Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" is a modern midrash, not just a movie.
Midrashim are stories about the stories in the Bible. A midrash is not a retelling of the biblical story, but rather a literary answer created by the first rabbis to some question raised by the story. Professional movie reviewers can tell you if it's a good film. I'm more concerned with whether it's a good midrash.
Here are some midrashic highlights of the movie: The film takes the biblical story of Noah seriously. Instead of making Noah and the flood the objects of a goofy Sunday school song, the movie forces us to abandon what scholar Hermann Gunkel called "the sacred inattention with which we read the Bible" and think about what the end of the world might look like. This is a midrash for grown-ups.
Early on, the film ventures a beautiful midrashic version of the Creation that clearly tries to harmonize science and the biblical seven days of Creation. Nice, even though they wrongly put the creation of the sun and moon on the second day, rather than the fourth day.
The film takes up vegetarianism as a moral issue. This is true to the biblical text, where it's clear that from Adam to Noah, mankind was only allowed to eat veggies (Genesis 1:29). The permission to eat meat, part of the covenant with Noah after the flood (Genesis 9:3), is clearly a concession to human weakness.
The computer-generated images of the loading of the animals are very cool, but there do seem to me to be too many snakes. The ark is nicely rendered as a huge rectangular wooden box with no prow or sail, which is just right because it was not designed to go anywhere. The ark was just a huge wooden life raft.
The film employs a very nice midrashic take on the problem of animal poop and animal coexistence on the ark by inventing a scene where Noah drugs the animals with some soporific "Zohar" smoke that immobilizes them.
Now for the midrashic problems: God saved some life so it could continue. Noah and his family were the objects of that mercy, yet in the film, Noah never seems to have gotten that memo from God. He wrongly, and incredibly, believes that God wanted to kill all humankind, including, eventually, Noah's own family. If that were true, then why save them at all? Noah misses the only important lesson of the flood, which is God's mercy despite our freewill choices to do evil.
In the movie, Noah's initial intent to kill his new granddaughters is precisely the opposite of what God intended. God clearly wanted them all to live and begin again. It was not a repentant Noah who spared the babies because of his love for them. It was God's will. "Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the Earth" was not, as in the film, Noah's blessing to his children, it was God's blessing to Noah, and to all of us through Noah and the covenant of the rainbow (Genesis 9:1-17).
The film's main dramatic engine is the family tension caused by the search for a wife for Noah's son Ham, which is also perplexing. The Bible clearly states that the three sons of Noah already had wives when they entered the ark. (Genesis 7:13) Maybe Ham's wife was overcome by Zohar smoke and spent the voyage asleep in the back of the ark.
The Bible has no wizards. In the film, Methuselah cures Ila's infertility with a touch. That's how things work in wizard-land, but in the Bible, all miracles come from God directly. Check out Sarah, for example. The great gift of the Bible is that it transcends the world of myth and leads us to a single transcendent God who created a world of human beings with freewill, made in God's image. Also, the Watchers (those giant rock-creatures who help Noah build the ark) never appear in the Bible, though I could swear I saw them in "The Lord of the Rings."
Finally, Aronofsky's modern midrash is in thrall to a very unbiblical, but sadly contemporary, ideology: Nature is good, and people are bad. If you're an antelope, try telling that to the lion chasing you. Nature is "red in tooth and claw." Nature is utterly amoral. The strong prey on the weak. By idealizing nature and demonizing human beings, "Noah" totally inverts what the Bible teaches, and what we ought to believe because it's true.
People today can be evil, but we can also repent and improve. Lions still chase antelope, and they can't see rainbows and covenants. Aronofsky has made a dark modern midrash that understands the flood but not the ark.
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