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A different Noah, but the same God

By Y. S. Chen


Aronofsky’s Noah movie has aroused many criticisms for the ways it has rewritten the biblical story of the Flood. It is observed that not only has the movie added extra materials to, as well as removed original elements from, the biblical account, but more seriously it has also modified and darkened the character of Noah and even of God.

The degree by which the movie has adapted the biblical story and the characterisations of the characters has offended the religious and theological sensibilities of many who have watched the movie that others who haven’t watched it are reluctant or refuse to watch it.

In analyzing the rewriting of the biblical account, one can point out several factors involved: interpretation, elaboration, engagement with contemporary issues, exploration of certain biblical and theological issues, and dramatic representations.

The movie has faithfully followed the Bible by interpreting the Flood from a moralistic perspective. It has highlighted the violence of Cain’s descendents, especially in their brutal killing and devouring of animals.

By contrast, Noah’s family is depicted as herbivore, which is evidently based on the fact that the permission to eat animals was only given by God after the Flood in the biblical account. The emphasis the movie gives to this issue suggests that the producer intends to engage viewers on relevant issues such as food production and consumption in modern society.

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There are a number of instances where the movie has creatively interpreted the Bible to make the Flood story more coherent, believable, or dramatic. For example, to connect the Flood with the creation, the movie has portrayed Noah dropping the magic seed (presumably brought from the Garden of Eden) in the barren soil. This instantly brought out an Eden-like eco-system, from which Noah drew resources to build his ark.

The movie also portrays six stone colossi–the Watchers (possibly based on the Nephilims in the Book of Genesis)–helping Noah and his family build the ark and defend them from the hostile people. Without such superhuman assistance, it would be difficult, in the view of the movie maker, to fathom how they could have achieved the task and have done so without interruption from the hostile people. Furthermore, the animals in the ark were put in hibernation mode under the effect of the herbal medicine in order to ensure that they would stay still and don’t have to devour each other.

The most salient divergence between the Bible and the movie is how Noah is characterised in relation to God and his family. This divergence starts to unfold in the movie when Noah obeyed God and only chose to take his three sons (Shem, Ham and Japheth), his wife, and their adopted daughter (Ila) into the ark (whereas in the biblical account, God commanded Noah to take his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives with him, which Noah did).

This act of obedience leads to the following conflict between Noah and his family. Though Shem and Ila were in love, Ila was barren. As far as Noah could see, despite the family was spared from the Flood, without the ability to reproduce it (and the entire human race) would not be able to carry on. Ham, seized by the fear of not being able to have a spouse and children, approached Noah for solutions. Noah responded by saying that he trusted that God would provide. But facing reality, he acquiesced when Ham decided to go out to search for a wife.

NoahThough the search seemed successful at first, the girl whom Ham planned to bring on board was caught in an animal trap and had to be abandoned in order for Noah and Ham to flee from the approaching crowd who tried to kill them. The resentment Ham harboured against Noah eventually led him to allow Tubal-Cain to remain hiding in the ark and even to conspire with the latter to kill his father as an act of revenge for abandoning his prospective wife. Clearly, this episode is a creative rewriting of the Flood story in an attempt to explain the obscure tension between Noah and Ham and his son Canaan, as in the Genesis.

As Ila’s barrenness was healed through the blessing of Noah’s grandfather Methuselahand she became pregnant through Shem, the movie shows another clash between Noah and his family. For Noah, having the offspring went against God’s will which seems to terminate the human race. As an act of obedience to God’s command, he tried to kill his two granddaughters Ila gave birth to, regardless of the bitter petition and opposition of the rest of the family. It was only in the last moment when he raised the knife over his granddaughters that his mind changed because his heart was suddenly full of love for them.

Some reviewers argue that Noah misinterpreted God’s will in the movie and became a cold-blooded monster and a religious fanatic. But those who are versed in the Book of Genesis would recognise that the movie is trying to explore a crucial theme in biblical religion: obedience by transporting the story of testing of Abraham into the story of Noah (though this merging has created some problem with the coherence of the movie).

Notice the parallel between Sarah and Ila who were barren at first and then were given the ability to conceive. And just like Isaac to Abraham, the two granddaughters were provided by God, presumably as prospective wives for Ham and Japheth, to extend the family line of Noah and the rest of humanity. As in God’s testing of Abraham, in the movie it seems that God’s testing of Noah’s obedience only concluded when Noah was just about to kill his granddaughters. Similar to the biblical account of the offering of Isaac, the movie tries to explore the extent by which one has to be willing to sacrifice in order to obey God’s will.

Fujishima Takeji - Sunrise over the Eastern Sea - Google Art ProjectThe fact that, unlike the biblical story of Abraham, there was no apparent divine voice to guide or command Noah makes the testing more real and acute. Though Noah didn’t end up killing his granddaughters, his relationship with his family was seriously damaged (a consequence which is not addressed in the biblical story of Abraham).

As a result of his alienation from his family, he resorted to alcoholism—a creative interpretation of the episode of Noah’s drunkenness after the Flood in the Book of Genesis. All of these prove the price or cost Noah was willing to, and indeed did pay for his radical obedience to God.

The innovative ways the Noah movie has rewritten the biblical Flood story may be new, and even disturbing, to many modern viewers. But for those who are acquainted with post-biblical traditions and interpretations, such style of rewriting biblical stories was common, especially during the Second Temple period (516 BC–AD 70), see James Kugel, Traditions of the Bible (1998). For example, in the Testament of Abraham (Recension A) , the biblical figure of Abraham was recharacterised in the light of Moses, Elijah and Elisha to address the theological issues of divine justice and mercy. The ways the Noah movie has adapted the Bible may be unfamiliar to the modern audience, but the central issue it addresses is fundamentally biblical (see also the teaching of Jesus on the cost of discipleship).

If the Noah in the movie is no longer the same Noah as found in the Bible it is because in the latter half of the movie he began to behave like Abraham; the God in the movie, however, remains the same.

This is the God who abhors sin and wickedness, who would purge corruption by drastic measures in order to preserve his creation and his chosen people, and who is ready to test the limits of the obedience of his followers in order, ultimately, not to harm, but to give them hope and a future.

Y. S. Chen is Research Fellow in Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. His recent research focuses on the conceptual, literary and socio-political processes and mechanisms through which ancient Mesopotamian and biblical traditions related to the origins of the world and early world history developed. His monograph The Primeval Flood Catastrophe: Origins and Early Development in Mesopotamian Traditions was published through Oxford University Press (2013).

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Image credit: Noah’s Ark By Sakotch. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) By FUJISHIMA Takeji (1867 – 1943). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. [...] 24 update: Y.S. Chen, a professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Oxford, writes that the film gives us “a [...]

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