Noah in the Movies

Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Biblical Reflection | 0 comments

Scripture Genesis 6-9: The Flood

I suppose we should all be happy that the film industry is still making movies based on the Bible.  It’s another proof that those sacred books will endure as long as people inhabit the earth.  The movie Noah has not received sterling reviews, but it is selling like a blockbuster just the same.  Noah Flood Animals

Now raise your hand if you think that the movie stays close to the details about the Flood in Genesis, chapters six through nine.   Right.  The movie runs over two hours.  There are four chapters on which to base it.   What’s a director to do, if he or she wants hordes of people to buy tickets to see it?   Why, interpret, or course, and embellish, and add characters and drama (oh, and use every special effect that has been invented)!

It’s just extremely interesting to see how this age-old story is interpreted by 21st century writers and directors.  And who’s to say that the writer(s) of Genesis weren’t doing the same thing as they wrote down this ancient story of a huge flood that wiped out a lot of life.  Some of the early flood stories were found in the Epic of Atrahasis and in the Epic of Gilgamesh (see The New Interpreters’ Study Bible, p. 16).  There were others, usually following accounts of creation from chaos.  With the flood, chaos is allowed to return.

As you read chapters 6-9 straight through, it is easy to discover that there are two stories in Genesis, conflated into one.  Primary evidence for that is in the use of two different names for God in the original Hebrew.  Biblical scholars have mapped out which verses belong to the “Yahwist” narrative and which one to the “Priestly” narrative.  In the Yahwist version, it rains for 40 days and 40 nights; in the Priestly tradition, the flood lasts for a year.  In the Yahwist, Noah is commanded to take seven pairs of clean animals, suitable for both eating and sacrifice; in the Priestly, only one pair of each is brought into the ark, whether clean or unclean.  In the movie version, we understand that no real animals at all were used—just virtual ones.

Surely the liberties the director took with the movie, the addition of characters, including two granddaughters that Noah imagines he must sacrifice so that no humans would be left on earth; surely this makes the film controversial, and many critics have come forward, their complaints only adding to the hype and persuading more people to see it. 

But the real controversy about biblical story of the Flood is that God gives up on his people and causes a natural disaster to wipe them out.   Deserving as those humans were, God is portrayed as unmerciful.  Then God makes a covenant with Noah after the Flood, ending with the promise that it will never happen again and here, possibly, is the creation of the rainbow, or at least its debut,  the colorful bands that my granddaughter paints or wears every chance she gets. 

And that gives away what makes this Flood story different from those other ancient epics.   It is a human need to explain natural disasters.  They are obviously beyond our power to control and so are attributed to a higher power.  And we usually blame them on our sinfulness, our disobedience to the same higher power, just as Eve and Adam disobeyed in chapter three of this same book.  What makes the Flood story in Genesis different, as Rob Bell has pointed out in his Blog series entitled “What Is the Bible,” [http://robbellcom.tumblr.com/post/66199714202/what-is-the-bible-part-2-flood] is that God “brings a rainbow and a promise and a covenant.”  It’s as if God recommits to us humans, makes an agreement with us, forgives us, (dare we say “loves” us?).  The other stories end with everyone drowning and with the gods being satisfied.  These four chapters teach us a whole new image of God, a whole different way of looking at and relating to God. 

Rob Bell refuses to lose that point in arguments over whether the ark was big enough to hold two (or seven!) elephants.  Such literalism, he maintains, misses “the point of the story.  This story was a major leap forward in human consciousness, a breakthrough in how people conceived of the divine, another step toward a less violent, more relational understanding of the divine.” 

Floods continue to devastate and seem to be getting worse because of our lack of will to control our emissions (the movie is criticized for making a similar point), but because of the inspired ending to the story of this disaster in Genesis, we can be so thankful for the rainbow!   And we can find whole groups of people who are determined to extend God’s covenant to love and care for this earth we inhabit. 

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