Noah. Darren Aronofsky, director. 2014.
An unintentionally ironic evaluation has been voiced, by some, following screenings of Noah. The film, it seems, has been deemed “historically inaccurate”. Phil Cooke, of the National Religious Broadcasters, identifies Noah as “more of an inspired movie than an exact retelling”. An “exact retelling” of what, precisely?
Persons exist who do believe in an historical Noah. Perhaps it is the relationship between that supposedly real Noah, and this reel Noah, which Cooke wishes to emphasize. Perhaps Cooke seeks simply to draw Noah into relation with the biblical tale. Marketing materials, following that possible motivation, identify Noah as having been inspired by the story of Noah and interested viewers are referred to Genesis.
Noah is not, I agree, an “exact retelling” of Genesis. I am not sure why that fact would matter. My opinion is that, among those suspicious of the creative retelling that is Noah, insufficient consideration has been given to the extent to which the biblical tale is, itself, a creative retelling. Creativity need not be taboo.
Flood narratives exist in a variety of traditions. The narratives which most closely parallel the biblical tale are found in the literature of Mesopotamia. Common elements include a divine decision to destroy that which exists upon the earth. A warning, however, finds its way to a particular individual on that earth and a command is given that an apparatus be built which will survive the destruction. The obedience of that individual follows and some are spared destruction. The apparatus, eventually, is grounded upon the side of a mountain and, following the release of a bird which is sent out in search of life, sacrifice is made and this sacrifice is pleasing to the divine. These are a few of the points of contact between the biblical tale and narratives found earlier in the literature of Mesopotamia.
As an interpretive lens, one way of capturing something of what an author might wish to have communicated is through comparing his or her text to ones with which that text appears bound. Something of authorial intent, the argument goes, can emerge when an author retells a story but, in his or her retelling, introduces particular alterations. For example, in both the Atrahasis Epic and the Gilgamesh one, gods holding council lead the god Anu (in Atrahasis) and Enlil (in Gilgamesh) to destroy humankind. This decision to destroy, however, is not unanimous. Ea (in Atrahasis) and Enki (in Gilgamesh) inform a human being of how the gods holding council have settled. This is how Atrahasis, the hero of the epic bearing his name, and Utnapishtim (in Gilgamesh), survive the destruction which the gods have sent their way.
The story of Noah, as told in Genesis, is almost exclusively monotheistic. I accept the consensus of mainstream biblical scholarship that, particularly in the primeval history which Genesis narrates, there is not only a consciousness of other ancient Near Eastern narratives but also a sort of intentional opposition. The monotheistic heart of the story of Noah, as told in Genesis, represents one such opposing stance.
In the story of Noah, as told in Genesis, there is not really any uncertainty about whether humankind will have a future. Men and women, in that narrative, are not presented as having to worry about placating a particular god. They are not presented as having to worry about whether there will remain a personality among the council of gods who will continue to be interested in their survival. Communicated throughout the story of Noah is the sense that God is sovereign. God is the one who instructs Noah, preserves his life, sends the waters and causes those waters to recede (in contrast, perhaps again, to the gods of the literature in Mesopotamia who lack the ability to control the waters and are struck by terror at the power of the waters).
It is my opinion, further, that as Genesis is taking shape in the context of the Babylonian Exile, the redactor is drawing together texts which have something to say to a Jewish people who have their own questions about the future. Judah and Israel have been conquered and the lives of those within have been dramatically altered. A story which communicates something of the sovereignty of God and the fate of those who remain righteous, then, might be seen by a redactor as having some impact on his hearers. In that sense, the story of Noah is not about the chronicling of history. The story of Noah, as told in Genesis, serves to communicate something of a God who, in the midst of seeming destruction, has not forgotten those who call upon him.
What I am trying to communicate is that the story of Noah is a creative retelling. In his own Noah, director Darren Aronofsky has preserved key moments of that story. Two examples:
First, in Noah wickedness has spread to such a point that, as Genesis also states, Yahweh “regretted having made man on the earth, and his heart grieved”. In Noah that wickedness has not simply manifested in how humans have since abused the world in which they live: For ten generations, Noah narrates, sin has walked among us. Brother against brother, nation against nation, man against creation. We murdered each other. We broke the world.
Second, in Noah there remains something that distinguishes the man from his contemporaries. This is biblical too; despite the regret of God at having created, Genesis states that Noah “found favour with Yahweh”. One Watcher, in Noah, tells that when he looks into the eyes of Noah he can see something of the first man. In Noah the distinctiveness of Noah does not manifest simply in his being a conscientious guardian of creation. It is his singular desire to do what God would have him do that makes him unique (a desire which particularly distinguishes him from his nemesis, Tubal-Cain, who asserts that a man isn’t ruled by the heavens. A man is ruled by his will.). Darren Aronofsky emphasizes this particularly in the latter half of the picture and, in doing so, introduces the difficult aspect of how revelation, because it is mediated, is subject to misinterpretation. However, Aronofsky also provides something of an antidote to misinterpretation by identifying love as the criteria of substance in discerning a right path.
Viewers, no doubt, will experience numerous other preservations of the story of Noah as it is told in Genesis (Noah perceiving the impending doom, interpreting God to be guiding him toward sparing some from destruction, understanding that God intends to begin again after the destruction…).
Midrash is a word which has emerged in some of the more informed reactions to Noah. As I understand the term, this is basically a type of Jewish interpretation which, in enfleshing a biblical narrative, draws persons to new considerations of that narrative. The reason midrash has been associated with Noah is because Darren Aronofsky is doing midrash with his own creative retelling. There are elements of Noah which readers will not find in Genesis. Of two elements which some question, one surrounds the presence of Watchers and the other surrounds the emotional turmoil Noah endures while on the Ark. Both elements, although particularly the latter, have their place and do succeed in enfleshing the narrative. In doing so, I felt, both can draw viewers into new considerations of the narrative.
Noah is Rated PG-13 for “violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content”.
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