Criticism of Bible movies is never entirely about the quality of the films themselves. Instead, it tends to revolve around the film’s interpretation of the text. Critics of the new Darren Aronofsky movie, “Noah,” have raised various objections about the film’s perceived departures from the biblical text, but one is particularly central to the plot: the idea that God decreed an end to all humanity, including Noah and his family. From that one interpretation flow all of the major plot lines of Aronofsky’s story: the pressure to sacrifice his own granddaughters, his disinterest in finding Ham a wife, etc.
Indeed, the question of whether God would wish to kill off the crown of his creation is the film’s most daring and urgent theological question. It is perhaps not surprising that the outcry against this idea has come not so much from theological conservatives as from political conservatives. To the latter, the idea that God would get rid of humanity to protect flora and fauna sounds like a PETA activist’s pipe dream. To put it in terms that resonate with a broader group’s concerns (including my own), it makes God seem to be a destructive monster, the opposite of the God who “is love” (1 John 4).
In brief span, I would like, first, to ask whether the film’s interpretation is a departure from the biblical text; and second, to reflect on its theological implications.
Most religious people do not absorb the biblical text on its own; we receive it couched in tradition. The most graphic example of such reception is the Jewish Miqra’ot Gedalot, in which a snippet of biblical text is presented in the center of a large page, surrounded by the interpretations of legendary rabbis and later scholars. But all of us—Christians very much included—come to biblical stories with our expectation shaped by a lifetime of experiences and preconceived notions. In the case of the Noah story, we have probably read many picture Bibles in which a smiling Noah and family are gently shepherded into the ark by a God who makes a clear distinction between them and the awful, sinful world around them.
The biblical text itself is far less clear about God’s intentions. The Lord does, in fact, seem to view his creation of humankind as an error: He “was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen 6:6). He perceives that “all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth” (6:12). And He says to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh” (6:13). When he settles on Noah as a righteous man (i.e. one who has a good relationship with God), the film interprets this to mean that Noah can be trusted to carry out God’s terrible decree to bring the human race to an end. And this is no innovation. In the Babylonian Talmud, the school of Rabbi Ishmael is quoted as teaching that “Doom was decreed against Noah too, but he found favor in the eyes of God, as it is written: ‘It grieves me that I made them’ ” (b. Sanh. 108a). This is an interpretation with many centuries of pious tradition behind it.
The idea that God has changed God’s mind is present in the story, as well: this is quite clear in Gen 8:21, where God smells Noah’s sacrifice after the flood and thinks to himself: “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” God already knew that at the beginning of the story, but God resolves to change his own ways in dealing with humankind.
Source criticism might resort to pointing out that only in the Priestly portion of the story (in this case, Gen 6:9-22) is Noah identified as blameless and destined for saving. In the Yahwistic version (e.g., 7:1-5) God’s purposes for Noah are even more inscrutable. But even when one reads the whole story in its final form, one could doubt the certainty of God’s intention to repopulate the earth.
This leads to the second major question, the character of God. Does a divine commandment to kill off humanity square with the Bible’s other portraits of God? I don’t see why not. In Num 14, only Moses’ pleading saves the entire chosen people from divine destruction. Moses objects that the nations will talk and God’s reputation will suffer “if you kill this people all at one time” (Num 14:15). And Moses himself was almost killed by God: “the Lord met him and tried to kill him” (Exo 4:24). From Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac to the sons of Aaron to the sufferings of the Hebrew prophets to the fate of the Hebrew kingdoms as a whole, those who are closest to God are by no means necessarily safe; so why should Noah be?
In some of these later instances, as in the Babylonian destruction, the Bible is clear that God intends to leave a remnant; but in the Noah story, read within the whole narrative of the Bible, God’s ways are still unfolding, still being revealed to humankind. The film’s portrayal of Noah as a human like one of us, trying to perceive the divine will under difficult conditions, rings more true than many Sunday School versions of the story.
Since the loudest objections in the United States have come from Christian groups, I would like to reflect on this doctrine from the standpoint of Christian theology. In the first place, the notion that God favors lone righteous humans is undercut by Paul’s dictum that “there is no distinction … all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). (Pope Francis recently took his own stand on this by breaking with tradition and confessing his sins in public.) From the perspective of Pauline soteriology, there is no possibility that Noah earned his own salvation through merit. Rather, it was an act of divine grace: grace and not necessity.
The necessity of humankind to god becomes the main issue in the perception of the movie’s “anti-human” views: Is it anti-human to say that God might have wished to destroy humanity? Only if being pro-human means believing that humanity is essential to God. In its classical forms, Christian theology has issued an emphatic denial of that view. Instead, God’s aseity means that God is entirely self-sufficient. There are theologians who have reasoned that God’s love and inherent (Trinitarian) relationality mean that it is logical that God should create, so as to have something with which to be in relation. (As Jonathan Edwards put it: “It is the necessary consequence of his delighting in the glory of his nature, that he delights in the emanation and refulgence of it.”) Nevertheless, that does not mean that any particular person or people are necessary to God.
In the view of classical Christian theology, then, God can always wipe the slate clean and start over. It is natural for humans to want to feel important and essential. Even my two small children want desperately to feel capable, useful, independent—and all of us in some way seek to feel that we matter. But our significance, like the whole creation, derives from the grace of God.
The film is not anti-human; it is (to me) a thoughtful and fundamentally pious meditation on sin, faith, and the will of God. Those who call it anti-human are actually convicted of being too anthropocentric themselves.