The subtle theology of Noah

In my review of the movie Noah, I said that I felt that the film was much deeper and richer in the theology of the Biblical text than it gets credit for. I wanted to take the time to show how many elements of the story, even some that have been criticized, are actually faithful to the Bible. All Bible quotes are from the New International Version.

Warning: spoilers below.

Noah and his family are vegetarians who dwell in tents and live off the land.

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” (Genesis 1:29)

“Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” (Genesis 9:3)

People who oppose the environmentalist message of the movie (and I am leery of it inasmuch as it does not mesh with the Biblical message) have criticized the portrayal of Noah as a vegetarian. But it appears that is precisely what God prescribed prior to the Flood. Now, it could also be interpreted as only applying to the time before the exile from Eden, but a vegetarian Noah is certainly a reasonable possibility. (A vegetarian Noah after the Flood, though…)

The earth is barren and all but lifeless because of the descendents of Cain, who have cut down the forests and generally ruined the land.

Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food…” (Genesis 3:17b-19a)

When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” (Genesis 4:12)

The first quote is the punishment given to Adam for eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The second is the even harsher punishment given to Cain for murdering Abel. Yes it is true that the environmental message in Noah was intentional. However, the Bible actually supports the portrayal of the Earth as barren and unproductive because of the very presence of the descendents of Cain.

The “king” of the descendents of Cain is Tubal-Cain, who is a man of war, weapons, and industry.

Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out ofbronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah.” (Genesis 4:22).

Tubal-Cain is mentioned in Genesis at the first great metal smith, and the son of a murderer. It’s only natural that he would be the warrior king of the wicked men of the earth. According to Jewish tradition, he was a contemporary of Noah, and his sister, Naamah, was Noah’s wife, a tradition that the film preserves.

Tubal-Cain bitterly quotes the scriptures about being created in God’s image, about men ruling over the earth and the animals, and about having to struggled by the sweat of his brow.

God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” (Genesis 1:28)

Tubal-Cain is a very interesting character in the film. He believes in God (nowhere in the Bible does it explicitly say that the wicked men of Noah’s time didn’t) and quotes the Bible (though he doesn’t call it such). The film has been criticized for this, though. After all, the Bible really does give humans dominion over the earth. Why should the villain get that line?

I disagree. I thought it was brilliant. Tubal-Cain is the first of a long, long tradition of the wicked quoting scripture for their own ends. If you don’t see what I mean, read Matthew 4:1-11 (The Temptation of Christ), which is the quintessential example of this, where Satan himself quotes the Bible for his own purposes. Tubal-Cain’s performance along those lines was spot-on.

The film portrays the wickedness of men as being tied to the destruction of the earth, not “moral and sexual depravity“.

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.” (Genesis 6:11)

The sins of Noah’s time were violence and corruption (notice that sexual depravity is not mentioned). Yes, the environmental message is there, but the film does not skimp on violence and corruption. Witness the haunting scene where Noah sees the depravity of man: the imprisonment and slaughter of the weak, trading of girls for meat, blood running beneath his feet. It’s pretty clear that these people have worse problems than clear-cutting and strip-mining.

Noah is portrayed as “a dangerous religious extremist” to the point of planning to murder his own infant granddaughters.

This is the deepest, most fundamental problem with the film, as I have already said: Noah misinterprets his instructions from God as saying that mankind is not supposed to survive the Flood. As a result, he goes on a religious rampage to ensure that no women or girls who could bear children make it off the ark. When he ultimately fails in that task–not because his entire family has turned so vehemently against him, but because he is moved by love for his granddaughters–he believes this is weakness and that he has failed God.

But notice something else that Noah does. Multiple times, he looks up to the heavens for a sign that he is doing the right thing, and he is frustrated when he does not see one. It is only when he spares his granddaughters and reconciles with his family that the rainbow appears. Only then does God bless his actions. And, just so that it is clear, his daughter-in-law, Ila, explains that God placed the decision in Noah’s hands because He knew that Noah was a good man, and that is why Noah chose love. Noah’s extremism was his mistake, not his mercy.

No, that is not the way things happened with the Noah of the Bible. But I couldn’t hear that speech and see the lesson as anti-Christian, or anti-human. I will be the first to say that the delivery was pretty screwy, but I think the message itself was a fundamentally good one, and that is why I feel that seeing Noah is a rewarding experience if you are willing to put some serious thought into it.

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About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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One Response to The subtle theology of Noah

  1. Lee says:

    Yes, in the Bible God spells it all out quite clearly so that Noah is in no doubt about what he is supposed to do and why. God is removed from the movie as an active character, which paves the way for a very different premise and plot in the movie than those of the Biblical story. And despite Aronofsky’s statements to the contrary in various interviews, there are clear and basic departures from the Bible text in the movie. For example, in the Bible text Ham already has at least one son, Canaan, when Noah gets drunk, because the next morning Noah curses Canaan for what his father Ham has done. I listed a few others in my own review of the movie.

    It’s not a bad movie. It’s just telling a different story than the one in the Bible.

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