A Noah like no other before: A look at the latest biblical film from an LDS perspective
Because God does not speak in the film, he cannot give commandments. Thus, it is Noah, not God, who must do the speaking at the renewal of the commandment to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (contrast Genesis 9:1). In the Bible, Noah performs the priestly ordinance of animal sacrifice not just once, but multiple times, laying “every clean beast” and “every clean fowl” upon the altar (Genesis 8:20). Such a scene would be unthinkable for this movie. In the film, the rainbow, which God established as a “token of the covenant” he made with Noah and his posterity (Genesis 9:12), becomes nothing more than a vague hint of benediction from the far-off sky after Noah reconciles with his family.
Borrowing the words of Eugen Drewermann from another context, we might say of Aronofsky’s "Noah" that “every religious symbol, especially those having to do with eternity, immortality and the survival of love, becomes nothing more than nostalgic memories of lost hope ... too weak to call forth the reality it evokes.”
Noah’s guilt or glory?
Genesis 9 tells the story of Noah’s planting of a vineyard and his drinking of the wine made from it. An odd inconsistency can be interpreted from the Bible in way of Noah’s seeming portrayal as a saint before the flood and as an inebriated vintner afterward. What aspects of this enigmatic portrayal are the result of divergent traditions, textual misunderstandings or the abbreviated nature of the account is difficult to ascertain. But some scholars have described the perceived inconsistency as part of a deliberate effort by ancient religious sectarians to denigrate the character of Noah.
The film explains Noah’s behavior after the flood in terms of “survivor’s guilt” and shame for his failures — though there is no hint of this in the Bible. Noah, we are told in the official movie novelization, “drank to forget. His thoughts were nothing but darkness, and his heart was heavy with shame and regret and sorrow ... Now he had lost everything.”
Had Aronofsky read a little deeper into Jewish tradition, he might have encountered ancient sources suggesting the possibility that this episode instead describes the crowning blessing of Noah’s life, a fitting reward for a life of faithfulness.
In this regard, it is significant that other flood accounts from the ancient Near East describe the climax of the story as being the founding of a temple over the source of the floodwaters, an idea hinted at in Jewish sources (Zohar, Noah 1:73b; compare Lekh Lekha 1:80a, 184a). Moreover, some versions of the story go on to suggest that Noah’s drinking of the wine should be seen as a ritual preparation for his receiving the highest ordinances of the priesthood, and not merely as a spontaneous indulgence that occurred at the end of a particularly wearying day (e.g., Genesis Apocryphon 12:17; Jubilees 7:2; compare JST Genesis 14:25-40; Testament of Levi 8:4-6).
Consistent with this interpretation, Joseph Smith is remembered as saying that Noah “was not drunk but in a vision” (Diary of C. L. Walker, 12 May 1881), an idea echoed in the Genesis Apocryphon (13:8-15:20). Modern scholars Y. Koler and Frederick E. Greenspahn concur with this idea, concluding that Ham’s sin was in “looking directly at God (while Noah was) in the course of revelation.” Fittingly, Shem, who did not look, was afterward given a blessing to enjoy the immediate presence of the Lord, like his father had just experienced: “(M)ay the Glory of His Shekhinah (God’s presence) dwell in the midst of the tents of Shem” (Targum Neofiti 9:27).
'Should I see the movie?'
Though I can’t recommend this movie, I don’t think there is too much harm in it — so long as the viewer doesn't confuse it with the story in the Bible. The cinematography, acting and special effects are outstanding. Though flawed in its conception and execution, the movie is not deliberately disrespectful in its intent. There is a certain morality in the film, though it never rises above an earthly level to provide a view from heaven. When the story concludes, there is more bleakness than blessedness in the atmosphere.
In 1962, President David O. McKay responded to noisy complaints about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that barred the recital of government-written prayers in public schools as follows: “The real tragedy ... is not that we have permitted the Bible to slip out of our public schools, but that we have so openly neglected to teach it in either the home or the Church” (Relief Society Magazine, December 1962, p. 879). President McKay’s comment applies with even more force today. As a constructive response to this neglect, we can reread the sophisticated and spiritually sensitive stories of Genesis — slowly and carefully — to find out what the Creator intended us to learn from them.
Jeffrey M. Bradshaw is a senior research scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, Fla. He co-authored, with David Larsen, the commentary “In God’s Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel."
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