Living in the polarized world that we do, I suppose it’s not surprising that reaction to the latest biblical movie – Noah – has been about as polarized as can be, even among Christians. It’s been called “a terrible, terrible movie” that “doesn’t attain to the level of the worst of the cheesy Biblical movies made in the fifties.” It’s also been called “a steaming pile of heretical horse manure.” Others have said that it “takes Genesis seriously as a landmark of world literature and ancient moral reflection, and a worthy source of artistic inspiration in our day.” And another review notes that “Noah remains utterly focused throughout, not on his own freedom, but on the desire and purpose of God. God, creation, providence, sin, obedience, salvation: not bad for a major Hollywood movie!“
So what are we – as Catholics, as Christians, as moviegoers – to make of this latest biblical epic? I went to see the movie earlier this week, and let me just say that I was pleasantly surprised at how faithful it was to both the content and message of the biblical story and also at how well-suited it is to further conversation and study on a story we think we know all about. There are, I think, three things that can and should inform our understanding and viewing of Noah the movie: the biblical story itself, the Jewish concept of Midrash, and a proper understanding of myth. From here on out, I will use examples from the movie that may spoil it for some people … so caveat lector.
Noah in the Bible
Regardless of whether you see the movie or not – but especially if you do – read the story of Noah and the ark as found in Genesis. Better still, read all of Genesis 1-11, the entire prehistory of humanity, from the Creation to the Tower of Babel, to put the story of Noah in context. Some reviewers have lamented that the movie Noah is thoroughly unbiblical – but if you read the biblical text, that claim can’t be further from the truth. Sure, there are some minor liberties taken with the source material in order to translate it to the big screen – perhaps the most notable being that the Bible says that Noah’s three sons and their wives were on the ark, while in the movie only one son, Shem, is married and brings his wife with him (although a plot change in the movie in which Shem’s wife is pregnant with twin girls when she boards the ark, who presumably become wives for Shem’s brothers once the girls are born and grow into adulthood, does technically satisfy the biblical narrative). But virtually all aspects of the spare text as found in Genesis make their way into the movie – from the animosity between the descendents of Seth and the descendents of Cain to Noah’s drunkenness after the flood. The primary antagonist to Noah in the movie – Tubal Cain – is a biblical figure and descendent of Cain. All that Genesis says about him is that he was a forger of instruments of iron and bronze. And what does Tubal Cain do in the movie? Forge iron and bronze, particularly for weapons, and become consumed by the violence that is possible because of those weapons. So if you see the movie – or even if you don’t – read the Bible.
One of the most popular genres of Jewish literature is Midrash – a literary commentary or interpretation of passages from the Bible that often tries to fill in the gaps that are not included in the biblical text. One ancient Midrash on the story of Noah speculates that he did not sleep at all during the time he was in the ark because he had so much work to do to tend to the animals. The movie Noah is best understood and viewed as a Midrash on the biblical story of Noah. It takes the story as found in the Bible and imaginatively fills in the gaps. It’s not trying to be history (more on that later) – but rather imaginative interpretation. A couple examples from the film … It must have taken an enormous number of mature trees to find enough wood for the ark. Where did that wood come from? The Bible doesn’t say. The movie – in the tradition of Midrash – has Noah’s grandfather, Methusaleh (who is biblical and could very well have still been alive at the time based on what we have in the Bible) give him a seed from the Garden of Eden that, when planted, causes a spring to flow and trees to grow almost immediately (there are great biblical echoes in that sequence). But then there is another gap in the biblical narrative – who helped Noah build the ark? It would have been almost impossible for Noah and his immediate family to build it alone, and no one else would have helped (because they were not going to be saved from the flood in the ark), so the movie – again in the spirit of Midrash – fills in the gap in the biblical narrative by suggesting the help of a group of beings mentioned in Genesis – the Nephilim, or Watchers. The Bible is very spare in talking about the Nephilim, but non-biblical ancient Jewish literature – including the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees – talk about them more, including calling them by the name Watchers, which is the name used in the movie. Jewish tradition is that they have some connection to angels – which, again according to the Bible, are often depicted with six wings – hence the six limbs of the Watchers in the movie. A lot of movie reviewers have major issues with the Watchers – or “rock people” as some call them – but they serve to fill in a gap in the story and are drawn from a biblical source – in the tradition of Midrash.
Finally, the story of Noah and the ark cannot be read or discussed as history, as we think of history today. Catholic biblical scholarship places this story in the literary genre of myth. Now, it is important to define what we mean by myth – a story that may or may not be historically accurate but is told in order to present timeless truths. This is how we read the Creation stories of Genesis. The historical or scientific accuracy is not what is important – rather, these stories tell us the timeless truths that God created the universe and everything in it; that creation is good; and that human beings are the pinnacle of creation, made in God’s image and likeness. Science and history – disciplines which did not exist at the time these stories were first told – cannot contradict these timeless truths. The story of Noah and the ark is the same. Did the worldwide flood actually happen? Did a man named Noah live on earth and build an ark in which representatives of all living creatures were saved from the flood? Did he have three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, who then repopulated the earth? As Catholics, we would answer: possibly, but that’s not what’s important. Those are the wrong questions to ask. Rather, we should ask: what do we learn about God and about humanity from these stories? We learn that God takes a personal interest in human beings – that he is not remote and unconcerned about us. We learn that there is both good and evil in the world, and that evil often overtakes the good when human beings are in charge. We learn that God’s justice is always balanced by mercy and love – and that, in the end, mercy and love prevail, even in the midst of human evil.
So when we view the movie Noah, the real question we should be asking ourselves is – does this movie help us understand the timeless truths of the biblical narrative? For me, the answer is yes, it does. There is communication between God (called The Creator in the film) and Noah – sometimes through dreams (a very biblical experience), other times through what seem like hallucinogenic visions. It’s not easy to explain how we hear God’s voice. And Noah doesn’t completely understand what God tells him, another consistently biblical theme. But God is still involved in the world and humanity after creation. We also learn that there is both good and evil in the world – a lot of evil, fueled by greed and violence and a sense of superiority in the descendents of Cain – but even Noah and his family are not immune from concupiscence, the tendency toward evil that is inherent in all human beings. And, in the end, we learn that justice is balanced by mercy – and that mercy is the last word. That message comes through powerfully as Noah decides not to kill his newborn granddaughters (a Midrashic story element that resonates with Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac). Along the way, the film has a number of mythic elements that seem impossible to us today – the seed from the Garden of Eden, the incense that successfully makes the animals sleep peacefully throughout their time in the ark, some interesting glowing embers that easily start fires. This is a story of myth – prehistory – in which these elements are right at home.
So, bottom line – go see Noah. But first, read the biblical narrative. And during the movie, keep in mind Midrash and Myth. And then talk about it with others who have done the same thing. I think the conversations will be fascinating.