As we saw in part one, the English translation of Isaiah 59:19b differs radically between the KJV and allied versions, and the large majority of other English versions. This is a translation issue, and not a text issue, as both camps are working from the same underlying Hebrew text. Here is a representative version from each of the two camps.
a. When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him. (KJV)
b. for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the LORD drives. (ESV)
As you can see, these are entirely different in meaning. Note in particular, in the second instance, the “he” who comes, is not an enemy but God. These are entirely different takes on what the verse means.
I’ll note in passing that what the Amplified Bible does here simply conflates these two completely incompatible readings, (a) and (b) as if they could be blended together. Frankly, this should give us some insight into the value or worth of the Amplified Bible.
When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him and put him to flight [for He will come like a rushing stream which the breath of the Lord drives]. (Amplified 1965)
I have to admit, now that I’ve written this, that there is a newer (2015) edition of the Amplified, and it now falls into the (b) camp, though for some reason it retains a reference to “the enemy”:
For He will come in like a narrow, rushing stream
Which the breath of the Lord drives [overwhelming the enemy]. (Amplified 2015)
Why the difference?
This matter comes down to two main interpretive questions: one syntactic, the other lexical. That is, one has to do with how a word fits into the sentence and interacts with the other words (syntax). The other has to do with identifying a particular word, what is the underlying verb and therefore what does it mean? (lexical)
Here is the verse in Hebrew with the two words highlighted, followed by an interlinear table. (NB: the Hebrew reads right to left, the table left to right)
For will come
Like the river
(1) The Syntactic Problem
To explain this issue, you need to understand what we might call a claustrophobic notion in Hebrew. In a number of contexts the idea of “narrow, closed in” correlates with “dangerous, adverse” while “wide, open” expresses the idea of safety.
The word in red above, tsar, is an adjective with a basic meaning of “narrow, tight.” It can mean this in a literal sense. But there is a substantival use, as an abstract, for “distress, trouble, adversity,” or a concrete, for “enemy, adverary.”
So how does this word fit in the sentence and how does it interact with the other words. Two possiblities:
a. It is the subject of the verb yabo’ (“will come”), and therefore substantival. The KJV takes it this way, in the concrete sense of “enemy.” As far as I can see, there is no inherent objection to this, not in terms of position or order or accenting or spelling or any other textual detail I am aware of. Especially not in terms of context, because it occurs in the preceding verse (18) and unquestionably has this meaning (though in plural), as the parallelism shows (the red is the word tsarim, plural of tsar):
According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render repayment. (Isaiah 59:18 ESV)
And elsewhere the word is used as “enemy” in a similar syntactic context:
The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things; for she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation. (Lamentations 1:10 ESV)
b. It is an adjective modifying the noun nahar “stream, river.” This too is a perfectly reasonable suggestion. The following verse has this word in an entirely analogous situation. including the same accentuation and vowel pointing:
Then the angel of the LORD went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. (Numbers 22:26 ESV)
Now the various translations in the (b) camp do a bit more than render the adjective as “narrow.” They give further significance to the stream being tightly constricted, especially as the following clause is taken as the wind driving the flow of water.
- “rushing” (ASV, CEB, ESV, GW, GNT, HCSB, NASB, NET, NIRV, RSV, TLV, Wyc)
- “pent-up” (CJB, ISV,NIV, NRSV)
- “violent” (D-RA, JUB)
- “fast-flowing” (ERV. EXB, ICB, NCV, )
- “raging” (NLT)
- “torrential” (Voice)
So inherently, one construction appears just as plausible as the other. It is the second interpretive question, the lexical one, which will be key in deciding the matter.
(2) The Lexical Problem.
This has to do with the word nosesah, which is a verb. Camp (a) translates this “raise a standard,” i.e. a banner or flag. Camp (b) renders it something like “driven by.” They are looking at the same word, but they are not reading the same word.
This matter will require further explanation, but in brief, here is what each camp thinks:
a. There is a noun nes, which means “banner” or “standard.” We see it in the familiar “Jehovah-Nissi” i.e. “The LORD is my banner.” (Ex. 17:15) Now you may be wondering how nes becomes nissi. This is perfectly regular, nes(s)+i–>nissi (with vowel e reduced to i)…
But you see at least there is a second s hiding in the root form. This has led someone to posit a verb root NSS, back-formed from the noun for banner, to mean “raise a banner.”
This at least accounts for three of what’s known as radicals in the verb form: nosesah.
b. The other camp takes it back to the verb nus, which means “to flee, to hasten, to go swiftly.” This is where the idea “drives” comes from.
We will have to go into this in another post.
I do not think Isaiah 59:19 means what the KJV (and NKJV) says it means. Specifically, I’m going to argue (later) that the Hebrew word נֹסְסָה (nōsesâh) does not mean “lift up a standard.”
Let’s say I’m wrong, however. Still, let’s be clear about what the word standard means.
Standard meanings of standard
In contemporary English standard almost always means “a level or measure of quality.” For example, a person A stays at the Hilton, but pays more than person B who goes to Motel 6. We’d say this is because A has a higher standard.
Likewise person C has a burger at T.G.I. Fridays, but person D has a Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s. This too may be because C has a higher standard in hamburgers.
We also use it as an adjective with a meaning “normal, routine, or ordinary.” It may be a readily available model of something as opposed to something custom-built. In terms of connotation, it may indicate an accepted norm, for example, we don’t say “I ain’t got” in standard English. Or it may imply something is mediocre or unimaginative. We might see a movie that is derivative and full of clichés, not very memorable and say it “it was your standard superhero flick.”
Today either one or the other is what people mean by standard at least 99% of the time. But the KJV never means this. Never. Ever. Zero percent of the use of standard has this meaning. It is completely unknown. It is impossible. Never happens.
Standard in the KJV
It is only and entirely a reference to a physical object: a symbol or a banner on a pole, generally carried by an army in the context of a military campaign. Today, this is a very specialized meaning of the word standard. We’d only use it as a historical reference, perhaps in a discussion of the Roman Empire. We do use similar objects, but far more often call it a banner or a flag. We can also use ensign, but this too is quite rare.
For the related noun nes, the KJV translates this “standard” seven times, “ensign” six times, and “banner” twice.
From time to time you’ll see someone who simply doesn’t know any better interpret Isaiah 59:19b or a similar verse along the lines of the common meaning “measure of quality.” This is completely understandable, but just as completely wrong. It is all the more likely given the verb “lift up.” We talk about higher standards and lower standards, the need to raise our standards. It is far too easy to imagine that “he shall lift up a standard” means God will cause people to raise the standards by which they live. It doesn’t mean this. It CANNOT mean this.
This is an interesting situation in terms of translation theory. The word standard is a perfectly good English word, and its use to refer to this type of banner is perfectly appropriate. But overall, within the entirety of the document, the range of the word standard is entirely different from contemporary English usage. This is one of the things that makes a translation read with an “accent,” like the translated foreign matter that it is, and not truly in the English idiom.
There are other examples, words we find in translation ONLY in an older, context-restricted sense.
