I expected the Noah movie to be a fairly careful following of the Bible story, where the fun would be in quibbling about how various verses were interpreted, but the movie was (surprisingly) more interesting than that.
It has Noah, his wife, and the three sons. There’s the enormous ark, the animals, and the flood. And then there are tangential bits that are nevertheless still in the Bible—the Nephilim, Methuselah, Tubal-Cain, and Noah the angry drunk.
But that’s about it for Bible. The rest is Hollywood. Perhaps that’s to be expected when you must expand four Bible chapters into 138 minutes.
Spoiler alert: you’d think that everyone already knows the story of Noah (“Omigod! You mean that everyone else drowned? Wow—I didn’t see that coming!”). Not this interpretation.
In the verses immediately before the Noah story (Gen. 6:1–4), the Bible introduces the Nephilim. Before the Flood, angels came to earth and fathered children with women, and these were the “heroes of old, men of renown.” It’s unclear whether “Nephilim” refers to the angels or their children, but the Bible doesn’t condemn them.
Other ancient Jewish texts do. The Nephilim taught man the secrets of metalworking and weaponry, as well as makeup and jewelry (read: killing and adultery), and one of the purposes of the flood was to get rid of them.
Noah shows these Nephilim as fallen angels and calls them “Watchers,” the term used in these ancient Jewish texts. They came to earth to help man with the gift of technology (nothing about getting frisky with their women), but were cursed by the Creator so that they became gigantic multi-armed rock monsters (duh—what else would cursed angels look like?). Since their previous contact with humans led to no good, the Watchers are ready to kill Noah and his family, but he befriends them and they help build the ark.
There’s nothing like a dozen 20-foot-tall immortal monsters to help make that tough job go a little easier.
Noah is in the line of Seth, Adam’s third son. They’re the last of their kind. But there are thousands of others living nearby who descended from Cain, Adam’s first son—the one who killed Abel. These are the bad people corrupted by the art of metalworking. They’re led by Tubal-Cain, who the Bible tells us was the first metalsmith—again, with no hint of condemnation.
This distinction between the bad men of Cain, corrupted by weapons and killing, and the noble Noah of the line of Seth doesn’t hold up, however. Noah uses metal, both as tools and as weapons, and he kills people when he has to.
This is a world of magic. There are visions, spells, incense that makes the animals on the ark hibernate (nicely solving the problem of feeding them and them eating each other), and lots of magical plants. (The clash between those on the side of magic and those who favor technology reminded me of the 1977 movie Wizards. Technology loses in that one, too.)
The harsh terrain (it was filmed in Iceland) and the clothes (more Viking than Bedouin) made me think of Middle Earth rather than the Middle East.
The Bible says that the three sons have wives. Not so here. There is only an adopted daughter, found as an injured girl, and she and the oldest son are something of a couple. Noah tries to find wives in the Man Village, but the savagery is so extreme that he returns empty-handed and convinced that their job is simply to convey the animals safely on the ark, not to continue humanity. Humans are so inherently evil that their line must end.
On the boat, Noah passes on to his little band the seven-day creation story. Though the flood is accurate to the Bible when geysers burst from the ground, which points to the Sumerian cosmology of water beneath the earth and in a canopy above, the visuals that accompany Noah’s story would be at home in Neil deGrasse-Tyson’s Cosmos series. We see the solar system coalescing and a protoplanet crash into the young earth to form the debris that became the moon. Evolution is shown, as animals evolve from fish to amphibians to reptiles to mammals to primates. Creationists will find no support in this depiction.
Noah says that the Creator demands that humanity must end with them. This causes some friction on the boat when the son and daughter get pregnant with twin girls. It’s not enough that they ignored the sounds of the drowning multitude at the beginning of their voyage, but now Noah is determined to kill the babies. Love overcomes the wishes of the homicidal Creator in the end.
One wonders where girls will find a husband. I suppose the logical choice is the last of Noah’s sons, their uncle.
Noah the drunk
The Bible says that Noah took to drink after the ark landed (Gen. 9:18–27). Perhaps he was due a little celebration after all that work, but it got a bit out of hand, and he passed out naked in his tent. His son Ham saw his father in this embarrassing state, but the other two brothers covered him without peeking. Noah discovered this and bizarrely responded by cursing Ham’s son Canaan, presumably to support Israel’s future conquest of the land that Canaan’s tribe would occupy.
Bible scholars have woven many interpretations out of this odd curse, trying to figure out what is euphemism and what is literal, but the Noah film takes a different approach. It presents this wine scene literally, but Ham and Noah had friction that went back a long time. Before the flood, Ham had found a girl for himself, but Noah refused to help save her. On the boat with every eligible female in the world dead, Ham was angry enough that when he discovers the single stowaway—Tubal-Cain, of course—he listens to him.
Tubal-Cain says that the Creator (“God” is never mentioned in the movie) made man in his image to subdue nature. And he kinda has a point. In the creation story that Noah just told, the Bible says, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). But you can imagine who wins in the fight scene.
The trailer ends with the text, “The film is inspired by the story of Noah,” which tries to placate everyone. It’s a “story,” so that doesn’t offend those who don’t follow the Bible. It’s “inspired by,” so it apologizes to Christians, Jews, and Muslims who think that it takes too much license.
At the premiere, the director Darren Aronofsky said, “Anything you’re expecting, you’re fucking wrong.” Perhaps with this summary of highlights, your expectations can be a little more on target.
I explore the various story strands that make up the Bible’s Noah story here.
No prophet of God hates people. …
Noah is wrong about everything.
— Glenn Beck
[Christians are] mad because this made up story
doesn’t stay true to their made up story.
— Bill Maher
Photo credit: IMDb