Paramount Pictures’ March 2014 release of the movie Noah has generated excitement and commentary from religious and secular moviegoers alike. The movie boasts some amazing cinematography as well as big-name actors including Russell Crowe (as Noah), Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Hopkins.
There is an element of controversy, however, regarding director Darren Aronofsky’s interpretation of the story found in the book of Genesis. Some critics complain that the script deviates drastically from the Bible account; yet Scott Franklin, one of the movie’s producers, told Entertainment Weekly while the film was in production: “Noah is a very short section of the Bible with a lot of gaps, so we definitely had to take some creative expression in it. But I think we stayed very true to the story and didn’t really deviate from the Bible.”
Moviegoers will draw their own conclusions, of course. But in the midst of all the hype, creative interpretation and controversy, have we overlooked the real story of Noah and the intent behind the Bible’s telling of it?
Whether looking at the movie, critic’s reviews, or the graphic novel based on the movie’s storyline, one thing can be said definitively: this rendition of Noah and the Ark is not the typical portrayal seen in children’s storybooks. The graphic novel Noah by Aronofsky and partner Ari Handel, first published in French by Le Lombard Brussels, paints a bleak, almost postapocalyptic setting before the flood. Le Lombard’s official synopsis portrays it as “a world without hope, a world with no rain and no crops, dominated by warlords and their barbarian hordes.” Trees have been destroyed by humanity’s lack of respect for the environment, and helpless animals are hunted for their ivory or killed indiscriminately.
The movie’s version of the title character is not the person we may remember from storybooks either. Aronofsky’s graphic novel does bill Noah as “a good man” but goes on to describe him as a “seasoned fighter, mage and healer.” And during an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Russell Crowe remarked: “The funny thing with people, they consider Noah to be a benevolent figure… . Are you kidding me? This is the dude that stood by and watched the entire population of the planet perish. He’s not benevolent. He’s not even nice.”
What’s more, we are introduced to 11-foot giants with six arms called “Watchers,” fallen angels that live on the earth and are eventually persuaded to help Noah build the ark and protect it from barbarous human attackers. These monstrous beings are a good example of some extrabiblical “creative expression.”
Even the animals are different in the movie version of the story, which did not use any live animals in the filming. In an article in the Directors Guild of America Quarterly, Aronofsky explained that in partnership with Industrial Light & Magic’s art department, “we had to create an entire animal kingdom. All the animals in the movie are slightly tweaked; I didn’t want the clichéd polar bear, elephant, and lion walking onto the Ark; I didn’t want the shot of a giraffe’s head looking over the rail.”
Brian Godawa, who wrote about Noah in his novel Noah Primeval, helps explain some of the controversy associated with Aronofsky’s storyline. In his review of an early version of the script, Godawa comments that much of the movie story finds its basis in the apocryphal Book of Enoch and pseudepigraphical Book of Jubilees as opposed to the Bible account.
He also remarks on the script’s heavy focus on environmentalism: “Admittedly, the script does include murder and violence against man as an additional ‘evil,’ but this is secondary in the story. The primary sin of the script Noah is man’s violence against the environment.” There are also elements of magic and shamanism in the story—for example, when Noah visits his grandfather Methuselah and receives magic seeds that allow a great forest to grow and provide lumber for the ark.
Controversy aside, Noah the movie promises to deliver a fantastic tale of legendary proportions, with plenty of special effects. The team from Industrial Light & Magic remarked that one animal scene called for the most complicated computer rendering in the company’s history. Overall the movie has the potential of a blockbuster to remember.
But is the purpose of the Bible’s narrative of Noah to provide us with material for an epic? Is it intended just to entertain us? Or is it meant to connect with us personally and help us consider how to apply what we learn to our own day-to-day lives?
What is the real purpose of the Noah story, and what does the Bible actually say about his example?
What We Know About Noah
The scriptural story of Noah is an account of the vast contrast between pre-Flood society and the life of one man, whose humble obedience to God set him apart.
The Bible doesn’t provide a great deal of detail regarding the setting of the story, but we can piece together a few clues. The book of Genesis mentions the “heroes of old, men of renown” (Genesis 6:4, New International Version), as well as rapid progression in the development of a post-Flood city, both suggesting the likelihood of an already established pre-Flood civilization. We are also told about olive trees (8:11), green plants or “herbs” (9:3), and Noah’s decision to plant a vineyard soon after the deluge (9:20), implying the continuation of a pre-Flood agricultural system. That said, this is not a great deal of information to go on regarding the physical environment in which Noah lived.
What the Scriptures focus on much more clearly is the social setting and the state of humanity at the time. Pre-Flood society had taken a moral turn for the worse; it had decayed and become “corrupt … [and] filled with violence.” The Bible explains “that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:11, 5). Even with modern examples of genocidal atrocities, it is hard to imagine a time or place where everyone was bent on evil, hatred and violence all the time.
“Now the earth had become corrupt in God’s sight, and it was filled with violence. God observed all this corruption in the world, and he saw violence and depravity everywhere.”