One is talent. In contemporary English we almost always use it to mean a “natural ability.” In the Bible, especially the KJV it NEVER has this meaning. A talent was a weight measure of a precious metal, or by extension the monetary value of that weight of gold or silver or such. “Talent”
Of course it is hard to read Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30) and not think in terms of talents like a beautiful singing voice or ability to draw a likeness or a genius for organization. Our modern usage almost certainly derives from an application of that parable, but still it is important to remember that when Jesus tells of servants receiving talents, in the story he is funding them with various sums of money.
Another such word is member. Today for the most part by member we mean “someone who has joined an organization” or “an adherent to a club or society.” In the KJV this meaning is completely absent. It never occurs. And even in more contemporary translations, when we read member, this generally he the meaning “body part.”
Consider 1 Cor. 12:26 (here in the ESV):
…that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
None of these instances has our common meaning “one who has joined an organization.” They all mean “body parts.” This is what the Greek word melos means, always part of a body. It never had our sense of “an adherent to a society.” So we could reword it:
…that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same care for one another. If one part of the body suffers, all suffer together; if one part is honored, all rejoice together.
I note that the ESV does use member in our modern sense in a few places: Gen. 15:3, Lev. 25:47, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50, and Rom. 11:1, but these are not translating any particular word or words that mean “member” in our modern sense, and never for the word melos.
Isaiah 59:19b in the KJV reads as follows:
When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.
Now this translation is problematic as I mention in Part 1, that is, I don’t think it accurately represents the meaning of the Hebrew original. But for the moment, let’s stay with this familiar and popular rendering, because it presents an additional complication.
There is a strange little teaching out there about this verse, something I want to call a “fluffoid.” Let me explain:
In the Spring around here one often sees little balls of fluff floating on the wind. These are bits of “cotton” from cottonwood trees, fluffy filaments which allow the seed to travel on air currents and eventually land who knows where.
Listen to preaching enough and you will encounter a verbal equivalent of cottonwood cotton. I’ve been pondering what to call these bits of insubstantial and dubious but widespread claims. They are something like an “urban legend.” Or like the original meaning of”factoid”:
“a piece of information that becomes accepted as a fact even though it’s not actually true, or an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print.” (a term coined by Norman Mailer in 1973 according to Wikipedia)
Here is the claim:
The KJV translators placed the comma in the wrong place. It really should read:
“When the enemy shall come in, like a flood the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.”
Here is an example of that claim (found by a random Google):
When you look at our opening verse you might say “okay, when the devil comes in like a flood, the Holy Spirit will lift up a standard against him. Glory!” No, that is not what it is saying! For many years, many Christians have thought it like that and preached “when the enemy comes in like a flood, God’s Spirit will protect”; sorry sir! The one who comes like the flood is the Spirit of the Lord, and not the enemy.
The Old Testament was written in the Hebrew language, and had no punctuations, the punctuations we have were inserted by our translators. And in this verse the comma (,) was misplaced. How do we know? First of all, in Scripture, only God comes like a flood, and not the devil; ” Thou (God) carriest them (enemies) away as with a FLOOD…” (Psalm 90:6). Secondly, if you look at it from the Hebrew words used in the verse, you’d know that it is not talking about the enemy’s flood that try to destroy us and the Spirit of the Lord coming to lift a standard against him, but instead it is the flood of the Spirit that sweeps the enemy and his works. (Jack Siame, 2012)
Where this idea started, I don’t know, but it goes back at least to Kenneth Copeland, not exactly a recommendation, though he may have gotten it from somewhere else.
But indeed, let’s “look at it from the Hebrew words used in the verse,” and we see this “fluffoid” is completely false. Here is the Hebrew:
כִּי-יָבוֹא כַנָּהָר צָר, רוּחַ יְהוָה נֹסְסָה בוֹ
As presented by Mechon-Mamre online Hebrew text. Now this version does use Western punctuation, and you’ll note the comma. This is exactly where the KJV translators put it.
Here are three arguments showing the fluffoid is wrong:
(1) The Hebrew word order does not allow it.
What makes the claim even possible is the placement of the phrase “like a flood” in the English of the KJV rendering, right in the middle.
When the enemy shall come in / like a flood / the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.
So theoretically, if we only had the English, I guess we could debate which side “like a flood” is modifying. But not so in Hebrew, where the order is as follows:
When comes in/Like a flood/The enemy/The Spirit/Of the Lord/Shall lift up a standard/Against Him.
You’ll note “like a flood” is located between the verb and the subject. It is unquestionably modifying “When the enemy shall come in.”
(2) The Hebrew poetic structure does not allow it.
This chapter of Isaiah is written in poetic form. Now there are a lot of technical details to how poetry works in Hebrew. But one of the most basic features is parallelism. Briefly stated, a line of poetry divides up into two halves–very clearly–with matching rhythm on each side of the divide. Here is how this line reads in Hebrew:
For will come
Like the river
Will raise a banner on it
The parallel rhythm is 123:123. And the word kannahar (“like a river”) is unambiguously an element of the first half, not the second.
(3) The Hebrew punctuation does not allow it.
Yes, I said punctuation. The quote above asserts that Hebrew has no punctuation. Now when originally written by Isaiah (ca 750 BC), he may well not have used punctuation. And we can see in the Isaiah Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls (ca 125 BC), there is essentially no punctuation either.
But when we get to the Massoretic Text of the Old Testament, from which the KJV and other versions are translated, such as the Leningrad Codex (AD 1008), it is full of punctuation. These are not commas and periods and semicolons, of course. They are cantillation marks, guiding the cantor, or Scripture reader, exactly how to pronounce the text. One of the roles they serve is to put in stops and pauses.
Right at the end of the clause: “For will come like a river the enemy” there is a break and a pause, indicated by an intermediate mark, the zaqef qaton, essentially analogous to our comma. Here it is marked by the red arrow below:
There is the “comma” that the KJV translators did not invent, but which the greatest Hebrew scholars of their day, keepers of the sacred tradition both written and oral, placed in the official copy of the Hebrew Bible.
It would be nice if this information would permanently ground the Fluffoid of the Misplaced Comma, but we know it won’t, don’t we?
Isaiah 59:19b presents a number of interesting issues in terms of lexicology, interpretation, translation, and teaching, and I’d like to post a few observations about what I’ve discovered looking at it.
It is a favorite verse for a lot of people, at least in the KJV/NKJV tradition. I say this because there is a radical divide in meaning between the (N)KJV and just about every other translation out there. Here is how those two translations read:
When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him. (KJV)
When the enemy comes in like a flood,
The Spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him. (NKJV)
And here are five popular English translations:
For he will come like a pent-up flood
that the breath of the Lord drives along. (NIV)
For He will come like a rushing stream
Which the wind of the Lord drives. (NASB)
for he will come like a rushing stream,
which the wind of the Lord drives. (ESV)
for He will come like a rushing stream
driven by the wind of the Lord. (HCSB)
For he will come like a raging flood tide
driven by the breath of the Lord. (NLT)
It looks as if the latter translations are working from an entirely different text, doesn’t it. They all read largely the same as one another, but very different from the (N)KJV. But it is not a text issue. The underlying Hebrew text is exactly the same. These represent two different constructions of what the words mean.
I plan to explain why this is and how it works. But I’ll disclose right from the outset I think it is very unlikely that the very popular KJV rendering of “lift up a standard against” the enemy is correct. That being said, I’m not completely convinced about the alternative reading above either. But I’ll get to each in a later post.
