traditional material, and to develop a few plot lines they’ve invented.
All of the names used in the movie – Noah, Naameh, Tubal-Cain, Na’el, etc. are found in the story of the Flood – either in the Bible’s version, or in the later traditions. The movie’s writers worked extensively with the available traditions to try to create a world and humanity as the old stories tell it.
The original Genesis “Noah story” is extremely old, one of the oldest stories known to humanity. We really don’t know exactly “when” the events happened, nor exactly “how” they happened, nor when the story took the form we have in Genesis. Whatever it actually was, “some kind of terrible cataclysm” seems to have occurred in early-human pre-history – the nightmare echoes down into our time. To this day many cultures from around the world have similar stories – far removed from the ancient Near East and the direct influence of Genesis. Among others, the ancient Babylonians, the ancient Chinese, and Northwest American aboriginal peoples passed on a story about how the gods flooded the earth, but a few humans were rescued. All these Flood stories are similar in some ways, but different from each other in significant ways, too.
For many people in our time, the story of the global flood has been trivialized into Sunday School songs and toys for children. The story has become so familiar that the overwhelming horror of the actual event is lost.
The movie tries to draw the viewer back into the original nightmare – into a world gone so terribly wrong that The Creator has to “undo” His creation, into a dreadful cleansing as the only path to hope for the future. This is no Sunday School story. It’s disturbing to watch it in the magic of a movie’s CGI and special effects. The original events, whatever they were, must have been much worse.
2. “In the movie, why was the world of Noah’s time so wrecked? Why were humans so badly messed up?”
The movie tells us that very early in history, humans joined a rebellion against “the Creator,” the movie’s only name for God. They have been banished from their original home with the Creator in Eden. They are trying to rule the world on their own – but they don’t have the power or wisdom to do that without the Creator’s help. So instead of a Garden of Eden under the rule of the Creator and the care of humans, the earth under the rule of humans is barren and untended! As technology has advanced, nature and agriculture have failed and food is scarce. Where there were once richly forested valleys and life-giving rivers, the world has become a devastated wasteland, a junkyard for failed technology. Instead of humans and animals co-existing harmoniously as they did before the rebellion, animals are terrified of humans, who are slaughtering them for meat. Instead of enlightened humans living peacefully together without the morbid interference of heaven or hell or religion (think of John Lennon’s song “Imagine”), the world is at war: strong humans are destroying weaker humans. All of this is consistent with what the original Genesis story gives us.
The movie’s Lamech (Noah’s father) and his family are the last human family to continue to seek the blessing of the Creator, and they try to live according to their original place in the Creator’s design. They are vegetarian, according to the original created order (also reflected in Genesis). Because their place is to care for the world, they abhor killing the animals and eating meat. Lamech and his family recognize that though they are in charge of the world, it still belongs to the Creator – so they will seek to renew it, instead of dominating and exploiting it for their own ends, as the rest of humanity has done. In one early scene an animal, wounded and chased by human hunters, sees Noah and is terrified – but Noah has a way of communicating with it to soothe and try to help it. His zeal to protect the Creator’s animals drives him to kill 3 of the humans who were hunting it for food: for them to do this would be a serious violation of the Creator’s original design, which could not be allowed.
3. “Who was Tubal-Cain? What was he all about?”
In the story from Genesis chapter 4, the Genesis Tubal-Cain is a descendant of the original Genesis Cain, who murdered his brother Abel in a furious eruption of callous rage against God. Tubal-Cain’s father (ironically named Lamech, like Noah’s father) was a hostile man: he swore himself to domination through overwhelming violence (“peace through superior firepower”) against his enemies. This Genesis Lamech was also the first polygamist – so Tubal-Cain and his siblings were the first to grow up in a polygamous-blended family. Though polygamy was “allowed,” it was never recommended as an improvement over the original design of one man and one woman together producing a family. The Old Testament consistently portrays polygamous families as especially fractious and dysfunctional – this may have had a bearing in the later social and moral development of Tubal-Cain’s descendants. The Genesis Tubal-Cain was a pioneer in early metallurgy, forging bronze and iron into tools – and probably also weapons. Tubal-Cain’s family line quickly advanced culturally and technologically, but they couldn’t handle the power of their own advancement: morally and socially they failed.
