The righteousness of Noah: what have the rabbis said?

My friend Steven D. Greydanus has just added his two bits to the growing dialogue around Noah — and you can get the gist of his take on the current “controversy” from his headline, which states: “Everybody chill out about the ‘Noah’ movie.”

Greydanus, like virtually everyone else who has participated in this debate (including me), has not actually seen the movie. But he offers several good points to keep in mind as we look ahead to the film’s release five weeks from now.

The part that intrigues me the most is the bit where he talks about rabbinic Jewish understandings of the Noah story:

The flood story itself — which has a rich, diverse history in ancient Near Eastern mythology — has been variously developed and glossed in Jewish tradition as well as Christian thought.

For instance, among rabbinic sources, one text describes the men of the generation of the flood shamelessly parading about in the nude. Another depicts the Nephilim mocking Noah’s warnings of the flood, scoffing that they could plug the springs of the deep with their monstrous feet — but when they tried to do so, God heated the water, scalding them. Still another describes the wicked trying to dam the flow of water from the Earth by throwing their own children into the abyss.

Noah’s own righteousness is much debated by the rabbis. Some said God originally included him in the decree of destruction, but exempted him for the sake of his descendants. One text says Noah’s faith was so weak that he didn’t enter the ark until the water was up to his knees!

To contemporary Christians, these are startling suggestions that would surely raise hackles if invented by Hollywood — yet they are within the pale of historic Jewish imagination.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The Noah story is not a Christian story except insofar as we Christians have incorporated the Jewish scriptures into our own, so we ought to be open to at least hearing Jewish interpretations of that story.

Director Darren Aronofsky, who has been interested in the Noah story since his childhood, is Jewish himself, and while I don’t necessarily expect him to offer the most devout rendition of the story, I certainly anticipate that his take on the story will be rooted in a tradition quite different from my own — and I am eager to learn more about that tradition. (Indeed, thanks to Steve’s post, I already have!)

You know what would be really cool? It was recently announced that Aronofsky will curate an art exhibition titled Fountains of the Deep: Visions of Noah and the Flood, featuring over 50 works of art inspired by the Noah story. What if Aronofsky also published an annotated version of his screenplay, with copies of the Jewish legends (and even Hindu legends, given the likely source of Ila’s name) that inspired his film?

February 21 update: Aronofsky himself tweeted a link to Steve’s post today:

February 22 update: Russell Crowe also tweeted a link to Steve’s post…

…and followed that up by inviting the Pope to see the film, a proposal that Aronofsky quickly endorsed:

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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