But first, within the KJV school, there is a further complication. I’ll deal with it in Part 2.
At Christmastime you are liable to hear someone earnestly insisting Jesus was actually born during the Feast of Tabernacles and that the Bible tells us so. This is NOT true and the Bible tells us no such thing.
The Easter equivalent, it would seem, is the Crucifixion on either Wednesday or Thursday, rather than the very, very, very, very, very well-established Friday.
I understand why. It centers on Matthew 12:40:
For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Now, I see the point: if you do the math “literally,” it doesn’t “work.” I know. I’ve tried. Three days, okay, counting “a part as the whole.” But it’s the THREE NIGHTS which is the sticking point. There is just no way to have three nights with a Friday crucifixion, and so people take what seems to be the logical step and conclude it must actually have happened a day or two earlier.
As logical and even NECESSARY as it may seem, it is untrue. The problem is, something is going on linguistically which is not evident in our English translation. Remember that what we are reading is a translation of a verse originally written in Greek, which in turn is a translation of a statement originally spoken in Aramaic.
But chances are proponents of the Wednesday or Thursday theories are proficient in neither ancient language, and yet are ready to pronounce their calculations right and the understanding of virtually all of the Christian world for nearly two millennia to be in error. This Friday idea, is mere tradition, we are told, and the Scriptures trump tradition. They certainly do, but the Friday crucifixion is more than “tradition” and the impression Matt. 12:40 makes is almost certainly an error due to our own cultural and linguistic distance.
If we think of “tradition” as a notion passed down generation to generation until nobody really knows how it started, this is NOT how we know Jesus was crucified on a Friday. It has abundant historical documentation, at least as much as anything we know about any event in ancient times. By “historical documentation” I mean someone in a position to know wrote about it at a time relatively close to the events.
For example Ignatius of Antioch, who died sometime around AD 107, states CLEARLY that the three days covered Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (Preparation, Sabbath, Lord’s Day). Reportedly he was a student of the apostle John–who was an eyewitness of the crucifixion, and we can guess it came up in the conversation. Most likely John’s students heard his account of that monumental day over and over and over again. Ignatius would be UNLIKELY to be mistaken on the day of the week when it occurred. And as bishop of Antioch, he was a speaker both of Aramaic and of Greek. So I believe I can states unequivocally that he knows whereof he speaks when he states the crucifixion happened on Friday. But even more HE CITES MATTHEW 12:40 ITSELF TO SUPPORT IT.
He also rose again in three days, the Father raising Him up; and after spending forty days with the apostles, He was received up to the Father, and “sat down at His right hand, expecting till His enemies are placed under His feet.” On the day of the preparation, then, at the third hour, He received the sentence from Pilate, the Father permitting that to happen; at the sixth hour He was crucified; at the ninth hour He gave up the ghost; and before sunset He was buried. During the Sabbath He continued under the earth in the tomb in which Joseph of Arimathæa had laid Him. At the dawning of the Lord’s day He arose from the dead, according to what was spoken by Himself, “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of man also be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The day of the preparation, then, comprises the passion; the Sabbath embraces the burial; the Lord’s Day contains the resurrection. (Trallians IX)
Similarly, Irenaeus (died AD 202), who was a student of Polycarp (d. AD 155), who was a also student of the apostle John, even makes a point of it happening on a Friday as a parallel to the day of the week man was created (the sixth day of creation, i.e. the day before God rested, i.e Friday), which he takes to also be the day the Fall happened. You may or may not think he has a valid point, but it does mean that Irenaeus held in no uncertain terms that Jesus was crucified on a Friday:
From this it is clear that the Lord suffered death, in obedience to His Father, upon that day on which Adam died while he disobeyed God. Now he died on the same day in which he ate. For God said,In that day on which you shall eat of it, you shall die by death.The Lord, therefore, recapitulating in Himself this day, underwent His sufferings upon the day preceding the Sabbath, that is, the sixth day of the creation, on which day man was created (Against Heresies V: 23:2)
Also Justin Martyr, writing about AD 155-157, expresses the days of the week in Roman terms:
But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration. (First Apology lxvii)
The purpose of this post is not to put forward a full-blown critique of the historically-novel non-Friday position, nor to establish a proof for Friday. I simply want to discuss what I think is going on linguistically in regard to details of the text.
So let’s look at the Wednesday and Thursday theories, which attempt to account for the “three nights” of Matt. 12:40:
Wednesday: So the crucifixion lasts until the close of day on Wednesday. Wednesday night is the first night, and Thursday daytime is the first day. Thursday night through Friday daytime is a second night and a second day. Finally Friday night is the night THREE that we needed. And Saturday daytime is day three. Sunday would be a fourth day. But Jesus rose before dawn, and so he arose fully after three days and three nights, by this view.
Still, wouldn’t that make Saturday night a FOURTH night? Then Jesus was in the heart of the heart of the earth three days and FOUR nights…
In addition, as we will see below, according to Luke 24, the third day was SUNDAY, not Saturday, and He was resurrected early on that day.
Thursday: So with Christ dying on Thursday afternoon, and was being buried, the remainder of Thursday is day one. Thursday night is night one. Friday then is a second day and Friday night a second night. Finally Saturday is a third day and a Saturday night that famous third night. Three days and three nights. And again Sunday would be the fourth day, but Jesus rises before dawn, and so it all works out. Right?
But IS Sunday the fourth day? No, it is the THIRD day:
“He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”
And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.
…Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead (Luke 24:6-7, 19-23, 46).
Now let’s look at the linguistic details. First, while we have the phrase “three days and three nights” in ONE verse, the most common way the duration of Jesus’ burial is expressed is that Jesus would rise “on the third day.”
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16:21)
Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed. (Matthew 17:22-23)
The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Luke 9:22)
And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise. (Luke 18:33)
…that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise. (Luke 24:7)
Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead (Luke 24:46)
…but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear (Acts 10:40)
Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
Well, yes, but what does “on the third day” mean? Glad you ask. Here’s an example:
Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. (Luke 13:32)
As is well known, the culture of that time counted INCLUSIVELY. So then Friday being the day of the crucifixion is the first day, the next day, Saturday, is the second, and the day following that, Sunday is the third. Friday, Saturday, Sunday works. Thursday doesn’t. Wednesday certainly doesn’t.
However, another way the time frame is expressed is with the phrase “after three days.” Now, this may seem LOGICALLY to indicate a different span of time from “on the third day.” I mean, is AFTER day X the same as ON day X? I wouldn’t think so, in my language, and my culture. If I say “Come after Monday,” don’t I want you to show up on Tuesday at the earliest? But if I say “Make sure and come on Monday,” isn’t Tuesday going to be too late? Yet, clearly, by the linguistic conventions in which the text was written both “on the third day” and “after three days” refer to the same duration of time.
Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise.” (Matthew 27:63)
[Note that this is immediately followed by: Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, “He has risen from the dead,” and the last fraud will be worse than the first. (Matthew 27:64). I.e. “after three days” does NOT mean “on the fourth day.”
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)
The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise. (Mark 9:31)
And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise. (Mark 10:34)
In the same way, despite what we MIGHT think, the phrase “three days and three nights” in Matt. 12:40 must designate the same duration as that signalled by “on the third day” and “after three days.” How can this be?
