Temet Nosce

Piecing together the puzzle of mythology and the human condition

Myth and Meaning in Aronofsky’s Noah

Posted on April 23rd, 2014 by Thomas Ryan

Noah movie poster

“Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, ‘Understandest thou what thou readest?’” — Acts 8:30 (KJV)

Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Noah, an adaptation of the Judeo-Christian global flood myth, has garnered both admiration and condemnation from critics and audiences around the world. The film’s reception from the Christian right blazes with all the same fire and brimstone of righteous indignation that had been stoked by Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ back in 1988. Some reviews are flavored with the sour taste of blatant anti-Semitism, and sneer with prejudice at the writer-director’s Jewish roots. His personal interpretation and elucidation on the flood story rankles so-called experts of scripture who believe with a blinding passion that there can be only one text on which to base the story and only one correct interpretation thereof.

In my opinion, Noah is a beautiful and moving work of art, and with it Aronofsky has shown a scholarly understanding of the purpose of myth to convey meaning rather than fact. Noah exhibits a blatant defiance against the irrational notion of mythological interpretive absolutism. It does so on the macro level with its scholastically eclectic overall story, as well as on the micro level in its depiction of conflicting motivations between its characters. Everyone in the film has their own unique belief about what the will of the Creator is. None of their opinions are wholly correct, nor are they necessarily incorrect. Such as it is when different people experience the ineffable and indescribable Divine from their own unique perspective, and such are the religious conflicts that continue to rage outside the cineplex, in the real world, among real people.

This is why I am writing this dissection of Aronofsky’s film based on its own merits rather than my own opinions about religion, because arguing over religion makes about as much sense as arguing over poetry. In my opinion, anyone who would presume to take away your freedom to think for yourself should be viewed with extreme suspicion, even if that person is your local ordained holy man.

Let’s start with gaining an understanding of whence the plot points of the film came. For the sake of brevity, click here if you would like the plot of Noah to be summarized for you. (Be warned: there are spoilers in both this article and nearly everything linked from it.)

History Versus Myth

One of the most common criticisms levied against Noah is that it supposedly flies in the face of the true and literal word of the Hebrew god as recounted in the Holy Bible. Well, God’s word is a fascinating story, but I’ll always be a Doubting Thomas. While it is true that global flood myths are extant in diverse cultures, these are exaggerations—more hysterical than historical—of a scientifically verifiable 120 meter rise in sea level occurring at the end of the last ice age along coastal settlements in various regions around the world.

Post-Glacial Sea Level RiseWhatever actual event that could have inspired the legend of Noah and his ark has long been obscured in the mists of prehistory, but modern science has put forth two theories. The first is that the Black Sea was once a freshwater lake and has since been flooded by glacial meltwater emptying out of the Mediterranean Sea, which might account for Noah’s story as a regional legend. The second theory is that one or more comet impacts instigated flood events around the globe, which may explain why geographically distant ancient cultures have produced similar legends.

Regardless whether one or even both theories are true, neither one corroborates the Biblical claim that “the mountains were covered.” Considering that the highest mountain in the Middle East, Mount Damavand, has an elevation of 5,670 meters, a mere 120 meter rise in sea level poses no threat to its slope, much less its peak. The Bible story further strains credulity when one considers that Mount Damavand is overshadowed by no fewer than 11 higher peaks elsewhere in the world.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I’m all for scientifically provable explanations for mythological tales, but the fact is that there is zero scientific support for the assertion that the Bible’s flood story is 100% accurate when taken word-for-word. Therefore it should under no circumstances be taken literally by rational, intelligent, thinking human beings. I’m calling this myth…BUSTED.

The Genesis of Noah

Despite the film’s other most common criticism—that it commits the sin of deviating too far from its source material (it’s really just the same tired old nitpicking whine that the movie wasn’t as good as the book)—screenwriters Ari Handel and Aronofsky himself did in fact aim for accuracy by doing something most Christians don’t: they read the books. Even having Noah utter more than three sentences is a deviation from the Bible.

The Dove Sent Forth From The Ark by Gustave Dore

“The Dove Sent Forth From The Ark” by Gustave Dore, 1866

I say books, plural, because there is more source material for Noah’s story than just the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, another pesky fact that tends to annoy the so-called experts. The relevant Old Testament verses are found in Genesis chapters 1 through 9, but the film also makes use of passages found in The Book of Enoch, The Book of JubileesThe Zohar, and other texts which expand upon Noah’s story.

