“NOAH”: the Story Behind the Movie

movie posterThe 2014 “Noah” movie, written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, has become a very controversial motion picture, something like the way “The Passion of the Christ” did 10 years before. Critics on all sides were denouncing the movie even before it came out – which is great for publicity, but potentially confusing when it comes to actually seeing the movie and learning from it.

This article series is a guide to learning from the original “Noah” story of the Bible, and from the “Noah” movie. We’re not writing to “denounce” or “defend” the movie – many other writers can provide that for you. This series won’t evaluate it “as a movie,” in terms of acting, production, etc., either. Instead, we’re going to look at the original story, and at several themes in the movie’s portrayal of the original story. You might find them worthwhile.

There are three things we’ll do in this article series: in part 1, we’ll look at an overview of the Biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood – in part 2 we’ll note how the movie develops the ancient story – and finally in part 3, we’ll summarize what we’ve seen, and we’ll consider some things we can learn from the “Noah” movie’s presentation of the story.

There’s much more that’s worth saying beyond what these articles can provide. But we hope that these thoughts will move your studies and thoughts about the story – and about God and His creation, and about your own life – into a constructive direction.

Ark But first, a few notes about “attitude”:

“The movie caused a lot of harsh reaction! Why?”

So much of people’s reaction to the movie depends on “what they’re looking for when they go to see it.” If you’re looking for “a simple, straightforward dramatization of the ancient Biblical story,” you’ll be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you’re expecting to see “the Biblical story used as a framework for developing other ideas,” you may find some vivid depictions of God, humanity, the meaning of good and evil, despair and hope, which might be helpful to you.

The Noah movie drew its core story material from the Bible accounts of Genesis 1 – 9. The script writers also used many other very old mostly Jewish traditions that grew up around the story, to elaborate parts of it that were unclear in the Biblical original. (See question #1 in part 2 for some details about this.) The writers intended to “re-tell the story,” and to “explore ideas that the original story suggests.”

Some viewers have been surprised and offended because the story line uses so much extra tradition and dramatization. These viewers expected to hear and see the story in a way that is “comfortable” to their ideas of what the story should be. To them the movie misrepresents the original story, instead of making it more understandable.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Many movies which are based on a well-known original story and which elaborate it or fictionalize it or fantasize about it can prove to be valuable and interesting: not as strict historically accurate accounts, but for the ideas they illustrate. The 1984 movie “Amadeus,” based on the life of the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is like this: great care went into showing many features of his 18th-century life in fine detail. All of this was used to create a fictitious sort of “Cain and Abel” story, pitting the pious but “mediocre” composer Antonio Salieri against the vulgar but “God-gifted” Mozart – though that main plot line of the movie’s story did not actually happen. “Amadeus” is very questionable as history – but very powerful as a study of envy, despair, and as an introduction to incredibly beautiful music. Watching “Amadeus” will make you think. It may also make you want to know more about Mozart and his music, and may even lead you to appreciating it.

In fact, almost all movies which try to present ancient stories (or any history, for that matter) fail to do it “accurately.” Highly-acclaimed movies such as “Lincoln” and “The Help” re-tell their stories in a way that highlights some aspects of the known history – and hides other parts of it … especially parts of the history that might work against the storyteller’s main interest. Perhaps if we remove the burden of “perfect historical depiction” from our view of “Noah,” we might benefit by noting the points that the writers would like to share with us.

Curiously, other viewers seemed to dislike the Noah movie simply because God and questions of human existence are presented in an approximately sympathetic manner – for these viewers, talk of God and religion does not belong in public discourse. However, the movie is “not” “religious” in the same sense as many other recent movies: e.g. “God’s Not Dead,” “The Bible TV Mini-Series,” etc. The Noah story is told “as a story.” Whether you believe it actually happened at all, or whether you support the principles the movie illustrates, is left up to you. The movie “raises” questions, far more than “answering them.” There is no implied “call to religious commitment” at all.

DisclaimerSo for these reasons, it seems sensible to “relax” about “Noah.” Watching it will not likely cause religious believers to lose their faith – in fact, it might even help them make better sense of their faith. Watching it will not likely cause rationally-thinking secular adults to be suddenly overwhelmed with religious sentiment – though it may certainly help one re-think a lot of important questions. As a movie, it may be far from perfect – but on its own terms, it’s “safe.”

