“I look at you and I see a glimmer of Adam again.” ~ The Watcher, Og
Joni Mitchell told us we had to get ourselves back to the Garden (we being stardust and all), but with Noah, Aronofsky shows us just how difficult that is. With a seed plucked from Eden and donated by Methusaleh, Noah re-creates the garden and builds his ark from its trees. In the waning days of the old creation, the timbers of paradise promise a return to innocence after all is cleansed by water. But such innocence proves difficult to maintain when humans are chosen as the agents of preservation.
Much has been made of the environmental “agenda” of the film. Yet, more compelling, I believe, is the meditation on human nature that undergirds the green perspective. In particular, what does it mean for humans to be created in the “image of God”? Have we lost that image? And how do we grow in “likeness” of the Creator?
Historically, since the apostle Paul, Christian theologians have defined the “image of God” (or imago Dei) as that which was either lost or somehow tarnished with the “fall” of Adam and Eve. Salvation, then, is about the polishing of the image, the restoration of our original nature, a return to the Garden and the pre-snake-and-fruit condition of our proto-parents. There has rarely been much agreement, however, on just what the image of God is in humanity, beyond locating it in the soul or mind. Some authors, for instance, distinguish between the “image” and the “likeness” of God (both mentioned in Gen 1:26), allowing for growth in the latter while the former remains permanent. In early ascetic theologies, Christians nurture the “likeness” of God through self-denial, abstinence, and prayer, cleansing the heart of all unholy desires so that one might return to the perfect state of Adam. We may even imagine the “sexless” nature of virgins (both female and male) as a re-embodiment of the supposedly asexual condition of our original creation.
When the Watcher who rescues Noah and his family declares that he sees “a glimmer of Adam again” in the scion of Seth, he offers a glimmer of hope that the “image” has not been completely eradicated. In fact, his observation suggests that this is why Noah has been chosen to be, in a sense, the new Adam from whom a new race of humans will issue. When this same Watcher succumbs to the violence of Tubal-Cain, he bids Noah “Goodbye, Son of Adam.” Not “Son of Seth.” Certainly not “Son of Cain.” But “Son of Adam,” as if Noah has earned the title of heir—not of the fallen Adam, but the original, God-conversing man.
But what does it mean to resemble Adam and, by extension, to maintain the image of God in which humanity was originally created? The most obvious answer draws on the film’s unavoidable environmentalism. When asked why the animals are innocent, Noah responds, “Because they still live as they did in the garden.” By now the viewer recognizes this as a jab at the other humans who are no longer conscientious and considerate vegetarians living in harmony with nature but instead eat the bloody flesh of animals in orgiastic abandon and tear down the earth’s beauty to make way for industrial hellscapes. Noah’s preservation of the imago Dei, then, is at least partly connected to his continued respect and care for the created world.
We receive a brighter glimpse of this image when the villainous Tubal-Cain sets it in relief. As the rain begins to fall, Tubal-Cain reveals the resentment he feels toward Noah’s privileged position before the Creator. He shouts to the heavens, “I am a man made in your image. Why will you not converse with me?!” T-C makes a good point, actually. Why should Noah be singled out? Aren’t all humans created in God’s image? Well, created in the image, maybe; but not all of us retain that image undistorted, as Tubal-Cain himself demonstrates in his continued rage: “I give life and take life away, as you do. Am I not like you? Speak to me!?”
In his diatribe against the divine, Tubal-Cain suggests one reason for (or possibly a consequence of) the loss of the pure image of God in humanity. In their pride, the line of Cain seeks to become like God (following the serpent’s original temptation), but their hubris distorts their perception of the Creator’s true nature. Power and domination become the defining divine attributes for T-C and friends as they parody what little their fallen hearts can know of the Creator. We see this also in the benevolence of the Watchers who first descend to the earth out of pity for the Sons of Cain: “We taught them what we knew of creation,” again attempting to usurp the Creator’s role rather than live as a part of creation.
This respect for both creation and Creator defines the imago Dei conversation for the first two-thirds of the film, but the final act goes deeper, into the very heart of who Noah is. This would-be Adam has so far been praised as a “man who respects life,” yet his willingness to take life in pursuit of divine justice challenges the audience to reconsider Noah’s character. Can the man hunting down his own newborn granddaughters with a rusty blade really represent perfected, innocent humanity restored to the image of God?
In a story about mass genocide and divine justice, perhaps this heartless dedication to destruction is exactly what the image of God looks like. Through Noah, Aronofsky directs our attention to the nature of the God in whose image we are created as if to ask, “If God is a mass murderer, or at best a mass executioner, can we expect humanity to be any better? Is such justice the best we can hope for from either God or each other?”
In the end, though, this is a movie not about God but about humanity. The primary drama lies in the actions of Noah and his family not that of God. This drama culminates in the moment when Noah, like Abraham above Isaac, raises the knife to cut Ila’s infants down. Unlike Abraham, love, not an angel, stays Noah’s hand.
In sparing his granddaughters, Noah believes he has failed the Creator. Ila, however, offers a different perspective: “He asked you to decide, and you chose mercy.” Perhaps this is the glimmer of Adam in Noah, the residual imago Dei—neither justice nor love, but the ability to decide which to follow.
Ironically, I think Tubal-Cain—like a Watcher wielding a tree for a hammer—hits the nail on the head when tells Ham, “A man is not ruled by the heavens. He is ruled by his will.” T-C’s will desires power, dominion, and lots of bloody animal bits. Noah’s will seeks justice. But the human will is a complex thing. The best will can desire multiple, seemingly contradictory things at once.
Justice and mercy vie for primacy in Noah’s conflicted heart. If this ability to decide between the two represents the image of God as realized in Noah, then Aronofsky once again connects the human drama to the mystery of the Creator. The tension between justice and love has long defined Christianity’s understanding of God’s character and actions. The same God who wipes out the human race for its wickedness also spares the family of Noah. The same God who condemns the inhospitality of Sodom with sulphur also forgives the sins of the world through the cross. What better description of the imago Dei than those confusingly conflicting capacities within our own hearts?
When Noah chooses mercy instead of infanticidal justice, he declares, as the new Adam, that the new humanity will reflect the mercy and love of the Creator in their imago Dei. If both justice and mercy are characteristic of God, then both are valid options for humans created in God’s image. Aronofsky’s Noah makes a choice that, let us hope, will define the way humanity grows in the likeness of our Creator.