It isn’t very often that my obscure specialty—Jewish and Christian traditions about fallen angels—receives much popular attention, so Darren Aronofsky’s Noah presents a rare opportunity for me to geek out to the public at large. I’m not particularly interested in the controversy surrounding the movie, but rather how Aronofsky made use of a wide variety of ancient extra-biblical traditions associated with the Noah story in crafting his film.
SourcesThe biblical story of Noah, found in Genesis 6:7–9:29, would make a very short movie. The sparse (and sometimes contradictory) nature of the narrative led Jews and Christians over the centuries to expand upon the story and fill in the gaps. Many of these traditions have been preserved in the “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” (ancient Jewish and Christian writings that usually claim to be written by biblical figures), in Jewish midrash (rabbinic commentaries on the biblical text), and a variety of other religious and historical sources.
The WatchersPerhaps the most startling addition Aronofsky makes to the Noah story is the inclusion of the Watchers, who are explained in the film’s prologue to be angels who descended to earth to alleviate humanity’s suffering, only to be transformed into giant stone monsters resembling Rock Biter from the Neverending Story.
The story of the Watchers is derived from the preface to the flood story in Gen 6:1-4. These verses tell of “sons of God” who married “daughters of men” and fathered children who are called Gibborim (“mighty ones” or “heroes”) and Nephilim (“fallen ones”?) in Hebrew. The earliest Jewish interpretations of this verse understand the “sons of God” to be angels, and the Gibborim and Nephilim to be half-human, half-angel giants. The most detailed early version of this story comes from the Book of the Watchers, written around 250 BC, which is part of the larger Book of Enoch. The Book of Enoch was considered authoritative by many early Christians (it is even quoted in the New Testament), and remains part of the Bible of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
According to Enoch, the Watchers taught humanity a number of skills, including astrology, metal-working, and the use of herbs for medicine. This forbidden knowledge then leads humanity to sin and violence. In the film, the Watchers are portrayed as aiding humanity (first willingly, then as slaves) in constructing cities and building the industry that despoils the earth. But Aronofsky’s Watchers are much more sympathetic than they are in Enoch. They descend to earth to help humanity (an idea also found in the second century BC Book of Jubilees), and there is no hint of sexual impropriety. The Watchers themselves, not their children, are portrayed as giants. (Confusion between the fallen angels and the giant nephilim can be found in ancient sources as well.)
Most notably, in Enoch, the Watchers are bound in chains by the Archangels for their disobedience, but it is humans who enslave them in the movie. The film’s Watchers become more like the Greek Prometheus, who suffered for giving the gift of fire to help humanity. And while most Jewish and Christian portrayals are negative, there are a few hints in ancient sources for traditions in which the fallen angels and giants were seen as positive teachers—maybe even a story in which Noah is one of the giants!
The most prominent Watcher in the film is called Og. In the Bible, Og is the king of Bashan who fights against Moses during the Exodus. Og is said to be the last of a race of giants called Rephaim. Since Enoch and other traditions generally say that all of the giants died in the flood, the survival of Og is the subject of speculation in Jewish legends. In one version, he survives by clinging to the outside of the ark. The Babylonian Talmud identifies him as the grandson of the fallen angel Shemhazai.
Shemhazai appears in the film as Samyaza (the Ethiopic spelling of the name). In Enoch, he is the ring-leader who convinces the other angels to descend to earth. His punishment for this is to be bound by the archangel Michael beneath the earth until the final judgment. In one medieval midrash, however, he repents and is snatched up into the sky as a constellation. This is clearly the inspiration for the scene in which the Samyaza (and then the other Watchers) ask for forgiveness and ascend in their luminous forms. It is implied that they return to heaven, but in the midrash, Shemhazai spends eternity stuck halfway between.
One interesting addition Aronofsky makes to the story of the fallen angels is their transformation into living stone after they fall. I am unaware of any specific antecedent to this, but several medieval Jewish versions of the fallen angel myth state that when they fell, the angels gave up their spiritual forms and took on earthly bodies (this was to avoid the problematic issue of angels mating with humans). But I have to wonder if the stone giants might not be an allusion to the fossilized bones of dinosaurs. Numerous ancient sources report witnessing the bones of primordial giants, and some have speculated that these may have been the remains of prehistoric animals. Perhaps this was meant as a subtle jab at young-earth creationists, for whom fossils pose a particular difficulty.
Noah is Kind of a DickThe film’s portrayal of Noah as a tortured, morally-ambiguous figure may be jarring to modern audiences. Much of the film’s tension is built around the audience’s own doubts about Noah’s sanity. God does not address Noah in words the way he does in the biblical version. Instead, Noah experiences a series of visions. This places him more in the tradition of apocalyptic visionaries like Daniel and John of Patmos (traditional author of the Book of Revelation), but without an angel to interpret the visions. (Methuselah arguably takes on the role of angelus interpres.) So we are never 100% sure he understands God’s will, creating a powerful warning about the dangers of absolute faith.
But negative or equivocal portrayals of Noah are attested in earlier sources as well. Midrashic commentators note that scripture says Noah was blameless “in his generation.” Given the rabbinic assumption that the Torah doesn’t waste words, this implies that Noah’s righteousness was relative to the wickedest generation in history. The story of his naked drinking binge is entirely biblical, after all (Gen. 9:20-27), so a little suspicion was justified. In one story, he keeps doubting God right up until the water was up to his knees. In another, the reason the raven doesn’t return with news of land is because Noah was mean to it on the ark.
The notion that the animals were saved because they were innocent isn’t consistent with most interpretations. The Book of Jubilees makes it explicit that all flesh, even animals, were despoiled by the sins of humanity and the giants. Indeed, the idea that God would punish innocent animals for human sin was as troubling to writers of the past as it is to modern readers. Their solution was that the animals weren’t innocent, with one midrash explaining that animals started mating indiscriminately across species in imitation of humanity. The pairs (or sevens) of animals that were saved were the righteous among their kind!
And while I am aware of a few midrashim in which God didn’t intend to save anyone from the flood until Noah’s virtue convinced him otherwise, Noah’s declaration in the film that all humans, even his own family, were so innately tainted that they had to die, well, it struck me as remarkably…Christian—even Calvinist—for a movie by a Jewish director based on Jewish traditions.
Like Bill and Ted, many ancient writers wondered about the details of Noah’s wife, who is mentioned only in passing by Genesis. The film calls her Naameh, one of numerous names given to her in later traditions (one scholar counts 103). In the Bible, Naameh or Naamah is a descendent of Cain, and sister to Tubal-Cain, but the Rabbis disagree as to whether this is the same Naamah who married Noah. In some traditions, Naamah the Cainite was the very woman whose beauty caused the angels to fall, or even a demonic succubus. And while the film’s Naameh is shown as faithful and supportive, in other sources (including the Quran), his wife is often portrayed as unfaithful or selfish. In one version, she even sets the ark on fire!
Tubal-CainThe main heavy in the film is Tubal-Cain, who in the Bible is the descendant of Cain and the first person to forge iron (a skill he displays on screen). Numerous traditions sprung up around him, mostly bad, including some that place him in opposition to Noah before the flood. I am unaware of any stories in which he stows away on the ark (that was Og’s trick), but for the survival of the Cainite line, see my discussion of Ham below.
The FloodThe movie’s depiction of the flood picks and chooses from the details in Genesis. The waters rising up from the ground as well as falling from the sky is entirely in keeping with “the fountains of the great deep” bursting forth in the biblical text, and with the ancient belief that the earth rested atop a watery abyss.
MethuselahMethuselah, grandfather of Noah, was portrayed delightfully by Anthony Hopkins. In the film, Noah seeks out his grandfather on a distant mountain to explain his visions. This recalls a story found in a later section of the Book of Enoch, in which Noah seeks out not Methuselah, but his father, Enoch (who had been “taken” by God in Gen 5:24), at the ends of the earth, in order to understand his visions of the coming cataclysm.
