In the Bible, when Noah is born, his father says “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Genesis 5:29). The film Noah (Aronofsky, 2014) is an extended commentary on this verse. The movie starts in a post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” style setting, but it ends in a post-post-apocalyptic world. It is a film about second chances – the possibility of rebirth.
Noah is Aronofsky’s sixth film as director, but only his third original story. His three most mainstream films Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan were all based on stories written by others. Noah, like Pi and The Fountain, are entirely Aronofsky’s own vision. Interestingly, all three are about science, religion, and capitalism. All three films present a dark vision of human depravity that corrupts even institutional religion. But all three films also reveal a kind of simple faith in God and respect for divine mystery. While all three reference Biblical themes and texts, they also incorporate ideas from Kabbalah and other extra-biblical Jewish traditions.
In Pi (Aronofsky, 1998) the hero is a mathematician who discovers a single formula he believes can explain everything in the universe. He is initially only interested in science and understanding the world, but his discovery is turned into a tool to control the world. Gangsters want to steal it to manipulate the stock market, and a group of Hasidic Jews want to steal it to manipulate God into sending the Messiah. In the end, the mathematician destroys the formula, and the film seems to be critiquing modern science (and perhaps institutional religion, too) for attempting to eliminate mystery and control the world. In contrast to scientism, Pi argues that we cannot really control the world and so we should embrace the mystery. The desire for knowledge is rejected as the original sin of Adam, alluding to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The Fountain (Aronofsky, 2006) turns to the other tree in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life. The film intercuts between a 16th Century conquistador looking for the fountain of life and a 21st century doctor trying to cure cancer. This time Aronofsky is a critiquing science and religion for their desire to avoid death. It presents mortality as essential to humanity so that death would actually be good for us and immortality bad. Aronofsky conceives of true eternal life in a more Buddhist way – a view shared by some forms of Kabbalah – where the individual self dies and lives on only by passing its life force on to the next generation, symbolized in the film by a tree that grows on the grave of the hero’s wife. Like Pi, The Fountain critiques the same three forces for their attempt to overcome death: science, capitalism, and institutional religion.
With Noah, Aronofsky’s obsessions coalesce around the theme of Environmentalism. Following Lynn White, Jr. it is common to see “our ecological crisis” as a result of medieval Christianity’s teaching that the world is raw material for human purposes, to be conquered by science and manipulated toward capitalist ends. In his original essay White is careful never to blame Christianity itself or to claim that the Bible teaches that humanity has the right to dominate nature. Rather White says one traditional interpretation of the Bible has led to an attitude that, while itself not necessarily problematic, mutated during the Enlightenment into a justification for environmental destruction. And White ends his essay by appealing to St. Francis of Assisi to show that Christian tradition has the resources to support an alternative interpretation of Scripture consonant with modern ecology. I take it that Darren Aronofsky has a similar goal with his film Noah. He is not a believer, so he approaches the story of Noah as a “myth”, one of the great stories in western civilization. But he is careful to respect the text, trying not to contradict the letter of Scripture, even while arguing for an interpretation that differs from the traditional view.
The film begins by describing a conflict between the descendents of Cain (or the “Cainites”) and the descendents of Seth (the “Sethites”). This conflict is grounded in the Biblical text. In fact, some commentators have argued that “the sons of God” who married “the daughters of man” in Genesis 6:1 were actually Sethites who married Cainites, though Aronofsky seems to opt for the more ancient interpretation of “the sons of God” as angels.
The two genealogies in Genesis 4-5 reflect these two families. The first genealogy is the line of Cain, which ends with Tubal-Cain who was the first human beings to make “instruments of bronze and iron” (Genesis 4:22). This family was haunted by the violence of their ancestor Cain (4:23-24), and according to Jewish tradition the instruments made by Tubal-Cain were weapons of warfare. The other genealogy is the line of Seth, which leads to Noah at whose birth it is said, “out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief” (5:29). This reference to the “ground” is part of a narrative about humanity’s relationship to the earth that goes back to Genesis 1.
According to the Creation story, God made human beings in His own “image” and gave them “dominion” over the animals (Genesis 1:26), where this seems to mean having stewardship to care for the animals, not to dominate them for our own purposes. (Human beings were originally vegetarians. See 1:29; contrast 9:3.) Scripture explicitly says the reason God created human beings was to “work the ground” to help plants grow (2:15; cf. 2:5 and 3:23). But Adam wanted to “be like God” (3:5), and he failed to obey God. So the ground became “cursed” because of Adam’s sin (3:17). Notice that the text does not say God cursed the ground. God only informs Adam that the ground had become cursed. It seems that Adam’s sin itself was the source of the curse. Because he failed to “subdue” the earth (Genesis 1:28), the earth became more violent. When Cain kills Abel, the curse on the ground is reaffirmed (4:10-12). So there is a strong link in Genesis between human sin and the cursed ground. This link shows up again in the Flood story, which says “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight” because of it was “filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11). Read in light of the repeated connection between human sin and the cursed ground in Genesis 1-5, it seems clear that Genesis 6 is saying that the literal land is corrupt.
