Like so many people over the last few weeks, my social media feeds have been buzzing with articles (mostly from conservative evangelicals) decrying the horrendous inaccuracies in Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Noah. So, as I am oft to do, I decided to blow off whatever these people had to say until I saw the movie for myself, which I did. And here is my take on it…
SPOILER ALERT!!! While I am going to do my best not to give away the plot, I just won’t be able to talk about some of this stuff without giving some other stuff away.
I loved this film!!! (see, I put three exclamation points after that because I loved it that much)1 Now this wasn’t a perfect movie – I thought the pacing and character development could have slowed down a bit, and it seemed like the writers spelled out the moral of the story a little too obviously.2 But, I honestly don’t see what everyone has been crying about. In fact, I think that not only was this film extremely entertaining to watch, but the reasons that some people hated it are the very reasons that I absolutely love this film. But first…
Taking the Flood story literally is foolish
Now, we could spend all day debating over whether or not Genesis 6-9 is actually an historical event,3 but the truth is that a worldwide flood is just not scientifically tenable (see here, here, and also here). But, even more importantly, I don’t think it should even be an issue whether or not a movie is based on history, much less whether it holds to this history in a strict sort of way. If Christians are going to get all persnickety about this, then we should also start ripping into movies like the Passion of the Christ, the Nativity, Lincoln,4 and pretty much every other movie. But, that’s just how movies are! In fact, show me a movie based on a Bible story that doesn’t take any creative liberties, and I’ll show you a boring movie that lacks imagination.
Christians do not own the market on Flood stories
I don’t know if this comes as a shock to you or not, but the story of Noah and the ark is not the only flood story out there. Not by a long shot! There are dozens. One scholar compiled at least 60 different deluge narratives from across the world. And while there is certainly a large breadth in story elements, the tales that come from the ancient Near East (and nearby) share some pretty interesting similarities.
For instance, very much like the Flood story in Genesis, in Akkadian folklore we read about how mankind has fallen out of favor with the gods5 and so the gods decide to wipe man off the face of the earth with a great deluge. One of the gods, Enki, tells a man by the name of Atra-Hasis, and carefully instructs him to build a boat. Atra-Hasis boards the boat with his family and “all the animals of the field.” The flood comes and goes, and the boat comes to rest on a mountain. Atra-Hasis sends out some birds to check for dry land, and then he leaves the ark… er, I mean boat, and offers a sacrifice to the gods. This story was later adapted into the Sumerian Gilgamesh Epic with a few alterations.6 Check out my brother’s blog post here to read a bit about this variation. The Sumerian king Ziusudra, ruler of Shuruppak, is mentioned in the Sumerian King List, and is said to have been divinely instructed to build a large boat to weather a great flood.
In the Hinduism we find a story of how the god Vishnu warns a man, King Manu, of a coming flood. Manu builds a boat to house his family and all the animals. And after the flood, the boat comes to rest on… you guessed it, a mountain. And in Greek mythology, Zeus becomes upset with all the violent wars of men and decides to flood the earth, to which the Titan Prometheus responds by advising a man by the name of Deucalion to build a boat. After surviving the flood, Deucalion’s boat comes to rest on… (drumroll please)… a mountain!
I think I’ve made my point.
The story of Noah is bigger than you think
But where I really got excited about the Noah film is in its use of the Noah story from Judeo-Christian literature. You see, while most Christians only think of Genesis 6-9 when they think of Noah, this is actually not the only place we find this story. If you turn in your Bibles with me to 1 Enoch,7 you’ll see how heavily the filmmakers borrowed from this book.