The movie expands on all this: the vast majority of humans are Tubal-Cain’s kind: they have left the Creator behind, and are trying to make their own way into the future on an earth they themselves have ruined. They are at war with each other for survival. The movie’s Tubal-Cain is much like his ancestor the Genesis Cain and his father the Genesis Lamech: he embodies the heart of humanity living outside of connection to “the Creator”: “Damned if I do not take what I want!” Speaking to the Creator, he says, “You and I, we are the same. Why will you not speak with me?!” In terms of the direction furnished by the Genesis story, this part of the movie’s portrayal makes good sense.
In the old Genesis story, Noah’s father Lamech died years before the flood, with no explanation of how he died. As the movie tells the story, in a typical Hollywood plot device (e.g. “Robin Hood,” “Braveheart”), when Noah was only a boy Lamech was brutally slain by “strong” humans led by the movie’s Tubal-Cain, who seeks to be their king. There is, of course, no way to know whether this is the actual history.
4. “Who was Methuselah? What was he all about?”
Methuselah, in Genesis and in the movie, is Noah’s grandfather. In both, he dies in the year of the flood – possibly in the flood itself. In both, he is faithful to the Creator, and very, very old. In the movie, Methuselah refers to his ancestor Enoch, who walked with God and “was taken” – also part of the Genesis story. The movie turns to the post-Genesis “1 Enoch” version of the story to explain why Methuselah is puzzled: Enoch had had a vision of the world being destroyed someday – by fire. It’s curious to Methuselah that Noah’s vision of judgment is a flood. This becomes important later in the movie – we’ll talk about it in part 3 of this series.
The movie’s Methuselah has a unique sense of connection to the original Eden, before the rebellion: he gives Noah a seed from the original Eden which Noah plants in the barren ground. It sprouts into an incredibly beautiful and fertile forest – providing wood for the Ark – and creates a river, flowing full of life. These images hark back to the original Genesis Eden, watered by a river – and they also furnish images for the later Biblical prophets when they describe their visions of the glorious future promised by God.
Methuselah’s touch also brings healing for the barrenness of the movie’s Ila, Shem’s wife – another sign of connection from the Genesis Eden and the Biblical prophets’ future visions. Set within their original symbolic world, these aspects of the story are really beautiful.
5. “Who is ‘the Creator,’ and what He is going to do?”
Genesis and the movie offer very different approaches to God and how He functions in the story.
In the Genesis account “God” is the central figure in the story. His thoughts and feelings are surprisingly clear. He sees the deteriorating situation, He speaks as to Himself, He feels pain, and He communicates explicitly and clearly to Noah: God explains what He is about to do, and why, and what He wants Noah to do with it. Genesis tells the Flood story very much from God’s point of view. The only things Genesis says about Noah are that he heard God’s communication and obeyed Him. We are told nothing about how he discovered God’s communication about it, nor how Noah might have felt about it.
In the movie, God is known only as “the Creator.” His existence is never questioned or doubted: but His intentions seem sometimes hard to understand, and rather questionable! The movie’s Noah tells the story of how the Creator made the world through a mix of imagery (click to see) drawn from the “6-day” creation poetry in Genesis 1 & 2 combined with a version of evolution, with a simple message: however the world got here, the Creator made it – and in the beginning it was all good. In ten generations, humans have ruined it. Throughout the movie the skies show galaxies and stars much closer than we see them today, leaving us with the feeling that the Flood happened very early in history.
Noah is the central figure in the movie’s story. The Creator seems far away, and says very little – the movie’s Tubal-Cain accuses the Creator of having abandoned humans long ago. The Creator “speaks” to Noah through the symbolism of a series of dreams and visions, much as the Genesis God sometimes speaks to prophetic people. The Creator “tells” Noah that the world is about to be flooded, and shows “why” – though Noah seems to understand already. Some of the Creator’s communication with Noah comes through interpreting circumstances: Noah is not told “directly” what to do, but has to “discover” what is right by “working it out.” He has to apply the principles he already knows from the Creator to the situations he’s confronted with throughout the story. In the earlier parts of the movie Noah generally understands – the crucial turn of the movie comes when Noah is driven to misunderstand the Creator’s intention.
Genesis tells us very little about how Noah felt about any part of the story – by contrast, the movie focuses its imagination mostly on Noah’s feelings, his experience: what would it be like to be in Noah’s world, seeing it and feeling it as he did? Why was the Creator doing it, how was it to be done, what was the point of it all? This becomes very important to the movie’s development: Noah properly understands that the Creator is going to destroy the ruined world while there is still enough good left to create a new one. In the Ark Noah will carry the seeds of hope for a new world, as it should be. However, in his dedication to “do it right,” Noah “gets it wrong.”
6. “What was the movie’s drama of Noah and Ham all about?”
