What can Darren Aronofsky's Noah teach us about the Western cultural tradition?

About a year ago, I went to see Darren Aronofsky’s Noah not long after it hit the cinemas. I always cringe whenever Hollywood produces anything vaguely Biblical, and probably would not have gone to see this film, if a friend hadn’t bought me a ticket. There was a huge hue and cry from Christian viewers that this film was “not true to the Bible” (big surprise!), and even the offer of a free ticket might not have swayed me if a review by Barbara Nicolosi hadn’t assured me that there were many other reasons to hate this “terrible, terrible” film. I will admit, sometimes I just enjoy seeing something truly, laughably awful (this probably counts as “concupiscence of the eyes”), and Noah looked like it was going to be one of those, so off to the cinema I went.



I found the film to be every bit as terrible as I had expected, just on purely cinematic grounds: a nonsensical story, inconsistent characterization, illogical motivation, goofy CG effects, etc. However, unlike many viewers, I did not hate it “because it wasn’t true to the Bible” — because it was pretty clear to me that the story Aronofsky chose to tell was not the story of Noah found in Genesis — although I wasn’t really sure where all the weird bits come from. So, after I watched it, I did a little digging and discovered that, in fact, his source text was the Book of Enoch, a non-canonical Jewish text with strong gnostic overtones whose interpretation of the Great Flood grows out of a long tradition of Jewish mysticism. In other words, Aronofsky wanted to bring to the screen a non-Biblical (but thoroughly Jewish) version of Noah and the Great Flood.

First tip-off that Aronofsky's Noah was not based on the Bible?
The weird prominence of snakes.
It’s too bad that Darren Aronofsky didn’t advertise his film as being derived from the Book of Enoch, rather than Genesis — I, for one, might have watched the movie more attentively and with greater appreciation. Such publicity might also have disarmed the readiness of Christian viewers to take offense when none was intended. And, then again, it might have been a good thing to let the semi-educated general American public know (or recall) that there are many ancient accounts of the Great Flood that are quite different than the version found in the Bible.

Virtually every ancient culture told tales of a prehistoric deluge that wiped out almost all life on earth, stories that became deeply embedded in that culture’s mythology of the beginning of all this and were handed down through countless generations. Most of them have been forgotten by the great mass of humanity, and even when one or another of them is taught in some comparative religion course, it's usually so that everyone can say, “See? All kinds of primitives made up these stories. Just like the Bible.”

And I'll bet you don't remember these guys
from Sunday school, either.
I’m neither qualified nor inclined to argue the historicity of the event(s) recounted in these stories — although, since I don’t go in for Jungian criticism, I will point out that there must have been some global event that gave rise to these myths. Instead, I’d like to do something closer to my own field of expertise by repeating, here on this blog,  an exercise in comparative mythology that I used to do in my college Humanities classes. Many of the students arrived at the beginning of the semester already convinced that (a) “myth” meant “a bunch of weird, made-up stories that people used to believe way-back-when because they were to stupid to know any better,” and/or (b) all their professors were “liberals” (hey, why do you think they call it “liberal arts”?), bent on convincing them that Christianity is just another big, stupid myth that educated people are smart enough not to believe. If they had wound up in anyone’s class but my own, they might have found those prejudices confirmed. However, I was determined to get them to see that mythology is not a bunch of lies, but the way a particular people tries to articulate and to pass on their understanding of why the world is the way it is, and how we should live as a result.

What I did in that course, and would like to repeat in this forum, is to examine several myths about the Great Flood, all from ancient cultures that gave rise to our Western culture. I’m sure that, as we go along, you’ll notice immediately (as my college students generally did) that these accounts all share several salient features. I’ll point these out as we go along. However, my real interest is not in the ways they resemble each other but in the ways they differ. That’s where we’ll see what truths the myth was meant to convey. God, as they say, is in the details.

If you want to read along with me, the first we’ll look at is the Sumerian flood myth found in the Epic of Gilgamesh (click the link to read it free online). If you’d like, you can also read a very similar, somewhat later, version from the neighboring Akkadian culture here. So, get reading, and think about which features of this account you found most striking and why — save your ideas to leave in the comments next time. Meanwhile, let me know in the comments to this post if you saw Aronofsky’s Noah, and what you most liked or disliked about it.

If you would like to know what Jewish viewers thought of Noah, read this review by Marc Erlbaum or this one by Rabbi Eliyahu Fink.
©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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