Noah, Russell Crowe, and Midrash

Have you seen the new movie Noah starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly? Given my interest in Old Testament reception history, I could not pass it up. How would two modern Jewish men interpret this flood story? The Genesis account itself is a product of unique Israelite interpretation of a common ancient Near Eastern narrative. The story appeared in ancient texts long before Genesis was written. But, the biblical authors offer their own theological perspective on the event. Similarly, the flood has been the subject of midrash (Jewish interpretation of the biblical text) throughout history. Ancient Jewish writers sought to fill in narrative gaps in Genesis with commentaries like I Enoch and Jubilees. In fact, from these pseudepigraphal works the movie draws content about the Watchers and Noah’s visit to Methuselah—narrative details not found in the biblical text. Those Transformer-looking rock creatures in the film might seem like fantasy fiction made up on the fly, but their role did not come out of thin air! They are the fallen angels of lore–albeit their appearance a bit embellished.

Ancient Near Eastern Context

The flood story in Genesis 6-9 has similarities with the 17th century B.C.E. Babylonian epic, Atrahasis. In this story the gods created humankind for slave labor. However, the human population swelled and became noisy (likely in dissent). The noise kept the god Enlil awake and so he plotted to destroy humankind with a flood. However, a different god, Enki (or Ea) warned one of the human beings, Atrahasis, who then survives with his family and various animals by building a boat. Similarly, the standard Akkadian (Babylonian) version of the Epic of Gilgamesh appears to appropriate the flood story from Atrahasis. Various Sumerian and Babylonian versions of Gilgamesh exist (dating possibly to the 3rd millennium); however, the standard version that contains the flood seems to date to around 1300-1000 B.C.E. Like Atrahasis, in Gilgamesh (see tablet XI) a man, Utnapishtim, is saved when a dissenting god warns him to build a boat. Specific similarities with the biblical account include: Utnapishtim receives measurements for the boat, his family and all kinds of animal species enter the ark with him, mass destruction of humanity results, and a dove (as well as a raven) are released in anticipation of finding land.

Thousands of cuneiform tablets are sitting in museums yet untranslated. As they are deciphered we will likely discover more ancient Near Eastern parallels to the biblical narrative. Most recently, a new Babylonian flood story was brought to light by Dr. Irving Finkel. It contains the familiar biblical phrase “two by two” and details the ark’s construction. Finkel dates the tablet, dubbed the “Ark Tablet,” from about 1900 to 1700 B.C.E. Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, and the Ark Tablet all appear to have been written prior to the biblical text. Some surmise the Genesis account was written in the 6th century B.C.E. when the Israelites were in Babylonian exile and drew directly from these other Mesopotamian stories. However, this can not be asserted dogmatically. Similarities do not necessarily mean direct dependence from one source to another. Regions may share a common cultural-historical memory. Or many stories may have been passed down orally long before they were written.

The fact that the biblical text naturally reflects its ancient Near Eastern milieu is nothing surprising. What is particularly interesting is how the Israelites interpreted the flood. In Genesis, human beings were not created for slave labor. Humankind is granted the privilege and responsibility of caring for the earth and its creatures. Similarly, God pronounced the formation of the first man and woman as “good,” placed them in the lush Garden of Eden, and blessed them to be fruitful and multiply. The biblical flood account also demonstrates a particular theological concern for morality. The flood is a response to humankind’s extreme wickedness. God is not upset about losing sleep, but disheartened by the violence human beings inflict on each other and its impact on the whole of creation.

Ancient Jewish Midrash: I Enoch and Jubilees

In the film there are various narrative details we do not find in Genesis. The filmmakers utilized biblical commentaries to develop parts of the storyline including ancient Jewish texts called I Enoch and Jubilees. Both of these works are difficult to date, but appear to originate around the 2nd century B.C.E. with some scholars dating the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1-36) to the 3rd century B.C.E. Many church fathers were familiar with these works and considered them authoritative. In fact, possibly, the New Testament book, Jude, references I Enoch (see Jude 1:14-15 and I Enoch 1:9). In the movie there are giant fallen angels encrusted in rock (when they fell to the earth they became covered with dirt). These beings are described in great detail in I Enoch (and other extra-biblical texts). The filmmakers based the physical appearance of the Watchers on an imaginative interpretation of the Bible’s portrayal of the seraphim (six winged creatures that fly around the throne of God).

In I Enoch, the Watchers are the fallen angels described as “sons of God” in Genesis 6:4. They mated with human women to produce the Nephilim—giant hybrid beings of renown. In the movie, the Watchers help human beings with industrialization. This coincides with I Enoch wherein the Watchers are said to teach human beings about medicine and technology–but also wickedness. The movie takes creative license and portrays the Watchers as coming to earth to help human beings rather than mate with them, but they are still being punished because they left their proper domain. They long to return to their heavenly abode. In I Enoch, Lamech (Noah’s father) intercedes on behalf of the repentant Watchers. But, they are not forgiven and their judgment stands. They are to “remain inside the earth, imprisoned all the days of eternity” (14:5-6).[1] In the movie their ending is happier and they are released to return to God.

In vivid scenes, the filmmakers portray Noah having very disturbing dreams that foretell the flood. This is reminiscent of the dreams and visions Enoch sees and recounts to his son Methuselah: “I saw the earth being swallowed up in the great abyss, the mountains being suspended upon mountains, the hills sinking down upon the hills, and tall trees being uprooted and thrown and sinking into the deep abyss . . . and I began crying aloud, saying, ‘The earth is being destroyed’ (I Enoch 83:1-11). In another vision he describes seeing people and animals sinking and “being swallowed up and perishing in that water” (89:1-9).

In 1 Enoch, Lamech is terrified when his son Noah is born because he looks other-worldly (106). In order to get answers Lamech begs his father Methuselah to go to Enoch. Thus, Methuselah travels to the “ends of the earth” to inquire about the matter. Enoch tells him not to be afraid because Noah is “indeed righteous” and “shall be a remnant . . . and he and his sons shall be saved from the corruption which shall come upon the earth on account of all the sin and oppression that existed . . .” Enoch predicts God will make all things new and that Noah would “comfort the earth after all the destruction.” In the movie, there is a similar family dynamic. However, instead of Methuselah traveling to see Enoch, Noah travels to see his grandfather Methuselah.

Modern Interpretation of the Flood: Screenwriters Ari Handel and Darren Aronofsky

What strikes me most about Handel’s and Aronofsky’s interpretation of the Genesis flood is the ability to sympathize with God’s decision to punish humankind. We live in a time of New Atheism when Richard Dawkins loudly blasts the Old Testament as nothing more than despicable stories of an angry God bent on cruelly destroying humankind. Aronofsky’s and Handel’s interpretation is quite different. Unfortunately, many ultra-conservative Christians, failing to understand the incredible creativity and Jewish midrash evident in the film criticize it as anti-Christian or anti-God.[2] In reality, these screenwriters have produced a theologically rich interpretation of the biblical text.

One of the primary themes in the movie is the complexity of sin and how justice and mercy come into play. In fact, in an interview, Handel states that attention to the relationship between justice and mercy was very intentional. In the film, the problem of violence is evident throughout. Marauding bands of blood-thirsty men roam the earth killing and pillaging.  As a young boy, Noah witnesses his father being murdered. And on more than one occasion the adult Noah and his family are threatened. To convey a sense of utter mayhem the movie includes scenes of complete chaos where thick crowds of people run amok in loud discordant frenzy. Women are dragged screaming by random men (implying rape) and pits are filled with the bodies of those slaughtered. In his dreams, Noah finds himself standing in a valley soaked in blood. Among the more memorable recurring scenes (also part of Noah’s dreams) is a silhouette image of Cain killing Abel. At one point the image changes from Cain and Abel to various familiar scenes of violence from history (e.g. modern wars). The incredible unending violence on the earth and the longing for renewal of humankind and creation elicits an understanding of why God sent the flood.

But, the film does not settle for simplistic black and white depictions of good people vs. bad people. It gets at the complexity of the human heart. Noah is a godly man who desires good, yet he also makes mistakes. After becoming jaded by the violence he sees, he misses an opportunity to rescue a woman who Ham hoped to make his wife. He also begins to lose hope in the potential for a new beginning, believing it would be better for his own family to die out rather than repopulate the earth. Even after the ark has come to rest on dry ground and they are starting over, the trauma of all that he has seen leads him to become drunk (a compelling midrash on an otherwise perplexing biblical scene). In the end, love for his grandchildren and the encouragement of his wife restore his sense of hope and joy.

Ham is also a conflicted character enticed by the violence he sees and tempted to join the ranks of the evil men. As in the biblical text, he is contrasted with his more righteous brother Shem. But in a Steinbeck East of Eden move, the filmmakers create a scene where troubled Ham makes an unexpected gesture of justice (saves his father’s life whom he was tempted to kill), while Shem attacks his father. In other words, we all have propensities toward both good and evil. Ultimately, God did not save Noah and his family because they were completely righteous, but because of mercy. God could not bring God’s self to destroy humanity entirely. The film does a great job of encouraging its audience to take evil seriously, to consider one’s own proclivities, as well as the justice and mercy of God.

Footnotes:

[1] Translation is from James H. Charlesworth, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol 1. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983.

[2] A primary complaint made by ultra-conservatives is that the movie pushes an environmentalist agenda. However, they seem to overlook the fact that the biblical text is quite concerned about creation care. Stewardship of the earth is one of the primary gifts and mandates God gives Adam and Eve. Similarly, as Old Testament scholar, Ellen F. Davis points out the book of Revelation suggests God will destroy “those who destroy the earth” (11:18). See also her excellent exegesis of the Old Testament on this subject in Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Not only do human beings long for renewal, but as Paul says, all of creation groans longing for its redemption (Romans 8:22).

Another complaint made was regarding the snakeskin that gets passed down. However, as others have suggested, what is saved was the original good skin the serpent had (as he was created by God) before he shed that in order to become evil. Interestingly, even the biblical text uses the serpent as a symbol of healing, and this is repeated in the New Testament to refer to Jesus:  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14; see also Numbers 21:9). Moses lifted up a bronze serpent and whoever looked at it was healed from the serpent’s bite. Thus, what was evil was actually healed by a symbol of that very thing. It’s also interesting to point out that Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the 1st century C.E. states that the priests in the temple wore a sash that looked like a serpent’s skin (Antiquities, Book III, 7:2). While the serpent skin in the movie is not a sash, it does represent tefillin (also known as phylacteries), the leather bands observant Jews wrap around their arms during morning prayer.

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