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A Noah like no other before: A look at the latest biblical film from an LDS perspective

By Jeff Bradshaw

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, April 3 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

The Ark in "Noah," from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises.

Paramount

When Cecil B. DeMille’s movie epic "The Ten Commandments" was released in 1956, the opening credits proclaimed: “Those who see this motion picture … will make a pilgrimage over the very ground that Moses trod more than 3,000 years ago ... in accordance with the ancient texts of Philo, Josephus, Eusebius, the Midrash and the Holy Scriptures.”

While not explicitly identifying his sources, director Darren Aronofsky seems to have done something similar in his new movie "Noah" by silently weaving Jewish traditions from outside the Bible into scripture and the threads of his own imagination to produce a film version of Noah like no other.

Close encounters of the pseudepigraphal kind

The Jewish traditions from outside the Bible that appear to have influenced Aronofsky are of two main sorts: 1. pseudepigrapha, writings that attained their current form between about 200 B.C. and A.D. 200 but that usually claim authority from Old Testament figures living much earlier (e.g., Enoch, Abraham, Moses); and 2. midrash, later compilations of scripture commentary by Jewish rabbinic sages.

Scholars differ in their opinions about the value of pseudepigraphal and midrashic literature. However, some believe that authentic traditions as old as those found in the Bible may be preserved in such manuscripts, mixed with other material of lesser worth. Thus, it is not unthinkable that Aronofsky could draw from some of these traditions in the film. Let’s explore a few examples.

After brief reminders of mankind’s seemingly inevitable propensity for evil (the temptation in Eden, the murder of Abel), the film segues to the violent death of Noah’s father, Lamech, at the hand of the ruthless earth-waster Tubal-Cain. This provides a first example of the twists to tradition because the older stories depict a (different) Lamech who kills Tubal-Cain rather than the reverse (see Genesis 4:22-23; Moses 5:47-50; Midrash Tanhuma-Yellamedenu, Bereshit, 11).

In another example that recalls the flood dreams of the wicked in Jewish tradition (e.g., Midrash of Shemahzai and Aza’el; Book of the Giants), Noah is informed about the deluge not by the voice of God but through a series of apocalyptic nightmares. As Noah’s family builds the ark, they are protected by repentant “Watchers,” shadowy characters of legend that are here depicted as gigantic spirits encased in stone for their wickedness (see, e.g., 1 Enoch 6-16, 85-88, 106; Jubilees 4:15, 5:1-2; Midrash of Shemahzai and Aza’el).

In 1 Enoch 106-107, Methuselah travels to the “ends of the earth” to counsel with Enoch about the birth of Noah. The film converts that story into a visit by Noah to his grandfather Methuselah, an eccentric cave-dwelling shaman with potions, magic seeds and healing power.

Of course, even lavish interpretation of Jewish tradition does not prevent Aronofsky from the exercise of pure cinematic license, adding fanciful elements directly from his own imagination. For example, we are shown a forest that springs up from a magic seed to provide timber for the ark. We also witness the marvelous effects of a smoky concoction that handily puts the animals to sleep for the duration of the sea voyage. (By way of contrast with the script of the film, we read in midrash that Noah and his family did not sleep a wink on the ark because all their time was spent caring for and feeding the animals.)

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