Last month at the “bow ties and elbow patches meet Hawaiian floral print shirts” conference (otherwise known as the Society of Biblical Literature conference in San Diego), I had the opportunity to screen the movie Noah with other conference attendees. We then followed the viewing with a discussion of the motifs in the film and the possible impacts of the movie on popular culture.
We had a great discussion, including a few “tense” moments (sometimes even people in bow ties get over-excited when a topic interests them!), but I came away having learned a great deal about different aspects of this movie. I won’t give a blow-by-blow in this post, but will hit on those items which struck me the strongest. I’d certainly welcome comments with additional questions about the film, though I hardly claim to be an authority on the director’s (Darren Aronofsky) and writers’ specific vision (Aronofsky and Ari Handel).
(Warning: SPOILERS! If you haven’t seen the movie, kindly return to the Youtube videos of kittens with lightsabres you were watching before I distracted you…or, okay, I know you’re going to just watch it anyway. I’ll wait.)
The Watchers appear in the movie as fallen angels who assume the form of rock creatures once on earth. They initially help mankind, but when humans then turn on them, it is Methuselah (Noah’s grandfather) that protects them. Later in the film, the Watchers guard the Ark as Noah makes final preparations. Pure Hollywood invention, right?
Not exactly. Actually, not even remotely.
The Watchers make up a significant portion of the book of 1 Enoch, whose source material has been dated as early as 300 BCE. It is an apocalyptic book (a genre of Jewish literature, of which Daniel and portions of Isaiah are possible forerunners) and describes how angels were sent to Earth to watch over mankind (sound familiar?). However, the movie departs from a central theme of 1 Enoch, which describes how the Watchers become fallen angels through their sexual trysts with human women. The Nephilim of Genesis 6 are said in 1 Enoch to be the offspring of these illicit unions, and in fact the true purpose of the flood was so that God could rid the world of the Nephilim! The Watchers were to be kept in the “valleys of the earth” until God’s return and judgment.
The New Testament book of Jude may be making references to 1 Enoch:
1:6-7 – And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day, just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.
1:14 – It was also about these men that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all…
(Haven’t you ever wondered why you’ve never heard a sermon on Jude…?)
So while the tale of the Watchers has been modified for the movie, Aronofsky and Handel made a deliberate decision to include the 1 Enoch account into the film. Of course, the 1 Enoch accounts have long since been abandoned as canon within conservative Judaism and early Christianity, but they nevertheless had significant influence upon the development of Christianity in the first century or two CE.
Let’s move on…
The skin of the snake
In the movie version, the snake skin from the Garden is passed from one generation to the next, and it takes on magical powers. Handel speaks about his rationale for this bit in a brief interview with Relevant magazine, so I direct you there.
Genesis explains that Methuselah is the son of Enoch, and the father of Lamech (thus Noah’s grandfather). M. lives in total for 969 years (Gen. 5:21-27), though of course the Biblical account does not record any involvement that M. might have had with Noah or the Ark preparations.
But back to our old friend 1 Enoch, where it is in fact Enoch himself that warns Methuselah of the flood (as well as predicts a future Messianic kingdom, but that’s for another blog post…oh my). A much later book (1600s CE), a midrashic volume entitled Sefer ha Yashar (“The Book of Jasher”) has Methuselah helping Noah with the Ark preparations, dying just before the flood.
Tubal-Cain is briefly mentioned in Genesis 4:22, which describes his occupation as either a metal worker, a chemist/alchemist, or a miner (scholarly
rampant speculation discussion continues…) He eventually “earned” the added distinction of a weaponry specialist through the later interpretive traditions. Josephus (1st c. CE) and the rabbi Rashi (late 1000s CE) both made such statements. Because of this later tradition of his association with war and weapons, Tubal-Cain has been seen as representing the more violent ends of humanity, which is clearly what Aronofsky and Handel are playing with in the film.
As far as I am aware, though, the remainder of the movie’s depictions of Tubal-Cain (as a stowaway on the Ark, nemesis of Noah, killer of Lamech, manipulator of Ham’s daddy issues, etc.) are not based in any other traditions.
Noah and His Crazy “I’m Totally Ready to Kill the Harry Potter Girl’s Babies” Thing
This was, by far, what we spent the most time discussing at SBL. Some attendees really had problems with this particular take on Noah’s motivations, while others thought it was a good way to illustrate some controversial scriptures in the OT that allude to God’s disappointments with humanity. Others just thought this theme ran through the film to add dramatic tension.
As a very quick recap, Noah becomes convinced after visiting Tubal-Cain’s encampment that mankind is thoroughly evil, and that God’s true purpose in the flood is to eliminate this “pollution” from the earth. Aronofsky has commented extensively about the environmental motifs present in his film, and he wished to present the tension between stewardship and dominion over creation (see his comments in this Washington Post article from April 2014).
I can only assume that Aronofsky and Handel are drawing primarily from God’s comments in Genesis 6:5-8, which I quote here (as well as verses 9-13 which I have not quoted):
Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
Such thoughts are never attributed to Noah in the Genesis account, though the movie takes the additional step of speculating that Noah was assuming this to be God’s position, and thus, his own position. He concludes that humanity should die out with his family on the boat, but when Ila (Emma Watson…or was that Kristen Stewart?) is found out to be pregnant, Noah vows to kill the children if they are female to uphold his end of his imagined bargain with the Creator. Noah is eventually convinced of the good in mankind by seeing the twins, but not before holding a knife to their throats.
In Handel’s Relevant interview, he explains that they wanted Noah’s thinking to parallel YHWH’s in Genesis: moving from a viewpoint of strict justice and judgment to one of grace and mercy. The article concludes with a quote by Handel:
One of the questions we hope people come out of the film with is, to remember that we’re living in a second chance. And to ask ourselves, “What are we doing with that second chance? Are we doing well with it?”
God’s statements concerning humanity in Genesis 6, which Noah emulates, are thus contrasted with His promises and covenant in Genesis 8:21-9:17. It was argued in our session that when we have a problem with Noah’s (albeit dramatized) sternness and actions in the film, what we are really reacting to are these disturbing quotations in Genesis attributed to YHWH. Such sentiments were countered by others that argued that these quotations in Genesis were mankind’s “interpretations” of God’s anger, and care must be taken not to ignore the extensive examples of YHWH’s mercies and provisions throughout the remainder of the OT and into the NT.
Whew. So, if you’ve seen the movie, what did you resonate with? What do you still wonder about?
I leave you with a dramatic scene in the movie, in which Noah confronts the evil of mankind in the face of the violence which he has seen and felt trapped into participating: