This is the second part of a two-part discussion regarding the 2014 Darren Aronofsky film NOAH starring Russell Crowe. Click here for Part 1 OR Click here to download the entire discussion in PDF form.
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There seems to be a lot of fantastical stuff in this movie. A forest grows from a single seed, Methuselah seems to have some kind of pregnancy power in his hands, and Noah’s dad has a glowing snakeskin. Doesn’t this take away from the believability of the story?
I’m not sure how believable people were expecting this story to be in the first place. In the world of pre-flood Genesis, you have talking snakes and people who lived for hundreds and hundreds of years. Even the biblical portions of the Noah story are pretty fantastical—animals flock to his giant boat in pairs, and Noah and his family are able to cohabitate on said boat with said animals without being mauled to death by a jungle cat. So if you are already accepting the flood narrative to begin with, I don’t think it’s too far outside the realm of possibility that there were other magical or fantastical elements that are not talked about in the story.
Again, this is Midrash, which means it is an attempt to build out the world even more fully with more stories in order to help us understand the larger themes of the original narrative, and the things that are added are meant to contribute to the theme, not some sort of historical account.
In the Bible, it says that each of Noah’s sons had wives, but in the film they don’t. This seems like an overt betrayal of the original text.
To be perfectly honest, this was initially my biggest problem with the film. In fact, Aronofsky even fakes us out by making us believe Ham’s potential wife will jump onboard the ark at the last minute, but Noah callously abandons the girl to be trampled to death just before the deluge begins. I kept waiting for the inevitable introduction of Ham and Japheth’s wives, but it never happened. And once the ark’s doors were shut and it was clear the wives would not be appearing in this film, I was seriously taken aback. This seemed like an unnecessary detail to leave out.
However, by the end of the film, I had forgiven Aronofsky for the oversight because I realized he had made this choice very intentionally as a way of getting at a larger theme.
For the purposes of the film, Ham needs to feel like an outsider. One of the things (in the film) that separates Ham from his older brother Shem is that Shem has love in his life in the form of a girl named Ila, played by Emma Watson, which has launched a handful of speculative questions regarding whether or not this movie is a Harry Potter prequel. In contrast to Shem, Ham has no one, and he feels the weight of that isolation even before he becomes one of the only people left on the planet (Noah’s youngest son, Japheth, mostly seems like an afterthought, and I’m not sure how much he is meant to play into the themes here). Much of the film’s narrative tension relies on Ham’s personal journey. So to remove the presence of Ham’s wife may be contrary to the biblical source material, but it works for the purposes of the story here.
There are several overt images of serpents and snakeskin throughout the film, and it seems like the skin of the snake is supposed to be a good thing. However, in the book of Genesis, the first mention of a serpent is when humanity is tempted to sin against God. So what’s the deal with the snakeskin?
There is a common assumption that serpents always represent Satan—that they are evil incarnate, which is a sentiment that I tend to share whenever I see one in my driveway. However, it may be helpful to remember that a) snakes were part of the original Creation in Genesis 1 and 2, and that same whole Creation was declared “good” by God, and b) the book of Genesis never actually says that Satan was the snake. It merely says that the snake was “crafty.” So the symbolism itself is a little more nuanced than “snakes are bad.”
Aronofsky’s co-screenwriter Ari Handel was interviewed in Relevant Magazine and was asked several questions about this film’s theology. At one point, the interviewer specifically asks about the snakeskin motif, and Handel gives a really interesting answer-
When Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, it says God gave them a garment of skin—sort of a parting gift from God to mankind as we leave Eden and go out into the world. So we wondered what that was—and as we looked at commentaries about it, one of the common ones was that it was the skin of the snake. We wondered why that would be, and it occurred to us that God made the snake. The snake was good, at first. But then, the Tempter arose through it. In our version, we have the snake shed that skin, and the shed skin is the shell of original goodness that the snake left behind when it became the Tempter. It’s a symbol of the Eden that we left behind. It’s a garment to clothe you spiritually.
So of course, the hero of the film carries the light-colored shed skin of the serpent—the metaphor of humanity’s original goodness. When Noah’s father wants to pass down his birthright to his son, he is about to give him the snakeskin when they are rudely interrupted and Noah’s father is murdered.
Notice also that in the CGI snake scenes, the snake’s color changes from light to dark. The filmmakers are using the snake as a recurring metaphor about humanity. They seem to be saying, We began as something good, but we devolved into something evil. We shed our light skin and only dark remained. Redemption comes to those who remain connected to the light.
And did you notice what Tubal-Cain is eating while he hides in the belly of the ark? A dark-colored snake. The character who most represents human depravity in this film is seen consuming the metaphor that was set up as a symbol of human depravity.
I’m glad you brought that up. This movie has a stowaway on the ark! I’m pretty sure that isn’t in the Bible.
Tubal-Cain’s presence on the ark is a metaphor. There are several places early in the book of Genesis where characters essentially are given a choice between two paths—the two trees in the Garden of Eden, the choice to offer worthy sacrifices or not, the choice to kill or to preserve life, etc. In order for Ham to experience a moral dilemma consistent with the tone and themes of Genesis, he needed to be faced with two plausible paths—the path of his father and the darker path of Tubal-Cain.
I think it’s also worth noting that Tubal-Cain has a valid point-of-view. He is not a mustache-twisting straw man villain who seems to be evil merely for the sake of having a villain in the movie. He feels abandoned by God, and he feels entitled to make his own way in the world, even if that way is guided by violence.
