Noah: the movie and the myth

by Linda McMillian

For three years I taught English for Academic Purposes and English for Business in a university in eastern China. It was a fun and exhilarating time, and I found many things to interest me. But in the evenings, when all of us expat teachers would gather for a cool beer, the one thing we often spoke of was the wacky western names our students had chosen for themselves. Oh, sure, there were plenty of Peters, Marys, and Janes too. But there was also Dime, Tomcat, and King. Who could forget River, Sheriff, or Jupiter? And Ark. There was a boy named Ark.

I never asked my students what they might have been thinking when they came up with their western names. As long as they were happy, that was good enough for me. But I happened to be friends with Ark’s mother, and, one day, I asked her about it. She is a passionate and expressive Chinese woman, middle-aged and newly middle class. “Oh, teacher,” she said, grabbing my forearm, “Ark have all my hope, my mother hope, my grandmother hope. All the hope in Ark.” And I asked her if she had heard of Noah and his famous ark? Turns out, that’s where she got the idea.

So as I watched Noah’s ark twist over the raging seas and across the silver screen last week, I thought of Ark Ding and the hopes that he carries. And I’ve been thinking about arks and their stories quite a lot since then.

There are only two genuine arks in the Bible: Noah’s now-famous ark, and the ark that floated Moses to safety. (The other ark, the Ark of the Covenant, is actually more of a chest; the ancient word is not the same, so modern translations may be confusing on that point.)

They have quite a lot in common, these two arks. Both were made for floating: one on a river, one on flood waters. Both arks hid their occupants: The ark that held baby Moses hid him from death, and Noah’s ark hid him from the power of the accusing angel. Moses’ ark protected him from the violence of the Egyptian city-state, and Noah’s ark protected him — and whoever else was with him — from the wrath of God. Thus, the Hebrew people were saved by Moses, just as humanity itself had been saved by Noah and his followers. Both arks protected a precious cargo, both became famous, and both have been the star of a Hollywood movie.

In general, it shouldn’t take too long to build an ark, but the Christian Bible says that it took Noah 120 years to build his. Why so long? Well, Islamic tradition holds that Noah had to first grow the trees before he could start building — so that would account for a good many years. I don’t know much about ark building, but I do know that 120 years is the number appointed for man to live (Genesis 6:3). I don’t know of anyone who has actually made it to 120, but the detail is there for us to use in our storytelling. So when I read that it took Noah 120 years to build an ark, I think that the ark must have been the work of his lifetime, the crowning achievement of his days on Earth. So, I think that we can re-frame those words as “It took the best years of Noah’s life, and was his crowning achievement.”448px-Noah_mosaic.JPG

This makes Noah a lot like my friend in China. Her Ark, too, is the crowning achievement of her life. Building the child into a man is her work and her reward. It is her full-time job to get Ark into the best schools, to arrange the best tutors, to schedule the examinations and interviews. She is building an ark for all her hopes. I wonder if crusty old Noah could ever have imagined that, one day, he would inspire a delicate and sophisticated woman in a land he had never heard of?

Of course, we can’t know that Noah was crusty at all. We are just telling stories… all of us. Darren Aronofsky, the director of the new film Noah, is telling us his story on the big screen, but he is not the first one to tell a story about a flood. The one closest to our own Christian version is probably the Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells of how Utnapishtim built an ark to save himself and his family. In this story, God is called Ea, but he appears to be the same character who was previously called Enki by the Sumerians, and who would later be called Yahweh, the Lord God, and A’llah.

Search out the histories of such diverse places as Malaysia, Burma, and Australia and you will find stories of a great flood. Closer to hime, the Hopi, Inca, and Caddo all have flood stories. And I imagine that my Chinese friend, Ark Ding’s mother, would be happy to tell you about their flood story in which A-zie and his sister, survived in a bottle gourd. After a bit of wrangling, they managed to repopulate the world but it’s a bizarre story. You should look it up.

So, you see, there are lots of stories. In fact, there are as many stories as there are storytellers because, if we are honest, we all put our own spin on things.

