UNPACKING NOAH – THE MOVIE

NOAH 2.0 –

The Movie

APRIL 15, 2014

  • In Boston, the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 are being remembered.
  • Pesach (Passover) is being observed (4-14 through 4-22) by Jewish families throughout the world.  
  • Holy Week is being celebrated (4-13 through 4-19 – followed on 4-20 by Easter) by Christian families. 

 

These are survivor stories; and the Grandfather of all the survivor stories is NOAH.

A Movie Unpacking Exercise

By Jay B Gaskill

 

It is possible, even likely, that the Noah story is an echo of what evolutionary scientists call a bottleneck event, something perhaps far earlier.[1] At several distinct moments in human prehistory a human population was reduced to the edge of extinction, leaving a dramatically reduced number of reproducing members, just large enough to survive inbreeding and eventually to rebound…or not.

Arguably the last great ice age was a bottleneck event for Homo sapiens.  Modern humans were adaptable, and made the cut.  Neanderthals failed to adapt, and did not make the cut.  Geologists agree that there was no world-wide flood 8 to 10 thousand years ago, but that has little to do with the possible inspiration for the Noah story, since any huge local catastrophic flooding would have seemed to the ancients of the day to herald “the end of the world.” Plato’s writings refer to a number of such events, at least one of which may actually have happened.[2]

 

THESE ARE MY PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON NOAH, the 2014 movie, by Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel & a creative team of CGI artists and actors. It is not a typical movie review.  It is written from the perspective of a Judeo-Christian (in which the two threads are about equal), a believer in the findings of science, but not an atheist or agnostic.  I am a Russell Crowe fan (and yes, he really did finally get a meeting with Pope Francis)[3]; and I find myself endlessly curious about the shaky relationship between modern Hollywood and religious communities. So this movie was a must see for me.  That the Noah movie takes liberties with the biblical account was to be expected, as was the inevitable flak from representatives of the various religious traditions.  The more interesting question is whether this movie took improper liberties.

Yes, the movie was marred by two important flaws: one was an error of inclusion; and one was an error of omission. But, as a respecter of the creative process, I tend to make generous allowances for artistic license. By the standards applicable to a 21st century movie intended for a typically secular audience, Noah was an honest effort, filled with some nice touches, and told the core story without too much damage.

NOAH IS NOT JUST A MYTH

 

Myths are those long standing, well embedded narratives that carry important insights, embodying deeply memorable literature, and holding compelling stories.  They may or may not also capture echoes of historical (or pre-historical) events, but they always capture our durable cultural memories of something very important.  Several pre-modern figures are strongly associated with myths – thinking especially of Moses, the Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth, each of whom lived among us as a transformative and transcendent figure whose life and teachings became part of the human condition.

To describe the account of the Flood and Noah as myth is by no means a dismissal or marginalization – nor is it necessarily inconsistent with the notion of the Ark Story as originating in a real cataclysmic event.

Noah, as a Movie

In the opening scenes, we were shown graphic depictions of the earth being blotted with industrial cities on every continent – growing black spots, looking like metastatic cancerous lesions.

The movie’s depictions of the cruelty and depravity of the desperate people surrounding Noah and his little family gave us glimpses of a brutal, degraded culture.  It was just short of caricature – a cinematic blend of the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max (without the battered cars), and a carnivorous tribe of neo-Nazi survivalists (without the guns).  I assume that Noah’s creative team was going for something that members of our postmodern, sex and drug-use tolerant, culture could still recognize as depraved.  I imagine that the film’s producers and script writers had calculated that, after 8,000 years, few in the typical 21st century audience would still think that mere sexual debauchery could be seen as worthy of condemnation as the crime of spoiling the environment.

The audience saw images from the Garden of Eden story, the snake (weird and menacing) and the forbidden fruit (a pulsing, faintly repulsive organ), coupled with a graphic silhouette of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. These images were repeated in sequence presumably to remind everyone of humanity’s tendency to stray to the dark side. The reminders were doubtless intended to show that the desperate, angry throngs of people turned away from the Ark somehow had earned their fate. Of course, nothing can quite dispel the sense of injustice when everyone, wicked and not wicked, is to be wiped out, for a fresh start for a select remainder. Or is that always true? Consider the epidemic disease model where the contagious sick are quarantined and the uninfected flown out of harm’s way.

