“Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation…” (Gen. 6:9)
Sitting down at the theater to get a first look at Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, I was hoping for a “Jewish” Noah. No, not an Ark-builder sporting earlocks or an open-sea zookeeper sharing bagels and lox with the beasts, but an approach to the personality of Noah-the-man which resembles his characterization in Jewish tradition. I was not disappointed. Aronofsky’s Noah is a good man, a loving husband and father, and absolutely resolute in his devotion to the Creator to the best of his limited understanding of the Creator’s will. He is also confused and self-doubting, deaf to reason supplied by his loved ones, blind to the unmet needs of his son Ham, and tainted by the violence and human brutality pressing in from all sides. The ancient rabbis understood the biblical statement “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation,” as a back-handed compliment; he was righteous compared to the wicked hordes around him, but would not have been particularly righteous if born into a different and more obedient time.
Noah’s fallible humanity will work for Jewish audiences, who do not expect or receive perfect prophets from the biblical texts, but instead learn important ethical lessons from the foibles and failings of figures like Abraham (the liar), Sarah (the jealous), Joseph (the vain) and David (the womanizer, among other things) to mention just a few. Christians, however, have historically tended to read Noah as a pre-figuration of Jesus, and Muslims read Noah as a model of submission to the will of God – in fact a model of submission so similar to Muhammad (pbuh) himself that the stories of Noah and Muhammad (pbub) in the Qur’an often intersect. It will not be surprising, then, if Christian and Muslim audiences react adversely to a retelling of the Noah story that does not correspond with expectations of Noah’s saintliness and near-perfection. Aronofsky’s Noah may be a tad too gritty for some.
What’s up with the magic snakeskin Tefillin?
Tasked with commenting on Noah in terms of Jewish tradition, that is my first and most burning question. The film keeps finding its way back to the glowing strip of epidermis sloughed off by the devious snake in Paradise. Jewish audiences will recognize the spiraling strip of snakeskin coiled around the patriarch’s hand and arm as proto-phylacteries, or tefillin, an homage to later Jewish practice that glows as it transmits a blessing between generations. Will Jewish audiences get caught up on the problem that you can’t make tefillin from snakeskin and certainly not from THAT particularly infamous serpent? Will non-Jewish audiences recognize the strap as tefillin when they see it? Hard to say.
Anthony Hopkins as the berry-grubbing Methuselah is arguably the most endearing character in the movie. He lives austerely on a distant mountain dispensing advice and miracles. Although a relatively minor character in the film, our interpretation of Aronofky’s Flood story will depend on whose understanding of the Divine Plan the audience believes: are we with Methuselah or with Noah? The character of Noah in the film becomes convinced that the Creator wants to wipe out all human life, leaving no remnant. He and his family will serve to care for the animals until after the Flood, but when they eventually die off, humans will be extinct. Methuselah, however, seems privy to Noah’s role as first Patriarch of a new Creation. He tells Noah: “looking at you, I see a glimmer of Adam,” a message that Noah is painfully and nearly murderously unable to fathom.
Aronofsky’s Noah is absolutely correct when he explains that the Flood is not really about destruction, but new life. Jewish (and therefore early Christian) Apocalyptic Literature is not about the end of the world, not really. The violent wiping away of the Past is merely the first act, in preparation for the rebuilding of the New. Noah realizes this about everything but his own role in the narrative, which offers audiences the powerful and compelling gift of understanding more than the plot’s protagonist.
A New Akedah?
Frankly, the most Jewish part of this movie is also the part I most disliked. Once we get the Ark built, animals snoring away on the boat and wicked people drowned, the film has a huge subplot that heads off in another direction. This plot revolves around Noah’s understanding, mentioned above, of his family’s ongoing role in the post-Flood new creation. Being convinced that humanity needs to die out, Noah is horrified to learn that his son Shem and Shem’s partner Ila are pregnant. He vows to kill a female infant at birth to prevent further pregnancies.
At this point in the film we have left the realm of the Noah story and are visiting the tale of Abraham, devoted father whose obedience to the Creator also finds him raising knife in trembling hand over a beloved child, horrified audience cringing over what his blind obedience to the unfathomable will of that Creator may cost. Although I had little patience with the Abraham detour, I have to acknowledge that the merging of these two stories is perfectly in line with Jewish exegetical tradition that sees all parts of Torah as interrelated and inter-relatable; even one shared word between narratives can be enough of a hinge for rabbinic texts make a mashup of two stories and make a new meaning out of the mix. A modern example that may be more familiar than rabbinic literature: Leonard Cohen’s oft-covered melancholy love song “Hallelujah” begins by invoking the figure King David “I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord…” but then jumps to the equally troubled love life of Samson, “she tied you to her kitchen chair/she broke your throne and she cut your hair…” as if there were no space between the stories.
So yes, Aronofsky is playing by Jewish rules in this conflation of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac, often called the Sacrifice of Isaac) and Ila’s children, I just think the narrative has enough heart-wrenching woe in it (screams of the drowning masses, anyone?) to make Noah hit rock bottom, dead-drunk on the beach, without the whole infanticide episode.
An Inscrutable Creator, a Blemished Creation
Who is wise…Methuselah or Noah? Which one of them comprehends the Divine Plan behind the watery drama? Methuselah believes that Noah is the New Adam, and that he and his children must repopulate the earth. Noah believes that all humanity, his family included, are fated to destruction because of their intrinsic capacity for evil. The Creator, maddingly, Jewishly, remains aloof, above, not even sending a dream to indicate the way.
If the audience agrees that Noah is correct, that the Creator intends humanity to end with Noah’s sons, then their survival and reproduction become a full-blown reenactment of Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden. Noah is then Adam, the gullible. His wife is Eve, the persuader. Methuselah, purveyor of magic seeds, is also the source of the forbidden fruit of fertility. This would be a fairly traditional Christian reading; a fallen humanity (with a woman to blame, no less), still in need of a savior to put things right.
But is the Creator’s plan really that easily undone?
If the audience agrees that Methuselah is correct, we have to accept that humanity was never created to be perfect, pure and sinless. Noah’s family represents a fresh start, free from the inherited trauma of the first murder, but they are still just humans mucking about and giving this life their best, imperfect, effort. Noah and his wife indeed stand in for Adam and Eve as the progenitors of a new creation, but Tubal-Cain is the Tempter, cajoling Ham to taste the (raw, eww) flesh of the serpent. Ham, the new Cain, has at the very least learned enough from the historical stories of his father to avoid fratricide. He is still jealous, devious and capable of violence, but he avoids murder though self-exile, setting off to wander the earth alone.
This is a Jewish anthropology, denying the existence of an Original Sin that alters human nature from pure to profane, and insisting that the whole human being, both the Good and Bad within us, was formed intentionally by the Creator. Our job is to wrestle with the polarized inclinations, to favor the good and keep the bad in balance. Noah and his family are not saved because they are perfect, but because they – perhaps singularly “in their generation” – seem equal to this monumental effort.