Aronofsky’s epic film Noah has elicited more than a little backlash. Some have decried the film as unbiblical, citing its portrayal of the Rock Giant Watchers as especially offensive. (Glenn Beck said, “I don’t believe in Rock People.”) Granted, there are no Watchers in the Bible – but neither did Aronofsky invent them.
Other ancient texts feature the Watchers prominently, even faulting them for the necessity of a worldwide flood in the first place! In contrast, Aronofsky’s Noah is faithful to the biblical conviction that the evil wrought on the earth stems from the misdeeds of humankind. Though the Rock Giants are monstrous in stature, all of the film’s true monstrosity is reserved for humanity. Especially in this way, Aronofsky’s vision of human evil is unquestionably in agreement with that of the biblical flood story.
Who are these Watchers? Where do they come from? Most scholars believe that the seed of their mythic existence was planted in Genesis 6:1-4, which tells the story of “sons of God” who descend to earth, marry human women, and father heroic progeny, known for their strength and prowess as warriors. This mythic fragment is immediately followed by the story of Noah and the flood. Though the two stories are adjacent to one another in the Bible, they are not explicitly linked, and biblical scholars generally regard them as reflecting discrete traditions. Indeed, the deeds of the “sons of God” are not condemned in Genesis, nor do their actions contribute to God’s decision to send the deluge.
Unlike the book of Genesis, Noah imaginatively combines the divine beings’ descent and the great flood into one compelling story. Following ancient Jewish tradition, Aronofsky calls the divine beings “Watchers,” and in the film, not only do they help Noah and his family build the ark, but they are also responsible for the fact that Noah is successful in stemming the attacks of Tubal-Cain. For Aronofsky, these divine beings are part and parcel of the mystical “otherness” of prediluvian earth: not only does the flood bury civilizations, it also washes away a more mythic time in which humans mined the earth for rocks with magical properties and seers induced apocalyptic trances in their students.
Aronofsky’s departure from Genesis is not wrought whole cloth from his artistic imagination. Rather, Aronofsky’s interpretation follows Jewish tradition dating back more than 2,000 years. In 1 Enoch 1-36, called The Book of the Watchers, Genesis’ enigmatic reference to divine beings and their descent to earth is expanded into a lengthy book. 1 Enoch is clear that, in descending to earth, the Watchers sinned in two ways: first, they married human women, and second, they taught humans forbidden heavenly knowledge. Both acts were strictly forbidden, because they corrupted the divinely-ordered boundaries between the heavens and the earth. Enoch’s Watchers justified their actions by saying that they longed for families of their own, but they were already immortal; they had no need of children to continue their genealogies beyond their death. God did not look kindly on their attempt to have their cake and eat it too. To make matters worse, the Watchers taught humankind a well-rounded curriculum of forbidden heavenly knowledge, including how to forge metals, make jewelry, mix herbal medicines, and read the signs of the heavens. In 1 Enoch, the Watchers are condemned for both of these transgressions (forbidden sex and forbidden knowledge), and they are blamed vehemently for the introduction of evil into the world. The Watchers’ forbidden sex results in monstrous progeny that become more violent with each generation, eventually devouring all the life that surrounds them (including acts of cannibalism). The Watchers’ forbidden knowledge allows humanity to craft weapons of warfare and cultivate their own brand of violence.
Aronofsky’s film draws on this tradition in its portrayal of the Watchers as Rock Giants, but it does not merely replicate Enoch’s vision. Rather, Aronofsky combines elements of the Genesis account and Enochic tradition to produce an interpretation of the flood story that foregrounds the Watchers while maintaining that humans are wholly to blame for the necessity of the flood.
Aronofsky’s portrayal of the Watchers is unique in the following ways:
1) No Heavenly Sex
In Noah, the Watchers do not descend to earth because they desire human women (as in Genesis) nor because they desire a lineage (as in 1 Enoch). Rather, from their heavenly perspective, the Watchers observe what happens to Adam and Eve after they eat of the fruit in the Garden of Eden, and they take pity on them. They descend in order to help. They descend out of mercy for humankind. The only ancient work of literature which comes close to presenting the Watchers in such an altruistic light is the Book of Jubilees, in which God commands the Watchers to descend to earth in order to teach humankind, and they obey. (However, humankind does ultimately succeed in corrupting the Watchers with sex!) In Noah, the Watchers make their own choice to help humanity, and God disapproves. [See T. Luckritz Marquis on Sex in Noah].
2) Encrusted in Stone
Aronofsky’s Watchers suffer immediate consequences for their decision to leave the heavenly realm. In the heavens, the Watchers are beings of light; when they fall to earth, their radiance is quashed in an instant as their effulgent bodies become encrusted in mud and stone. It is for this reason that we encounter the Watchers as Rock Giants in Aronofsky’s film. As long as they are bound to earth, they are made of earth. This element of the film is pure Aronofsky. Nowhere in the Enochic or biblical traditions are the Watchers made from stone –though in 1 Enoch and other manuscripts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, their children are described as gigantic in stature.
3) Who Devastated the Earth?
In Aronofsky’s film, humans eventually turn against the Watchers. Humankind takes the knowledge given to them by the Watchers, and they use it to further their own civilizations through violence and consumption. Though one of the Watchers, Og, remembers Adam fondly, humans and Watchers are largely alienated in Noah. The Watchers are not blamed for the earth’s devastation, which was wrought only by human greed and thirst for survival. It is humankind — in particular, the descendants of Cain — who strip-mined the planet, hunted animals to extinction, ravaged the foliage, and killed indiscriminately. The Watchers, in the meantime, are exiled not only from their heavenly home, but also from the company of the earthly charges whom they came to help.
4) No Monstrous Children
A related point: In the film, the Watchers do not marry human women. They do not father monstrous children who grow up to devastate the earth. The Watchers are not integrated into human society in any way. This is a unique interpretive move on Aronofsky’s part. In every other ancient text which interprets the flood story in light of the Watchers, sex and progeny are key themes.
5) A Return to Light
In the film, the Watchers are judged when they choose to help Adam and Eve; however, their subsequent choice to assist Noah and Naameh is rewarded. When the Rock Giants befriend Noah and assist him in defending the ark from Tubal Cain, their brilliance is restored: at the climax of battle, their earthen shells burst, and they are returned to the heavens as beings of light. The Watchers are redeemed! Their return to the heavens helps complete the cycle of re-creation that the flood ushers in: not only will the world begin again with one righteous family and every righteous beast, but the world will begin with the heavenly beings in their rightful place. Again, this is Aronofsky’s innovation. In Genesis, the “sons of God” don’t need redemption; in 1 Enoch, the Watchers are recipients of permanent punishment.
The divine beings of Genesis 6:1-4 have been interpreted in myriad ways over the centuries; in Noah, Aronofsky succeeds in interpreting them in his own unique manner. The film’s Rock Giants are motivated by selfless mercy rather than a self-interested desire for sex and families. They teach, but have no part in humankind’s perversion of their teachings. As Rock Giants, the Watchers imbue Aronofsky’s prediluvian landscape with a sense of mystery and awe, as well as helping to explain how Noah could have succeeded in such a gargantuan task as building an ark when all of Tubal-Cain’s kingdom would intervene (1 Enoch also mentions that the Watchers helped build the ark). By keeping the Watchers innocent of violence and destruction, Aronofsky allows the flood epic to retain a sense of otherwordly wonder while still rooting the blame for environmental degradaton firmly in the place where it belongs: with viewers like you, and like me.