It is certainly because we are dealing with a linguistic convention which is not readily apparent to those of us reading in translation. In other words, we are encountering an idiom.
What is an idiom? It isn’t just “speaking loosely” or “imprecise language.” It is a fixed feature of the semantic structure of a language.
One “definition” of an idiom is 2+2=5. That is to say the meaning of an idiomatic phrase is greater than the sum or its parts. In other words, an idiom is a situation in which a language assigns meaning to a GROUP OF WORDS as a whole. And while each word has a conventional meaning, the idiomatic WHOLE is not derivable from combining the meanings of each of the individual words. And idiomatic phrase then means something DIFFERENT from what the various words which compose it might suggest.
In French, for example, if I want to say “everybody,” such as five people in a family, or all thirty people in a class, or the hundred or so customers of a given store on a given day, the phrase is “tout le monde.” Now this LITERALLY means “all the world.” Yet I can assure you no French speaker using or hearing this phrase is confused by it, or thinks that the entire population of the earth is meant. No one even thinks of that, because the meaning “everybody” it is completely second nature. It is an idiom.
An English speaker, perhaps, knowing only a very little French might protest, because to him it sure SEEMS like this HAS TO mean EVERYONE IN THE WORLD. Otherwise it is an error or a falsehood. Not at all. The speaker understands. The hearer understands. WITHIN the language community, the correct meaning has been communicated.
However, a hearer with little or no knowledge might misunderstand BY GIVING TOO MUCH ATTENTION TO THE INDIVIDUAL WORDS. And if a translator should render it “litterally” as “all the world,” that would be an INACCURATE translation, since it presented corresponding words but WRONG MEANING.
Worse yet, imagine someone who really knows no French somehow insisting on the meaning “all the world.” No one would do that, you say. I agree, and yet that is pretty much how we get Wednesday and Thursday crucifixionists.
So what is the idiom involved here? It is the phrase: X days and X nights. We are more than a little familiar with it through the Noah story:
For in seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground. (Genesis 7:4)
Now, this phrase from this story is SO familiar, we don’t even think twice. However, in English we NEVER use this expression. The closest we come is a typical travel agent booking for say, “seven days and six nights.” We only specify NIGHTS because it involves a hotel stay, and the important charges are how many NIGHTS the room is used. So what is going on with the Hebrew/Aramaic idiom.
To understand this phrase we have to know what “day” means. If we ask a typical person in our culture how long a day is, we will generally get the response, “24 hours.”
However, Jesus said: “Are there not twelve hours in the day?” (John 11:9)
This is because the former refers to what we might call an astronomical day, that is one revolution of the earth on its axis, or in simpler terms, one light period and one dark period.
Jesus was referring to what we might call a meteorological day, that is ONLY the light phase.
Henceforth, when I want to distinguish the two meanings in this post, I will indicate the 24-hour period in all caps (DAY) and the daylight period in lowercase (day).
In modern day English, we use the word “day” in both ways, but I would suggest that the 24-hour sense (DAY) tends to be our default meaning, and the daylight only usage (day) somewhat secondary.
It is generally asserted that the Hebrew and Aramaic word yom has meanings both DAY and day as well. However, I do not believe it is at all clear that it was. I do not see that yom is clearly used for the sense DAY. Iif it was, this meaning is decidedly the secondary one. From what I can see studying the way yom is used in the OT, it means the day–the “12 hours” period Jesus referred to–as opposed to the night. However since each day is separated by one night, counting a day implies taking note of the night that follows (and not that which PRECEDES, despite the popular notion). So in this sense at night it is still the same day as when the sun was up, because the NEXT day has not yet begun. Monday night is still Monday. Following the 15th day of the month, that night it is still the 15th until sunrise on the 16th.
But to indicate an DAY in Hebrew or Aramaic, you generally have to say day and night. In other words DAY=day+night (D=d+n).
Now the day was arguably the most important unit of time measurement in the Hebrew culture. But also the day and night distinction was very important, as it would be in any setting without artificial light. Duration and even distance could be expressed in days:
Please let us go a three days‘ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God (Exodus 5:3 ESV)
Thus distance is expressed in terms of time at walking speed. But the time involved would be (approximately) 3 x 12 hours (and not 3 x 24 hours) since people would not have journeyed in the dark. So walking, like work (John 9:4) happens in the day but not at night. So to say “three days” does not indicate continuous activity.
On the other hand, some events, such as Noah’s flood, do continue on from day to night to day to night. In other words, it is a duration which continues for DAYS and not just days (with pauses for night). So when continuous duration is particularly being emphasized, the set expression “X days and X nights” is used:
Then I lay prostrate before the LORD as before, forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin that you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the LORD to provoke him to anger. (Deuteronomy 9:18)
They found an Egyptian in the open country and brought him to David. And they gave him bread and he ate. They gave him water to drink, and they gave him a piece of a cake of figs and two clusters of raisins. And when he had eaten, his spirit revived, for he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights. (1 Samuel 30:11-12)
And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. (1 Kings 19:8)
And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. (Job 2:13)
And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. (Matthew 4:2)
Now granted, we have only a relatively small number of instances of this formula Xd+Xn, but I propose the following “rules” which can be observed about its usage.
1. To express duration in terms of DAY, the expression indicates day+night. D=d+n.
2. When modifying the nouns with a number, each noun must have a number. E.g. “Seven days and Seven nights.” Xd+Xn.
(NOT *”Seven days and nights”)
3. The coefficient of both d and n is ALWAYS IDENTICAL in all instances we have. Always Xd+Xn and never *Xd=Yn. That is we never see the expression with, for example, “seven days and six nights” or “six days and seven nights.”
4. So if this is true BY CONVENTION both the numbers modifying “days” and “nights” reflect the total number of DAYS represented. Xd+Xn = X(d+n) = X*D.
5. This is the case even in instances where TECHNICALLY the number of nights and days are not actually equal. What is ultimately in view is total number of DAYS represented, including mere parts of days.
6. Therefore, when one hears or reads this expression, there is a kind of mental distributive property understood: 3d+3n = 3(d+n).
7. And given d+n=D, the expression allows for any time period including all or part of three DAYS.
If the above linguistic analysis is valid (and if you study Hebrew, you will see weirder things than this) then the Matthew 12:40 phrase “three days and three nights” is perfectly appropriate–in Aramaic–to refer to a period from Friday evening through Sunday morning.
Recently, someone saw the movie Noah by Darren Aronofsky, and thereupon tweeted: “Not sure if I could have liked it less. “
“Oh, really?” I say, “Maybe it’s simply a lack of imagination. Here let me help…”
The following “pitches,” by the grace of Almighty God, never actually made it to the screen. Why they didn’t get green-lighted–in the existing film industry–who can say? We can only thank the Creator every day. (Actually, I made all these up, in case you failed to detect the element of irony here.) Enjoy (NOT!).
10. Disney does it again with Chosen. It’s the story of three brothers in search of three brides. They won’t settle for anything less than finding True Love—but then they have all the time in the world. That is, until Noah, their father, insists that a catastrophic flood is on the way—and soon. That explains the “Gopherwood Palace” dad’s been building on the back 40 as long as they can remember. So it’s high-gear high jinx, as Shem, Ham, and Japheth pull out all the stops to win the hearts of three beautiful princesses, before it’s too late. Only, do they tell them about all dad’s pets? You’ll love the musical numbers along the way, such as “Gotta be married before I’m 100,” “Gimme Cupid—not Cubits,” as well as an all-new version of “Heffalumps and Woozles.”
