I went to see Noah Friday evening. As its creators have suggested, it is a modern midrash on the biblical story of Noah. A midrash is an imaginative retelling of a biblical story, which attempts to answer questions that arise from the story. For example, how did all those animals get along together in such a small space? What did they eat? How did they keep the carnivores from eating each other? The movie answers that question by putting the animals to sleep temporarily, so that they conveniently go into hibernation for the whole trip. The movie also brings in the watchers from outside the Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox biblical canons, specifically from the book of Enoch, sacred in the Ethiopian Orthodox and Ethiopian Jewish tradition. These watchers, who can be identified with the sons of God who are mentioned in Gen 6:2, play a major role in the film.
The focus of the midrash may be the question of how justice and mercy are to be balanced or even defined. Who deserves to die in the Flood? Who deserves to be saved? There are conflicts within Noah’s family on this—Noah at one point is open to extending the saved to wives for his sons, but rethinks it in the light of the corruption of Tubal-Cain’s people that he sees. This wife-seeking conflicts with the Genesis account which says the wives were on the ark (the book of Jubilees names them), but opens the way for the movie to develop the midrash and solve the problem that the midrash creates by not having readily available wives. Noah examines his own heart and family and is not certain that they are that much better than Tubal-Cain.
The Talmud suggests in a midrash that Noah’s wife was Tubal-Cain’s sister (supported by Rashi). There is a scene in the movie in which Noah confronts Tubal-Cain who asks him whether he recognizes family. I wouldn’t put it past the movie to be alluding to this.
One interesting aspect of the film is that the bad guys, led by Tubal-Cain, a descendant of Cain, are carnivores, whereas Noah’s family, who are descendants of Seth, are vegetarians. Yet, Cain offered the grain sacrifice and Abel the burnt fat. Perhaps the descendants of Cain decided to switch to meat to get back God’s favor. And the Sethites went vegetarian to avoid raising the whole sacrifice issue that caused so much family trouble. At one point Ham is shocked to find Tubal-Cain eating a drum-stick, so the vegetarian theme is pronounced. Yet, in the biblical version of Noah, after the flood is over God allows humans to eat meat for the first time (Gen 9:3-4). The whole food thing is confusing. In Gen 1:29, humanity is given the fruits of the earth for food (making them vegan?), but Abel made an animal sacrifice. Then God grants Noah permission to eat meet, as if there had been a prohibition. Maybe God had allowed Abel to sacrifice but rethought the problem after the whole murder thing. Then God comes up with a new compromise after the rainbow. Other elements of the movie are mostly accurate, grounded in the received text. Tubal-Cain was a smith, so having him making armor and steel weapons makes sense.
All of the characters in the film are very white; they could easily be French or German. Even Ham, the father of African peoples in the Bible is as white as his siblings. Although poetic license allows a film maker to portray biblical stories in a variety of ways, not necessarily historically accurately, nevertheless, this critic would have preferred actors who were Mediterranean looking (since underwater archaeology in the Black Sea suggests it may have been the original locale) or African (since the first humans were African).
Noah has an interesting theological perspective, one that is not inconsistent with the biblical story, but that is not the same either. However, I will not discuss this, as I do not wish to take away anything from the pleasure of watching the movie. Part of the enjoyment is in the fresh take on the old subject.
Alice Ogden Bellis
Howard University School of Divinity