Segal: Telling the story of Noah
American Christian religious leaders have been vocal but not unified about whether the new blockbuster film “Noah” is kosher, so to speak. Prominent creationist Ken Ham denounced the film; Focus on the Family’s no less conservative President Jim Daly encouraged Christians to see it. I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer one rabbi’s view of the movie and its implications for how we see the Bible.
I’ll put it this way: When it comes to the film’s co-writers, Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, if I were their rabbi, I’d be proud of them. Someone was paying attention at Hebrew school — miracle of miracles! They found the story of Noah in Genesis compelling enough to retell it on the big screen. It’s clear they did their homework, too — not because the film followed some impossible standard of biblical literalism but because it engaged seriously with the biblical text as well as with a long and multifaceted tradition of interpretation and storytelling.
In his biting criticism of the film, Glenn Beck railed against the inclusion of “giant rock people” (you just have to see them for yourself), saying, “Don’t bother checking on the scriptural reference to the rock people.” Except that there is a scriptural reference: Genesis 6:4 mentions the Nephilim, often understood as giants, and “sons of God.” This brief mention is fleshed out in post-biblical ancient texts like Jubilees and the Books of Enoch. Since the Bible was completed, its readers have been creatively telling and retelling its stories. The filmmakers studied these traditions and deployed them with flair and imagination.
Several Christian leaders have criticized the film’s depiction of Noah as a brooding, tortured character, when they would have preferred to see the pure, saintly prophet of their “literal” biblical reading. This closed-minded religious posturing rests on a false premise that there is such a thing as a “literal” reading of the Bible, which people seem to use as a euphemism for “my” reading. One small example: Genesis 7:1 tells us that God found Noah “righteous in this generation.” For most literalists, that means Noah was simply a righteous man. But there is a long tradition within Jewish biblical interpretation to take seriously the qualifier “in this generation.” Some sages even suggested that Noah’s goodness was merely relative to the wickedness of his age and that if he had lived in Abraham’s day, his righteousness would have been unremarkable. The film’s Noah follows this lead by portraying a struggling, flawed, sometimes brutal man. Importantly, they reach this complex interpretation not by departing from the text but by reading it carefully.
The film depicts Noah himself as a child of stories who becomes a master storyteller. His father tells him of creation, the garden and the sin of Adam and Eve. Noah, in turn, tells his family during their time on the ark, in one of the film’s most compelling sequences, and again once they’ve left the ark to make new lives on land. The act of storytelling is shown to be a sacred thing, a way to impart a sense of place in the universe and an investment in the unfolding human experience. With Passover later this month, Jews around the world prepare to engage in sacred family storytelling around the seder table, recounting the Exodus from Egypt and reminding ourselves and our children that we were slaves who were redeemed.
The Bible is a living text that speaks to us anew in every generation. It is complex literature that invites, even demands, interpretation. Those who view it as a monolith with a single, fixed meaning are not just misguided — they are disrespectful to the very text they purport to revere. Many Muslim countries have banned the movie outright for violating their law against making images of their holy prophets (Noah is an important prophet in the Quran). Too bad they won’t see it as an opportunity to invite a new generation into the act of sacred storytelling.
The Bible is not a history textbook or a museum piece, and considering it as such demeans it. As the theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza said, scriptures are “not transcripts but invitations to discipleship.” The Bible is the legacy of generations of storytelling, of wrestling with the most profound questions of human existence.
The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker said it well in her review of the film: “The Bible’s authors were far more literary than we. They clearly had a keen appreciation for parable and metaphor as well as a profound understanding that truth is better revealed than instructed.” If the film doesn’t hew to the letter of the biblical story, it captures the spirit. In the form of cinematic literature, it tells us a gut-wrenching and provocative tale of justice and mercy, of the goodness and wickedness that reside in us all.
Like the biblical tale, the film confronts us with a question: What kind of person do you choose to be, even amid the injustice and temptations of our world? Good storytelling will do that.
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at 970-925-8245 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at http://www.aspenjewish.blogspot.com, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.