9. Kirk Cameron leads a cast of unknown amateurs in Waterproof. He plays Noah, the local lawman of Enochville, Georgia. He’s got his work cut out for him, what with the wickedness of man being great in the earth, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart only evil continually. But the job’s taking a toll on his marriage. What’s worse to pay the bills, his wife has had to take a job at the local animal shelter. But then Noah just had to have a new boat. And their three boys are growing fast. Shem’s the jock: quarterback of the football team, and on his biggest night, facing the giants of Nephilim High, Noah has to work late. Ham’s the “bad boy” type: his grades have been slipping, and they suspect he may have secretly started smoking. All he wanted was for his father to take him fishing, but there was never time: “the job comes first, son.” Japheth just lives in a world of his own, comic books and video games. But fateful events bring them all together, as 4,000,000,000 of their friends and neighbors are killed in one night in a freak thunderstorm. But the family survives and more importantly is able to spend quality time together on Noah’s boat. Afterward, Noah and his sons form a men’s group, and he invites them to take a knee and they all sign the Rainbow Covenant, promising to be better husbands and fathers. Tie in materials include a website and copies of The Rainbow Covenant, which can be bought in bulk for Sunday schools and home groups.
8. Based on the international bestseller, Genesis, comes Raindrops, a love story for the ages. Beulah knows is a forbidden love. She is a D.O.M., and Edwin is a S.O.G. Yes, he’s fallen, but so angelic. From that first day, when he walked into the classroom, her heart has never been the same. She and Shem have been sweethearts for three years, and she cares for him deeply, but Edwin sparkles in the sunlight. Which one will she choose? But choices have consequences, especially since Shem’s father, Mr. Noah, the leading climatologist, warns of a storm to end all storms, coming, who knows when. The Raindrops Saga is set to continue in Dark Cloud, Overcast, and finallyBreaking Storm.
7. Noah’s Ark (2014) is a reboot of the 1999 classic television miniseries of the same name. Kevin Sorbo stars as Noah, the ancient patriarch. Charlie Sheen plays Lot, the main villain. Macaulay Culkin is Absalom. Jane Seymour is Cleopatra, and Jon Voight (who played Noah in the original film) appears in a cameo as Abraham Lincoln. Action-packed, sometimes zany, occasionally irrelevant, this is not your father’s Bible film. And this is only the beginning: coming this September, the fun continues on NBC with Noah: the Legendary Journeys, in which Noah sets sail in his ark and each week encounters a different character from Bible stories, ancient history, and the mythologies of the world.
6. Coming this summer, Clash of the Nephilim, will be a sure-fire blockbuster. It’s a cosmic upstairs/downstairs. Above the firmament dome stands the dazzling palace of Paradise. Ian MacShane stars as Jehovah, who has just about had it with the denizens of the downstairs realm. Around him the celestial court is filled with intrigue, and some of the younger angels are sneaking away to hook up with babes down below. James Cromwell plays Che Rubin, and Julianne Moore is Sarah Phim. Little do they know on the flat world below, they are about to be blotted out by a flood of water from heaven. But one man gets wind of it, Noah, played by Jason Statham, and he’s determined to show the man upstairs who is boss. He undertakes a gargantuan building program, an ark half a mile long and twenty stories high. But before he can finish, Jehovah has had enough. “Release the Deluge!” he commands.
5. It’s Dr. Dolittle meets Captain Nemo in Dr. Noah, a complete re-imagining of the ancient Biblical tale. It’s a steampunk, psychedelic sci-fi voyage beyond imagination. Long, long ago lived an age-old wise man named Noah (Ian McKellan). In his laboratory at his fortress of Edenwood, his experiements delve into the secrets of the universe. He has learned to communicate with what mankind calls the beasts, but which are in reality far more civilized than they. Along with his companions, Shem the unicorn, Ham the lion, and Japheth the orangutan, he asks nothing more but to be left alone to do his work. Though the simple, stone-age humans are oblivious, the animals can sense something big is looming; a horrendous flood. Dr. Noah learns of this from them, and reveals his top secret supreme project hidden in a water-filled cave deep under his lair: a massive wooden submarine, known as The Ark, which is powered by the mysterious substance “Angel Fire.” He survives the flood and repopulates the earth with new, more advanced test-tube versions of the human race.
4. The Ark presents the most historically accurate depiction of what scholars believe to be the true story behind the traditional story we know as Noah’s Ark. Clive Owen stars as Upnapishtim, chieftan of a small band of early homo sapiens, in the Mesopotamian valley, who live in constant conflict with Neanderthals, who outnumber them. The humans have developed rudimentary agriculture and keep herds and flocks, whereas the Neanderthals are hunter-gatherers, and these descend upon the humans raiding them of crops and livestock. Flooding is common in the valley, but when a storm of unusual proportion threatens, the people band together to build the largest barge ever built, large enough to house their small settlement along with their animals. The result is not only survival of the group, but deliverance from the harrying Neanderthals, who are unable to flee, and who perish in the flood. The human band celebrates their victory, sacrifice to their deities, and the tale of the event is told from generation to generation.
3. The story we know as Noah’s ark has appeared on screen before, but never before with the spiritual sensitivity ofThe Story of the Flood. Because Islam forbids depiction of any prophet, the story is seen through the eyes of the prophet of those days, whose name was Nuh. Accurately recounting the story from the original Qur’an. When God reveals He is sending a flood, Nuh builds a giant raft to save his family and all those who would believe his warning. Even one of his own sons does not believe, but the other three, along with 76 others, and Nuh’s domestic animals ride the ark to safety and give praise to God.
2. Finally, a Bible story for our times. Noah’s Rainbow is a very special re-telling of the ancient tale. He has begotten three sons with the wife of his youth, but he cannot deny the feelings inside. When God speaks to him, and warns him of a coming flood, he feels himself affirmed. But he struggles with the implications when God inexplicably issues his orders with heteronormative insensitivity. Animals two by two, one male, one female. How can God be good, and yet so clearly bigoted? He argues, he struggles, he organizes a march, but finally the rains come and he has no choice but to trust. His faith is rewarded after the flood, because it is a New World now, and God finally shows His true feelings by painting a beautiful rainbow across the sky. As the film concludes, even the animals join Noah and company in an exuberant production number to the song: “It’s Raining Men.”
[Note: that was revolting, wasn’t it!]
1. One final way Noah could have been worse. Imagine a scrupulously “correct” depiction of the details of the text of Genesis 6-9, unimpeachable to the last detail (at least according to someone’s interpretation), but which proved ultimately insipid, flat, devoid of narrative force. It could be due to unimaginative writing, inappropriate casting, mediocre acting, passionless direction, ho-hum cinematography, unmoving music, or any number of other failings which tend to kill a film. It could be acclaimed for its accuracy by some of the same folks who have vocally panned Aronofsky’s Noah for its distortions (of which there are many), and ultimately fail to draw anyone but the “usual suspects” who do that Christian movie thing. And ultimately, while it earns a place on church library shelves (whereNoah would not), there may not be all that much interest to watch it again.
