As numerous reviews have by now pointed out, there is much that isn’t biblical about the movie Noah. As with any retelling of a biblical story, the storytellers have filled in the numerous gaps and silences of the biblical text with their own interpretations. Most notably, and following millennia of tradition, Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel have connected the story of the nephilim in Genesis 6:1–4 with the following flood story. This brief snippet of text about angels having sex with humans is not narratively connected to the flood story in the Bible (the two share no characters or plot) and developed independently of it. Nevertheless, for millennia interpreters have drawn a causal connection between the two stories, and Noah uses one such tradition, the story of the Watchers from a nonbiblical but ancient book called 1 Enoch. Though the story of the Watchers is an interpretation of the biblical account, it is one that draws heavily on biblical and early postbiblical themes.
The biblical text also has little to say about another major character in the movie, its main villain, Tubal-Cain. Tubal-Cain is said to have “forged all instruments of copper and iron” (Genesis 4:22), which fits well with his role as a warlord and leader of the Cainites in the movie. But he comes and goes a full chapter and change before the flood story in the biblical version. The other villainous character in the movie is Noah’s neglected middle son, Ham. Here, the movie’s writers have worked backwards from the Bible, where Noah curses Ham and his offspring because Ham witnessed Noah’s drunken nakedness. The curse is missing from that episode of the movie (probably a good thing, as it was a racially charged topic for a long time), and instead Ham’s is slowly built up as a character with a bad attitude and Oedipal issues, achieving more or less the same goals as the biblical version.
Despite such gap-filling, there is still much that is biblical about the movie Noah, though not all of it comes from Genesis 6–9, the flood story itself. Of course, the basic outline of the plot is completely biblical: humanity has turned to violence; Noah alone is righteous; God selects Noah’s family, along with representatives of all the animal species, to be the sole survivors of a cataclysmic flood that wipes all other life off the planet. But that bare-bones story leaves a lot of holes—it couldn’t possibly fill a feature-length film. And so the screenwriters filled in the gaps, imagining how the various characters might have reacted to the scenario.
Though much has been made of how unbiblical their interpretation here is, in many respects the opposite is true. One of the biggest themes that Aronofsky and Handel develop is the idea that Noah recognizes the evil of humanity and does his best, however reluctantly, to fulfill the genocidal divine plan. Surely Noah’s neighbors would have noticed him building an enormous boat (which in the movie takes much longer than the biblical timeline of seven days) and stocking it with thousands of animals, and at least some of those who didn’t dismiss him as a lunatic would have sought a spot on board. When Noah in the movie refuses to help any other people, he may look cold-hearted and unrighteous, but this is one of the movie’s most literal interpretations of the biblical version. Similarly, Noah’s recognition that his family is no different from other humans and also must perish, though it may seem to fly in the face of the biblical description, is consistent with the biblical idea that even the righteous may be called upon to make great sacrifices. Indeed, the moment in which Noah’s knife is poised over his granddaughter’s head recalls nothing so much as Genesis 22, where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac an only stops him when the knife is at Isaac’s throat. The movie’s theological interpretation here is no less troubling than the Bible’s own (see Christopher Hays’ essay on the theology of the movie).
Many biblical elements of the film come directly from the flood story, not just the outline, but such details as the waters of the flood coming both from rain and from floodgates opening up within the earth itself. When Noah enters the ark, the door swings shut behind him as if moved by an invisible hand, a reference to Genesis 7:16: “the Lord shut him in.” The biblical flood story itself is a composite of two original accounts, whose outlines are visible in the contradictions in certain details: Are there two of every animal, or two of the unclean and 14 of the clean (“clean” meaning suitable for sacrifice)? How long does the flood last—40 days or 150 days? Though the movie flood clearly lasts longer than either of these options, Aronofsky and Handel have followed the thread that says there were two of every animal, which explains why they leave out Noah’s sacrifice after the flood ends (see Genesis 8:20–21)—there are not enough animals!
In emphasizing Noah’s vegetarianism and his position as steward and protector of the animals, the writers draw heavily on Genesis 2–3, in which Adam and Eve are to tend the garden and take care of the animals in it (though Genesis 1 says that humans are to eat only plants). In this second account of creation (like the two strands of the flood story, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2–3 are two separate versions of the story), humans are not the pinnacle of creation. Genesis 1, in contrast, places humans at the top of creation, giving them dominion over everything, including the animals. Tellingly, in the movie when Noah recounts the story of creation, he moves from the creation of the animals in Genesis 1 into the creation of humans in Genesis 2—that is, he skips Genesis 1’s humans. But Tubal-Cain’s description of the place of humans in creation is straight out of Genesis 1.
Other elements of the movie also draw on parts of Genesis that aren’t part of the flood story. The attention to the lineage of the characters is one example. And when Methusaleh refers to the death of this father, Enoch, he says “before my father Enoch walked on,” a direct reference to the fact that Enoch is said to have “walked with God” rather than to have died (Genesis 5:24). Noah’s visions announcing the flood are marked cinematically by a flash of a serpent, a fruit, and a raised hand grasping a stone, all references to Genesis 3–4, the stories of the garden of Eden and Cain’s murder of his brother Abel.
One of my favorite biblical elements of the movie is the device the writers use to provide potential wives for Ham and Japheth. Though the biblical account says very clearly that all three of Noah’s sons were married when they entered the ark, Aronofsky and Handel have gone a different route: Shem and Ila’s twin daughters, born on the ark, are to be the other sons’ missing wives. This is in fine biblical tradition, in which a niece is a fitting wife for a man (see Genesis 11:27–29; though biblically speaking, cousins are preferable).
The movie also incorporates some elements from books of the Bible other than Genesis. Echoing Job 1:21, Tubal-Cain says that he “gives life and takes life away,” putting himself in the place of God and reflecting how he sees himself in relation to Noah, who is the Job-like figure here, singled out for suffering. In a similar vein, when he believes that his entire line, too, must die off, Noah is faced with the conclusion that he will have to kill his own grandchild. Running to the roof of the ark, he pleads with God not to require this of him in a scene that (the Onion’s satirical review notwithstanding) evokes Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.
Aronofsky and Handel have obviously read their Bibles and have drawn on elements not just of the flood story but of a broad range of biblical texts. Though their patchwork result is not a point-by-point mirroring of Genesis 6–9, it is still strikingly biblical both in its themes and in its details.