Additional Comments on Noah, the Movie – My Disappointments

My previous posts should make it obvious that I like Aronofsky’s Noah.  I may write one more about things I like but want to go ahead and say something about what I do not like.

The first is a possibility that Aronofsky created and then did not deliver.  The cast list names Noah’s wife Naameh, and this was an intriguing choice.  Assuming the name was intended to match the Naamah in Genesis 4:22, that means Noah married a descendant of Cain.  More significantly she was the sister of Tubal-Cain, which would enrich the plot tremendously, since Tubal-Cain is a major figure and Noah’s primary adversary in the movie.  For some reason, though, the movie entirely ignores her name and her biblical identity.  I do not remember her name even being spoken in the movie.  The marriage of two people from rival clans would have created an excellent backstory and making the two primary adversaries brothers-in-law could have heightened the tension between them.  It is difficult to figure out why the movie would pass up those possibilities.

My second disappointment is the treatment of a text in the Bible, one far more fascinating than the flood itself.  Genesis 9:18-27 reports a bizarre and cryptic incident centered around one of Noah’s sons, Ham.  A surface reading of the text reports that Noah got drunk after the flood and was lying naked in his tent and Ham saw him.  Ham told his brothers, Shem and Japheth, who covered Noah.  When Noah sobered up he found out what had happened and he cursed Ham’s son, Canaan, and blessed Shem and Japheth.  The curse includes a declaration that Canaan’s descendants will be slaves to the descendants of Shem and Japheth forever.  But that surface reading makes no sense.  Why did Noah curse Canaan instead of Ham, and why did Noah pronounce such a severe curse based on an event that seems minor and largely his own fault?  Two other biblical texts provide clues for understanding what happened in the tent.  First, Leviticus 18:6-7 uses the same phrase “the nakedness of your father” to refer to the sexuality of the father’s wife in a legal text forbidding incestuous relationships.  Second, a text about Lot and his daughters in Genesis 19:30-38 tells a story of another post-disaster biblical family in which the daughters get their father drunk so that they can become pregnant by him, because they believe there are no other men left on earth.  The result is two sons who bear the names Moab and Ammon, ancestors of later enemies of the Israelites, like Canaan.  These texts help provide the explanation that solves all the problems of the drunken Noah story.  Noah’s wife was present too and Ham impregnated her, producing the incestuous child Canaan, who then bore the curse.

The movie shows Noah drunk and lying naked on the ground, Ham seeing him, and the brothers covering him, but the scene has no real meaning.  There is no explanation of any wrongdoing or any curse.  Soon after the event Ham leaves the family.  The movie seemed to be setting up a better presentation of the scene.  Ham would have had a strong motivation to do this, because they did not take a wife for him on the ark, and he had no legitimate way to produce an heir.  Why Aronofsky chose to punt on this scene is puzzling.  It would have been better to leave it out altogether than to present it like he did.

There is one more reason the story of Noah’s drunkenness is important.  Much of Aaronofsky’s Noah is concerned with the reception history of the flood story, the various ways that later readers understood, adapted, and added to it.  Genesis 9:18-27 has a huge and horrifying reception history.  It is the text used most often to justify the enslavement of African’s (descendants of Ham) by Europeans (descendants of Japheth).  The movie had a chance to take the scene seriously and reveal to its viewers the part of the text’s reception history that has fueled racism and slavery, but chose not to do it.

I suspect some film on the cutting room floor addresses my two complaints here better than the final version did, but I may never know.


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