The moral force of the Noah account in a movie or play requires depiction of sufficient evil to anger the ancient (vision of) God commonly held in the early biblical period.  But to add urban blight, anachronistic abuses by industry 8,000 years ago, was more like an embarrassing appeal to the gods of political correctness. The theme rang as false as if, in a retelling of Moby Dick, the producers insisted on adding an attack by Greenpeace and a lawsuit by PETA. Moreover, the industrial decay theme was not even true to itself, especially since the surviving population that swarmed the Ark was more like a mob scene from an early Tarzan movie than an invasion of the post-collapse urbanites in escape from LA.

Using abuses from ancient industry as a reason to wipe out an ancient population could have completely undermined the movie’s credibility, but the story’s moral seriousness was redeemed by the movie’s depiction of authentic evil in the form of cruelty and depravity by that same population.

For all that – Noah the movie was engaging, even moving. The acting, especially by Russell Crowe, who was sturdily convincing as Noah, combined with the blockbuster production values, astute pacing, keen direction, and the excellent supporting cast, to rescue this movie from its silly excesses.

A SIDE NOTE ABOUT THE ROCK ANGELS: I admit that, at first, I was dismayed by what seemed to be yet one more gratuitous (and distracting) Hollywood add-on:  The intrusion of a set of fallen angels, depicted as rock beings (created with CGI, software probably licensed from the first Hobbit movie’s rock monsters).  In the Noah movie, these clumsy rock beings were the “Watchers,” angels that were required to remain behind after the Fall-of-Humanity. Their rocky exteriors trapped glowing angelic beings.  In the movie, these angels perished one-by-one while defending the Ark from the mobs of desperate people. As each angel “died”, a pillar of fire ascended heavenward. The rock creatures may have been a typically Hollywood idea, but I found the final effect of their fiery liberation touching.

Then I reread the biblical story and discovered that there are references to “divine beings” and “giants” at the very beginning of the Noah narrative: “…the divine beings saw how beautiful the human women were, so they took themselves wives,” (Gen 6:2), and “The giants were on earth in those days, and afterwards as well, when the divine beings came in to the human women and they bore them (children) – they were heroes who were of former ages, the mean of name.”

Scholars are in disagreement about the origin and meaning of these passages. To the credit of the movie, Aronofsky and Handel used this as an opening to add some theological meaning to these otherwise extraneous characters. Noah’s story does unfold in the aftermath of the Fall.  It makes narrative sense that the descendants of Adam and Eve might still be on probation, and that fallen angels would be left on duty as quasi-divine probation officers

This was a reminder that few of us moderns ever take the trouble to actually read the flood account in the Genesis book of the Pentateuch (the Torah, the 5 books of Moses).

NOAH, AS A TEACHING MYTH

Serious archaeologists have searched for and found several potential candidates for a massive prehistoric flood in the region, their searches having been driven by the fact that several ancient traditions also reference an apocalyptic flood event. The pre-Noah flood accounts (thinking of the Gilgamesh epic, for example) tend to attribute apocalyptic disasters to the gods, but not as a response to a breach in the moral relationship between deity and humanity, a penalty for breaking the divinely ordained Moral Law.  The notion of the Flood as the extreme moral penalty is unique to Noah.

For me, the most interesting scholarly commentary about Noah has focused where the streams of literary analysis and moral discernment run together.

We humans have been struggling to make sense of nature ever since we noticed that all is not as we want it to be in the world. When, over the eons of humanity’s struggles, sh*t inevitably happens, we will not be content with a raw narrative.

Because we are humans, because we have the capacity for moral intelligence, we invariably try to place our disasters in a meaning context.

In Noah, the meaning context is a morally shaped one.