We have no small number of examples of such works, and not only for Bible films, but also for literary works, where somehow, someone felt that fidelity to particulars was enough, and the impact of the whole was less a consideration, not important, or simply not achieved.
I don’t say this is inevitable. I say let’s have both. However, there seems to be a dynamic which increases blandness of result the more that strict adherence to source material is the focus. Part of this is due to the fact that adapting a written work—inspired or not—is an act of translation to a visual medium. As with other forms of translation, a paradox exists such that over-adherence to formal correspondence effects a distortion of its own. The original in its own context, genre, and medium carried impact, sustained coherence, and conveyed a message. Often the same bundle of particulars, in a new context, genre or medium fails to do so without significant—and creative—craftsmanship of the derived work.
As with other kinds of translation, the complaint is often traductor traditor—translator traitor! And certainly many feel “betrayed” by Aronofsky. And I don’t say he achieved anything like an appropriate translation, but many of thespecific accusations, I think, are exaggerated, groundless, or downright hypocritical. And anyway—it could’ve been awhole lot worse. QED
I am beginning to get the impression that reaction to Darren Aronofky’s film Noah is proving to be something of a watershed among Christians. No pun intended (okay, maybe just a little).
As an example, I will begin by inviting the wrath of man, viz. to agree with Mark Driscoll. Dissing Driscoll has become something of a gleeful national pastime within much of the Evangelical blogosphere. Case in point, Michael Brown takes him to task in a Christian Post article in reaction to Driscoll’s own post there regarding Noah and Noah. In his conclusion, we see what Brown can do for us: give us a nifty Roman Catholique-esque view of soteriology:
God destroys the wicked and delivers the righteous, as numerous biblical texts declare, and we become righteous by faith, which is demonstrated in a godly life. (Emphasis mine)
This is as clear a statement of infused vs imputed righteousness as you can hope to find: God’s grace first transforms us into righteous beings, at which point God certifies us as righteous based on what he sees in us, and that is how we are saved. Now you may recall the Protestant Reformation (It was in all the papers) but Pope Leo could have gotten cozy with Brown’s summary here, whereas Driscoll seems more up on his Luther and Calvin. Still, if Brown is the guy I think he is (from occasionally catching his radio show) he is no friend to the Doctrines of Grace.
In a similar way, so much of what I read from Christians—Evangelicals particularly—in reaction to the Noah movie betrays a works-righteousness understanding. As one Facebook interlocutor tossed my way, don’t I realize that Genesis 6-9 is all about the gospel of Christ? Yeah, I do. Only thing is, that is the main “redeeming” point about Aronofsky’s film: how very, very much gospel there is in it.
So let’s get going on the film. First of all let me state unequivocally, this is NOT the film I would have made. YES, it presents a distorted version of the Noah account, with unfortunate interpolations. For my money, the depiction of the Watchers is the most glaring deviation. Next, I suppose, is the brouhaha over Mrs. Shem’s pregnancy. However, the vast majority of posts I’ve read badly misunderstand what is happening in this entire section of the film—in my opinion. My hope is at least that you will understand it better once you are done reading this piece. Likely you still won’t like it, but I’d appreciate you hearing me out on this.
Okay, so we are all agreed Aronofsky gets the Noah story wrong. And this is the pair of elephants in the living room, i.e. THE problem that sours so much of Christian reaction to the movie. Sure you’ll hear some remarks targeting the film’s productions values, which are what they are, but are pretty much par for the industry. Seriously, it’s not a badly made film. Let’s not get ridiculous on that score just ’cause you’re miffed at the rock monsters. Speaking of “score” though, I thought the closing song was pretty substandard. However, the lyrics do clue you in to the theme of the movie, in case you’d missed it, which judging from Christian critical comment, you did.
So how are we to react to this wrongness? Listen, I’m Mr. Pedantic in regard to this kind of detail. I react to it like fingernails on a chalkboard. That’s the bear I have to cross. Ever since 1966 I’ve loved me some John Huston as Noah—a much, much more straightforward depiction of the Deluge (The Bible: In the Beginning). But dangit! I still remember Noah shutting the door (Huston, we have a problem!). Hasn’t anyone read Gen. 7:16?
But I think Aronofsky’s fiddling is fairly compatible with Cecil B. DeMille’s in The Ten Commandments, and I for one have enjoyed the latter all my life despite its shortcomings. Ramesses II as the Pharoah of the Exodus? I think that’s centuries off, but so what? The four decades of wandering was not due to the golden calf, but shall we quibble? Anyway, I haven’t done so much, and I’m prepared to give Aronofsky (AKA, my neighbor) the same courtesy.
I need to to do, in order to avoid hypocrisy (at least in this instance) because vis-a-vis my brothers and sisters in Christ I constantly have to extend the same courtesy. How often do I have to endure factual, textual, historic, etc screw ups—from the pulpit—and not let it poison my reception of the whole? Pretty much constantly, my brethren and cistern.
As for the Noah story itself, I know a certain kiddies’ Sunday school area adorned with cutesy animals apparently out for a Three Hour Tour with Skipper Noah. Lord have mercy! That sort of bowdlerized Bible for babies is every bit as much a distortion of the story as anything Aronofsky has dared show on the silver screen. Quoth one Christian Facebook poster: “The movie was so dark…” Excuse me, have you actually read the book? Sexual deviancy, unhindered violence, near-total annihilation. Yeah, it’s dark enough for ya.
And then there are the popular memoids. Have you never heard it said that Noah spent 100 years building the ark? The Bible doesn’t say that. It’s a spurious calculation based on comparing Gen. 5:32 with Gen. 7:6. And I continue to hear people say it never rained prior to Noah’s flood. This comes from Gen. 2:5, which describes a condition before the creation of man—and before the herb of the field. That’s more than a millennium and a half before the flood. It had rained plenty by then—else how could man have eaten the herb of the field (Gen. 3:18).
I will spend eternity with fellow believers, even some with very conservative theology, who nevertheless hold that the flood described in Genesis was merely local, or at least not completely universal. Worse still, since they cannot quite grant a worldwide flood as historically or scientifically possible, they countenance monkey-business with the text of Scripture to support that notion. The fact is, however, not a syllable of the Bible suggests a local-only deluge, and boatloads of words and phrases and clauses and sentences and paragraphs which tell the story of water, water everywhere.
Aronofsky is reportedly an atheist—God grant that that would change so that he too would spend eternity with us. But I spent a couple of hours with him through his film, and I was glad at least to see he displayed what the text actually says, in a brief shot of the globe covered with hurricanes and cyclones.
In fact, he also gets a great deal right. Sure, he adds material not found in Genesis, but most of what is in the text, he puts into the movie—some way or another. Not my way, certainly, but he shows he has spent time poring over the text, the context, and has researched ancient commentary on the subject.
So all this to say, in regard to his inaccuracies, I just find fairness demands I consider it a wash. I get the same, or worse, from the rank and file of “my” people. So while I regret multiple interpretive decisions on Aronofsky’s part, I make the decision to suspend judgment (I think there’s something about that in the Bible) and render unto Darren what appreciation may be due unto Darren. And there’s plenty.