It is in this morally debased setting that we are introduced to Noah. We understand that “Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters were on the earth” (Genesis 7:6). Think about what he witnessed, learned and experienced during this lengthy period of time. This is hard enough to imagine, but consider that in spite of living in the corrupt society of his time, Noah was totally unlike anyone else. In contrast to the moral devastation around him, he is described as “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time”; the Scriptures say he “walked with God” (Genesis 6:9, NIV). This means that Noah was completely different morally; how he lived and behaved was not at all the way those in the society around him lived and behaved.
Bucking the Crowd
How hard is it to live as Noah did, in a totally different way from everyone else around you? Psychologists and neuroscientists who study social conformity and herd behavior, also termed “herd instinct,” ask a similar question. Oxford’s online dictionary explains herd instinct as “an inclination in people or animals to behave or think like the majority,” and research suggests that this proclivity is incredibly difficult to overcome.
Neuroscientist Gregory S. Berns writes: “Sadly, this herd behavior is the norm not only for sheep, but for humans… . Our brains are wired to disregard our own perceptions and accept, lock-stock-and-barrel, what everyone else is doing” (“The Stupidity of Crowds,” Psychology Today). Referring to a research project on social conformity using fMRI brain scans of participants, Berns also mentions these astounding findings: “First, when individuals conform to a group’s opinion, even when the group is wrong, we observe changes in perceptual circuits in the brain, suggesting that groups change the way we see the world. Second, when an individual stands up against the group, we observed strong activation in the amygdala, a structure closely associated with fear. All this tells me that not only are our brains not wired for truly independent thought, but it takes a huge amount of effort to overcome the fear of standing up for one’s own beliefs and speaking out.”
This suggests not only that what Noah did in the 600 years leading up to the Flood was incredibly difficult, but that it is no less difficult for anyone in any era of human existence. How did he do it, then? How was it possible for Noah to do what appears to be so hard for humans to accomplish? The answer is what makes the scriptural account of Noah so valuable for us personally.
A clue to Noah’s character can be found in the New Testament, where the apostle Peter describes him as “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). This means that by word and example, Noah’s intent was to influence people in a positive way—to teach or show them a better way to live. It is from the description of the man’s character (Genesis 6:9, NIV) that we begin to understand how he was able to overcome herd behavior and live differently from everyone around him.
“By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household.”
First, Noah was righteous. The Hebrew word is sometimes translated “just” or “lawful.” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament explains that the root of this Hebrew word “basically connotes conformity to an ethical or moral standard.” Noah lived by a firm standard, and he used it to make moral and ethical decisions.
Next, we understand that Noah was “blameless among the people of his time.” The word “blameless” indicates a state of being clean or whole and points to the concept that Noah remained unstained and undamaged while living in a morally and ethically compromised world. Another way of looking at this is that Noah would not relinquish his standards under pressure from his contemporaries.
Finally, we are given the source of the values that Noah held to be so important: he “walked with God.” This brief statement not only identifies the source but also demonstrates an ongoing consistency in Noah’s application of the standards that set his overall direction in life. His action steps could be outlined as 1) Establish standards that come from the right source; 2) Make decisions based on those standards, and don’t compromise; and 3) Follow through consistently over time in order to develop an overall moral direction. Practicing high standards is one sure way to counteract the pressure to conform to whatever the mob or herd is doing, even if, as in Noah’s case, the mob is everyone else. As a result of his willingness to be different—to take God at His word and obey Him—he and his family were saved from the floodwaters, and through them humanity was given a fresh start.
The plot of the Flood story as recounted in the Bible is fairly straightforward: God intends to send a flood on the earth, in which all living things will die; but before doing so, He gives Noah the instructions and means by which not only his own life will be saved, but also that of his family and of every kind of animal. Noah follows the specific instructions given him (Genesis 6:14–16) and builds the ark, a great wooden ship 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall (137m x 23m x 14m). To survive the inundation, eight people and the creatures of both land and air live in this vessel for more than one year. When the waters recede, they begin again in a fresh and clean environment. God gives the rainbow as the sign of His promise never again to use a great flood of water to cleanse the earth of its corrupt inhabitants (Genesis 9:12–17). Sadly it is not long, however, before some in Noah’s family, having brought elements of moral corruption through the Flood, cause the conflict between godly standards and their lack to surface once again.
While the rainbow promise means we cannot expect the plot of the Flood to unfold in the same way again, can the same be said of its themes? These include instruction in right standards, separation from the crowd by moral and ethical boundaries, salvation, and a fresh start. It is safe to say that these concepts recur in every era of human history and that the first gives rise to the three that follow. Who doesn’t want to be spared an unhappy fate and enjoy a fresh start from time to time? The story of Noah teaches that renewal begins with establishing right standards and putting them into practice.
Christ told His disciples that humanity’s latter-day condition will resemble that of pre-Flood society (Matthew 24:37–39). Do we base our moral and ethical decisions on societal norms or what the majority of those around us are doing? Personally, do you ever feel like you are just one of the herd? If the answer is yes, you and I may want to consider the lessons of the story of Noah.
Moral and ethical compromise ends in corruption, violence and destruction. The way out of this negative cycle begins with making a course correction and applying godly standards to the way we live and behave, no matter what those around us are doing. This is a primary purpose behind the real story of Noah. The movie may present an epic tale of fantastic proportions and amazing cinematographic effects, but the simple truth found in the Scriptures has the profound value of offering a way out of violence and destruction, and the opportunity for a fresh start.