How do we define “wickedness” in biblical films?

How do we define “wickedness” in biblical films? February 26, 2014

If there was one theme linking the trailer and the TV spot for Noah that came out two days ago, it was “wickedness”.

Previous ads showed Methuselah telling Noah that mankind has earned the wrath of God because mankind has “corrupted this world and filled it with violence” — but yesterday’s ads pushed the language in an even more explicitly biblical direction.

The title card that opens the new trailer states: “At a time when wickedness was great in the world… so too was the response.” And the narrator in the new TV spot declares that the film takes place at a time when “wickedness ruled the hearts of men”.

This echoes the beginning of the biblical Noah story, which states: “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.”

But what exactly did that wickedness consist of?

Believe it or not, the Book of Genesis does not tell us. So filmmakers and others who dramatize this story have to fill in the gaps somewhat. And when they fill in those gaps, they can go in one of two directions: They can make the “wickedness” of Noah’s day something so extreme, from our current cultural vantage point, that the Flood seems justified and we feel reassured that God wouldn’t have a similar punishment in mind for us. Or they can make the “wickedness” of Noah’s day something that resonates with our own real-world situation, thereby perhaps reminding us that what we are doing now is worthy of judgment too, but God is restraining himself.

You can see examples of the first approach, I think, in movies like The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966), in which the Noah section of the movie begins with dark, foreboding images of pagan idolatry and human sacrifice. And you can see examples of the second approach in movies like Green Pastures (1936), a modernized take on the Old Testament in which God sends the Flood partly because people are skipping church to drink, gamble, play music and hang out with their lovers.

And then there are films that straddle the two approaches, like Noah’s Ark (1928). This film, rather than start with the story of Noah per se, begins with images of slavery and idolatry — taken from the stories of the Tower of Babel and the Golden Calf, respectively — and it then jumps ahead to the present day to show stock brokers gathering in their skyscrapers and obsessing over their ticker tapes. This film, then, zeroes in on the capitalistic lust for money and power. (Note, incidentally, that this film — which states in a title card that the world is “rush[ing] onwards towards desruction” — came out one year before the Wall Street Crash of 1929.)

It remains to be seen what sort of approach Darren Aronofsky’s Noah will take. There has been much speculation, based on an early draft of the script, that his film will focus on mankind’s destruction of the environment, which would certainly speak to modern political concerns — but even in that early draft, mankind’s violence against nature is ultimately rooted in, and connected to, mankind’s violence against other people, which has been a problem for pretty much all of human history.

But whatever approach Aronofsky takes, we should keep in mind that every adaptation of the Noah story has had to take some creative license here. And what leaps to our minds as the sort of “wickedness” that would merit divine retribution isn’t necessarily what the biblical authors had in mind.

Consider, for example, the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The destruction of those two cities has been linked to the Flood of Noah’s day in a number of ways, from the apocalyptic prophecy that Jesus delivers in Luke 17, to the passage in II Peter 2 that cites Noah and Lot as examples of righteous men, to the TV-movie Noah’s Ark (1999) which, rather bizarrely, places the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah before the Flood rather than hundreds of years after it.

But why, exactly, were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed?

Most people nowadays focus on the fact that a mob in one of those cities tried to gang-rape the two angels that visited Lot, and they extrapolate from this to suppose that Sodom and its neighbouring cities were rife with sexual sin.* But on the one occasion that God himself spells out what, exactly, the people of Sodom did to merit their destruction (in Ezekiel 16), he places the emphasis on something else:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.

Similarly, in Isaiah 1, the prophet addresses the rulers of Jerusalem as though they were the rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah and says that they have chased after bribes while neglecting the city’s widows and orphans, among other things.

So, as with Sodom and Gomorrah, so with the civilization of Noah’s day. It is essential to the story that the people who are on the receiving end of God’s punishment are wicked, on some level. But how that wickedness is dramatized will vary from film to film, just as different biblical texts emphasize different signs of that wickedness.

And if a filmmaker should use the story to address the social ills of today, well, there’s a biblical precedent for that, too.

We can certainly debate how the film addresses those social concerns, or even whether it emphasizes the right social concerns — but let’s wait until we have seen the film to see just what those concerns are and what sort of balance the film strikes between them. A film with a narrow political agenda would not be a particularly good thing, but neither, I think, would a film in which the wickedness of Noah’s day seems so remote from our own world that the story has nothing to say to us.

* There is a precedent for this in Jude 7, which says the people in Sodom and Gomorrah gave themselves up to “fornication” and went after “strange flesh”. But note how Jude says this right after he refers to the angels who abandoned their proper place in heaven, and a few verses before he quotes the Book of Enoch, which cites the mating of humans and angels as a key reason for the Flood. Once again, the text makes an implicit link between the Flood (which followed the mating of humans and angels) and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (which followed the attempted gang-rape of two angels by a group of humans).

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  • axelbeingcivil

    It feels strange to me, the notion of humans mating with angels, when angels are described to us as, by and large, intensely alien beings that often don’t have anything approaching or even remotely resembling human anatomy. Wheels within wheels made of fire and ringed with eyes; creatures with three heads and a concealed body behind six wings; a being whose appearance is as snow and lightning and is so terrible as to make the very earth tremble, etc.

    I cannot see how you could have sex with any of these things in a way that sires offspring.

    That said, I think the biggest problem that things like this face is that any decent amount of reflection makes you wonder about the notion of God as compassionate. Few people would consider things like adultery or callousness as worthy of death – though certainly desirous of their correction – but things like human sacrifice, in turn, can only occur if people have something worth sacrificing to, in which case people are either deluded or threatened. In either case, it makes one wonder why God is willing to step in to slaughter everyone but not to correct them or guide them or undo the curse levied upon them by their great ancestors that makes them act this way to begin with.

    The Noahic Flood just comes across as… Viciously cruel when thought about carefully.

    • Gregory Lynn

      It’s also worth noting that there are MANY instances in the Bible of angels, or even God himself, appearing to people in forms that people first mistook for human, so the notion of people being able to mate with them isn’t so far out of the question.

      I agree with your assessment of Noah’s Flood, though.