Besides all the above, I have to say that from the first moment I heard of this movie, my mind hearkened back to some forever-lost hours watching the 1999 TV movie Noah’s Ark (does not deserve a link) with Jon Voight. This pièce de garbage ranks so high on my personal detest-o-meter that I was instantly prepared to give Aronofsky gargantuan latitude with his version. So bottom line, he’s still got a long way to go to reach Voightian proportions of awfulness.
One other point to consider: sorry fellow Christians, but Noah doesn’t belong to US. No, and I don’t mean to the Jews either. Just who is Noah? A Bible character? Sure. No question. But before he was a “Bible character” he was a historical figure, and before that he was a living human being. In fact, he is the ancestor of every one of us. Even in the Bible he is in that pre-Abraham section of Genesis, which has not yet narrowed its focus to the chosen Nation. And Noah and the flood pop up in cultural memory all over the world.
Noah then, in many ways, belongs to everyone, even to an atheist such as Aronofsky, who likely considers him merely a legendary or mythical personage. But we ought to appreciate that Noah means something to Aronofsky. Let’s not give him the gratuitous insult (which I’ve heard some Christians say) that he’s just making use of the Bible story to make some bucks in a Hollywood blockbuster. Check out some of his interviews: he has been drawn to and fascinated by the person of Noah since childhood. I for one don’t mind hearing what he has to say, and he doesn’t have to say what I would say in order for me to listen.
Now let me get down to cases. First, the Watchers, i.e. the “rock monsters.” Oh, how I wish he had not included these characters! Some have said it gives a Peter Jackson treatment to the Noah story. Hey, didn’t even Bilbo get some “rock monsters” that also weren’t in the book? But I digress. What has to be granted is first, read the KJV: “There were giants in the earth in those days” (Gen. 6:4). Giants in the Bible, giants in the movie. Translate it “Nephilim” if you wish (as more recent version do), but this is mere transliteration. What the heck is a Nephil? The reference to the sons of God and daughters of men and the mighty men of old is so tantalizingly scanty, what do we make of them?
Interpreters are divided, but I can’t get past Jude 6-7, which is also not ultra-clear, but which would appear to inform us how to take Gen. 6:2-4. My personal take is that the text tells us of something like human-angel hybrids, whose existence corrupted the race. So these Nephilim are bad guys, to say the least. Yet here in the movie they side with Noah, whereas I think they are an integral part of the problem with depraved humanity.
Still, the text doesn’t exactly say that. The Lord’s beef (here) is stated to be with wicked men, not with angels, fallen though they be. And we are not told any more about the explicit role either the “sons of God” or the Nephilim play in the narrative. Reluctant as I am to say it, Aronofsky technically has leeway to employ these guys in his retelling. How they get transmogrified—petrified one might say—is beyond me, but at least he has them in there. How many treatments of Noah’s ark leave the Nephilim out completely, or (mis)interpret the SOG/DOM reference simply as Sethites/Cainites. Frankly, I think the movie does this too.
Anyway, Aronofsky also draws here from the Book of Enoch. Don’t be too alarmed; so does Jude (v. 14). Jude calls him “seventh from Adam” and the film uses language of this sort as well. Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) makes reference to his father. This is Enoch, who walked with God. Whether or not he actually wrote any part of the Book of Enoch, evidently there is at least one accurate quote from the book in Jude 14. And the Book of Enoch goes into much greater detail about the Watchers. This is a Biblical term by the way: Daniel 4:13, 17. Whatever the exact nature of these beings, Aronofsky is not making them up out of thin air.
Many people have taken exception to what they find as a kind of looney-lefty environmental-whacko message in the film. This is based on some of the ways Noah and family are portrayed as good guys and Tubal-Cain and his ilk are portrayed as bad guys. I do see what they are talking about, but frankly this criticism is exaggerated, and the best we can say is that the Body of Christ today at least seems to have a healthy patellar reflex.
The bad guys… ooh they live in cities, ooh they eat meat, ooh they mine and forge. Well, sorry, this comes from Moses. It’s right there in the text. Gen. 4:17, Cain founds the first city, named after his son Enoch (not the same one). The theme of the city as a locus of depravity is right there in Scripture all the way to Revelation 18 and the fall of Babylon.
And is meat murder…. very tasty murder? Listen, I am an avowed meatatarian. And personally, vegetarianism irritates me. But I live post Gen. 9. There in v. 2, God says he will put the fear of man in the animals, and in v. 3 he gives animals (i.e. meat) to mankind as food. You may or may not infer that before that time both situations were different: that animals lacked basic fear of humans and that men were not authorized to eat meat, but I cannot blame Aronofsky for understanding this. Noah, as a righteous man of that time, would not have eaten meat. And to do so would be wickedness.
At one point, Aronofsky’s Noah kills in defense of himself and his son, and also because wicked men have killed an animal. This is because by so doing, they have shed innocent blood. Genesis 9 goes not, not to allow capital punishment, but to require it:
But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed;for in the image of God has God made mankind. (vv. 4-6)
Before the flood, did innocent blood include animals? Again, you and I may not necessarily draw this conclusion, but I cannot blame Aronofsky for depicting the world of the time this way. And I certainly am not able to attribute this to “paganism” as some have done. He’s got Bible to back him up.
And what about mining and metalurgy? Well, in the first place, again we have Gen. 4:22, where this very same Tubal-Cain is the (original) forger of bronze and iron. But in the movie, even Noah uses metal instruments. And it isn’t about drawing natural resources from the earth, it’s about raping the earth. This has nothing to do with Gaia (as some have alleged) but with “the Creator” (as the film calls God). In the world the movie paints man has essentially denuded the ground of trees.
This is why it was filmed in Iceland. The gag is they’d tell the GI’s: “There’s a pretty girl behind every tree.” Only when they got to Reykjavik, they found out there were almost no trees. Trees are important in the Bible, to put it mildly.
Anyway, the film is not portraying Environmentalism, but Conservationism. And as the name implies, that’s a CONSERVATIVE value. The Sethites in this film are the Conservatives, if this reassures you. Some are bothered by Noah telling his son only to take what they need, even so much as a flower.
And oh, a flower appears to replace it. What does that mean?
A key, KEY theme of this film is God as Provider. For Noah, if we need it, God will provide it. If God doesn’t provide it, how much do we really need it? I think there’s Bible for this too:
And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt. 6:28-33)
By contrast, Tubal-Cain’s motto is “Damned if I don’t take what I want.”
But Aronofsky’s Noah looks completely to God for every provision. The film makes this point over and over. This is particularly so in regard to the provision of wood for the ark. Noah is supposed to build an ark, but out of what? But the wood is provided miraculously (not by “magic” as some commentators—rather shamefully—have dubbed it.)
One other thing: God’s provision seems to work on a “just in time” basis. That rings true to me Biblically as well as experientially.
Some object to the way the film portrays God communicating to Noah. In Genesis 6-9 we are certainly given the propositional content of God’s instructions to Noah. Are we to understand from this that on a certain day Noah heard a voice speaking to him and it contained this sequence of sentences, whereby he knew the clear details of the Lord’s instructions to him? Why not? I’d certainly tend to see it this way. Still, I have to acknowledge what God himself tells us about the way He speaks:
Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. (Num. 12:6-8)
So we understand the usual way the Lord “speaks” to a prophet is in dreams and visions, in some kind of riddle. Of course He said this audibly to Moses, Aaron and Miriam from a pillar of fire. So both are Scriptural means for God to communicate.