As the online Jewish Journal reports:

“What makes ‘Noah’ so Jewish, aside from the story’s origin in the Torah, is the meticulous scholarship of Aronofsky and Handel, who developed their vision by ‘working in the tradition of Jewish midrash,’ Aronofsky said at a small gathering of faith-based journalists at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, where he appeared alongside Handel.

“When Aronofsky and Handel began writing the film, back in 2003, the writers—both of whom were raised as Conservative Jews but now identify as atheists—hoped to honor the text, as well as ‘create a Noah for the 21st century,’ Aronofsky said. The problem was that the story is revealed in just a few brief chapters of Genesis in which Noah barely speaks, and does not describe his emotions at the death of almost every other creature on Earth.

“So the writers filled in the blanks by interviewing scholars, reading and re-reading the book of Genesis, and by studying commentaries from the Jewish Theological Seminary and other sources, apocryphal books, Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis’ ‘The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism’ and even perusing parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Aside from the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls, these writings have gone in and out of fashion with both Jewish and Christian theology over the centuries, but it’s worth noting that even books now considered canonical also went through periods of disfavor. During the Council of Laodicea in 363-364 CE, both the books of Enoch as well as Revelation (which itself contains several of the 33 Enochian passages repeated in the New Testament) were excised from the canon, while the books of Baruch and Jeremy, both unfamiliar today, were added. It was neither the first nor the last time the will of a few was imposed upon the freedom of many.

Even when taking all of this into account, there still persists the inescapable and inconvenient truth that the Bible’s flood story has never been a wholly original tale, not even locally within the ancient Middle East. At the risk of pointing out something that has already been repeated so often as to flirt with pedantry, cultural anthropologists have noted for decades that the writer(s) of Genesis must have been inspired by if not brazenly stole from the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh of the 7th Century BCE, which itself had already lifted whole passages from the Akkadian Epic of Atra-Hasis of the 18th Century BCE. This cultural exchange likely occurred during the captivity of the Hebrews within Babylon from 598 to 538 BCE, when the influential tale of Atra-Hasis was already roughly 1,300 years old.


Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, on to the film…

Made In His Image

“God created man in His own image, and man (being a gentleman) returned the favor.” — Mark Twain (attribution disputed)

Noah and Tubal-Cain

Noah faces off against Tubal-Cain

There is a pervasive theme of moral ambiguity in Noah which works well for compelling, dramatic storytelling, but it also tends to be the kind of thing that troubles viewers who lean toward a more conservative and/or fundamentalist interpretation of scripture. Whatever moral distinction may exist between the film’s titular “hero” and its assumed “villain,” Tubal-Cain, is foggy at best, and deliberately so. Aronofsky and Handel recognize that real life conflicts are not always black and white, and instead exist within a hazy, frustratingly gray moral area. Fittingly, their characters are neither white knight heroes nor moustache-twisting villains.

Noah’s actions are motivated by a deep respect for Creation, and an assumed duty to steward over it. He is also motivated by how he interprets his visions through his own unique perspective (just as Aronofsky himself has used his god-given intellect to interpret the source material as he sees fit). One of the most important lines in the film is the table-turning counsel given to Noah by his grandfather, Methuselah, who says, “You must trust that [the Creator] speaks in a way that you can understand. So you tell me?” This is an in-context clue to the film’s anti-absolutist subtext (at which I hinted in the introductory paragraph), as well as the room its script leaves for expanding on the drama of the basic story. Burdened with the responsibility to understand his visions on his own, Noah comes to believe that all of mankind, including his own family, is inherently and irredeemably wicked at heart. This belief compels him to allow the human race to extinguish either by apathy or direct action, even to the extent that he would rather murder his twin granddaughters than allow them to mature to childbearing age. There is a subtle implication that Noah’s genocidal impulses are brought on by post-traumatic stress and survivor guilt. Ultimately, he chooses to go against what he believes to be his mission, and allows the newborns to live.