Methuselah’s contented demise before the floodwaters (having finally found some berries) is also consistent with the Bible, which places Methuselah’s death at the same year as the flood. (At least, the standard Hebrew text does. The numbers in the Greek translation would have him surviving long after the flood.)
But the best moment in the movie is Methuselah’s bemusement at Noah’s vision of a flood:
“Water? Huh. My father said there would be fire.”
I laughed so loud the rest of the audience thought I was nuts.
Because, you see, Methuselah’s father, Enoch, did say there would be fire, but as a punishment for the fallen angels, not humanity.
I like movies with jokes just for me.
The film gives Noah’s son Ham a hard time, but so does the continuing tradition. The film leaves out the “Curse of Ham” (quite wisely, in my view, given its shameful legacy) that Noah lays upon Ham’s son, Canaan, after the incident with Noah’s drunken nudity. This bizarre bit of the Biblical narrative was as perplexing to readers of the past as it is today. Conjecture about Ham’s exact transgression against his father range from disrespect to rape to incestuous adultery to castration, but all of them leave Ham looking like a bad seed. Rabbinic traditions suggest he and his wife were the only ones to have sex on the ark, while medieval Kabbalistic writings claim he was descended from the demon Samael by way of Cain. And some Christian “Gnostics” said he was the son of a fallen angel, not Noah. So his film portrayal as a horny, petulant middle child is generous, all things considered.
ZoharNoah prominently features a glowing mineral called “zohar,” basically a cross between Unobtanium and yellow Kryptonite, that is used to power technology, start fires, etc. In Hebrew, zohar means “radiance,” and it is the title of the primary text of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah. Aronovsky’s familiarity with Kabbalah is evinced in his1998 movie Pi, but the connection to the obvious fossil-fuel-allegory in the film is obscure.
The mining of metals is one of the skills taught by the Watchers to humanity, and in the film, it is implied that antediluvian society disintegrated once most of the available zohar had been strip-mined. It is curious that the glow of zohar is almost identical to the glow within the rock-monster Watchers. One might even wonder if zohar is mined from dead watchers (extending the fossil metaphor even further), converting their luminous bodies into fuel.
A possible connection between zohar and the Zohar comes in the vision of creation in the movie. While the narration paraphrases the opening verses of Genesis, we see on-screen a stylized representation of evolution from single cells to apes. (Young-earth creationists may want to cover their eyes during this part.) We then see Adam and Eve in Eden, depicted as humanoid figures with glowing bodies. Glowing with the same radiance as zohar. Now, in the Zohar (and numerous other sources, ranging from the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo to Christian apocrypha), when Adam and Eve were first created, they were radiant beings, and it was only after the Fall that they lost this divine radiance. So it may be that the zohar in the movie is either the lost radiance of Adam, which his descendants waste, or possibly the divine radiance of the earth itself.
Meat and TechnologyThe film’s antediluvian world resembles a Mad Max post-industrial wasteland. Aronofsky makes an interesting move in portraying the pre-flood world as having a level of technology comparable, or even superior, to ours, at least before its collapse. The biblical text does credit Cain with founding the first city, and the continuing tradition makes much of the association between the Cainites and the evils of city life. In the Enochic literature, the technological knowledge provided by the Watchers is one of the causes of the corruption of the earth, so associating technology with sin is a logical extension of the theme. Some sources, like the Book of Jubilees, make it clear that the very earth itself became corrupt, which seems like a fair metaphor for pollution.
Some may be surprised by the depiction of Noah and his family as hippie vegetarians, but that is one of the most explicitly biblical details of the story. In Eden, Adam and Eve are only given permission to eat plants (Gen. 1:29-30), and it isn’t until after the flood that God extends this permission to eating animals (Gen. 9:1-5). With one caveat: they are not to eat meat with the blood still in it. In Judaism, the prohibition of eating meat with blood in it is considered one of the seven “Noahide laws” that apply to all humanity, not just humans. (Others include prohibiting murder, theft, and idolatry.)
