Warning: although the story is several thousand years old, the following technically contains spoilers from Paramount Pictures’ Noah, starring Russell Crowe.
If you read anything about director Darren Aronofsky’s newest epic film Noah in the past few days, it was probably about how much Christian biblical literalists hate it. Various conservative Christians such as Rick Santorum, Rick Warren, and Brian Mattson have blasted the film for diverting from the biblical narrative, calling it “pagan” and a “subversion of the biblical story.” As Ken Ham, the President of the Creation Museum who recently “debated” Bill Nye about the validity of creationism, put it: “Ultimately, there is barely a hint of biblical fidelity in this film. It is an unbiblical, pagan film from its start.”
Excusing the fact that the biblical account of Noah is itself inconsistent (Jewish and Christian scholars have long understood the 62-verse story to be an amalgamation of two different Jewish flood narratives), Ham and others aren’t technically wrong in saying that the film deviates from the text of the Bible — it does. Aronofsky, who is Jewish by heritage but a self-described atheist, has said that his Noah is “the least Biblical Biblical film ever made,” a relatively true statement if your basis for “biblical” is “strict adherence to the written text.” For instance, while the biblical text is pretty clear that all three of Noah’s boys had spouses that made it aboard the ark, a key plot point in Aronofsky’s retelling surrounds the frustration of Ham, Noah’s second son, who resents his father for prohibiting him from bringing a wife onto the ancient vessel.
But while it’s true that Aronofsky’s Noah diverges from scripture, these critiques are ultimately an arrogant slight against beautiful Jewish tradition at work in the film. Worse, they imply that conservative biblical literalism somehow has a monopoly on Noah, a position which effectively ignores the billions of other non-literal religious people who also take the story seriously — especially Jews.
Firstly, when Aronofsky says that his film is less “Biblical,” that doesn’t mean that his film is “subversive” or any less religious — it’s just religious in ways that are unfamiliar to most biblical literalists, but common practice for most Jews and non-literal Christians. When asked how he compiled the script, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel, who is also Jewish, explained that they pulled heavily from Jewish Rabbinic midrash. For the uninitiated, midrash, literally “to search out,” is an ancient Jewish tradition in which Rabbis essentially add stories to the Biblical/Tanakhical narrative for educative effect. These stories aren’t meant to be given the same authority as scripture, but are instead designed to both resolve problems of interpretation as well as expose aspects of the holy narrative that would be otherwise difficult to grasp.
Unsurprisingly, a wealth of midrash exists around the Noah narrative, much of which can be seen in Aronofsky’s contemporary retelling. For example, the biblical account says little about how Noah actually built the ark or how other humans reacted to his project, but tomes of midrash explain in poetic detail how the prophet planted cedar trees to provide wood for construction and how he suffered persecution and mockery at the hands of other humans—two things that play a crucial part in Aronofsky’s Noah.
More importantly, even when Noah departs from both midrash and scripture, Aronofsky’s film is still itself a powerful form of contemporary midrash. In telling an extra-biblical tale of a tortured Noah, here admirably portrayed by a grizzled Russell Crowe, who is both hero (he ruthlessly protects his family from outsiders) and villain (he is still willing to kill his own if God wills it), Aronofsky raises valid religious questions about the Old Testament prophet that are rarely asked in Sunday school or Hebrew school. Through vivid and often harrowing portrayals of Noah single-mindedly following what he believes to be direct orders from on high, Aronofsky asks: what kind of faith does it take to close oneself off inside a massive floating vessel and listen, stoically, to an entire world die? Did Noah suffer from survivor’s guilt? If he didn’t, what does that say about faith, and what does all of this say about God? These questions are difficult but important, and it is only through the intentional deviation from the biblical narrative — a series of theological “what ifs?” played out in dramatic fashion onscreen — that we are confronted with them.
What’s more, in a time when evangelical Christian leaders such as Mark Driscoll and Bill Gothard are learning the hard way how righteous arrogance can get you into trouble (including deviating from source material), there are perhaps more than a few lessons to be gleaned from Aronofsky’s painfully human Noah. Indeed, midrash was encountered by a number of early and contemporary Christian theologians.
Granted, there are also valid critiques to be made of Aronofsky’s midrash. For example, his depiction of Noah as an unrelenting champion of vegetarianism/veganism, while based somewhat on scripture, is more than a little over-the-top. (Was it really necessary to show frenzied crowd of people ravenously pulling a live animal apart with their bare hands?) But if approached properly, Aronofsky’s Noah, like all good midrash, is both strikingly Jewish as well as a valuable tool for any person who takes the Noah narrative seriously—be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or even a secular American.
Jack Jenkins is the Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Follow them on Twitter @CAPFaith, or Jack @jackmjenkins.