If You Think Aronofsky’s Noah is Wacky, Try Reading the Original

Russell Crowe in Noah

ENTIRE NATIONS have now banned the film Noah. In the United States, Christians are unhappy with a Hollywood movie that substitutes, for the all-knowing and all-mighty LORD God Almighty, a distant, Pagan deity known vaguely as “the Creator.” Aronofsky’s Noah, an emo environmentalist with a too-voguish commitment to veganism and animal rights, is widely denounced, as is the film’s non-biblical (if not anti-biblical) theme – that human sin is against Mother Earth, not God, and that redemption must be found through earth-friendly living.

It’s predictable as well as tedious for a 2014 re-telling of this bronze age deluge myth to focus on the politically correct themes of global climate change, vegetarianism, animal rights and the leaving of a smaller ecological footprint. In 1928, the Flood Story was adapted to allegorize the First World War’s deluge, this time not of water but of children’s blood. Any telling of this story will require interpretation and artistic licence, because we know so little of Noah and his adventures. Most of what we know will be found in the biblical book of Genesis, chapters 6 through 9, a work of ambiguity, sparsity, gaps, contradictions and oddities.

What follows then are notes on a biblically correct Noah, for those directors who might wish in future to cultivate the favor of the pious.

The Set-up (Genesis 9:1-8)

We are informed by the faithful that God (or YHWH, “I am that I am”) is all-knowing, all-seeing and all-powerful. He is righteous and good in ways we can not understand. The Old Testament tells us furthermore that God is jealous and slow to anger. The story of Noah thus begins with a simple proposition, that the world of flesh has increased and overtaken the world, and that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart [is] only evil all the time.” The slow-to-anger God is angry. He has come to regret his creation of all things flesh, and is now set upon destroying life on earth.

Somehow, in a manner that is latent in the Flood narrative but never explained, God has found himself in a pickle. Either he has foreseen the wickedness of men, in which case his repentance is inexplicable, or else he has been taken entirely by surprise (a more probable scenario), in which case his presumed foresight is questionable. How is it that it has all come to this? “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever,” he says, and given the depravity of men, this seems dramatically plausible. But the text does not limit God’s regret, nor his wrath, to human beings:

“I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”

All flesh, we are led to believe, is guilty. “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.” The violence of men is easy enough to grasp, but the violence and corruption of “flesh” is another matter entirely. The animals clearly deserve to die, and will die in vast numbers. And yet, what is it that non-human animals do that may be said to be violent? They kill for food, in order to survive. Notice the text does not tell us that God is angry over specific crimes, such as murder or rape, but with the generic offence of violence. It is hardly credible that a gazelle, or a lion, could be charged with the crime of murder – and so one can only conclude that God is angry, at least with non-human flesh, over the killing of other animals for meat. What else might the transgression or “sin” of a non-human animal be? (Oh, and notice that God is done even with the herbivores.)

The Nephilim

There is a passing detail in the opening sentences, at verses two to four, easily overlooked but worth notice. Angels known as the sons of God, or “Nephilim,” have taken to human women. The very first thing we see in the Genesis story of the Flood is intermarriage and miscegenation, followed quickly by God’s displeasure. The half angel, half human issue of the Nephilim are described as giants and “the heroes of old, men of renown.” This detail is hastily introduced and just as hastily discarded.

Is it possible that God is angry over the decision of the Nephilim to intermix with human beings, and with the consequences of this act? Otherwise, why mention it? Having polluted – or, more likely, improved – the human gene pool, the sons of God create a race of super human giants: this is when God asserts that he will not “contend” or “strive” with men, and that “their days will be a hundred and twenty years.” In other words, God is clearly concerned here with the emergence of a more god-like (indeed, immortal) human being, just as he is in two other early biblical stories, the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel.

In the former (Genesis 3:22) God says, with evident alarm, “Behold, the man has become as one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live for ever.” In the Babel story (Genesis 11:6-7), God says “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Notice how each of these stories pairs the dual themes of man’s hubris and God’s fear. Man forever is striving to become “as gods,” while God himself is forever at the business of keeping him down, for fear that a rival will emerge.

All of this, and more, can be mined from the first few verses of Genesis 9. An angry, fearful and repentant God has found himself at a crossroad. He regrets his actions and now faces the prospect of a dangerous rival. The time to act has arrived.

