Noah story not for conservatives

Thursday, April 3, 2014
Russel Crowe stars in Noah.

Noah
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Russell Crowe & Jennifer Connolly
In cinemas now

The self-avowed atheist Darren Aronofsky, who directed the recently released Hollywood epic Noah, called it the “least biblical biblical film ever”.

Christian critics, such as National Religious Broadcaster president Jerry Johnson, were quick to agree. Johnson accused the film of having an “extreme environmentalist agenda” and supporting the theory of evolution.

I couldn’t disagree more with both Aronofsky and Johnson. Unlike the Bible storybook versions of Noah, this film includes accurate portrayals of arcane biblical characters such as Methuselah and Tubal-Cain. It also includes the mysterious Watchers (fallen angel-like beings) of Genesis 6:1-4.

It even includes the embarrassing incident in Genesis 9:20-29 of Noah (played by Russell Crowe) getting plastered when he discovers wine, and having an unfortunate (and ambiguous) naked encounter with his son Ham.

Conservative scholars like to breeze over these unedifying details, and give a Disneyfied, PG version of Noah. But Aronofsky’s warts-and-all reading of Noah, with its “green agenda”, gets something of both the Noah myth, and the ancient Semitic mythical world-view, that the traditional, Christianised re-tellings miss.

Biblical stories can easily be used to support all sorts of social agendas, and such churchified versions of Noah try to convince people (mostly children) of two conservative ideas which I think are totally unintended by the story itself:

First, the “God punishes naughty people, so behave” disciplinary moral.Second, that science is wrong — the earth is 6000 years old and people used to live for over 600 years.

Let’s start with the science, because it’s such a glaring issue.

Creationist Ken Ham’s recent public debate with Bill Nye (“the science guy”) at the Creation Museum included a lengthy and totally perplexing section on the science of building arks, and the feasibility of one being built 4000 years ago by a 600-year-old man named Noah.

This debate fizzled about the time Nye asked Ham if there was a kangaroo on the ark, and why haven’t we found any remains of it on its journey to Australia.

As bad, if not worse, than Ham’s appalling science was his appalling anthropology and total insensitivity to the function of a good myth. Any attempt to take mythology as a record of literal events will result in this kind of absurdity.

The power of mythology is its ability to describe the meaning of human life and resolve deep dialectical tensions (such as, in this case, the tensions between chaos and order, justice and kindness, ecological priorities and the value of human life).

In order to get at the meaning of the text, modern readers have to first “demythologise” the stories — separate the deeper meaning of the story out from its mythological assumptions about the shape of the cosmos.

The communities who originally told these stories were not concerned with advocating a pre-modern picture of the world, but proclaiming a message about humanity and justice, to which the “world picture” is incidental.

This ancient Hebrew cosmology, as described in the opening chapters of Genesis, starts with the world in a state of chaos, or a primeval flood described by the word tehom. This word is probably derived from the same origin as Ti’amat, the ancient Babylonian dragon of chaos from whose carcass the gods created the world.

Genesis 1:1-2 describes God moving over the chaotic waters, and slowly transforming them into a world of order.

In this new order, God places a great dome, separating the chaotic waters above from those below (Genesis 1:6), and allowing a world to be created under the dome. The dome was named “heaven” or “sky”. It is under this dome that ancient Jewish people believed the whole world lived.

Much like many ancient Mesopotamian religions, the Israelite view is based on this idea about a cosmic battle between God and chaos, which God wins. The Noah saga in Genesis 6-9 should be understood as part of this battle between order and chaos. The flood is actually not an example of extreme weather, but a complete breakdown of the Hebrew cosmology.

Biblical theologian Gerhard Von Rad describes it as follows: “The heavenly sea, which is above the firmament, empties downward through latticed windows … when the heavenly ocean breaks forth upon the Earth below, and the primeval sea which is beneath the earth, which is restrained by God, now freed from its bonds, gushes up through the yawning chasms onto the earth, then there is a destruction of the entire cosmic system.”

This leads to the second way this myth is misused to reinforce conservative social norms — what was the cause of this breakdown? Were Noah’s contemporaries dissolute people who refused to obey conservative moral norms?

At least since the Middle Ages, there has been a belief among Christian commentators on Noah that the flood was a punishment for having unnatural sex with the Watchers.

But that is not what the biblical text says. In Genesis 3-5 (the section between creation and flood), it is violence and injustice that begin to take over the world.

Upon expulsion from paradise, Adam and Eve are cursed by God with gender inequality (3:16) and harsh labour (3:17-19), although God predicts that Eve's offspring will be able to eventually “crush the serpent’s head”, and so overcome these injustices.

How ironic that these verses that were intended to show how unnatural sexism and exploitation are to the human condition, and imply that humanity can liberate itself from them, are often used by Christians to justify those very unjust social structures as part of divine design.

Adam and Eve’s first child Cain kills his brother Abel in a fit of jealousy, and this seems to damage the cosmic order of things as the ground cries out to God for justice (4:10). Aronofsky represents this in Noah’s dreams. On two occasions, he steps onto the earth, looks at the sole of his shoe and sees in horror that it has blood on it, which is oozing from the ground.

This is a representation of how violence and injustice affects the cosmic order — the ground itself is bleeding. Violence is not a purely individual phenomenon, it is systemic, it makes the order of things sick.

In one of the most brilliant scenes in the movie, the silhouette of this first primeval murder by Cain morphs into killings and murders from all ages in human history. It features various military clothing styles from different eras and also period weaponry.

Jewish commentators, such as the medieval Rabbi Rashi, understand this growth of violence to refer to a spreading of injustice, and a lack of solidarity in human society. Jewish theologian Jon Levenson’s book, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, claims that the injustice in the world in Noah’s time was “threatening to undo the work of creation”.

Injustice breaks down the order of the world, and threatens to allow the primeval chaos of Genesis 1 to break back in to the order of the world, wreaking havoc.

There is some wisdom we can glean from a de-mythologised reading of Noah, which does not reinforce outdated morality. That is, the Noah story warns us that extreme weather has a social cause.

All ancient societies instinctively understood this, without any need for meteorologists and climate science. If we treat the natural world in a wise way, we can live at peace with it. But if we are greedy and violent, this will bring chaos and cause great suffering.

The flip side is that by creating more just social structures, living in harmony with nature, and refusing to participate in violence, we can work with God to tame the chaos monster and bring about order and peace.

[Karl Hand is a pastor of Crave Metropolitan Community Church in Sydney and a member of the Socialist Alliance. he blogs at Discipleship for Critical Thinkers.]

From GLW issue 1004

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