Significantly, this is also how the Book of Enoch presents the story. Enoch is one of the main extra-biblical sources Aronofsky used for the plot of Noah. Enoch 6:1-2 parallels Genesis 6:1-2, but explicitly interprets the “sons of God” as “angels” who married human women. These angels are called “Watchers” (Enoch 10:8, 15, etc.), a term Aronofsky borrows for his film. Just as in Noah, Enoch says the Watchers “taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them”(Enoch 8:1) but the children of the Watchers “began to sin against birds, and beasts, and reptiles, and fish, and to devour one another’s flesh, and drink the blood” (Enoch 7:5-6). So God decides to “heal the earth” through a “deluge” that will destroy everyone except Noah, because “the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by” the Watchers (Enoch 10:1-9). So the contrast between the violent Tubal-Cain and the earth-loving Noah is actually grounded in Scripture. Aronofsky does, however, exaggerate some of the Biblical themes to make a point about modern-day environmental politics.
The film sets up two worldviews – Cainite vs. Sethite – and takes them each to their logical extreme. In the end it tries to find a middle ground. According to the film, after Adam sinned and Cain killed Abel, the Watchers felt pity for the cursed human beings and helped the descendents of Cain develop the technology and build the cities Scripture says they did. But in Noah, following the Book of Enoch, the Cainites betrayed the Watchers and turned their technology to violence. Now they “take what they want” – from earth’s resources but also from each other. Thus the earth has become full of violence.
Seth’s descendents passed down Adam’s “birthright” – the responsibility to care for creation. Humanity’s job is to “protect” creation, Noah says in the film. If they let a creature die, “a small piece of creation” will be “lost forever”. Noah teaches his children not to take more of the earth’s resources than they can use. He reprimands Ham for picking a flower simply “because it is pretty”. This is the fundamental root of sin for Aronofsky: self-will, taking whatever you desire simply because you desire it, regardless of God’s will. (This ain’t too far off from St. Augustine’s theory of sin, by the way.)
Right from the start Noah is portrayed as seeking “justice”, the punishment of the Cainities for their destruction of the earth. Aronofsky’s heroes are always obsessed, and this is Noah’s obsession. His wife says “perhaps you’ll finally make things right”. Noah says the flood is God’s way of punishing men “for what they did to this world”. Men “broke the world”, says one of the Watchers. And Noah believes it is his role as heir to Adam’s birthright to “fix the world”, a goal still reflected in modern Judaism in the concept of tikkun olam.
Noah’s grandfather Methuselah is surprised when Noah tells him that he saw destruction by water and new life. He had expected a final destruction by fire. Noah responds, “Fire consumes all, but water cleanses”. It is not “the end of everything”, Noah tells his daughter-in-law Ila. It is “the beginning of everything”. Creation is unmade and remade anew. The world returns to the primordial waters of Genesis 1:2.
The Cainites desire “zohar”, a rock that bursts into flame when struck. In the story it serves the role of an ancient energy source. The Cainites mine it and destroy the earth in the process, symbolizing Aronofsky’s attitude toward fossil fuels. Zohar also looks like gold, and so has the symbolic resonance of greed. Zohar is not all bad, though, because Noah uses it for good to provide fire inside the ark. For Aronofsky, the problem is not with using the earth’s resources, but with over-using them. Noah has no problem cutting down trees to make the ark.
For Noah to bear God’s “image” is to be God’s representative, and God’s command to have “dominion” means to exercise care and stewardship over creation. He believes humans are here to serve the animals and the earth. This seems good, but he takes it too far. What happens if humans become a threat to the earth? Logic dictates that they be elimated. This is a temptation that recurs for Noah throughout the film.
