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What Part of Noah Don’t You Understand?

April 12, 2014

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)

 

And more:

 

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.

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Reward Sibanda permalink
    April 12, 2014 10:24 pm

    Wow!!! Profound Insight! You should definitely do more Movie or Pop culture reviews! The puns are hilarious and the points dead on!

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