So then, I have to conclude Aronofsky is within his rights—Scripturally—to portray God speaking to Noah in dreams and visions and riddles. The Noah account is very succinct, almost sketchy, and it is possible that the summary statement of what God tells Noah is not so simple as we suppose. Possible, not necessarily. But once again, Aronofsky has Bible to back him up. We can’t simply blame him for reading in some pagan mysticism.
This brings us to what is certainly the biggest stumbling block (apart from the rock monsters) in the film, and that is Noah declaring that he will kill his grandchild, if it is a girl.
First of all, do I think that is the way it all went down. No, not for a minute. But let me say this: the way you or I picture “how it happened,” beyond what the text says, is not particularly important. We have no basis for objection because Aronofsky imagines it differently that we do. I’d put good money down that if we had a time machine and could go back and actually watch the events of that year as they happened, we would be astonished to find many things we never, ever expected. No, I don’t think it would match Aronofsky’s story line. But I’m pretty sure whatever we might come up with would be just as wrong.
But let’s go over what this whole plot element is all about, because it is here that so very, very many comments from Christians get it so totally, absolutely wrong. This is not Noah being evil. This is not Noah going crazy. This is not Noah demonstrating hate.
The first thing we need to understand is that Aronofsky’s Noah loves the Creator and is WHOLLY dedicated to Him. He makes the point, clearly, and for the audience’s sake on one level and his family’s for another. God chose Noah, because he would obey faithfully down to the very last detail. He believes. He trusts. He obeys.
Noah is a prophet. But he knows in part and he prophesies in part (1 Cor. 13: 9). He knows this:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:5-7)
Aronofsky’s Noah also knows his job is to save “the innocent,” which means building the ark to house at least a sample of each species of animal for the duration of the flood, so that they may not be completely wiped out. Of course even in this scenario the vast majority of “the innocent” will perish. But the important thing, evidently, is the species.
The plan involves Noah and his family also surviving the flood on the ark. But is this in order for the human species to survive? That is the question, and in the film, Noah does not have a clear yes to this. But here’s the deal: whereas for each species of animal there is at least one male and one female, the humans consist of Noah and Mrs. Noah, three sons, and one girl—who is barren. God provides the wood for the ark, God provides the animals, but what God (apparently) does not provide are (fertile) wives for the three sons.
Remember, what Noah and family need God provides. What God does not provide, they simply don’t need. And right up to the moment the flood starts, God does not provide wives. And Ham’s speed dating does not constitute God’s provision, apparently. Conclusion: they don’t need wives. And why not? Because, Noah reasons, they are in a situation of planned obsolescence. It’s man who is the problem, and it’s man who’s condemned to extinction. Ultimately, even though Noah is as good as man gets, he is also is guilty, not innocent, and worthy of death. So are they all. In God’s justice.
So clearly they are just there to ensure the transition to the post-flood earth and see the animals safely there. After that, though they don’t die immediately, they will eventually die out and the human race with them. Unless Noah and his wife have more children—and he is not going to do this—no one else can reproduce. It’s an elegant solution, Noah figures.
This is not super clear to the family, who suppose some way or another their survival is the survival of the human race. But Noah understands the part where God says He intends to wipe out the whole human race. Look at the text. It’s true, it does not explicitly say God intends to preserve humanity through them. Understand, I do think it is so implicit in the covenant language of Gen. 6:18 that the real Noah never would have missed it. But this is Aronofsky’s story.
The plan is flawless, Noah thinks. But then… something throws a monkey wrench in the works. Grampa Methuselah has blessed the girl and healed her barrenness. No one knows this, but then she and Shem—uh—elope and the result is the “barren” woman is pregnant. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Noah wants so very much to be faithful to his calling. And he is responsible for his family. They have caused the problem, there is one unauthorized person on the ark—the unborn child—and it’s up to him to fix it. So while the rest of them can simply wait for old age, and death—should this baby be a girl she cannot be allowed to live. Otherwise all those deaths will be for nothing.
Needless to say, this does not sit well with the fam, who go bonkers at Noah’s pronouncement. Some reviewers profess to find glee in Noah’s plan, other’s hatred for mankind. I don’t see that. He is completely tormented by what he believes he has to do. He hates it, and meanwhile, all his loved ones come to hate him.
I want to call this section of the film: So you want to be a prophet?
A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” (Mark 6:4)
And I kept thinking of these verses:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:34-37)
You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. (Luke 21:17)
Aronofsky’s Noah (misunderstanding the case) has to choose God over his own family. Some people have found a parallel with Abraham’s offering Isaac here, and that’s not really wrong. Abraham had every intention of killing his son. But this is actually more Noah’s Ishmael moment than his Isaac moment. He takes matters into his own hands in order to fix a problem for God. God never asked him to, but he rationalizes that he has to do it anyway.
All along, Aronofsky’s Noah insists it is a matter of justice. And in this he is right: it is only just for them all to perish, as Adam’s corrupt race, from the most righteous, Noah, to the most innocent, the baby about to be born. Here there is no dilution of the just wrath of God who hates sin.
We have to get this: they all deserve to die, even the baby. We have, in atheist Aronofsky, a clearer understanding of original sin and total depravity than much of the Body of Christ today. If we think this Noah is being cruel or unjust or insane, we are badly misunderstanding the film. Worse, we don’t understand the truth about God and His perfect holiness.
In the film, the only hope is that the child is a boy, because Noah is NOT going to relent. But then not only does the worst happen, but it’s twice as bad—not one but TWO girls.
Now you and I ought to understand something at this point. That’s called dramatic irony. Mrs. Noah gets it, but not Noah himself. The twins are the future Mrs. Ham and Mrs. Japheth. So God did provide after all, and that changes the whole calculation and jibes, after all, with 1 Pet. 3:20. Six plus two equals eight.
But Noah does not get it from this circumstance. He proceeds as planned—only he cannot bring himself to do it. In the end he does relent, and he believes he has failed. In the film this is the context for the drunkenness episode. He has failed God and has alienated his family in the attempt. He is completely alone.
But God has spoken to him, and he didn’t realize it. It was the moment he looked down at the twin babies, and as he later says “All I could see was love.”
As I understand it, the point is God opened the eyes of his heart to have more complete understanding of Him. Whereas Noah rightly saw the children (rightly) in terms of God’s justice, he now ALSO saw them, ALSO RIGHTLY in terms of the love of God.
Looking through his own eyes, he was also looking, as it were through God’s eyes.
And Noah found GRACE in the eyes of the Lord (Gen. 6:8).
This, in a nutshell is what the film is about. Grace. And grace is only grace when there is no compromise on justice.
Now the film tells you this, so you really can’t miss it, fellow disciple of Jesus Christ, that is, unless you are too embroiled in outrage. Well, the film uses the word mercy. And the (lackluster) closing song is about mercy.
And that’s why I don’t object too strenuously to this flawed film—in the end, I think it is no exaggeration to say that atheist Aronofsky preaches us gospel.
Do you not see that? A whole bunch of Bible-believing Christians don’t seem to have.
I’ve heard it said, in terms of one redeeming quality of the movie, that maybe at least some non-Christians will end up reading their Bibles.
Pardon me, but I have to turn that around. Maybe after all, some Christians will end up reading their Bibles.