Noah, Mythology, and the Absentee God

A review of Darren Aronofsky's latest film and tips for watching and reflecting on it

Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe star in a scene from the movie "Noah." (CNS photo/Paramount)
Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe star in a scene from the movie “Noah.” (CNS photo/Paramount)
With Darren Aronofsky’s Noah out in theaters, one of the major questions that’s been floating around is: Is the film accurate? The answer, honestly, depends on what you define as “accurate.” The film gets quite a few biblical details wrong (and adds plenty of its own dramatic tweaks and twists, though that sort of thing has come to be accepted for pretty much any film adaptation nowadays), but understanding the overall accuracy of Noah begs a larger question: How do we interpret the story of Noah and the Flood in the first place?

To start, yes — there is historical basis for the story of Noah, at least on the flood front. However, it is merely basis, as Catholics consider the tale to originate from an ancient rhetorical style that commonly employed myth, emphasis, and embellishment to explain certain truths. Noah’s “Great Flood” is not the only story to use this pattern, as many mythological traditions include details about such a flood — the Epic of Ziusudra, the Epic of Atrahasis, and the Epic of Gilgamesh. This mythological background, of course, is where the story comes in.

You see, the story of Noah in Genesis, frankly, is a myth. While it certainly could be based on fact (or simply based on other flood myths from different cultures), the story itself is not to be taken literally. Even the Bible itself varies on certain details of the tale, claiming different facts in different verses about, for example, how many animals were present on the ark (Genesis 6:9-10 claims two pair of each kind of animal, while Genesis 7:2-4 says seven pairs). What is important in the story of Noah is the underlying metaphor; the story stands to illustrate humanity’s relationship with God, and the covenant between the two. There were not necessarily a literal Noah, flood, ark, and so on, but that does not diminish the story’s message: Though we sin, and must in turn atone and do penance for our sins, God is always there for those who keep Him in their hearts.

With that in mind, there seems to be something missing from the film: God. When we read of Noah in Genesis, the gist of the story is clear: Humanity has been overcome by wickedness, and God charges Noah, a just man, with the task of building an ark to preserve the worthy creations from a devastating (albeit cleansing) flood. God explains this to Noah, and establishes a covenant with humanity through him. In the film, there is almost none of this. God says nothing to Noah, sets him on no path (aside from Noah’s personal interpretation of a few strange dreams he has), and most importantly, sets no covenant. While God has spoken to people through dreams (think of Joseph’s important dream about the birth of Christ), even those encounters have tended to be much more direct than Noah’s hazy and hellish flood nightmare. What he experiences in the movie seems more like some sort of psychic vision than anything else, a premonition rather than a sign from God. So where does that put Noah as a film?

We’ve already established that Noah’s story is a myth with a message, and at its heart, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is nothing more than a modern interpretation of that myth, and with it, a present-day take on its message. By removing (or at the very least, relocating) God, Noah alters that message. Instead of showing us humanity’s relationship with God, the movie displays humanity in the near-absence of God. We see Noah build the ark not by the instruction of the Creator, but because he essentially felt a flood coming on and decided to circumvent it. There is not a covenant between God and Noah, but rather Noah simply having a personal change of heart and choosing that humanity deserved to go on rather than dying in the flood.

While one could argue that the inner emotional and intellectual struggle demonstrated by Noah comes from God, it is nonetheless a shift in the narrative to have God playing the ambiguous, indirect role that He does in Noah. Darren Aronofsky, who wrote and directed the film, cites the shift as a different way to portray God in the film, stating: “The pain that the creator must have felt to be contemplating destroying His creation — we wanted to personify that. So we tried to connect that story to Noah’s story, and we made Noah a personified, humanized version of God’s journey. And God’s journey in the story is from a God who wants justice to a God who grants mercy.” However, this wasn’t very well-executed, because rather than acting as a conduit for God’s feelings and power, Noah seems to stand in for God instead, as if to now say: “humanity can get along just fine without God’s help.” (Or at least without much of it.)

It’s a bold take on an old tale, but it doesn’t seem to pay off — instead of using Noah’s tale as a way to empower audiences, the film leaves you feeling rather washed out.

How we read scripture
Before — or even after — you see Noah, check out these Busted Halo Question Box Q/As that address the historical/mythological nature of the story of Noah and the Flood:

These Q/As address the way we discern myth from history in the Bible:

Reflecting on Noah

  • By adding to the story we see in the Book of Genesis, how did “Noah” enhance its meaning?
  • How do you feel the film changes how we look at God, Noah, and humanity in the story?
  • What parallels do you see between the events of “Noah” and the world today, particularly in regard to our relationship with the environment, each other, and God?
  • There are many interesting symbols in both the Bible story of Noah and the film adaptation (the flood, rainbow, and berries, to name a few.) What symbols from the story stand out to you? What do you think they represent?
  • How would you react if you were placed in Noah’s situation (either in the Bible or the film)?