It is thus very in keeping with the interpretive tradition that the film portrays the Cainites not only as eating meat, but as tearing the limbs from living animals. That’s just not kosher. In the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, the giants are the first to eat meat, and their desire for blood leads them to cannibalism (both of humans and one another). Noah’s visions of blood flooding from the Cainite camps recalls Jubilees, where the vast quantity of blood shed by the giants poisons the earth.
I also think it was brilliant to have Tubal-Cain secretly eating animals on the ark. The real cause of extinction was tasting good!
But sadly, I can find no literary precedent for the hyenadillo/armadingo that was being hunted in the beginning of the movie.
HerbsWe first encounter Noah in the film when he is out gathering herbs. Throughout the movie, Noah and his family demonstrate an advanced knowledge of medicinal herbs, including an herbal pregnancy test, not to mention their utterly ingenious solution to the logistical problems of the ark: put all the animals to sleep. Knowledge of herbs was one of the forbidden secrets taught to humanity by the watchers in Enoch. In Jubilees, however, the archangel Raphael teaches Noah how to use plants as medicine (after the flood), in order to protect the survivors from the diseases caused by the demonic spirits of the dead giants. The association between Noah and medicine endured, and several Jewish medical texts from late antiquity claim to be based on the angelic teachings given to Noah.
StarsA unique feature of Aronovsky’s vision of the world of Noah is that the stars are visible during the daytime. Personally, I choose to see it as a jab at Russell Crowe’s awful rendition of the song “Stars” in Les Misérables. It could also be a nod to inflationary cosmology and the metric expansion of space, in which all stars are accelerating away from each other, and a young universe would have been much smaller. But there are precedents for the idea that the flood also affected the configuration of the stars. The Watchers themselves are often identified with fallen stars or “wandering” planets. Several midrashim speculate that certain constellations resulted from events surrounding the flood. Regardless, I think it adds a marvelous mythic quality to the film, making it clear that its world isn’t the one we live in today.
AgesBeyond these additions, there are a few places where the film does directly contradict the biblical narrative. One of these is the problematic longevity of the antediluvian patriarchs. The Bible says Noah was 600 at the time of the flood, and lived until he was 950. The ages of his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth are less clear, since the text only states that they were born after Noah turned 500, but they could have been as old as 100 at the time of the flood. Regardless, in the biblical narrative, all three sons are adults with wives. This would have dissolved one of the main sources of narrative tension in the film, and given the difficulty modern audiences would have with the idea of 500-year-old characters, it seems like a fair compromise. Likewise, having Noah witness his father’s death (Batman style) as a child generates much more pathos than having Lamech die when Noah is 595.
There is no mention of the birth of Shem’s twin daughters in the Bible (Shem’s first son is born two years after the flood), but the Bible seldom mentions the birth of daughters anyway. While the Bible doesn’t specify, Canaan, the son of Ham, seems to have been born before or shortly after the flood, because, as we have seen, he is around to be cursed on his father’s behalf.
Snakeskin TefillinI know of no ancient precedent for the ritual involving the shed skin of the serpent, but the way the skin was bound around the arm is an obvious allusion to tefillin, small containers holding verses from the Torah that some Jews strap to their head and arms during prayer. Tefillin, which also figure prominently in Pi, are traditionally associated with remembrance of the Exodus (Ex. 13:9, 16; Deu. 6:9, 11:18), so what connection Aronovsky was making to Eden and the Fall is unclear.
ConclusionSo while Noah does not adhere slavishly to the biblical narrative (which would make for a very short film), it does participate in a long tradition of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who reinterpreted and adapted the biblical narrative for their own times and, yes, often to advance a specific theological or political agendas. (Jubilees, for instance, was in part a polemic against the influence of Greek culture on the Jews.) Aronofsky’s version of the Noah story is keenly aware that traditions are living things that develop over time, and draws upon the Noah story--or stories--as they were actually being told and repeated by believers down through the centuries. Not everything Aronofsky adds can be traced to ancient sources, but I have to applaud him for actually doing some research into how the Noah story was received and interpreted before embarking on his own interpretation.
And on an purely artistic note, Noah is just gorgeous. One scene is like a Gustav Dore engraving come to life: