Monday, March 31, 2014


Today I saw the movie Noah. Nowadays biblical epics invariably invite controversy, and this Noah is certainly no exception. Needless to say, no movie about a biblical story can confine itself to the canonical text. It would be over almost in no time if it did! All biblical movies – both good and bad, both reverent and irreverent – supplement the basic story with imaginative interpretations and take certain liberties with how various characters are presented. Thus, much of Cecil B. DeMille's blockbuster 1950's epic The Ten Commandments offered an imaginative reconstruction of Moses' early life. To fill in those missing years, the movie claimed to have relied on ancient speculations found, for example, in Philo's Life of Moses and the writings of such ancient authors as Josephus and Eusebius.

In a similar vein, Noah may have relied on some traditional speculations about the world before the flood. Here I am relying on a friend and former classmate, who knows much more about such matters than I, who writes that "it was a very well done portrayal of a combination of Biblical and Midrashic views on the pre-Deluge world and on the flood itself, even to the Fallen Angels 'being made one with the earth'."  My friend also notes that the portrayal of Noah as morally offended by meat-eating "was perfectly Biblically appropriate, since the Covenant with Adam forbade it: 'I will give you all the plants for food.' Ironically , it was the post-flood covenant with Noah [Genesis 9:3-4], that subsequently permitted eating meat. Noah's family's revulsion to killing animals was not eco-babble veganism but the appropriate response to a covenant still in effect."

To me the important issue is not whether a movie supplements the revealed text by adding imaginary details, which it inevitably must do as a movie, but how such artistic imagination enriches our interpretation and understanding of the story. (DeMille's epic actually did distort my youthful understanding of Moses, but I got over it, and I still think it's a great film.)

In reality, most of us are probably only superficially familiar with the story of Noah as recounted in Genesis. In the traditional Roman liturgy, much of the story (Genesis 5-8) used to be read as the second "prophecy" at the Easter Vigil. That, of course, reflected the traditional Christian view of Noah (along with Adam, Abraham, and Moses) as a "type" of Christ, the Ark as an image of the Church, and the water as a symbol of the saving water of baptism. But hardly anyone attended that lengthy early morning service, and in any case the 1955 reform eliminated Noah from the Easter Vigil entirely. In the 1970 Pauline lectionary, a small excerpt (Genesis 9:8-15) dealing with God's covenant with Noah ("the covenant of the rainbow") gets read on the First Sunday of Lent every third year.  That's pretty much it.

Nor is reading the actual biblical story on one's own particularly easy. It is somewhat long - spread out over four chapters in Genesis. Unlike the creation story, which presents the two different accounts separately, the flood story combines the two accounts in a composite narrative of the two sources (commonly called "J" and "P") interwoven in such a way that one goes back and forth between the sources. The combination of two at times seemingly contradictory accounts can make reading the story as a whole somewhat confusing. So it is safe to suggest that most people's picture of Noah is a vague memory of what little they may have picked up in elementary school religious education - mainly something about a big boat and lots of animals.
This movie version certainly goes well beyond such sanitized and superficial Sunday school lessons. In fact, it does a very good job of depicting the human and ecological catastrophe that came about as a consequence of human sin. True, Tubalcain did not get on the ark in the biblical account, Noah's sons all already had wives when the flood came, and there were no violent family conflicts on the ark. But even these somewhat dubious alterations seem to serve a serious purpose. In the biblical story, the sin of Ham just happens in Genesis 9, with no context or forewarning. In the film version, Ham's resentment at not having a wife and his willingness to be mentored by Tubalcain not only set the stage for Ham's subsequent sin but, more to the point, highlight how fallen human sinfulness survives the flood and persists even into the recreated world.
One of the ambiguities in the story is the character of Noah himself. Genesis 6:8 tells us that Noah found favor with the Lord, and the movie makes much of his fidelity to the original covenant  as the last of the line of Seth. Still, Noah's righteousness remains ambiguous. In the biblical account, he seems somewhat passive - unlike his descendant Abraham. Indeed, the contrast has often been made between Abraham's intercession on behalf of the  citizens of Sodom and Noah's apparent passivity in the face of the destruction of the rest of humanity. In the film, Noah is presented as less unlike the rest of humanity than a simplistic reading of the biblical story might imply. Indeed, he is quite conscious of his bond with the rest of humanity and sees himself simply as an instrument of God's avenging justice, of which he too and his family are also to be victims. His notion that God wills the human race to die out can, of course, be interpreted as  modernistic environmentalist misanthropy. But it can also be interpreted as a theological statement about universal human sinfulness and its condemnation. The dramatic denouement (which I'll not reveal for the benefit of any reader who has yet to see the film) may be interpreted in a modernistic manner as suggesting that mercy is opposed to God's justice and human fulfillment requires rebellion against God. But it can also be interpreted - more consistently certainly with the spirit of the biblical account - along the lines later suggested to him by Ila.

The movie may not have been intended as a catechetical lesson. But that's what the biblical stories ultimately are. The story of Noah is a story of God's recreation and restoration of his fallen creation - an anticipation of his definitive recreation and restoration of the world in Christ.  Or, as the old prayer that used to be sung after the Noah reading in the traditional Easter Vigil expressed it: "that all the world may experience and see how that which was fallen is lifted up, how that which was old is made new, and how all things are restored by him who is their first beginning."

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