In my last post, I offered a reading of the biblical flood story, and now I offer an interpretation of Noah, the movie.
Like the biblical story itself, the movie is not a children’s movie. It is about violence, ecological disaster, and the struggles of a man to fully discern God’s intent as the Creator judges humanity.
The movie has clear links to the biblical story–there is an ark, Noah is the main character, the Creator is judging the world, violence has filled the earth, and there is a flood to cleanse the evil–but the movie is not a “biblical movie,” that is, it does not intend to retell the flood story within the boundaries of what is known in Scripture or even how Scripture interprets the story. The biblical story “inspires” the movie, but the movie is not the biblical story. Nevertheless, it is an imaginative retelling of themes that are part of the biblical story.
The movie functions, existentially (and thus theologically), as social commentary on human injustice against both the creation and humanity itself. It highlights ecological disaster and human violence. These are the great evils that grieved the Creator and for which the Creator will push the reboot button on the cosmos.
Due to human violence, the earth had become an environmental wasteland. The once green and beautiful earth had become a barren rock with little vegetation. The Creator invested humanity with dominion, and humanity used that dominion for its own sake. Humanity devoured the resources of the earth (including eating the flesh of animals), and this spiraled into violence against each other (including cannibalism). Human dominion was exercised through violence and injustice rather than through loving care.
Noah appears in the movie as a defender of the earth, the animals, and of mistreated humans (he rescues a young girl from death and raises her as his own). He lives within the chaos of a barren (rather than “good” earth) as a righteous person who remembers the story of the Creator and passes it on to his children. His family is light within the darkness, but it is threatened by the darkness. And though yet faithful to the Creator, the family wonders whether or when the Creator “will make things right.” When will the Creator put an end to human violence?
The flood is the Creator’s answer. Noah discerns this through dreams, and with the help of some “transformer rock angels” (my wife’s phrase) the family builds an ark for the preservation of the animals and, seemingly, humanity. But this is where the story takes an awkward though existential turn.
The second half of the movie focuses on Noah’s angst that arises from his perception of the divine intent. Noah, thoroughly disgusted with human evil, believes that the Creator intends to annihilate humanity even as the Creator preserves the creation. In Noah’s mind, the creation is more important than humanity, and humanity has not only been dethroned but must also be eliminated as a threat to the creation. Noah believes that God preserves his family only for the sake of the animals, and once the animals are safely in the new world after the flood, then the Creator will watch over the slow death of humanity itself as Noah’s line dies out (Shem’s wife is barren, and the other two sons have no wives).
The moviemaker adjusts the biblical story in order to create Noah’s angst, and this enables the second half of the movie to focus on the drama of mercy over justice. Noah, as the one in whom the Creator has invested the future (as the Creator originally did with Adam and Eve–who failed!), will not fail his Creator. He will complete the task and ensure that humanity will die out. He knows–he thinks–what the Creator wants, and he will obey. He is, after all, from the line of Seth.
As a result, Noah becomes what the flood judges. He becomes an unmerciful and violent man, which is exactly why the Creator is flooding the earth! He leaves Ham’s woman to die, trampled by humanity’s rush for self-preservation. He violently protects the ark from assault. He announces his intent to kill any female child born from the union of Shem and his wife. He destroys any hope that Shem and his wife might escape the ark. Noah has no mercy, which is exactly how he understood the Creator. He thinks he is fulfilling the Creator’s desire.
The climax of the movie is when Noah holds a raised a knife above his twin granddaughters. Here he struggles to do the will of God, as he understands it. And here he defies the Creator. He cannot kill his granddaughters. He ultimately fails to do the will of God; he fails like his ancestors Adam and Eve. Consequently, once upon dry ground where humanity can flourish once again, Noah drinks himself into a stupor and shames himself. He medicates his guilt with wine.
In time, however, Noah realizes that God never intended to destroy humanity. He should have learned this from his own grandfather, Methuselah, who healed his barren daughter-in-law. He should have listened to the different and merciful interpretation of the Creator’s intent that his wife voiced–she thought in terms of both justice and mercy. He should have seen the gift of life in his daughter-in-law’s womb as the Creator’s new beginning rather than a threat to the new creation. Noah was so blinded by the human condition–so blinded by humanity’s inhumanity–that he could not see the Creator’s gracious gift to his own family and the Creator’s merciful intent to preserve humanity.
In the end, however, Noah does recognize this. He renews covenant with his wife, and he invests in Shem the lineage of Seth. Noah now understands that creation has been renewed, and the Creator has graciously offered a new beginning. Noah tells his children to “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.” The Creator has given humanity a second chance!
But as we look at the world humanity has created since that time, have we done any better? I think the movie asks this question. Will human violence against the environment and each other once again call for judgment? Is humanity headed toward an apocalypse, or will we learn to balance justice and mercy? Will we embrace the vision of creation embedded in the film’s storyline? Not a bad question to raise!
Clearly, the filmmaker did not intend to follow the biblical script. That would’ve been a short movie! He made the story more about Noah than the Creator.
The biblical story, however, is about the Creator rather than Noah. It is the Creator who grieves humanity’s violence. The Creator acts to end human violence. The Creator remembers Noah. The Creator remembers the creation, and the Creator preserves it and renews it. The Creator redeems Noah and his family. The Creator covenants with creation and humanity, and the Creator places the covenant sign of the Creator’s mercy and grace in the sky, the rainbow. And the Creator, once again, rests within the new creation!
While I understand why a filmmaker would focus on Noah’s existential angst, human blindness to divine intent, and the struggle to do the will of God, that is not the focus of the biblical story. In this sense, the film does not tell the biblical story but rather tells the story of postmodern angst. “Noah” may be a way of telling that story, but we should not confuse it with the function of biblical drama itself.
Personally, I did not much like the movie. My dislike is not due to the adjustments to the biblical story (I fully expected that). Rather, I thought the film tried too hard to create a dramatic storyline, which ultimately made it implausible (e.g., Cain-Tubal stealing aboard the ark, Ham aiding Cain-Tubal, the transformer rock angels or Watchers). I was left more awed by the special effects than engrossed in the story.
Nevertheless, the story has a point. What will humans do with the earth? How will we treat each other? Can we have a new beginning?
The biblical answer to those questions is rooted in God’s drama rather than in the human drama. We can’t, ultimately, find our hope in humanity. Didn’t the 20th century teach us that? Rather, humanity’s only hope is the merciful God who calls us to a story of redemption, justice, mercy, and reconciliation. That is the story of Jesus.