The Noah legend reveals more about the changing human understandings of our relationship with the Ultimate Reality, a relationship that is painfully relevant whenever such apocalyptic events take place. Our various responses reveal less about the actual nature of Ultimate Being than about our expectations for moral authority. Our freedom to accept, ignore, misunderstand, reject or disregard moral authority remains a constant; the attendant consequences accepting, ignoring, misunderstanding, rejecting or disregarding moral authority tend to find their way into our deep traditions. The biography of a parent narrated from the shifting perspective of a child, tells us more about the child than the parent. The Noah story represents a major shift (I am tempted to say watershed) in our perspective and tradition, as I will explain at the end of this essay.

In the Noah account, God’s decision to flood the earth was prompted by of “humankind’s evildoing on earth and every form of their heart’s planning was only evil all the day”. God “was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it pained his heart,” and therefore decided to “blot out humankind whom I have created, from the face of the soil…”[4]

But “Noah was a righteous, wholehearted man in his generation. In accord with God, did Noah walk.” Even though “the earth had gone to ruin, for all flesh had ruined its way upon the earth,” Noah and his family and an Ark-load of creatures would be spared to start anew. (Gen. 6:5-22)

After the Deluge and the rescue, God promised: “I will never curse the soil again on humankind’s account, since what the human heart forms is evil from its youth; I will never again strike down all living things, as I have done.” God added two specific injunctions: “Whoever now sheds human blood, for that human shall his blood be shed, for in God’s image he made humankind. As for you – bear fruit and be many…” (Gen. 9:5-8)

I should note that throughout the movie, God communicates to Noah using imagery, often conveyed during dreams.  In my personal theology, this is an accurate account of the nature of these encounters[5].  …Which leaves our task one of discernment, verbalization and explanation – this is a vexing, often error-prone process.  But images-as-metaphors are wide bandwidth information carriers – they are capable of carrying more subtlety and depth of meaning than didactic pronouncements.

The process of interpretation and reinterpretation through reason and dialogue is well established in the rabbinic commentary tradition (pesher), and in the Christian critical tradition (exegesis). The risks of fervent literalism and authoritarian appropriation of single, simplistic interpretations of a subtle, deep message are well known.

TWO NICE TOUCHES

In a compelling moment on the Ark, Noah retells the Genesis account of Creation by the light of a lantern. While he is talking we see images that amount to a vastly accelerated depiction of evolution from the formation of stars, galaxies, planets, the earth and the sequential appearance of life forms on earth leading up to the emergence of the first humans.  It was deftly done and neatly illustrated that the Genesis sequence fits nicely with what science has revealed.

At the very end, the movie suddenly adds a compelling drama, through an original plot twist. Noah falls into the trap of a fervent misinterpretation of God’s message. He convinces himself that the scope of God’s punishment was to be total; that humanity was to be eliminated.  Though his family was to survive the Flood, he thought it was God’s will that there be no more humans.  So, when a daughter is pregnant, Noah mistakenly reasons that she cannot be allowed to bear daughters, envisioning that the surviving children must be barren, each survivor burying the last until the last man standing dies alone on a planet cleansed of humanity.

Noah is espousing an ideology that has been slowly gaining 21st century underground adherents, to wit: That the Earth is a deity (for Noah, a creation of deity more precious than the humans who have despoiled it), and humans are a cancer that must be pruned away, even eliminated. His speech to this effect startled me, because in my forthcoming novel, Gabriel’s Stand, those same sentiments were voiced by malevolent eco-terrorists. [6]

This sets up a chilling scene where Noah’s daughter, weeping uncontrollably, holds his baby girl granddaughters, while Noah stands over the helpless twins, grimly holding a sharp blade. He is totally self-convinced that murdering his granddaughters is doing God’s bidding. This dreadful moment echoes the famous biblical passage where Abraham, following God’s explicit (not metaphorical) command to sacrifice his son, Isaac, obeys right up to the very last second, when God explicitly cancels the order. In Noah’s case, at the urging of his wife, he recovers his wits and his compassion; and he realizes just in time that God really wants him and the rest of humans to live, to be fruitful and multiply.

In the biblical account, God issues the “rainbow” covenant:”

All flesh shall never be cut off again by waters of the Deluge, never again shall there be Deluge, to bring the earth to ruin!