Noah and the Ark

All we know of Noah is that he is six hundred years old and is “a righteous man, blameless among the people.” He has three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. The story over-labors the ark building and animal gathering details – also, there are “clean” and “unclean animals,” another strange detail: apparently, God willfully made ceremonially dirty animals – and the character and duration of the flood itself is both drawn out and ambiguous. What details that there are tend to be useless and confounding. Noah is commanded to “make yourself an ark of gopher wood,” whatever that is (this word alone has led to one of many pointless theological debates), and to “make rooms in it.” (Good tip, that.) God gives his covenant to Noah and his family, and they get on the ark with the clean and unclean animals.

The Flood

How long does the flood last? Details abound, and good luck to you if you wish to walk away from this story with a comprehensible timeline. Just as the character of Noah’s “righteousness” is unclear, so too is the duration of the deluge. We are told that God sends the rain for forty days and forty nights, that the “waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days,” that “at the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down” and “on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.”  The waters “continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.” This means that it took roughly 300 days for the mountaintops to appear, despite having been told some lines earlier that “at the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down.”

Then there’s another section concerning the infamous releases of doves and ravens, beginning at forty days, which if calculated will yield yet another set of unhelpful timelines. There is even another timeline after this, involving “the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year,” when “the water had dried up from the earth.” Oh, but also “by the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry.” Wow. That is some story telling there.

The Post-diluvian Order

Well, at least it was all worth it in the end, right? Angry, regretful, jealous and scared God kills off his potential rivals and clears away the violence of flesh. As in any well-told story, a dramatic conflict or problem is established, and at the end it is resolved. Yes?


At the beginning of the story, human beings have increased in number on the earth. Their thoughts are only evil all the time. (Really? All evil, all the time? So it’s, like, wake up, do a Holocaust, have human blood coffee, kill some babies, rape someone for lunch, etc., without so much as a Good Morning?) At the end of the story, God commands Noah to “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” “Never again” he says, “will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil.” SO, God has accomplished exactly zero. He made the world, regretted having made it, got pissed off and killed everything (even vegetables), then regretted that he’d done what he did when he regretted having done what he did. What changed his mind? Introspection? Growth? A sudden insight? Nope. Noah had a barbecue, and it smelled delicious:

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. 21 The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil.”

Mmm, barbecue smell.

There are two more amazing details that close this wacky, sloppy mess of a fairy tale. Keep in mind that God is upset about the violence of flesh. He looks down on the Earth and he sees something ambiguously termed “violence,” which cannot but include killing. In the case of non-human animals, who are implicated in the guilt of all flesh, violence can only refer to animals eating other animals. If there’s some other form of violence in which animals engage, the Bible is silent on what exactly that is, and one can only speculate. And so it’s interesting that as the last of the flood waters have evaporated and the land has at last dried, God proclaims that

“Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. 4 But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. 5 And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.’”

Did you catch that? God says to fill the earth and to kill animals for food. Now I’m no vegan ecological warrior, but it seems to me that these commands, if followed, will simply restore the Earth to the very conditions it was in at the opening of the story: crowded with evil-minded people and animals who are violently killing other animals. What exactly was the point of this whole ridiculous adventure? For humans, presumably, the Noahic Covenant anticipates and foreshadows the vicarious redemption of Man through the shed blood of Jesus. Interestingly, though, non-human animals are not included in this covenant – yet God says that “you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal.” Uh-oh, are they ever screwed. Sucks to be a non-human carnivore!

A job well done, Noah gets drunk and passes out. (This is the best part of the story: bbq + liquor is also my idea of a great night.) Ham sees Noah’s naked passed-out body, and he tells his brothers about it – weird! – and the brothers cover Noah with a blanket. Noah wakes up, realizes what has happened, and of course curses the one guy who was not even there and had nothing at all to do with it – Canaan, the son of Ham:

24 When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,

“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.”

If you don’t know what the Bible is really all about, this bit will seem weird. But it’s not weird at all. The Bible was written by ordinary human people with agendas and axes to grind. The Canaanites were enemies of Israel, and like other peoples in the area, the Canaanites had experienced violence and dispossession as the Israelites hacked out an empire for themselves from the lands of their rivals. That’s how things worked back then: you raped, pillaged and decimated your enemies and then wrote a story about it that made it all look like the blessed work of God. Happy is he, says Psalm 137:8-9, who takes the little ones of the enemy and dashes them on the rocks.

No one ever mentions that little ending flourish of the Noah story, which looks forward to the godly work of enslavement, colonization and brutality. And that’s exactly what happened, and what always happens, in the world of religious fervor.

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