The Noah movie came out this week after much controversy and publicity, most of the latter inadvertently provided by conservative Christians who judged the movie long before its actual release. As a Christian camp guy who happens to have a deep love for creation and the Bible, the idea of a new interpretation of the Noah story intrigued me, so I decided to see the movie for myself. I went in with pretty low expectations and was surprised at how much I actually liked the movie. I found it to be a creative and fairly faithful interpretation of the biblical text with some compelling points about human nature, humanity’s place in creation, and the tension between God’s justice and mercy.
Before we jump into some specifics, we need to get some things clear up front. First of all, it is true that the word “God” is not spoken a single time in this movie. Now that you’ve gasped, I’m going to encourage you to move past this detail by considering that the Bible has many names for God, and any specific names (Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Jesus, etc.) are not revealed to humanity until much later in the Bible. In the movie, the two names used for God are “Creator” and “Father,” both of which are biblical and highlight the relationship of God to the world. Secondly, I want to emphasize the importance of biblical interpretation, which is what this movie is. As Christians, we believe that the Bible is the “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) word of God. The Holy Spirit has a way of speaking through scripture in new ways to different groups of people at different times. You know this because you have heard pastors preach sermons and because Bible passages have meant different things to you at different points in your life. “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8) takes on a different meaning at a wedding versus near the death bed of a loved one.
All of the great biblical blockbusters take liberties with the biblical texts and add interpretation. Remember the overly dramatic love-affair between Moses and Pharaoh’s wife in The Ten Commandments? Remember the creepy female devil hanging out with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in The Passion of the Christ (not to mention when Jesus invented the table)? This movie adds some things, as well. The Watchers are the most obvious inclusion. While not really depicted in the Bible (the mysterious Nephilim of Genesis 6:4 don’t quite qualify), the Watchers are part of the ancient Jewish tradition dating back at least to the book of 1 Enoch (while not biblical, 1 Enoch is mentioned in the biblical book of Jude). Honestly, I thought the inclusion of the Watchers was fairly bizarre in the movie, but I got over it because there were more important things to focus on. The one Watcher scene I thought was interesting (and a foreshadowing of things to come for humanity) was when the Creator forgave them and freed them from their earthly captivity. When considering these bizarre aspects of the movie, remember that it is trying to depict the world before the flood. This is before the creation was redone, so I am okay with things looking different in the pre-flood world. Were there glaring omissions? Yes, there were two that concerned me. First was the omission of the animal sacrifice at the end of the flood story (Genesis 8:20-22), which would have complexified the environmentalist perspective of the movie. Second was the omission of the cursing of Canaan, which has been a historically important motif in the enslavement of other people (Genesis 9:24-27). I understand why the movie wants to shy away from these very difficult topics to focus on other very difficult topics, but they are major omissions.
Like it or not, this is the biblical flood story (with some Hollywood flare). It has everything you want in a movie about Noah: grief over the wickedness of humankind, several epic shots straight out of my children’s picture Bible of the animals entering the ark, plenty of rain, a dove with an olive branch, and a spectacular closing shot of the rainbow. It also has a rather beautiful telling of the creation stories from Genesis 1 and 2. It depicts the fall of Genesis 3 and spends a good deal of time on the Cain and Able story of Genesis 4. In these regards, it is very faithful to the biblical story. Here is the thing: you know that the flood story ends with a rainbow. The thing about rainbows is that they are so pretty that we have a tendency to depict them in a very cutesy sort of way that may gloss over the real grit of the story. I think the flood story begs a question that becomes the central conundrum of the movie: “Is humanity actually worth saving?” In other words, would this world be better off if God had finished the job?
I love that the Creator does not speak with words in this movie. Too many people assume that God is not speaking in the world today because there is no booming voice from heaven. People of faith profess that God is active and constantly speaking in this world and to us as individuals. In the movie, the Creator reveals the plan to Noah through a couple of strange dreams that he struggles to interpret. He is not totally sure about what God is up to until God acts, and he sometimes misinterprets these signs, even when the meaning seems obvious to the viewer. I think this is remarkably true to real life. God is constantly at work, and yet we don’t always see it. Sometimes, we misinterpret what God is trying to tell us, and we need others to guide us.