One note: the “PG” rating is applied very loosely: the movie is emotionally intense at times – and the portrayal of the violent wickedness of humans in Noah’s time will probably be disturbing. This is not a children’s movie. Please see it yourself before you consider bringing children to watch it.

2.     “OK, get on with it: where can I find the original story of Noah to read for myself? What is the larger context for the original story of Noah?”

The original story of Noah (as presented in the movie) is found in the earliest stories of Old Testament of the Bible. Click here for a free online text of the Bible. The Noah story itself is in the Genesis document, chapters 6 – 9. However – this story is set within the context of a larger story of God and humans and the world, beginning in Genesis chapter 1. Like all stories, the Noah story makes sense only within the bigger picture, its larger context.

Briefly, the big picture story has 4 stages:

  • Stage 1: God creates a beautiful, well-ordered world, perfectly engineered, functioning according to the way it was made (the meaning of the ancient word for “good.”) God made humans and blessed them by giving them a special relationship with Himself, with each other, and a sort of “governorship” over the world, under His ultimate authority – and in the beginning, everything worked very well (Genesis 1 & 2).
  • Stage 2: Humans were tricked into joining a rebellion against God that was already under way: they tried to claim God’s place in the world, to take power to rule it for themselves. Humans aren’t designed to handle this, and so by trying to do what they’re not made for, they damaged themselves most seriously: they became afraid of their Creator; experienced fear, guilt and shame; broke with truth and reality; betrayed each other. Because of all this, they also ruined their God-given ability to properly govern the world. (Genesis 3.1-13)
  • Stage 3: God intervened in order to save humans from destroying themselves and their world: the only way to do that was to allow them to experience some of the very painful natural consequences of their rebellion – not as “justice” to balance out what they did wrong, but as a way to stop the spread of chaos and destruction that humans unleashed. God always brings less trouble than the “punishment justice” that humans “deserve”: in every case, even the disastrous ones, He leaves room for hope and redemption.
  • Stage 4: God put humans in a place where they could start over – in somewhat more difficult circumstances than before, but still hopeful that they could perhaps one day understand their need for Him and be restored to their proper place.

Stages 3 & 4 are the only way humans could be saved from the trouble they had unleashed upon themselves and on the world by joining the rebellion against God. Virtually every story in the Old Testament of the Bible follows this pattern, one way or another.

3.     Let’s see how these 4 stages work in the first stories:

In the stories of the Creation, God creates a world that is beautiful, in balance, in order – everything is “good,” meaning “it works, it does what it’s engineered to do.” Humans are given a very high place in this world, as “governors, caregivers, those to bring God’s continuing order to the world.” Humans are given a world of beauty and wonder – of good relations with the animals, and with each other – and a deep closeness to God, too. This is Stage 1.

Stage 2 begins with trouble outside humans: spiritual interference (in this case, in the form of a serpent speaking) confuses humans, and they choose to join a rebellion against God to take the world for themselves. This is the meaning of eating the fruit from the tree that had been forbidden to them. Doing this gave them new experiences: fear, anxiety, guilt, shame. Humans were not made for these feelings. When God came to visit the man and the woman He had made, they were afraid of Him and hid – they were not made for this! He had done nothing to make them afraid: they had done something that had damaged their own hearts!

When God tried to help the man and the woman, they resisted Him: they lied about what had happened. Worse still, the man was so afraid that God would kill him that he tried to use the woman as a shield to protect himself from God: a deep betrayal. It’s amazing to see how such a simple thing as eating fruit from a tree you’re not supposed to eat from can lead to so much trouble! “Sin” is far worse than we realize: it’s like throwing a stone into the water: the ripples of the water move far away from the place where the stone went in!

In Stage 3, God has to create a way to help humans recover from the damage they have done to themselves and to each other. If we could see the truth, we could recover – but this is where it gets difficult: when our hearts are full of fear, we can’t see the truth anymore. The truth is that God is God, and humans need Him, and He is good and wants to help us. But because of the powerful changes inside us from disobeying God, He has to use a new way to reach us – a hard way: discipline. In Stage 3, God makes the man and woman leave their home in Eden, to a much harder life than they had before – and eventually they will have to die. The technical word is “banish,” making them leave their old home. He does not want to do this – but it is the only way humans can be saved!

Stage 3 is not “justice,” in the sense of “giving people what they deserve.” Stage 3 is “discipline,” in the sense of “giving people what they need to come back to truth and reality – so that they can change.” In this story, the man and the woman have broken their own connection to God! They have started a pattern of mistreatment toward each other! They believe they can live on their own without God’s help! They have to learn in the deepest places of their lives that they need God, that He is there for them, that their only hope is in Him.