In the weeks since the movie Noah has come out, we have been treated to a variety of “What’s wrong with Noah” commentaries. So let me just be clear about something—there is nothing at all wrong with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah story, my Noah story, or your Noah story. There may be parts of the story that are also historically, archaeologically, or scientifically true, but these are theological stories that we tell one another so that we can know God more fully. Their historical or scientific significance is secondary.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love the science. Science, or history, or archeology can be true or false, and they broaden our understanding. But stories are true. That’s the nature of stories. So, when Darren Aronofsky tells his Noah story, it is as true as any other story.

There were some things I liked about the movie, and some that I wished were different. You will no doubt have the same experience if/when you see it.

For one thing, I did not care for Aronofsky’s depiction of the fallen angels, or for his portrayal of Methusaleh’s death. But his depiction challenged me and caused me to revisit my own Noah story and to clarify my thinking about it. Isn’t that what a good story does?

I did like the film’s juxtaposition of fire and water. Both are destroyers. Both are purifiers. And they are both the gatekeepers to the Hebrew concept of Shalom which begins with a Shin (the kabbalistic letter for fire) and ends with a Mem (the kabbalistic letter for water.) Lamed, the middle letter in shalom (Shin, Lamed, Mem) is thought to be a grand and broad place. Lamed is the chief of all the letters, towering above the rest. We only arrive at the Holy Lamed of Shalom after we have been through the water or through the fire. Maybe both. So somebody did their Kabbalah homework when they wrote that bit in.

As for the “Crazy Noah” motif, I didn’t have a problem with it. It wasn’t part of my own Noah story when I entered the theater, but I am glad that Darren Aronofsky introduced that to me. I think it makes a lot of sense. After all, the process of deciding to build an ark far from water with nary a rain cloud in sight should make one a little bit crazy. The movie shows Noah struggling, consulting with others, and sometimes missing it altogether. Frankly, I can relate. I don’t need a hero who is perfect. But my take-away from Aronofsky’s Noah story is that, if a guy like Noah can be a hero, so can I. Because I make big mistakes too.

Noah_islam.jpgOne of the big mistakes Noah makes in Aronofsky’s film is that at one point he decides to ensure that all humanity is erased. But there is a funny take on this in the Islamic tradition. In that tradition, Noah preached and begged the people to repent. He really did do his best. But in the end he had only convinced 76 other people to join him in the ark. Even one of his sons didn’t get on board (Koran 11:42). It was in utter frustration and despair that Noah prayed to God that he wipe everyone off the face of the earth (Koran 71:26). Later the writers of the Psalter would be equally passionate in their frustration and anger (Bible, Psalm 137), but we don’t say that they were crazy—just that they were frustrated and angry. Darren Aronofsky let this facet of the story play out in a different way, but it is not something he made up out of thin air—it’s part of other stories too.

Some people have made a lot of the fact that Darren Aronofsky does seem to make things up to fill in the canonical gaps. One of the things that I’ve heard is that Noah’s wife is named and her character is fleshed out into full humanity. (Yeah, people complain about that.) But just because she wasn’t named in the canonical version doesn’t mean that Noah’s wife did not have a name or a history. Just turn to Bereshit Rabba 23:3, where you can read that her name was Na’amah, which means “pleasant one.” The passage goes on to say that she was the sister of Tuval Cain… just like in the movie.

The biggest complaint I’ve heard from Christians is that it just doesn’t seem very good of God to destroy the whole world. They think it makes Christianity look bad. But that is part of the story too. It’s a story, remember? I think the story of Noah is a colorful reminder to us that we are living in a world that really is going straight to Hell, but that those of us who have been given an ark have also been given a responsibility to fill it up.

The good news is that there is a way out of the overwhelming waters, an escape from the smoke and fire. If you have the good news, if your ark is sitting high in the water, then it’s time to get busy and fill it up. If Jesus comes back tomorrow — we’re telling stories remember — then I want him to find my ark so crowded with joyful converts that it is about to capsize! I don’t want to drift into heaven on the QE2. There’s not a story about that.

So go see the movie. It’s a good story. Think and re-think your own stories and tell them to one another. We’re all going to get through the water, and we need our stories to help us on the way.

Linda “Lindy” McMillan is a native of the American state of Texas. She currently resides in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Lindy’s vocation is adventure, expressed in the ministry of loving the world back to its peace in God.

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