Monthly Archives: March 2014

First Reaction to Noah, the Movie

Caution:  My discussion below will some of the plot developments.

The first thing to say about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is that it is a captivating movie.  When I first heard a Noah movie was coming several months ago I was surprised and did not think anyone could make a movie about Noah that would interest me.  The biblical story has little drama, but movie is surprisingly suspenseful. Two types of elements in the film make suspense possible.

First, Aronofsky adds elements to the story, often filling in gaps of the biblical story and expanding upon ideas at which the biblical text only hints.  The biblical story contains no other characters besides Noah and seven members of his family and the other family members never do anything.  The four female characters do not even have names.  Noah himself is a flat character in the Bible.  Before and during the flood Genesis tells us nothing other than God chose him and he followed God’s directions.  The movie develops the characters extensively, especially Noah, so that we know his thoughts, fears, an motivations.  Genesis 6:11 tells us that “the earth was filled with violence,” but does not portray that world.  The movie shows its audience that world in considerable detail and depicts the kind of people Noah and his family have to be to survive in it.

The second, and most controversial, kind of adaptation Aronofsky has made is to change elements of the story, so that they are different from the Genesis account.  The best defense for changing the story is the recognition that ancient Israel had at least two different flood stories, now woven together in Genesis 6-8 (anyone who has not read those three chapters straight through should try it now in order to recognize their incoherence),  and other ancient cultures around Israel had different versions of the story.  There is no single “correct” version, each raising different issues and ask ing different questions.  In the movie, only one of Noah’s sons, Shem, has a wife on the ark, and the whole family thinks she is incapable of having children.  Noah thus becomes convinced that God’s intention in the flood really is to destroy all of humanity, and that his only purpose is to insure the survival of the animals.

The changes in the story allow the movie to ask two questions that the biblical story does not, and the movie is helpful to me because they are exactly the kinds of question I want to explore.

1) How does the purpose of God combine with our own attempts to understand the world and figure out how to work in it?  Russell Crowe’s character struggles to understand and to do what he thinks God wants.  Sometimes he gets it right and sometimes he misunderstands.  Sometimes he succeeds and sometimes he fails, but he is never just the simple divine mechanism of Genesis 6-8.

2) What would be the impact on a person of doing something like God commanded Noah to do, and what would be the impact on his family?  Powerful and influential people in our world often identify divine causes, and those causes shape their lives and the lives of many others.  Who gets to decide the divine purpose and who suffers or benefits from those decisions?

My intent is to write two more posts on the movie in the coming days, one on the imaginative developments that I liked and one on those that I did not like.

Likes:  The use of the “Watcher” characters, only mentioned briefly in the Bible in Genesis 6:1-2, the development of Methuselah (Noah’s grandfather who the Bible indicates, tantalizingly, died in the flood – do the arithmetic), the appearance of Tubal-Cain, a descendant of Noah in Genesis 4:22, who represents a different way of understanding God in the movie.

Dislikes: The cast-list indicated that Noah’s wife is Naameh, which would make her the sister of Tubal-Cain, but the movie never uses her name and never hints at the brother-sister relationship.  The one biblical scene that hints at Noah’s struggle and torment is his drunkenness after the flood that results in conflict with his son, Ham, but the movie handles this scene in an awkward and confusing way that dodges its difficulties.

Preliminary Musings on Noah, the Movie

These preliminary thoughts are based almost entirely on the cast of characters because there is very little else available to me right now.  Viewers should be aware of two things about the flood story as they approach the film version.  First, there is very little in the biblical account in Genesis 6-8 from which to make a movie.  If anyone complains that something in the movie is not in the Bible, then I have no idea what they could possibly be thinking would be in the movie.  For example, there is no dialogue between human characters presented in Genesis 6-8.  If you want the characters in the movie to talk to each other, then the dialogue will have to be created for the movie.  If you want a major character like Noah’s wife even to have a name then it must come from outside the Bible, a fact that points to the second thing viewers should know.  There is a great deal about the flood story in ancient sources outside of the story.  Jewish writings from 2000-2500 years ago, like Jubilees, I Enoch, and Genesis Rabba added material to the story for some of the same reasons that Darren Aronofsky’s  movie will.  The biblical account simply leaves too much unsaid. Some clues about the movie might lie in the names of some of the characters:

1) Naameh:  While the character named Ila, who is described as Noah’s adopted daughter and played by Emma Watson, looks entirely created by the screenplay of the movie, the name of Noah’s wife, Naameh,  is not.  Naamah is a character mentioned one time in Genesis 4:22 as Cain’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter.  The ancient midrash called Genesis Rabbah identifies Naamah as Noah’s wife, but the slightly older work called Jubilees names her Emzara.

