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REVIEW: Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’

It is almost impossible (and relatively pointless) to retell an old story without putting a new spin on it. If someone rejects Darren Aronofsky’s movie “Noah” because of its interpretive spin and non-biblical additions, to be consistent they would need to also reject just about every other attempt to retell an old biblical story. The classic movie “The Ten Commandments” drew on all sorts of non-biblical traditions. So a better question might be: is this movie a thoughtful and respectful interpretation of the biblical story found in Genesis 6-9? My answer is a resounding “Yes!”

On the negative side: I didn’t like the fact that the movie downplayed the central role God and God’s promise play in the biblical narrative. The biblical story is a story about God, yet Aronofsky tells the story from Noah’s perspective. One can hardly blame him. The biblical narrative climaxes in God’s rainbow promise never to destroy the world with a flood (Gen 9:8-17). This means God will embrace sinful humanity without destroying them and bear our sinfulness within God’s self. For a Christian, the rainbow foreshadows the cross. Aronofsky misses the point.

On the positive side, I liked that the movie depicted the destructive environmental power of sin. This notion is not emphasized by the biblical Noah story, but it is a prominent theme in the prophetic literature. Prophets regularly describe the groaning and suffering of the world due to human sin. The apostle Paul picks up this theme in Romans 8:19-22 when he speaks of creation itself in bondage due to human sin and looking forward eagerly to God’s final redemptive victory.

I appreciated the depiction of Noah's struggle to understand what the Creator wants of him. This theme again doesn't appear in the Genesis telling. However, Jeremiah also had a terrible struggle in understanding his calling; he expresses deep distress concerning his own prophetic call (Jeremiah 11:18-20; 12:1-6; 15:10-21, 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-13). So Aronofsky’s presentation doesn’t depict the biblical Noah, but has many similarities to the biblical Jeremiah.

Noah’s struggle with God’s hiddenness reminded me of the many biblical laments (Psalms 22, 44 and 88 for example) in which the writer agonizes in the shadows and screams at God in despair. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” said the Psalmist. I loved the scene where Shem's wife (played by Emma Watson) explains to Noah that “the Creator” called him foreseeing the fact that Noah would choose love over violence. What Noah saw as weakness (his unwillingness to kill) was exactly the strength that made him the Creator's choice.

The last thing I enjoyed was the debate between Noah and Tubal-Cain as to what human dominion of the world implies. To Tubal-Cain, dominion means thoughtless plundering of the world for all its resources. To Noah, dominion implied careful tending of natural resources of God’s good earth. In Genesis, God gives dominion over the earth to men yet dominion is described as tending a garden (Genesis 2:15). Tubal-Cain was wrong, and so often we are wrong as well.

Someone asked me about the “watchers.” The watchers are the angelic “sons of God” mentioned in Gen 6:2 who looked (watched) lustfully on the beautiful earthly women. The watchers became associated with the Nephilim or giants mentioned a few verses later. The proximity of the watchers, the Nephilim and the Noah narrative tended to blend these ideas together in popular imagination. Aronofsky depicted them as rock giants who help Noah build the ark and protected the family -- outlandish, but not completely fabricated. The word Nephilim is based on the Hebrew verb “naphal,” which means “fallen ones.” The movie depicts their fall from Heaven and their restoration through self-sacrificial death. In summary, I think the movie was a thoughtful and creative re-telling of the Noah narrative which hopefully will drive us back to the Bible for a fresh reading.

-- Joel Allen is an assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.