Otherwise, you’ll have a world full of evil humans, hurting and destroying each other – did I mention, humans who can’t die?! What kind of world would it be, full of Hitlers and other evil people who could never die? Well – that would be like hell. God doesn’t want that to happen to us – so He provided death as a way to bring hope.

Stage 4 is all about hope: life is more difficult under these new conditions, but at least we’re still alive, we still have the opportunity to learn our need for God, we can still learn our place. God has made a promise: the serpent will not win in the end: humans will! His promise is our hope for the future.

4.     “OK – what is the original story of Noah? How do these 4 stages work in the story of Noah and the Flood?”

In Genesis 4 Adam & Eve were in a Stage 4 -> Stage 1 relationship with God: He was helping them continue to live, and even though the world was marred and flawed, they prospered and had children. However, Stage 2 emerged quickly: Adam & Eve’s sons faced serious trouble: their firstborn Cain allowed himself to follow rebellious spiritual interference into a rage, and killed his younger brother Abel – when God tried to confront Cain to help him begin the journey back to being right, Cain rejected God’s help. God didn’t kill Cain (as He could have done) – instead, in Cain’s Stage 3 God allowed Cain to continue to live in a much more difficult situation – in hope that one day Cain would realize what he had done wrong, and turn back to God again. However, Cain moved away from where God was working in the world, and tried to live on his own.

Stage 4 for this generation was to have descendants, to build, to learn technology and cultural advancement. Cain and his youngest brother Seth were the first to have descendants, and they produced two very distinct family lines.

As time continued, the descendants of the sons of Adam & Eve became very sharply divided.

Cain’s descendants became technologically and culturally advanced, but their societies became violent and harsh. The descendants of Seth, Adam & Eve’s 3rd son, continued to “call upon the name of the Lord”: that is, they put themselves in a place of ongoing communication with God and tried to live out their original place with Him – this kept them in a sort of “stage 4 -> stage 1” relationship with God, living in hope.

Dead-Land-Noah-Movie-4By the time of Genesis 6 their Stage 2 had become very serious: something very dangerous happened in the generations before Noah: spiritual boundaries were broken, and “the sons of God” left their original place to interfere with humans. Once again humans found themselves caught up in much more dramatic rebellion than ever before: “the whole earth was corrupted and violent.”

In this dismaying Stage 2 situation God Himself regretted creating humans because of all the trouble that had been unleashed, and He set a deadline of 120 years, seeking improvement and hope. However, humans only went deeper into the trouble they had started: matters became even worse, and so God instructed Noah to build a large ship to contain the beginnings of a new world. God was about to begin a Stage 3 intervention to put a stop to the spread of evil and destruction. In the Biblical story, Noah obeys God: he builds the Ark, and he and his wife and his 3 sons and their wives and pairs of many animal species enter the Ark. God floods the world and destroys all corrupted life. Noah and his family and the animals eventually step off of the Ark and into a whole new world, where God has provided a Stage 4 opportunity for humans to start over.

landed ark

At the end of the Biblical story, God makes a “rainbow promise” to never flood the earth again – i.e., He promises that He will never allow the earth to come to the place where flooding it is the only hope for it. He gives humans a new start in a new world, with new regulations – a sort of Stage 4 -> Stage 1 again. The Biblical Noah has continuing problems, though, and unfortunately he himself starts the cycle of “offense -> unforgiveness -> vengeance” all over again. However, the story moves forward under God’s new covenant with humans, in hope for better things.

movie poster 2

Here are a few of the other questions we’ll address in part 2 and part 3 of this series. If you have specific questions, you’re welcome to comment, and I’ll see if we can address your questions, too.

“How does the movie differ from the Biblical story?”

“Where did the ideas for all the other movie characters come from?”

“The movie shows Noah misunderstanding God and becoming ready to do horrible things in God’s name! Why?”

What is the snakeskin, and why is it considered a good thing in the movie?”

We’re grateful to be living under the Lordship of God whose heart is so gracious and merciful. The rainbow at the end of the Biblical story (Genesis 9) is the rainbow that surrounds His throne in the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible: it tells us that God always sees us and acts toward us through the lens of hope! No matter what you see and hear and experience, God holds out hope for something much better – a new Stage 1 that He Himself will make for us. Stay tuned!

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