The key theme in this movie is justice. Noah is a just man, and that is why God chooses him. Genesis 6:9 says that Noah is “righteous” but never that he is “good.” The pronouncement of “good” is attributed to all of creation in Genesis 1. Righteousness is different. It has to do with following commands and being just. The movie picks up on this very pointedly when Noah says that God didn’t choose him because he was good but rather because he would obey. He is constantly trying to do what is right, but he is often unclear about what that is. As a viewer, you want to use Noah as your moral compass, but you quickly discover that you simply can’t do it. You might even find yourself, like me, rooting for the bad guy to kill Noah since he is (at the time) the lesser of two evils. Many viewers have a problem with this because Noah is supposed to be the good guy. This is where the movie is pretty compelling. Noah isn’t the “good guy.” In fact, there is no such thing. Noah, like all of us, is human. As a righteous man, Noah understands that the only truly just thing to do is to wipe humanity out from the face of the earth. In that way, the world can finally be cleansed of injustice. If Christians truly believe that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), justice would mean condemnation and death. The entire Bible is testament to a just God who is gracious and merciful, and the movie highlights these themes in a pretty poignant way. After insisting on justice throughout the film, Noah ends by speaking of “mercy” and “love” as gifts from the Creator.
Sin in the movie is primarily depicted as destruction of creation. The landscape of the movie is almost entirely barren. There are almost no animals or plants because the humans (the decedents of Cain) have exploited the natural world. In the movie, this exploitation is most clearly identified through the killing of animals, though it also includes the killing of other human beings and violence against women. Noah sees the animals as innocent and the ones that must be saved in the ark. Tubal-Cain (see Genesis 4:22) is the arch nemesis of Noah in the movie and archetype of the wicked human. We often see him eating animals raw. He represents the view that humanity is created in the image of God in order to dominate and subdue creation. He seeks power over other people and especially the desire to exploit things for his own gain. In these ways, he is remarkably human. There is a moving scene in which Tubal-Cain cries out to the Creator for an answer. He recognizes that humanity is made in the image of the Creator, and he demands to know why the Creator is now absent from a needy world. Tubal-Cain ends up stowing away on the ark in order to give us some heightened drama and to show us symbolically what it means for humanity to survive. When the very conflicted Ham (second son of Noah) finally kills him, Tubal-Cain tells him that he is now truly a man. That line actually struck me pretty hard because it speaks the truth about the destructive nature of humankind.
The survival of humankind means that there will be violence and death in the world. Noah, the self-righteous vegetarian (who, by the way, has killed numerous people in his quest for justice), recognizes this dark truth and wants to put a stop to it by eradicating humanity. He thinks this is what God wants him to do. The ultimate survival of humanity means that violence will continue. It means that people will eat meat. In fact, this is part of the biblical narrative. It is only after the flood that God gives permission for humanity to eat meat (Genesis 9:3).
In the movie, it is ultimately Noah who gets to decide whether or not humanity survives the flood. This idea of humanity being co-creators with God is a biblical theme. The movie is challenging us to see our integral role in the created order and make us take a long look at ourselves to determine whether or not we are worth saving. In the movie, Noah thinks it is God’s will that humanity end with the people on the ark, and this conviction is unexpectedly challenged when his barren daughter-in-law miraculously becomes pregnant (another biblical motif) with twin girls: potential wives for his other two sons. Noah is the only one who does not see these girls as precious gifts from the Creator, and he is ready to kill them in order to complete God’s just condemnation of humanity. This is a brilliant way to depict the drama of the flood story, which depicts a God who is in anguish over the wickedness of humankind, and yet he loves us. Ultimately, Noah’s mercy and love win out over justice. He cries out to the Creator in anguish that he is unable to complete his task. Justice turns to mercy. Wrath turns to love. And the storm clouds turn into a rainbow.
Before concluding, I want to give props to the movie for its portrayal of the women. In the Bible, the women are little more than props. The text might as well say that the ark contained Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth, and four baby machines. In the movie, the women are real characters that help answer the question of whether humanity is worth saving. In the climactic scene, we have Noah on the deck of the ark with the four women. The combined violence of Shem, Ham, and Tubal-Cain has not stopped his mindless wrath. There, on the deck of the ark, it is love that overcomes him. It is the love of his wife, his daughter-in-law, and his two granddaughters. As his wife points out, this love is a gift of the Creator.
Humans emerge from the ark as conflicted souls, at the same time sinners and saints. Though we are violent and wicked, our just God is gracious and merciful. The creature continues to rebel against the Creator and exploit the creation for personal gain. Are we able to see ourselves as integral parts of this creation, with an honored place as co-creators with God? Are we able to be reconciled to God? Is humanity even worth saving? I think the new Noah movie asks some of these questions in a very fresh and relevant way.
Good review Jake. Whatever its message was, sort of went beyond me. Instead, I just decided to enjoy the spectacle for what it was worth and I found myself happier with doing so.