Noah did its job. It brought an ancient biblical story about a cataclysmic flood to life for audiences today. Was it biblical? Was it the least biblical Bible movie ever made? These questions flare up in what is frankly a flat and over-rehearsed debate about the Bible in American life. Honestly, does it matter whether a movie is biblical? Do the spiritual-but-not-religious care? Do those evangelicals who grow tired of the stereotype made of them in the media care? Do secular liberals who have no use for the Bible really care about these questions?
America, we can ask a better question, a more crucial and more meaningful question, “Why does The Flood continue to work as a powerful cultural story?” Indeed, The Flood is one of the most ancient and oft recycled stories in world cultures. In looking at The Flood today, we participate in thousands of years of meaning-making. We connect ourselves to world literature, to ancient civilizations, and to a perennial story about a cataclysm that changed the world.
Long before the Bible was written, The Flood was a blockbuster of the ancient Mesopotamian and Mediterranean worlds. It originated in Sumer over 4000 years ago. New versions were deposited in the greatest imperial libraries of the Mesopotamian empires (Babylonia and Assyria). The Biblical authors fashioned their own versions of the tale, and post-biblical authors continued to ruminate on its potential for meaning-making. The Flood found its proper place in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and flood stories crop up in Hindu, American Indian, and African story-telling as well.
The first known flood story comes from Sumer in the tale of Atra-hasis (19th century, BCE). This story sets the basic elements of the ancient genre: gods try to eradicate humanity, while a flood hero builds a boat to save the animals. A tragicomedy about polytheism starring petty gods who complain like tired parents annoyed by their noisy children. With plans to destroy a boisterous humanity, they are thwarted not once but three times by the flood hero’s personal god and eminent trickster, Enki. With each divine attempt at total genocide, Enki gives the flood hero secret knowledge about which god to appease with a sacrifice. This worked against the first two rounds of disease and drought. However, Enki had to get creative for the third and final attempt. For the deluge, Enki instructs the flood hero to build a boat for family and fauna.
In this Sumerian version, the gods, like bickering politicians, provide plenty of comic relief. But two characters communicate the tragedy of the flood event: (1) the womb goddess who fashioned humanity cries: “How could I join the gods and command total destruction? I am locked in a house of lamentation.” (2) The flood hero, with scant few lines, cries: “How long will the gods make us suffer…will they make us suffer forever?” Cruel and petty powers govern human fate, and with the exception of Enki, the gods could care less about the plight of humanity upon the earth.
If Atra-hasis paid only lip-service to the tragic, existential questions of the flood hero, the Epic of Gilgamesh shines a light on the flood hero’s excruciating experience. Dated somewhere between 1200-900 BCE, the Mesopotamian epic says little about the divine drama. We only hear that “the hearts of the gods were moved to inflict the flood.” The rest of the tale focuses on the flood hero, who builds an ark in a brave abandonment of his wealth: “tear down the house and build a boat; abandon wealth and seek living beings; spurn possessions and keep alive living beings.” He not only rescues his family and the animals from the deluge, he saves his workers, the craftsmen, who helped him build his boat. The moral suppleness of the flood hero crescendos with his first reaction to the post-flood world. Stepping into a sun beam, looking out the window of his ark, he sees that all humanity returned to clay, and with tears streaming down the lines of his face, he slumps down weeping.
The biblical account owes much to the Gilgamesh version in numerous nit-picky details, but not in ethos or theme. Noah never feels anything in the biblical account. Noah doesn’t even have any lines until he curses his grandson in the last chapter of the story. If Noah experienced anguish, we don’t know about it. Noah did not give up the status of wealth or pay any mind to the genocide outside his boat. Instead, every single one of Noah’s actions fulfills a command given him by the dominant character, God. When it comes to Noah, the Qur’anic depiction as exemplar of obedience is on point. He is an emissary, a prophet who penetrates reality with a perfect understanding of the Sacred. His exemplary ability to follow divine commands marks him as a “true messenger of Allah.”
While Islamic tradition focuses on the character of Noah, the Genesis Flood is entirely about God, about a new monotheistic construal of both divine judgment and the pro-human reversal of that judgment. With no comedy to speak of, God sees human behavior, regrets that he made humans, overwhelms them with a flood, changes his mind about how to manage human behavior, and needs the rainbow as a reminder not to fly off the divine handle at them in the future.
Along with the character of God and this newly minted monotheism, the biblical authors take up the problem The Flood attempts to solve. Human violence in the antediluvian world, best represented by Cain’s murder of Abel, springs from the evil machinations of man. After the flood, God issues the first religious law. It’s about blood and ultimately about being responsible for the blood you shed (animal and human blood). When Darren Aronofsky’s Noah depicts the ground saturated with blood, he’s hit a major theme of the Genesis Flood. In Aronofsky’s cities of Cain, both animal and human blood run wet over the ground with impunity, and Russell Crowe’s red feet show us the meaning of a world gone bad.
The biblical Flood emphasizes the unique role humans played in corrupting the earth. In contrast, the post-biblical tradition of Enochic Judaism lays blame on a human civilization that was corrupted by supernatural forces. Society is shot through with war, industry, and vainglory, all of which were taught by fallen angels. Called Watchers, these divine dissidents not only gave nascent humans the wrong advice about building their world, they ravished human women to produce destructive giants who cannibalize each other and wreak nothing but military havoc over the land. The Enochic Flood has a major job to do. This is a world of cultural decay, upturned by massively destructive forces of real consequence and fantastic origin. The Flood itself is hardly reported, but Enochic readers can rest assured in its justification.
If the story of Enoch’s Watchers cleanses society, the Hindu flood myth cleanses the mind. The ancient Hindu scriptures emphasize a novel feature of The Flood: enlightenment. In the Mahabharata (and later in the Puranas), the flood hero rides out the deluge in a boat with animals just like Noah. But Manu, the Hindu protagonist of the Flood, does not bring his family; rather he is joined by seven sages. The fish that pulls the boat reveals himself at the end as the deity, Brahma, who teaches them austerities so they might acquire power over illusions. The Hindu flood hero emerges with new insight and wisdom.
With such an ancient and cross-cultural pedigree, among the earliest stories written down by civilized humans, The Flood is less like a fixed tale etched on a tablet and more like an arrow, shooting through time. Indeed, it shoots straight to the heart of what it means to be human. The Flood forces us to grapple with the deeply impersonal forces of the universe that are set against human civilization. It is a story about the end of an age, a massive transition. And in the flood hero, we have a basic personality type, someone who cannot reconcile himself to the world as it currently stands, who does not feel at home. And though epically and in some cases tragically destructive, The Flood is also about healing.
With Noah, Darren Aronofsky has joined himself to a powerful and creative stream of religious meaning-making offering numerous throw-backs, references, and truly novel innovations on the Great Flood story. This may be a biblical re-telling or it may not be, but it most certainly is a Flood story. Noah is The Flood. This is our world and this is our story. Or if it’s not, write another one.