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Christians may hate it, but as a Jew, I loved it!
on August 11, 2014
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS. On the other hand, reading this before viewing the film just might open your eyes to some of the lesser-known Jewish themes it contains. Never has a movie so clearly illustrated the vast difference between how Christians and Jews read the Bible.
Yes, this is basically a Jewish movie, directed by a Jew (Darren Aronofsky) and written by him and his Jewish co-writer, Ari Handel. One of the early screenings was to a group of rabbis from various Jewish denominations, who gave it a thumbs up. In fact, I believe this is the first-ever major movie with a biblical theme that presents a Jewish POV on the story. That alone deserves a lot of kudos to a director who did NOT pander to the dominant culture in America.
So no, it does not stick to the common Christian understanding of the biblical text -- which is rather short and sketchy anyway, with no real character development. However, the Bible is only a small percentage of the sacred writings that Jews have. Aronofsky also consulted the Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, Book of Enoch, and other extra-biblical sources. Then you have the flood traditions in the Gilgamesh Epic, the story of Atlantis, the Hopi Indians, etc., plus archaological and historical data on what such an early culture might look like. Remember your Bible: "Tubal-Cain, who forged all instruments of copper and iron" (Genesis 4:22) which would place this story in the late Bronze or early Iron Age. People back then did not dress in biblical robes.
So, in his quest to make this more than mere iconography (of which we have already had enough Noah versions, both live action and animated), Aronofsky incorporated a number of themes and details that are not "in the Bible," including:
The Watchers: These are the Nephilim (neh-FEE-leem) mentioned in Genesis 6:4. Granted, the CGI version in the film is a bit hokey, but the idea of divine beings descending to Earth and becoming encased in rock is not alien to Jewish thought. They are also mentioned in the Book of Enoch, and in some gnostic texts. In an interview after the film came out, Aronofsky regretted he did not use the term "Nephilim" instead of "Watchers" -- he had thought it would be too obscure for the general public. Had he called them Nephilim, there might have been a less negative reaction.
Calling God "Creator": The Christian objections to this as "pagan" in some reviews is, in my opinion, ludicrous. OF COURSE the Creator is God! Even today in Jewish prayers and blessings we refer to God as "Boray" --the One Who Creates, as in "Boray pri ha-gafen," "Who creates the fruit of the vine," said over a cup of wine (or grape juice) every Sabbath. And remember: This story is only ten generations from Adam and Eve. So they would not know the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" nor did they have the "I Am That I Am" name revealed to Moses, nor even the more generic "Lord." All that is in the future. They would only know God as the One who created the world.
The snakeskin: The implication in the movie is that the snakeskin is a family heirloom brought from Eden. The way it is wrapped around the arm is like a forerunner of tefillin, the leather straps still used by Jews today during morning prayers. So the scene with Lamech and little Noah is a sort of Bar Mitzvah, and indeed, Lamech does tell him that he is now a man -- as in the "today I am a man" recited at countless Bar Mitzvah ceremonies even today. Entering manhood is a theme that runs through the movie. Tubal-Cain thinks it means to become a warrior and learn to kill. Noah's line sees it differently -- a difference between gentiles and Jews even today, where knowledge is held above toughness.
Not Satanic: Christians interpret the Snake as an incarnation of Satan, but the text does not say that, it simply says he was "the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that God had created." So it is wrong to see the snakeskin scenes as "satanic" as some negative reviewers did. The snake was not cursed until AFTER he tricked Adam and Eve -- and yes, there is a tradition that he shed his beautiful skin at that time (as shown in the film). And he also lost his legs; the Bible itself curses him to crawl on his belly. So the Snake before the Fall was not the same creature as after the Fall. It is not unreasonable to think that the skin of the snake was something sacred, perhaps a reminder NOT to sin.
Methuselah's "magic" sword: Yes, such a tradition exists -- it is cited in "Legends of the Jews" by Louis Ginsberg (a classic).
The "tsohar stones": There is a Jewish tradition about this -- google it. They also show up in the Mormon writings. Plus some versions of the Atlantis myth speaks of using crystals as a power source. Numerous culture have stories of a pre-Flood fallen civilization.
Adam and Eve scene: There is much debate about what the "Garments of skin" were that God made after casting Adam and Eve out of the Garden. Usually we picture them as animal skins. Mystical traditions say they were physical bodies, and that Adam and Eve had been spiritual beings of light in the Garden -- an idea that is included in the film (and also a clever way to show them "naked" in a PG-13 movie.) There is also a tradition that the "garments of skin" God made after the flood were shed snakeskins, since Eden was vegetarian and animals were not yet being slaughtered. Which brings us to:
The sin of eating meat. Yes, folks, Eden was vegetarian (Genesis 3:20), and permission to eat meat was not given until AFTER the Flood at the Noah Covenant (Genesis 9.) That's classic Jewish theology. So this isn't some "animal rights" thing made up for the movie. It has a basis in tradition, and is also a graphic way to illustrate how humankind fell out of harmony with the will of God. In one scene it is hinted that Tubal-Cain's people are cannibals -- a detail also in accord with Jewish tradition. Cannibalism continued to exist well into modern times.