In both the Bible and the movie, Noah is married and has a family of at least three sons. Genesis doesn’t say how old the “sons” were – but it does say that they were married by the time of the flood, and that Ham was actually the youngest of the 3 sons, not the “middle child.” However, the end of the Genesis story does show a deep animosity between Noah and his (adult) youngest son Ham, leading to a more or less permanent alienation between them.
The movie tries to account for this by developing a side-bar story of “middle-child drama,” developing teenager Ham’s “integrity, curiosity,” and imagining resentment and latent hostility toward his father Noah.
As the movie’s Ark is being built, Noah and his son Ham are confronted by Tubal-Cain and his followers, who at first misunderstand why Noah is building it. Ham is fascinated with Tubal-Cain, whose attitude is so different from his father Noah – and he is fascinated with Tubal-Cain’s weapon. Ham struggles with latent stirrings of emotionally replacing his father Noah with this strong man of power and freedom, following him and becoming like him.
All 3 sons are not yet “men,” with Japheth still pre-pubescent. Part of the pain of the movie Ham’s struggle with Noah revolves around his longing for a wife, as his older brother Shem seems to have found. Ham becomes very frustrated with what he sees as an increasing rigidity in Noah’s attitude as the story moves along. Noah seems curiously uninterested in helping Ham find a wife, telling him to trust the Creator and get back to work. When Ham goes out on his own to find a wife, he discovers how utterly degraded humans have become. He finds himself in a pit full of corpses, where he meets the young woman Na’el – a likely candidate to join him in the Ark. In a crisis moment, Noah and Ham and Na’el are running for safety in the Ark, chased by the mob: Na’el is caught in a trap, and Noah forces Ham to leave her behind. She is trampled by the mob and dies. Ham can not understand how Noah, so insistent on obeying the Creator, could care so much for the animals, but leave an innocent, helpless human to die so horribly – particularly when she’s Ham’s best and only hope for a wife. Ham is horrified by Noah’s attitude, and loses all respect for him. His emotional vulnerability opens the door for more alienation and crisis.
(See below for more about Noah’s changed understanding of the Creator’s purpose for the Ark.)
The movie’s Tubal-Cain is wounded in the battle at the Ark, and manages to climb aboard the Ark as the rains are falling. Ham finds him, feels the attraction to him as a king-leader-father-figure, cares for his wounds. Tubal-Cain introduces Ham to the ethics of aggression, violence, and dominance – and meat. However, just as Tubal-Cain is about to kill Noah and claim the new world for his own, Ham kills Tubal-Cain – as Tubal-Cain dies, he says to Ham, “Now you have become a man.” Ham is left in deep inner conflict: he does not want to become like Tubal-Cain, but he’s also lost respect for his father Noah. At the end of the movie, Ham can’t see his way clear to stay with him in the post-flood family unit.
7. “In the movie, what exactly was Noah’s faith crisis about?”
The movie’s main crisis develops when Noah decides to go the human settlement to try to find Ham, who has defied his father and gone to the settlement on his own, seeking a wife. What Noah sees is a violence and degradation too horrible to face: humans are committing cannibalism in order to survive in a world they themselves have ruined. Noah is utterly traumatized by the evil he sees, and this brings an important turn in his understanding of what the Creator is doing: humans have irredeemably destroyed the world that the Creator has made, they have destroyed each other, they’re degraded beyond any hope of finding connection with the Creator and taking their rightful place in the created order. Noah now believes that the Creator is going to flood the earth and allow it to be repopulated with “the innocent” animals – but not humans. Noah comes to believe that the Creator intends to allow him and his family to die natural deaths in the new world, and then the Creator’s world will be at peace and in order. To Noah, this is “justice,” and the only way to make things right. He becomes utterly obsessed by it, completely committed to it, no matter what the cost.
In the Genesis account, Noah and his wife and his sons ‘and their wives’ enter the Ark and come out to repopulate the new world. The movie creates a much more complicated picture, with only Noah and his wife Naameh, and his son Shem and Ila, as the procreative couples. Ila becomes pregnant, and Noah’s obsession with justice drives him to swear that he will kill the baby if it turns out to be a girl – so that humans can eventually die out, as he believes the Creator intends. While still on the Ark, Ila gives birth to twin girls – presumably, they could grow up to become wives for Ham and Japheth. In a devastating dramatic moment, Noah tries to bring himself to kill them, as he swore to do for the sake of the Creator’s “justice” – but he can’t do it. As he later says, “All I could feel was love for them.” The movie’s re-interpretation of the story has echoes (not full parallels) of the Biblical story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac to God (see Genesis 22).
