The first time the story of the universal deluge was told in the version that has come down to us in Genesis, there must have been a great deal of perplexity, no doubt at least a few guffaws, and perhaps even some outrage. The story was well known in the ancient world. The gods had wiped out humankind, save one man and his family, in a worldwide flood. In the earliest versions, the reason seems to have been that the gods were annoyed with man. This clay thing they had created to serve them and work on their behalf had grown too numerous, too proud, and too loud. The man who was spared was spared not because of the mercy of the gods generally or for some special higher purpose but because the god he served warned him in secret.
The author of Genesis, or perhaps someone he heard the story from, took the story and, keeping the framework, turned it on its head. Humans were not clay things made to serve the slothful and severe deities, but the children, made from clay no doubt but clay infused with God’s own spirit, of a just and merciful God created to be his heirs and co-creators, his image and likeness. The deluge was not sent because man had annoyed God but because of man’s own inhumanity to his fellow man, because his moral shortcomings had grown so severe that if God did not destroy him and save only a small remnant, he would destroy himself altogether and the rest of the world as well. And the man who was saved was not saved by some chance and subterfuge, but because of God’s greater plan for mankind. The effect must have been stunning. It was, at least, to make of the story something that would last through the ages, being given a variety of fascinating interpretations by its various readers, inspired by the enduring and timeless nature of the tale, a tale which conveys a powerful message about God, about man, about stewardship, about the world, about mercy, about sin and about much else.
The effect of seeing the new movie about this story is similar in many ways. It is an interesting and surprising twist on the old story. Even living, as we do, in a post-Christian wasteland, surely the general moviegoer is familiar with the story of Noah according to the biblical tradition. He therefore approaches this movie with certain expectations which, when defied, might leave him delighted at the surprise or perhaps disappointed at the alterations of the beloved tale. I left the movie theater early this evening carrying a bit of each.
The story told in this movie is a good one, but it simply is not the story of Noah. The creators of this movie have done with the biblical tale of Noah the equal and opposite of what the biblical author did the Babylonian story. Whereas the biblical author adopted the framework of the earlier story and altered its meaning, the creators of this movie have maintained the essence of the biblical story in much of its meaning while altering the tale. This is defensible, given that it serves to create a certain sense of suspense even among viewers who would almost certainly be familiar with the story.
To be honest, I found it rather a positive point that God is not present in the movie in a direct thunderous-voice-from-heaven sort of way. Instead, Noah is forced to grappled with the unapparent presence of God in the same way that we all are. He must discern the will of his creator without the creator coming down from heaven and spelling it out for him. In addition, given that the special effects were not what I would expect from a movie in 2014 (the Watchers, angelic beings trapped in bodies of rock, for example, seemed a bit cheesy and out of date in their appearance), I would happy not to see the kind of cheese I was expecting from the depiction of God.
That said, unlike the transformation of Babylonian myth to biblical story, I think the majority of the modifications of the Noah story did not move it in a positive direction. Instead, the twists and modifications made for a more convoluted telling which ended up with the same and expected ending anyway. The addition of the Watchers might have been done better, but might also have been left out altogether, and the story line involving the birth of Shem’s twin daughters should have ended up on the cutting room floor. There were surely better ways to make the point that Noah was given the choice by God to decide whether mankind would continue. It was a good point (and not too far a step outside of the biblical tradition when the stories of the Torah are taken together) to add, but added in the wrong way.
What was best about the movie was what was true to the biblical tradition. I very much enjoyed, for example, the scene in which Noah tells the creation story of Genesis to his sons (though I wish they would have just used the text of Genesis 1 rather than summarizing it) while a beautiful scene showing the cosmos, the creation of the earth, and the evolution of animal life plays. Similarly, I think the film did a wonderful job of emphasizing the triumph of mercy and love over sin, of presenting faith in a positive way and of reinforcing the place of man as steward of the created world and responsible for either its flourishing or its destruction. Ultimately, the creators of the movie should have stuck much closer to the original story or just told a different story altogether.
In spite of my objections, I do recommend the movie. It is worth one view, but I would not go back for seconds. Plus, let’s be honest, the book is always better.
Yaya broke the silence. For the first time all morning, his voice was low, unanimated,. It was personal. “Whenever I try to read the Bible,” he said, “I try to grab the most significant part. In my opinion, the most significant part of this story is that Joshua didn’t read the Laws of Moses only to the heads of the tribes. He read it to everybody. Remember, they had no radios, or loudspeakers. Try to imagine what it means to pass a lesson along the chain so it reaches every man, every woman, every child.”
“So why does he do it?”
“Because that’s what distinguishes the Israelites from the rest of the world. Moses’ rules touch every little corner of your life, from the moment you wake up to the moment you sleep. Even hygiene: how to take care of animals, keep your camp clean, what happens when you pee. Even today, how many countries have legislation on how to treat animals? But three thousand years ago, the Israelites built their nation around living a meaningful life. That’s why they survived.
Bruce Feiler, Where God Was Born, pp. 14-5