Seeds from Eden: There are Jewish traditions about plants brought from Eden that miraculously grew overnight. Noah's line is credited with developing agriculture. The bible itself says he was the first to plant a vineyard (Genesis 9:20).
The Ark: Usually it is pictured as a regular ship of some sort, but in Jewish commentaries it is indeed a big box without rudder or sails. The primitiveness of the construction is also accurate for the time period, with rough-hewn timbers and black pitch all over. And yes, the Midrash does say the people tried to attack Noah and seize the Ark -- which makes sense. People would probably do the same thing with survivalist bunkers today if there was a major catastrophe.
There are more such details, but I want to move on to the most controversial part: Noah himself. To begin with, Jewish tradition does not hold him to have been a perfect saint. Genesis 6:9 says he was "a righteous man" and "blameless in his age." Jews hold that he was righteous in comparison to the rest of his generation -- which, as the movie shows, were very wicked -- but that if he had lived in the time of Abraham or Moses, he would have been a nobody. He may have been the best that God could find in those times, but he was not perfect. One of his imperfections was that he did not try to save others -- which the movie shows. Even today there is a Jewish expression "to build an Ark for yourself" which implies selfishness and not caring about the rest of the community.
Noah's "nervous breakdown": This part is, as far as I know, purely Aronofsky's imagination, but it makes sense if you see it in terms of survivor guilt. People who survive a great upheaval are often convinced that they should not have survived, and feel guilty for doing so. Two events in Jewish history may have provided the model for this part of the script: The Holocaust, where, in many cases, only one or two people from a whole family line survived, and yes, there were suicides; and Masada, where Jews did indeed commit mass suicide at the end of the Bar Kochba uprising against the Romans. Survivor guilt is also common among soldiers returning from battle --and could account for the high number of suicides among veterans today. So it is perfectly plausible that Noah, after going through the Flood, was filled with such guilt and self-loathing that he did not think any humans should be left alive. The scene where he almost kills his baby granddaughter is horrifying to 21st-century eyes but remember, child sacrifice was common in the Iron Age. (See expanded addenda the bottom of this review.) So it is not unreasonable that the idea would occur to a Noah who, as we said, was not perfect and had just been emotionally traumatized.
Getting drunk: The Bible does indeed say Noah got drunk after the Flood (Genesis 11:20-21.) This movie gives a plausible reason WHY he got drunk. Again, it is not uncommon for survivors of war or disasters to sink into chemical dependency. And this is why the rainbow does not appear in the movie until AFTER Noah is able to reconcile himself with what he saw as a failure. Ila and his wife convince him that God did NOT want all humans to die, that Noah and his family were saved for humanity to start over. Then we see shots of baby animals -- signs of rebirth -- and finally the rainbow appears.
All in all, I think this is a movie that will continue to spark discussion and controversy -- and that is a good thing. As the old saying goes, where you have two Jews, you will find three opinions. So let the debates continue!
ADDENDA, SEPTEMBER 30, 2014: Since the almost-sacrifice of the two babies keeps getting referred to as Noah turning into a "psychotic baby killer" or some such, let me discuss this from the POV of history and theology. No, that story is not in the Bible, but historically it is perfectly plausible. This story is taking place in a Bronze-Age culture, when human sacrifice to appease the gods was very common. Recall the biblical story of Abraham, where God tells him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. That may horrify us in the 21st century, but in ancient times it was so "normal" that Abraham does not even argue against it, he just sets out to obey the command. Recall also the sacrifice of Iphegenia during the Trojan Wars, done in order to make the wind blow so the ships could set sail. (In this case, her mother does take revenge for it later.) Or the sacrifices offered to Kali in India, the child sacrifices of the Mayans, etc. In fact, the Christian idea that God sacrificed his son to save the world is based on the same idea. It resonated with the pagan populations of early Christianity precisely because they were USED TO stories about gods wanting sacrifices of firstborn sons.
Noah, in the movie, believes he is sacrificing his granddaughters to save the world from becoming corrupted by humans again. My take on that scene is that Aronofsky wanted to show us exactly what the horror of that action would be. Christians interpret the almost-sacrifice of Isaac as a forerunner of Jesus on the cross. But Jews see the Abraham-Isaac story as a STOPPING of human sacrifice forever, because God stopped Abraham and told him to substitute a ram instead. The story is there to tell us NOT to sacrifice children. This is my take on why God would test Abraham in the first place -- to give us a clear teaching that although Abraham might be WILLING to do that, it is not what God needs or wants. It is a critical turning point where Judaism breaks away from this brutal custom forever. It is also why Jews reject the idea of Jesus as a human sacrifice.
Mention should also be made of the decade-long debate between Hillel and Shammai, two schools of thought during the rabbinic period (Greco-Roman in secular history), about whether or not humans should have been created. the House of Hillel argued it was better that humans were created. The House of Shammai argued that is would have been better if they had not been created. A compromise was reached: it would have been better had humans not been created, but now that they were here, let people mend their ways. You can see this debate taking place in the movie, with Noah playing the role of Shammai, his wife and daughter-in-law playing Hillel. And a compromise was reached: humanity would live on, and hopefully the new start would be better.