The stories in the Bible are timeless speaking powerfully and eloquently to every generation. The new film Noah, about the maverick and intrepid Israelite prophet who made an ark to escape the global flood, highlights how contemporary the message of the Bible truly is, writes Paul Vallely.
What is important in the new biblical Hollywood blockbuster film Noah, according to one of its stars Emma Watson, is the idea that it could take place in any time. ‘It could be set a thousand years in the future or a thousand years in the past,’ she says. ‘You shouldn’t be able to place it too much.’ That is biblically as well as cinematically apt. Noah, like so much else in the Scriptures, is set in one era but applies to every age. Each era needs its own Noah because he holds a mirror to our time. Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s film could inhabit some dark medieval past – but he could equally live in some dystopian future when civilisation has been laid to waste by nuclear war or apocalyptic climate change.
‘Noah is a very short section of the Bible with a lot of gaps,’ said the film’s producer Scott Franklin, ‘so we definitely had to take some creative expression in it.’ And that expression is distinctly contemporary.
Genesis was not the start of the story of a flood that covers the entire earth, in which human and animal life is saved from extinction by one maverick hero with a boat. There are older accounts, at least 1000 years older, which can be traced back to a story called the Epic of Gilgamesh, which survives in various versions from the Sumerian and Babylonian periods of ancient Mesopotamia. Yet that may not be the beginning either. Tales of a Great Flood can be found in folk traditions across the world: from Egypt, Greece, Lithuania, Syria, India and Japan to the Americas and the Antipodes.
The figure of Noah in the Old Testament is drawn from at least two distinct sources, which is why there are contradictions or variations from one part of the text to another. They represented the two of the four great sources which run like threads through the Hebrew scriptures – the Priestly source, from the late 7th century BC, and the older Jahwist, composed in the 10th century BC. Both input into the parts of Genesis which concern Noah. Centuries after the Priestly account some editor, around the 5th century BC, tried to marry the two independent and sometimes conflicting sources. He was not entirely successful, which is why there is confusion over how many pairs of animals Noah brought into the Ark, and how long the Flood lasted.
But recent research by the British Museum scholar Dr Irving Finkel shows some details go back even further. He has just discovered, on a clay Babylonian cuneiform tablet the size of a mobile phone, a reference to animals of every species entering an ark.
The tablet is essentially a ‘how to build an ark’ guide. Finkel shrieked with excitement when he discovered on the clay the rare cuneiform sign sana. It was in the passage describing the animals entering the boat. Sana was a Babylonian accounting term, elsewhere used in reckoning up pairs of shoes. It means ‘two by two’ – the phrase which has entered the language to evoke the word of Genesis: ‘And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.’
The Genesis story too is myth. We know that from its assertion that Noah was 600 years old at the time of the Flood and lived until he was 950. But something important marked out the Jewish myth from the ones which pre-dated it. Those earlier stories offered no explanation for this watery destruction of the world. One version of Gilgamesh suggested that the gods decided on annihilation because mankind had become too noisy. But most Flood sagas do not concern themselves with reasons but rather focus solely on the valiant struggle of a intrepid hero against all manner of perils, in a quest for survival, self-knowledge and sometimes immortality.
The Bible’s Noah was different. That was because he came in an era which saw a key shift in human spiritual development. This was the time when the many gods of the ancient world were being replaced by just one God. It was this new monotheism which saw in the Flood a mechanism by which to hold humankind to account for its moral misdeeds. That was a revolutionary notion in the ancient world. Previously gods had been like larger versions of men whose unfathomable will was whimsical. But this was a different God.
At the start of Genesis ‘God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good’. That is paralleled, in reverse, later in Genesis when, just before the Flood, later ‘God saw the earth, and behold it was corrupt’.
Noah was to be saved as an exceptional man ‘righteous in his generation’ but the rest of creation was to be destroyed and renewed. This was the first Flood which spoke of catastrophe a punishment. It was part of the story of moral decline which followed the exit of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
Indeed, in some ways it was an inversion of that paradisiacal creation. As the theologian PJ Harland put it: ‘There is a fundamental concept of the binary nature of created existence: there is heaven and earth, light and darkness, day and night, upper and lower waters, sea and land, plants and trees, sun and moon, fish and birds, animals and man, male and female, sacred time and non-sacred time. The Flood, however, represents a reversal of these principles of order.’
The Flood is what another theologian described as ‘uncreation’. And the Ark came to be seen as a symbolic foreshadow of the Church as the only vehicle through which believers could be saved. The First Epistle of Peter says that baptism saves individuals in the way that the Ark saved those who were carried inside it. St Augustine of Hippo suggested in The City of God that the dimensions of the Ark correspond to the dimensions of the human body, which corresponds to the body of Christ.
Each era continued to reinterpret the story. Nuh (Noah) in Islam became a prototype for the prophets that follow, including Muhammad. Nuh in the Qur’an is not believed by a people who subsequently pay the price for their mockery. In Victorian England the first geologists used the Flood to explain odd features in the landscape. In the period before Ice Age glaciation was understood, scientists spoke of moraines and erratics as Reliquiae Diluvianae, relics of the flood.
This latest cinematic Noah is drawn for an age in which scientists say they are 95 per cent certain that the extremities of storms, floods, droughts and atmospheric pollution are amplified by humanity’s over-exploitation of the planet.
Russell Crowe’s Noah is a radical environmentalist. He is a vegan with a simple nomadic life, who chastises his son for picking a flower just because it is pretty. This Noah’s family is set against a greedy meat-eating group descended from the murderous Cain. Their leader (Ray Winstone) is a violent warlord who runs an avaricious mining operation which is turning the earth into a barren wasteland.
Conservative Christians in the United States have criticised this as unbiblical. It is quite the opposite. Crowe and Winstone stand as contrasting personifications of the two ideas in Genesis of Man as steward of the planet and Man who has been given dominion over the earth, and abuses it.
Both those are authentic threads in a biblical account which was written as the Bronze Age was giving way to the Iron Age and hunting was giving way to cultivation. The Israelites, following a generation wandering in the wilderness, had just arrived to lay claim to the Promised Land (despite the fact that, as in Israel today, the land was already occupied). The people who had lived peaceably as wandering shepherds developed an altogether more combative attitude when they became settled farmers.
Elements of both ways of life can be found in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the bible. Deuteronomy says: ‘If when out walking, you come across a bird’s nest in a tree or in the ground, with chicks or eggs and the mother sitting on the chicks, let the mother go: the young you may take for yourself. So shall you prosper and have a long life.’
It was a lifestyle which produced a particular attitude to wealth. The whole clan prospered or declined together, according to what nature provided. If the rains were good and their journeying brought them to rich pastureland the cattle and sheep of each family would grow fat as did those of his neighbour. The surplus was shared or used to provide to guests the hospitality of the desert which each family knew they might need themselves in some future year when the weather was uncharitable or if some enemy staged a successful raid. It fostered also an ethic of sufficiency – of having enough but no more.
But the Israelites became a settled people, who demanded kings and the luxuries of the settled town life which became the received wisdom to such a degree it was dubbed civilisation – after civis, the occupant of a city. The nomadic ethic of sufficiency was replaced by an ethic of materialism and acquisition. So Noah for the 21st century becomes an environmental morality tale. In the film it is still God who wreaks vengeance. But in the decades to come it may be the planet itself which raises its temperature to sweep away noisy abusive troublesome humanity.
The story of Noah speaks to us today, as it always has, but with a resonance which is distinctly contemporary.