Tubal-Cain, on the other hand, thinks only of his own survival. He and his people have devastated Creation for ages by exploiting the knowledge of science and technology gained from the Watchers (a.k.a. the Nephilim of scripture), making their lives longer and more comfortable while exhausting nearly all of the Earth’s natural resources. Tubal-Cain believes that because Man was made in the image of the Creator, Man therefore also has the power and privilege to mete out life and death as he sees fit. He even paraphrases the words of God in Genesis 1:26: “Let them have dominion … over all the Earth.” Note how the same words seem benevolent when uttered by a character presented to us as good, but they take on an entirely new, malevolent connotation when uttered by a character presented as villainous.

This is what I mean when I say neither character is wholly right or wholly wrong. Both characters are driven by noble motivations. We can sympathize with Noah’s wish to conserve Creation and cleanse the wicked, and we can also sympathize with Tubal-Cain’s drive to survive. After all, how evil can Tubal-Cain really be if he speaks the word of God? But where they both go wrong is in taking their respective missions to dangerous extremes. Tubal-Cain tipped over the edge long ago, and is largely irredeemable. Only Noah finishes out the film in a relatively favorable light, because he chooses mercy over genocide. This choice dovetails into the overall theme of the film: the challenges and consequences of Free Will.

Aronofsky’s Intent

Aronofsky has given Noah a visual language capable of marking a contrast between the spiritual and the material. One of the first clues to this visual language is the portrayal of something called tzohar (צֹחַר). The Hebrew word appears in Genesis 6:16, and is traditionally and mundanely interpreted by Christian theologians as referring to a window which God instructs Noah to include in his designs for the Ark. However, I tend to prefer Lewis Black’s advice that if one wishes to understand the Old Testament, one should ask a Jew.

The Jew whom Aronofsky consulted was Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis of Dallas, Texas (mentioned in the Jewish Journal quote above), who runs the official blog for the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. Rabbi Dennis explains that the mundane interpretations of the word are problematic at best, and further points out that “Jewish esoteric tradition, however, regards the tzohar to be a kind of luminous gemstone holding the primordial light of creation.” In Noah, one quickly notices that everything spiritual glows with the same golden-white divine light as the tzohar gems: the “Big Bang,” or first blast of light in the Creator’s act of creation (in this scene, there’s also a very brief visual reference—blink and you’ll miss it—to another cosmic creative act, the explosion of the Xibalba nebula in Aronofsky’s equally brilliant, non-linear tearjerker, The Fountain), the glowing bodies of Adam and Eve prior to their expulsion from Paradise, and the bodies of the Watchers in their original angelic form glow from within their stony shells.

This is a clue to what I think Aronofsky wished to convey about what it means to be made in the image of God: that a divine spirit resides within every living thing and within the Earth itself (a notion which the film’s zealous and closed-minded detractors condemn as Humanist in conception…as if that was some kind of sin). It’s a sort of apotheosis in reverse. And because Man is endowed with this divine spark, the power of Free Will exercised by the Creator is also gifted to him.

Whether right or wrong, Adam and Eve exercise their free will, Noah and Tubal-Cain exercise their free will, and even the Watchers exert free will in choosing to descend among the humans, as well as later on when they are redeemed by choosing to repent. For all their righteous indignation over these so-called deviations from scripture, Noah‘s critics seem almost willfully blind to the artistic purpose and meaning behind things like portraying the Watchers as stone giants, and how understanding that portrayal is essential to understanding the moral ambiguity and development of the film’s entire cast of characters, right up to the top…the Creator Himself.

Noah‘s global flood concludes with the survival of the patriarch and his entire family, having grown by two during the Ark’s year-long ordeal. Though initially wracked with a guilt and internal conflict that drives him to hermitage and drunkenness, Noah reunites with his wife and loved ones among green pastures, under a divinely graceful and supernatural rainbow cascading over the entire dome of the sky. There is an implication that the Creator, too, has ultimately chosen mercy at the last moment.

Aronofsky’s cinematic midrash shows his interpretation of just how “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord,” as is written in Genesis 6:8, and how the Creator (being a gentleman, presumably) returned the favor.

Glossary terms: midrashapotheosis

About Thomas Ryan

Tom Ryan is a Freemason of both blue and red lodges, including the Silas Shepherd Lodge of Research. He is the founder and primary author of TemetNosce.org.

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