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.)
There are certain motifs from ancient sources present in "Noah." For instance, in a scene that has left many viewers and reviewers scratching their heads, Tubal-Cain deprives Lamech of a sacred birthright heirloom in the form of a snakeskin. Later, Ham takes it from Tubal-Cain. Students of midrash will recognize this as a variation on the story of the stolen garment — a gift from God to Adam, and an object of envy for the jealous Satan. This same garment was said to have been handed down to Noah, stolen by Ham, inherited by Nimrod, taken by Esau and put on by Jacob in order to obtain Isaac’s blessing (e.g., Midrash Rabbah 4:8; Midrash Tanhuma 1:24; Pirke d’ Rabbi Eliezer, 24). Traditions diverge on the animal that was the source of the skins, naming dozens of species the hide of which could have been used. "Noah" settles on a snakeskin, poetic revenge on the beast that incited Adam and Eve’s transgression (e.g., Pirke d’ Rabbi Eliezer, 20; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan of Genesis, 3:21).
One ancient allusion that will catch the attention of sharp-eyed LDS viewers is Tubal-Cain’s relentless quest to amass wealth through the mining of a luminous mineral called "tsohar." The meaning of this obscure term is debated, but some readers interpret tsohar as a reference to a shining stone that was said to have hung from the rafters of the ark in order to provide light (see, e.g., Midrash Rabbah of Genesis, 31:11; Pirke d’ Rabbi Eliezer, 23). Readers of the Book of Mormon will not miss the similarity to the story of the shining stones the brother of Jared obtained to provide light for his barges (Ether 3:1-6, 6:3).
The greatest story never told
In contrast to the Bible’s version of Noah’s pre-flood career as a long-suffering “preacher of righteousness” (see Moses 6:23, 8:19-25), Aronofsky’s Noah quickly dismisses hopes of redemption for the wicked. Resembling a frontier sheriff in a classic Western, Noah’s single sermon is short and unsweet: “There is no escape for you and your kind. Your time is done.”
Genesis tells us about Noah, a man who was “perfect in his generations” (Genesis 6:9) and who, like Enoch, “walked with God” (Genesis 5:24, 6:9). Aronofsky tells us about a more ordinary Noah, the last of the good guys, who must perform an impossible task that results in great pain for members of his own family.
The mainspring of Aronofsky's plot is driven by the introduction of a non-biblical element into the storyline. In short: Noah decides to execute a just and final solution to the problem of the world’s violence and corruption by deliberately making sure that the line of humanity will end with his immediate family (Shem marries a wife who cannot conceive; Ham’s intended bride is deliberately left behind by Noah; Japheth is never given a chance to marry). It is from this knotty problem, designed from scratch by Aronofsky, that the primary chain of story logic unfolds, leading inexorably to a final denouement.
God, or “The Creator” as he is always called, is distant in "Noah." He is seen only through what he does. He gives Noah apocalyptic nightmares. He makes the flood storm and later, we are led to assume, supervises the display of a surreal rainbow.
However, in contrast to the Bible, Aronofsky's "Noah" forbids God to speak for himself; he speaks only through others. For example, although Noah’s sons say little of consequence to their father (except to signal obedience or defiance), Aronofsky's depiction allows qualities of innate goodness to shine through the words of the women in Noah’s life — his wife, his daughter-in-law, his twin granddaughters and even the potential daughter-in-law he left behind to die. Their strong voices eventually persuade Noah to temper his passion for “justice” with the unstrained quality of “mercy.”
At a moment of self-doubt, Noah cries out to God, in the single prayer shown, “Why do you not answer me? Why?” And though, in the aftermath of that experience, Noah’s resolve to do what he thinks he must is strengthened, there is no visual sign of enlightenment on his face, no “windows of heaven” moment to indicate that Noah received an answer. Indeed, viewers are eventually led to conclude that for most of the movie, Noah was completely mistaken about God’s intentions for humanity.
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."