2) Tubal-Cain:  Genesis 4:22 identifies the Tubal-Cain as the brother of Naamah and the first metal-worker.  So, in the film, he will be Noah’s brother-in-law.  Tubal Cain is listed third in the cast on IMDB after only Noah and Naameh, and is played by prominent British actor, Ray Winstone, so it seems he will be a prominent character in the movie.

3) Samyaza:  The spelling of this character’s name varies in ancient sources, but he is portrayed in I Enoch and Jubilees as the leader of the angelic figures who come to earth to procreate with human women, and who are banished by God to continue to live on earth after the flood.  None of these beings are named in Genesis 6:1-4, which tells their story briefly.

4) Og/Azazel:  This character’s name drifts, depending upon which cast list we consult.  In the Bible, Azazel is named only in Leviticus 16, when the priests are instructed to send a goat into the desert on Yom Kippur as an offering to this supernatural  desert being.  In I Enoch Azazel is a being associated with Samyaza, and he teaches metal-working to humans, particularly the fashioning of weapons.

5) Magog and Javan Tabal:  These two characters are a mystery.  Magog, Javan, and Tabal are named in Genesis 10:2 as sons of Japheth, hence, grandsons of Noah, but none of the offspring of Noah’s more prominent sons, Shem and Ham, are listed as characters in the movie.  Magog appears prominently in the cast list, and Magog is also the name of a mythical figure in Ezekiel 38-39, who seems to represent Babylon there.  The combination of two names to make Javan Tabal seems odd, but his name looks tantalizingly like Tubal-Cain’s It appears that the movie is going to incorporate material from post-biblical Jewish sources.

Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel are all listed as characters, so it is going to extend back ten generations from the flood, and it may give some attention to the descendants of those who were on the ark, but it is unclear how.  Most significantly, though, the descendants of Cain are going to survive the flood.  The appearance of Cain’s genealogy in Genesis 4:17-22 is puzzling, since it would seem that the flood exterminates his descendants, but they survive through Naameh in both ancient sources and the movie. I will revisit all of this after I see the movie on Friday.

Fitting Saul and David Together (Part I)

Readers have recognized the intersection of the Saul and David stories as a problem for a long time.  The point where the two characters first come together in I Samuel 16-17 is a confusing sequence of events.  In 16:13 Samuel privately anoints David in front of his family, causing “the spirit of YHWH to come” upon him.  The movement of the spirit to David requires the corresponding departure of the spirit of YHWH from Saul in the next verse, so there are two kings in the story now.  The spirit is upon David, but the crown is upon Saul.  The next story seemingly resolves this tension by bringing the two together.  David becomes Saul’s court musician and armor-bearer, thus bringing the spirit of YHWH close enough to the public king to drive away the “evil spirit from YHWH” that replaces it in Saul’s life long enough for him to function.

The story that first brings Saul and David together creates another problem, though, because it describes David as “a man of valor, a warrior.”  Where did the kid brother whom Samuel anointed as king in 16:13 go?  That character returns in 17:12, a part of the David and Goliath story that introduces us to David as if we have never seen him before.  This David is still a boy who does chores and runs errands for his father and older brothers.  David arrives at the scene of the stand-off with Goliath because his father has sent him to take food to his older brothers who are in Saul’s army.  David and Saul meet again, for the first time, in 17:31-37, when David volunteers to fight the giant, and Saul initially objects because David is “just a boy.”  Where did the valorous warrior of 16:18 go?  After the famous victory over the giant, David and Saul encounter one another a third time, but again seemingly for the first time.  In 17:55-58, Saul sees David fighting Goliath and bringing the giant’s head back to him, but does not know who he is.  The Goliath story becomes more perplexing when II Samuel 21:19 credits someone named Elhanan with the defeat of the giant.  Is the writer telling us at the very end that the David and Goliath story was never more than royal propaganda to begin with?

At the very least, we must acknowledge that the writer of I Samuel received a confusing mixture of traditions about Saul and David, including the three accounts of their first meeting above, and could not fit them all together without creating some narrative incoherence.  That observation brings us back to a question that continually arises in the study of the Pentateuch and its sources.  Why produce the composite text this way, when some fairly minor editing could remove most of the incoherence?  Part of the answer has to be that an ancient writer, like the one who produced the book called Samuel, did not think about sources of information and the production of a literary work the same way we do.  We cannot treat questions about the composition process and the characteristics of the final form separately.