For instance, one of the major criticisms against the film was how there are giant angel/rock monsters called Watchers. Why would they make up that stuff and stick it in a movie about Noah? Well, they didn’t just make that up. It’s actually in 1 Enoch, which is often titled the Book of the Watchers. These Watchers are fallen angels who fall in love with human women and come down to earth and have demigod children (giants) with them (1 Enoch 6-7). And, like in the movie, the Watchers “taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them” (8:1). And, just like in the movie, this caused a lot of problems as “there arose much godlessness, and [mankind] committed fornication, and they were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways” (8:2-3). And so in response to this, God instructs an angel, “Go to Noah and tell him in my name ‘Hide thyself!’ and reveal to him the end that is approaching: that the whole earth will be destroyed, and a deluge is about to come upon the whole earth, and will destroy all that is on it. And now instruct him that he may escape and his seed may be preserved for all the generations of the world” (10:1-4). In this understanding, the flood was meant not only to wipe out humans, but also as a means of punishing and imprisoning the Watchers, similar to how the Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus in Greek mythology. Additionally, much of 1 Enoch is filled with visions that bear a striking resemblance to the visions that Noah sees in the movie. There are a ton of other places where the film borrows from the Book of Watchers, but I don’t want to give everything away.8
“Yeah, but that’s all apocryphal stuff,” you say. “It’s not actually part of the entirely scientific and historically accurate biblical canon.” Well, it is true that, with the exception of a few early Church Fathers,9 the book of Enoch has not been widely considered authoritative Scripture. However, holding to a strict dividing line between Enoch and the rest of Scripture becomes a bit difficult when we consider a few things. For one, while the authorship of Enoch spans a few centuries, the earliest part (the Book of the Watchers) was written as far back as the 3rd century B.C. Because of this, it is a text that the early Christians were very familiar with – so familiar in fact that the Apostle Peter actually draws on the Watcher tradition in his own letters (1 Pet 3:19-20; 2 Pet 2:4-5). What is more, Jude (the brother of Jesus) actually quotes 1 Enoch 1:9 in his epistle (Jude 1:14-15). So, how are we to regard the book of Enoch? Is the part that Jude uses the only inspired part of it? Is the Watcher tradition in general authoritative, but just not the specific words themselves? You can see how being dogmatic on this issue is useless.
But, even if you don’t buy the whole Enoch thing, the Watcher tradition is still present in the Genesis account anyhow. Here we read that “the sons of God”10 take the human “daughters of men” to be their wives. Out of these marriages come the Nephilim, who were considered “mighty men who were of old, men of renown” (Gen 6:4), giants who made other men feel like grasshoppers (Num 13:33). Interestingly enough, it is right after this whole sons-of-God/Nephilim thing that God sees how wicked man has become (Gen 6:5). The Watcher tradition may even give us some insights into why it is that the descendants of Cain are described as the progenitors of urbanization (4:17), bedouin life (v 20), musical leisure (v 21), and metalworking (v 22).11
In light of all of this, the things that everyone is getting all uppity about with the new Noah film actually have a very strong basis in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Flood story. Maybe if we knew our Bible (and surrounding literature) better, we wouldn’t be so quick to throw a fit about stuff like this.
Just an awesome movie!
In terms of sheer creativity and movie-making magic, Noah ranks pretty high up there. Aronofsky skillfully captures the epic nature of the Flood narrative. The characters seem realistic and the actors fit their roles perfectly. Russell Crowe magnificently captures the dogmatically obedient titular patriarch/prophet. Ray Winstone gives you the villain that you love to hate, Tubal-Cain.12 Emma Watson is stunning in her performance (as always). And who could ever get enough of Anthony Hopkins? One of the things I loved in particular was the visual prowess of the film. There is one gut-wrenching scene that undoubtedly derived directly from Gustave Doré’s engraving, The Deluge. And the stylized depictions of everything from creation to man’s violence throughout human history is profoundly effective.
This film is just fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about it. Just go see it… but don’t be too stingy about the biblical account. The biblical authors certainly weren’t.
1: And when I love a movie with three exclamation points, I buy in on DVD. I’m up to about four movies now.
2: Also… primordial pregnancy tests?
4: Because, you know… ‘Merica!
5: Because they made so much noise at night they kept the gods from sleep. Let this be a lesson, children.
6: Like name changes (e.g., Atra-Hasis to Utnapishtim; and Enki to Ea) to protect the innocent.
7: Chances are the book of Enoch isn’t actually in your Bible, which I’ll talk about in a bit.
8: Just go read 1 Enoch! It’s only 36 chapters.
9: Folks like Irenaeus, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian.
10: An ancient phrase that is used elsewhere in Scripture to refer to angels (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Ps 29:1; cf. the Book of Jubilees).
11: Conversely, the lineage of Seth seems to do little for advancing human civilization, implying that such things are in some way tainted by sin.
12: Think Mickey Rourke as King Hyperion in Immortals