What’s great about how the movie is written is that, when I was watching it for the first time, I had no idea what Ham was going to do. At the end of the Genesis story, Noah is at odds with Ham, so it made sense that the filmmakers might create a situation where their conflict began here—Noah killing Tubal-Cain and denouncing Ham as his son at this point rather than later in the narrative after Noah wakes up with a hangover.
Of course, this doesn’t happen. Ham chooses his father’s path, and they are reconciled. Ham still feels like an outsider, but he is a hopeful outsider.
In the movie, Noah seems kind of insane. He doesn’t seem interested in human life, and he even wants to murder his own grandchildren. This doesn’t seem very consistent with the biblical descriptions of Noah as “good” and “righteous.”
This was actually one of my favorite parts of the movie. Think about it: if you are truly a good person, and you learn that you and your family will be the only survivors of a global catastrophe, wouldn’t that be a little difficult to cope with? If you are good and your heart is tuned to the heart of this God who is grieved over the brokenness of the world, wouldn’t that take a heavy psychological toll?
Most Sunday school images of Noah make him look like a cheerful, care-free grandfatherly-type—basically Santa Claus with a giant boat. He’s always smiling and waving and praying. So yeah, if that’s what you were expecting you might have preferred they cast Tim Allen as Noah. This Noah seems a lot more likely to start an Emo band and get a tattoo of a crying dolphin on his ankle.
Let’s also keep in mind that we tend to read the word “good” and attach our own understandings and expectations to that word. What would be described as “good” by one person might be described as “barely tolerable” to another. It might be helpful to remember that the actual description of Noah in the book of Genesis is that he was “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, Noah walked faithfully with God.” So first of all, the part where Noah is described as “blameless among the people of his time” is often interpreted by some rabbis to mean that he was only good compared to everybody else at the time, which apparently was not necessarily a high bar to clear. In Jewish tradition, Noah is neither a hero nor a saint—he is merely a survivor. It wasn’t until Christians began telling this story to their children that Noah became a bright, shiny hero in the minds of the story’s hearers.
Let’s move on to the second clause of that verse, which states that Noah “walked faithfully with God.” To “walk faithfully with God” is to be attuned to the way God sees reality. How does the beginning of this story claim that God sees reality? God is grieved—brokenhearted over what has become of this once-beautiful creation. So if Noah shares this point-of-view, that grief—along with everything that follows—might just be enough to drive a person mad.
Also, let’s remember that the people in the Bible who are described as walking closely with God are often those who are most frequently tormented in their own souls. Jacob wrestles with God all night long. Joseph’s heart is metaphorically ripped out of his chest when he is reunited with his brothers. Moses verbally argued with God at least once or twice. Even Jesus sweats blood when he prays just before he is arrested. So why do we expect Noah to be all glassy-eyed and simple-minded? Let’s at least allow for the possibility that a person who truly was righteous and close to God might have had a few sleepless nights over watching the whole world drown to death.
I’ve heard some people say that Noah is overly concerned with environmental themes. I even read one blogger who called this whole movie “a giant environmental propaganda piece.” Is this environmentalism part of the original text, or is this a sign that the writers and director have attached their own political agenda to this story?
There is no question that environmentalism is one of the dominant themes of this film, and director Darren Aronofsky has not been ambiguous about his desire to see humanity become more responsible toward the earth’s natural resources. So yes, it’s certainly in the film. But that’s not really the question here, is it? The real question is “Does the Genesis story support this interpretation?”
In Genesis 1, God creates all things—things on the ground, things in the sky, and things in the water—and declares all of these things to be “good.” Humanity then is instructed to interact with creation in a healthy, sustainable way. So environmentalism is already built into the book of Genesis from the very first chapter.
The story of Noah does contain environmentalist elements. God not only spares Noah and his family—the animals are spared as well. The first sign of good news while the survivors are stuck inside the ark is a piece of fresh vegetation brought by a dove. When Noah is able to live on the ground again, the very first thing he does is plant something—a vineyard. Noah himself is described as a “man of the soil.” It is also worth noting that, until God’s covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:3, people had never been given permission to eat meat. In Genesis 2, God specifically gives plants for humans to eat, but not animals. So the imagery of villainous people killing animals at the beginning of the film is consistent with the context of the Scriptures—people were not supposed to do that. So even if this seems heavy-handed and preachy, it is completely consistent with the biblical narrative.
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 Genesis 7:13
 According to Aronofsky and his co-screenwriter Ari Handel, they named the character after their college roommate’s daughter. The word “Ila” in Hebrew means “light.” This information and more can be found in Peter Chattaway’s interview with Handel and Aronofsky at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/filmchat/2014/03/the-jewish-roots-of-and-responses-to-noah.html
 The claim that all created things are good recurs throughout the entire first chapter of Genesis.
 It’s probably worth noting that snakes aren’t always bad in the Bible. One counter-example of snakes and evil is when Moses’ staff turns into a snake when he comes before the Pharaoh in Exodus 7.
 Tyler Huckabee. Relevant Magazine. “Noah’s Co-Writer Explains the Film’s Controversial Theology.” April 4, 2014.
 Genesis 2
 Genesis 4:6-7
 The rest of Genesis 4
 Or Steve Carrell, as was the case in the far-less-controversial film Evan Almighty, which also was an adaptation of the Noah story, and contained far more biblical inaccuracies.
 Genesis 6:9
 Rabbi Shmuley Boteach explains this point-of-view from a Jewish perspective in the article “Hollywood ‘Noah’ is kosher, says celebrity rabbi” by Jordan Hoffman in the Times of Israel (March 27, 2014)
 Genesis 28
 Genesis 45
 Exodus 32
 Luke 22
 Genesis 1:28
 Genesis 9:20
 Genesis 2:8-9