Who Gets to Decide if Noah is Biblical?

As anticipated well before its release Darren Aronofsky’s Noah has seen Glenn Beck, Ken Ham, Jerry Johnson, and others express outrage at the film’s departures from the Bible. In response, articles in Slate, National Catholic Register, and numerous blogs have turned to Genesis 6-9 to gauge the film’s fidelity to “the original.”

Teasing his Daily Beast article, for instance, Yale’s Joel Baden tweeted: “The new  movie: just how biblical is it?” Meanwhile, James Tabor of UNC Charlotte, observes on HuffPo that “none of these Christian critics explain why this ancient story, written by Jews, and part of the Hebrew Bible, should fall under Christian purview or guardianship in terms of its interpretation,” and opines that “these two Jewish guys, Aronofsky and his former Harvard roommate and writing partner, Ari Handel… have ended up in my view producing a film that profoundly reflects biblical themes that have been lost in most common readings of the Noah story in Genesis 6-9.”

What’s interesting to me, however, is that both sides agree that biblical fidelity is even the key question; the film itself lacks any claim of this sort, and Aronofsky himself described it as the “least biblical, biblical movie ever made.” Furthermore, the Flood is far from just a “biblical” idea. Scholars of ancient Israel have long read Genesis 6-9 in relation to Atrahasis and Gilgamesh, which are but two of the cross-cultural continuum of Flood-stories. It’s not just a modern secularizing conceit to claim that the Flood might speak across and beyond Christian religious interest.

Why, then, does the situation look so different from the perspective of the film’s critics? Fidelity to the Bible is cited as an ideal, but in practice, concern centers on Noah. Glenn Beck, for instance, notes that “the biggest problem for me was Noah himself… I always thought of Noah as more of a nice, gentle guy, prophet of God.” Test-audiences had the same reaction. The Hollywood Reporter recounts how “friction grew when a segment of the recruited Christian viewers… questioned the film’s adherence to the Bible story and reacted negatively to the intensity and darkness of the lead character.” Their perception of a lack of fidelity to the Bible, moreover, was bound up in this portrayal of Noah—even in cases where the film followed Genesis:

In some cases, [Paramount Vice Chair Rob] Moore says, “people had recollections of the story that weren’t actually correct… People said the door to the ark is supposed to be so big that no man can close it. Well no, that’s not actually what it says”… And then there’s the scene—which actually is in the Bible—in which Noah, back on land after the flood, gets drunk by himself in a cave. “But most people do not remember or were never taught the fact that after Noah’s off the ark, there is a moment in the story where he is drunk,” says Moore.

To scholars of ancient Judaism and Christianity, this phenomenon is familiar from what James Kugel has called The Bible As It Was—that is, the reception of biblical writings in the ancient world as inseparable from a complex of related interpretative and other traditions surrounding them. Perhaps so too today. On the one hand, Aronofsky and Handel consulted other ancient Jewish sources like the Books of Enoch, Jubilees, and Rabbinic midrash, and their film is the product of engagement with, as well as an extension of, them. On the other hand, the film’s reception is a poignant example of how perceptions of what counts as “literal” are also shaped by particular contexts and communities of interpretation.

Was Noah “a righteous man”? Many ancient Jews—such as the Rabbis responsible for classical midrash—read the Bible as answering “no.” Genesis does indeed say that Noah was “righteous… in his generation,” though it also says that this was a generation in which “all the thoughts of humankind were nothing but evil all the time.” Accordingly, Rabbinic midrash focused on the sins and destruction of the Generation of the Flood as evidence for divine justice.

Ancient Christians, however, read the same verse as proof that it was possible for men to be “righteous” even prior to God’s commandments to Abraham and Moses. By this reading, Noah foreshadows Christ, and the Flood is a story, not about cataclysm, but about salvation from death; the ark was likened to the Church in both Christian literature and art, and even Noah’s drunkenness was construed in positive terms as pointing to the Eucharist. Aronofsky’s ambivalent Noah and emphasis on diluvian destruction have a long lineage, but so do critics’ rosier take on the Noah tale.

Watching the Watchers

While some, like Baden, begrudge their inclusion because they “have a good long pedigree,” some critics mock the inclusion of “Watchers” as further evidence that the film is “unbiblical.”

Were there fallen angels on the earth before the Flood, and did they teach knowledge to humankind? Whether or not Genesis 6:1-4 alludes to this idea in its terse reference to the “sons of God” coming down to the “daughters of men,” it soon became part of how ancient Jews and Christians understood these events. These figures appear as part of the Flood story alongside Enoch and Methuselah already in the third century BCE in some of the oldest Jewish writings that survive outside the Hebrew Bible.

The Enochic Book of the Watchers, for instance, tells of how “Watchers” like Shemihazah married human women, sired mighty Giants or Nephilim, and corrupted humankind by teaching metalworking, cosmetics, magic, and weapons. In Jubilees, it’s made clear that Watchers came to the earth as teachers, only later to be corrupted by lust. The Enochic Book of the Giants and related traditions even show some sympathy for Shemihazah and the monstrous sons of the fallen angels—the Nephilim with whom the Watchers are conflated in Aronofsky’s Noah.

While Baden defends the inclusion of Watchers he does bemoan that “the same cannot be said for the antagonistic narrative the film creates between Noah and the movie’s villain, Tubal-Cain.” We might, however, note that Rabbinic Jewish and Syriac Christian interpreters, for instance, commonly read Genesis’ references to the “sons of God” and “daughters of men” as alluding to an antediluvian conflict between the pious line of Seth and the corrupted line of Cain. More importantly, we might question what is lost when we judge a work based on the origins of elements therein. (If we expected any biblically-related work to go no further than what is said in the Bible, for instance, we would be forced to abandon most of Western religious art.)

All of which is simply to point out that attention to parallels with biblical and ancient Jewish and Christian sources reveal the degree to which “Noah” participates in a long tradition of storytelling about the Flood. As in the Book of the Watchers and Jubilees, so too in Aronofsky’s Noah: new and old elements are interwoven to create stories that speak to their own times. Specifically, Aronofsky’s Noah mobilizes the apocalyptic rhetoric of contemporary environmentalism, though the controversy surrounding the film’s faithfulness to the bible is no less a part of that same tradition. And it suggests that a more pressing issue, for much of the film’s audience, concerns the limits of creativity surrounding the Bible—and who has the right to decide just how “biblical” even the “least biblical, biblical film” should be.