In the movie, once they land on dry ground and begin their life again, Noah separates himself from the rest of the family. His obsession with “justice” has cost him his family, his marriage, his reason to live, and his sense of connection to the Creator. He makes wine and becomes heavily drunk, mired in “survivor’s guilt.” He believes that he has failed to obey the Creator’s will because he allowed the twin girls to live. More importantly, he believes that the evil of the old world has permanently stained humans, and so the new world will now become corrupted just like the old one: and it’s all his fault. He degrades himself, and is seen by his sons. Shem and Japheth cover him, trying to restore his dignity. Ham is completely disgusted, and leaves the family for an uncertain future.
Ila, Noah’s daughter-in-law, helps Noah understand that the Creator allowed Noah to feel love for the newborn girls, and to choose to let them live – that Noah in fact did do the right thing by sparing them. Noah’s choice was not a failure of courage to exert rigid “justice.” It was the Creator who trusted Noah to make the right choice: love, hope, and mercy. Noah is reunited with his wife and most of his family, and the covenant is passed on to the next generation. The Creator speaks His approval of the situation by displaying a huge rainbow of hope for the future.
The movie’s Noah has been led on a process: through his experience of loss of the beauty of the earth, horror at human degradation, hopelessness for the future, preserving what is still good – and finally finding hope and enough good in humans to make it worth starting over again. The Creator has allowed Noah to make the choice for mercy and hope – because the Creator Himself has already been through the same process. Noah’s experience is a window into the Creator’s heart, and Noah’s hope for the future of humanity is built on the Creator’s hope.
8. “What were ‘The Watchers’? What part do they play in the story?”
People in our time find it difficult to take seriously a story of “heavenly beings that come down to the earth to interact with humans.” The language of Genesis 6 refers to “sons of God” who took “the daughters of men.” “Sons of God” in the Old Testament virtually always refers to angelic/spiritual beings – not “humans who are on God’s side.” The earliest interpretations of the Genesis Flood story from writings like 1 Enoch (first century BC), the New Testament books of 2 Peter and Jude (first century AD), etc. all understand the story in this way. The de-spiritualized idea that the “sons of God” were the descendants of Seth still faithful to God, opposed to the “sons of Cain” who maintain rebellion against God, is a much later interpretation. While a de-spiritualized interpretation makes more sense in modern human experience, the earliest interpretation is much more faithful to the original Biblical language.
The Genesis version of “the sons of God” feature of the story is developed quite differently from the movie’s “Watchers.” In Genesis 3 God banished humans (Stage 3) from the original Eden in hope that they would begin to find their way back to trusting in Him (Stage 4). (See part 1 of this series for an explanation.) It’s really important to know this: the Ban was not “justice,” in the sense of “what humans deserve” – it was a painful yet gracious opportunity for humans to find their way back to God through rediscovering their need for Him. In a world without the Ban, where rebellious humans could never die, evil would have destroyed everything. So the Ban is part of saving the Creation!
However, the Genesis chapter 6 “sons of God” interfered with God’s redemptive process by leaving their own place in the created order. They came to a world where they didn’t belong, further strengthened humans’ sense of self-sufficiency, and made the trouble of the rebellion even worse. Their hyper-aggressive hybrid offspring led humans into war and destruction previously unknown. The interference of the “sons of God” led directly to the Flood. The world changed after the Flood: in our time these “sons of God” are locked away, and can no longer interfere directly with the created world as they did before. Their offspring’s ability to trouble humans is limited to personal “demonization” and promoting violence, rebellious ideas, idolatrous religions, etc. – deceiving the wider culture on a “spiritual level.” The next steps in God’s plan to reach to humans began in Genesis 11, God’s challenge to the “gods” of Abram’s day. The Biblical point of view holds that in our time humans now have a much better opportunity to be connected with God – and the best is yet to come. (More in part 3 of this series.)
The movie follows the Book of Enoch traditions (written long after Genesis) by calling the “sons of God” “the Watchers.” It portrays them much more sympathetically than either Genesis or the 1 Enoch traditions. In the movie, one of the Watchers tells their story: they are heavenly beings who belong in the unseen world with the Creator. However, when they see that the Creator has banished humans from the original Garden of Eden, they feel sorry for humans, and they leave their place with God and come to teach them, to help humans cope with a world very different from what they were intended to live in. (The Creator’s intent regarding the Banishment from Eden is not explored in the movie – that’s unfortunate.) The Watchers are eventually enslaved and overpowered by humans – who indeed are much more powerful than anyone expected. In the course of the story the Watchers turn against the rebellious humans they once helped: they decide to help Noah build the Ark, and they defend his family when the Ark is attacked by Tubal-Cain’s forces. In the last battle, when the Watchers are “killed” by the humans, the Creator “forgives” them and takes them back to the heavenly places. It’s a stretch from the original Genesis story.