This comes out toward the middle of the film when Noah is talking to Ila, an orphan girl he rescued from marauding Cainites, who later grows up to marry Noah’s son Ham. “I thought you were a burden and I didn’t anyone else ruined by the world,” Noah tells Ila. “But I was wrong. You are a gift.” But he immediately makes the same mistake again. He has a vision of himself eating a live animal – then a flashback to Eden, a snake and a fruit being picked. He knows original sin has corrupted him, too, and he decides not to find wives for his sons to take on the ark. He will let humanity die off. “The wickedness is in all of us”, he tells his family. He reasons that if creation is going to begin again, we must die. Otherwise we would just destroy it again. (Not a bad assumption, given that the next story in Genesis after the Flood is the Tower of Babel, where sinful human civilization is right back where it started.) Without man, creation will be alone, “safe and beautiful”, he says. When Noah tries to kill his grandchildren on the ark, he is not insane. He is simply following the logic of absolute justice.
Tubal-Cain has a different interpretation of man’s dominion over the earth. For him being in God’s image means having power like God and having dominion over the earth means having power over it. He reverses Noah’s hierarchy. Whereas Noah said humans are to serve animals, Tubal-Cain says animals are there to serve humans. Again, this can seem attractive. It is the traditional Christian view. But he takes it to its extreme, just as did Enlightenment humanists who departed from the Christian tradition.
Tubal-Cain insists that human beings are made in God’s image, and he interprets this in terms of dominion—“I give life and I take life away, as You do.” He is a radical humanist. He rallies his army by urging them to reject God’s decision to let humanity die. “We are men,” he says. “We decide what whether we live or die. Men united are invincible.” “This is your world,” he tells Ham in other scene. “Sieze it.” “A man is not ruled by the heavens”, he says, but by his own “will”. He considers himself a “king”, though Noah insists that “there can be no king”, because “the Creator is God”. The Creator was unsatisfied with the earth, until He created man to have dominion and subdue it, he argues. We do not serve animals, “they serve us”. He charges Noah with caring more about animals than humans. Noah “filed the ark with beasts and lets children drown”.
In the end, Noah has to be the one to decide whether humanity is worth saving. He must choose who is good and who is wicked, as Methuselah puts it. Noah initially believes in that original sin means that no human being is innocent and so all deserve to die. It is disturbing to hear Noah talk about God’s wrath falling on all humankind. But isn’t that what the doctrine of original sin means? Isn’t the point that, from the point of view of justice, everyone does deserve death, but that God, in His mercy, chooses to save some? The film might seem to obscure this point, because it does not present the story from God’s point of view, as does Scripture. In Genesis, we know right from the start that God promises to save Noah (6:18). The film tells the story from Noah’s perspective with the conceit that God “speaks” through visions, which Noah must gradually come to understand.
Noah later regrets his choice to allow all humanity to die. He seems haunted by the fact that he let everyone die, including the girl Ham tried to save. Aronofsky plausibly interprets Noah’s turn to drunkenness as an expression of guilt (Genesis 9:20-21). Noah says he “failed” God. He could be referring to the fact that he failed to kill all the humans, but probably he means that he misinterpreted God’s will and failed to save more humans than he did.
So the film does affirm a kind of humanism. Man (symbolized by Noah) is the measure of value. But it is a humanism that affirms the universality of original sin. For Aronofsky, man is not “basically good”, as most humanists would say. Rather, “the wickedness is in all of us”. Noah sees that no human being is innocent, and so all deserve to die. And yet, according to Aronofsky, man has good in him, too, as proven by Noah’s willingness to let his newborn grandchildren live, despite the fact that they have inherited original sin. It is as if, by choosing to have mercy, Noah makes it true that humanity is worth saving. (Also, I can’t help thinking this scene is supposed to show humanity’s discovery of the link between the image of God and the right to life announced just after the Flood in Genesis 9:6. Compare the way Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas connects this discover with gazing into the face of the Other, just as Noah looks into the face of the baby and cannot kill it.) Methuselah was right that God chose Noah for a purpose, but it was not, as Noah thought, that Noah was the only one who would continue the difficult work to the end. It was that Noah was the only one who was able to see both the goodness and the wickedness of humanity. “He showed you the wickedness of man and you did not look away. But you saw goodness”.
After the Flood, Ham throws away the relic of Eden, rejecting his birthright. He does not want to be associated with the idea of caring for creation. But the relic is a snake skin, presumably from the serpent from the Garden. This is a symbol of rebirth, while also being a reminder of sin. Just as a snake sheds its old skin and grows a new one, so can humanity shed original sin and begin a new life. Thus Ham is also rejecting the idea of original sin and the necessity of new birth. Yet when he leaves his family, he tells Ila that she is the one who will be able to save humanity. It seems significant that she is a daughter of Cain raised by the sons of Seth, a marriage of heaven and earth. “Maybe we’ll learn to be kind” through Ila’s example, Ham says. In the end we have to affirm both Noah and Tubal-Cain. We have to affirm our dominion as well as our stewardship. We have to affirm our sin and our potential to be born again.
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