And God sets a bow in the clouds as a sign of that promise.

TWO TAKEAWAY POINTS

NOAH, the 2014 movie suffers from two not-trivial theological problems:

  1. The False Inclusion: It tries to place the Deluge in a simplistic and anachronistic punishment for urban blight.  This was a mistake, partly redeemed by the portrayal of widespread human wickedness that was the “real” divine motivation.
  2. The Regrettable Omission:  It leaves out of God’s explicit promise, never to do that again, not to people, not to life.  This is the watershed moment  that set the stage for the very important modern theological development in which Evil and Punishment are all about human behavior, not nature’s machinations, however destructive[7].

The movie’s single brilliant innovation, in my opinion, was the portrayal of Noah’s grave misinterpretation of the divine will, followed by his final act of choice of life over death, his redemption through love and reason.  The movie’s best touch was the running illustration of Genesis as evolution during Noah’s speech aboard the Ark.

The producers may have assumed that the silent rainbow at the end was enough to convey the “never again” message, but I think that was too silent by half. We should never presume the presence of biblical knowledge or theological nuance among a 21st century movie-going audience.

Taken as a whole, Noah carries an 8,000 year old message about life affirmation. It marks the dawn of our realization that the Creator is no longer going to take the rap for natural disasters; and that we humans are fully accountable for our self-caused disasters.  …And more importantly, that we are to live life abundantly.

JBG

 

Copyright © 2014 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law

 

Links and attributed pull quotes are welcomed. For other permissions and comments, please contact the author via email at <outlawyer.gaskill@gmail.com> .

 

The Policy Think Site : < www.jaygaskill.com>  The I-2-I Blog:  <http://jaygaskill.com/i2i/ >

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Irving Finkel, THE ARK BEFORE NOAH: Decoding the Story of the Flood

Hodder and Stoughton 2014 London

ISBN 977 144 7 5707 1

 

Everett Fox (trans.), THE FIVE BOOKS OF MOSES

Schocken Books 1997

ISBN 0-8052-1119-5

 

Michael Grant, THE JEWS IN THE ROMAN WORLD

1973 Michael Grant Publications 1996 Barnes & Noble Books

ISBN 0-88029-025-0



[3] Mr. Crowe, a New Zealand born  Australian, who keeps a cattle ranch, is a serious actor, endowed with a moral compass (both traits are somewhat rare among the California screen actor set); while Pope Francis, in a very short time, has become the “coolest” Christian figure of the 21st Century. That His Holiness accomplished this guilelessly is a hopeful development in a popular culture, hungry for authenticity. Innocence is now “cool”.  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2587682/Third-times-charm-Russell-Crowe-finally-gets-meeting-Pope-Francis-Vaticans-blessing-Biblical-epic-Noah.html

[4] All my biblical quotations are taken from from the powerful translation from the Hebrew by Everett Fox. See the bibliography.

[5] My commentary on the Burning Bush image is an example. See http://www.jaygaskill.com/FireInTheWhole.htm.

[6] This is often expressed in quasi-religious terms, that Gaia, the earth, is a living being, a demi-god, and that humanity is an ecophage (cancer that devours the environment) that must be eliminated.  This outrageous and dangerous nonsense is more prevalent – and more explicit – today than it was 20 years ago. As a novelist, I have explored this dark theme in my new political thriller, Gabriel’s Stand, to be released by Central Avenue Publishing of British Columbia (for all North American book markets  – print and e-book) later this spring. Check out > http://centralavenuepublishing.com/Books/styled-3/

[7] This insight has been particularly tough to bear for the 20th and 21st century, post-holocaust Jewish adults, mostly secular in outlook, who have struggled to come to grips with the Shoah. But the G-d who “permitted” evil to be visited on the innocent by a malevolent tribe fallen, depraved Nazis, is the same G-d who warned about the costs of freedom when the children of Adam and Eve chose to the protected innocence of that mythical garden-state of the human condition. Once again, the literalists among us are missing out on another powerful Teaching Myth.

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