However, lest you think that this notion of interaction between spirit-beings and humans is merely silly: just like with the Flood story itself, the idea that heavenly beings come to the world to meet with humans is very broadly attested throughout history, in many cultures all over the world. Hindu artwork often shows blue-skinned beings consorting with humans: those are the gods. Graeco-Roman myths often feature stories of the gods coming to humans – sometimes with sexual intent, and producing demi-gods like Hercules. Northwest American aboriginal peoples also tell stories of spirits like the Raven, who is sometimes a spirit and sometimes a human. The Old Testament “gods of the nations” are understood as “demons” who enslave people using all kinds of earthly power, buttressed by counterfeit, falsehood, lies. Various Asian and African religions feature a worldview replete with communication between “spirit-world” beings and humans. In fact, the working assumption in almost all of human history, across all cultures, is that humans and other “spirit-beings” have been in some kind of contact. The secularist, “naturalist” worldview of the modern West and post-communist East is a very recent, untested development in human thought.
We’ll talk more about humans interacting with “spirit-beings” in part 3 of this series.
9. “What is the meaning of the snakeskin? And why is it passed down to the next generation?”
In Genesis, evil does not originate with humans: it starts with a “serpent” who deceives humans into joining a rebellion against God that seems to be already under way. The movie agrees with this, and shows a “serpent” with gold skin in the Garden shedding its gold skin and becoming black – apparently revealing its true nature.
In the movie, the gold snakeskin is supposed to be passed on from Lamech to Noah – and is passed from Noah to Shem – as a sign of the original covenant with the Creator. They wrap the snakeskin on their arm in much the same way Jewish ceremonial t’fillin Scriptures strips are wrapped on the arm. The gold snakeskin is not a symbol of the black evil of the serpent, but instead glows with the light of the original good world in the Garden – a good so worthwhile that the serpent hides its true intentions by cloaking itself in the light. The snakeskin for humans is a visible relic, a token of connection to the “good” of the world before the rebellion. It’s given to help humans hold on to hope for the future during the darker times: perhaps one day things will be made right again.
Eastern religions of our time blur the distinction between “good” and “evil,” saying that “it’s all one.” The movie’s portrayal of the snakeskin is nothing like that: the snakeskin represents what is originally good. The black serpent that slithered out of it is “evil.” The Creator and His creation are “good” – what humans have done in the rebellion is “evil.” They are completely distinct.
At the beginning of the movie Tubal-Cain takes the snakeskin from Lamech, Noah’s father, because to him it’s a token of power. In his mind it legitimizes his dominance over everything as the man who “is like God, giving life and taking it away.” But in his grasp to rule this world, Tubal-Cain utterly misunderstands the snakeskin: he is trying to co-opt more power, with no thought of returning to his place under the dominion of the Creator, where the original power lies. To use language from the first article in this series, the snakeskin comes from the Creator’s Stage 1 world, and it is meaningful as a relic of the glorious good which was lost in Stage 2 and Stage 3. But it continues as a sign of the hope of restoration, Stage 4. Tubal-Cain’s rebellion traps him in Stage 2 and Stage 3, blinds him to the past Stage 1, and holds him back from Stage 4 and the future hope. The snakeskin is a reminder of the ultimate defeat of the rebellion, and the Creator’s ultimate restoration of all things.
None of the snakeskin imagery comes from the original Genesis story – but the imagery is very interesting, nonetheless, especially within the Genesis worldview. It’s not difficult to appreciate the value of reminders of the past beauty that has been lost – and to look forward in hope that someday all things will be restored.
This sense of “connection to the ancient Eden and the future restoration” is a very important theme in the Bible – especially for followers of Jesus Christ. We’ll have more to say about this in part 3 of this series.
10. “Wow, the movie has stretched so far from the original story! What good is all this?”
This movie should provoke a whole “boatload” of questions! (Pun intended.) With any luck, your questions will help you find a whole new world of sorts. The movie may be far from perfect – but raising the questions in this kind of depth has to be a good thing.
You’re welcome to leave your questions here, and we’ll do our best to address them in the comments and in part 3.
Enjoy the irony of the movie poster, and stay tuned!