I wrote about my enthusiasm for the film “Noah” in my last posting, and the response was overwhelming. First, the number who appreciated my take on the film; and second, the genuine desire to dig deeper into some of the issues related to the story, and specifically, questions about some of the dynamics of the film itself.
What was in the Bible, and what wasn’t? What was fair artistic license, and what was just flat-out contradictory to Scripture?
Here’s a little primer on the three biggest questions that I hope will serve:
1. What is up with the “Watchers”?
I know, rock creatures that borrow from Peter Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s Ents was a curve ball for any viewer. This was clearly an area where the movie’s director, Darren Aronofsky took some serious artistic liberties.
But what does the Bible actually say?
The Bible refers to the intermarriage between the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men,” and then shortly thereafter, references that another antediluvian (before the flood) dynamic was the presence of the Nephilim (referred to as the “Watchers” in the movie).
The “sons of God” were not fallen angels, as their intermarriage with human women would not only have violated the created order, but it is highly doubtful that a demon (which is what a fallen angel would have been) would be referred to as a “son of God.” They would not have been righteous angels, either, for they would not have been sinning against God in this way. Jesus settled the matter, anyway, when he taught that angels neither marry nor are given in marriage.
Most would see the phrase “sons of God” as referring to godly men, and "daughters of men" referring to sinful women (note they are not called "daughters of God"), undoubtedly women from the line of Cain. So here you have the intermarriage of the men of Seth with the women of Cain - a loss of the purity of the people of God. You could also read the "sons of God" as royal figures, which kings were called in those days, who set themselves up as deity. The key is that here men were crossing God’s marital boundary lines.
So then who were the Nephilim? The Bible notes that they were the “heroes of old, men of renown.” Beyond the reference in the story of Noah in Genesis 6, they are also mentioned in Numbers 13 as the people of great size that Caleb and Joshua and the other spies encountered when they explored the Promised Land.
However, the mention of their size was clearly an exaggeration on the part of the spies who wanted to argue against the positive report offered by Caleb and Joshua. So here were simply mighty men of wealth, strength or valor. The Hebrew word literally means "the fallen ones" indicating that in the eyes of other men they were heroes and princes, but in God’s eyes they were those who chose a life of sin.
So where did the idea of the Nephilim being fallen angels, or the offspring of fallen angels and humans, originate? The pseudepigraphal and noncanonical writing known as I Enoch (6:1-7:6). This legend was later picked up and promoted by the Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 1.3.1). Also, a Greek translation of the Old Testament in the 3rd century erroneously translated “sons of God” as “angels of God.” And while “sons of God” can refer to “angels of God” in other contexts (e.g., Job 1:6, 2:1 and 38:7), it clearly does not fit here.
So what to make of the rock creatures of the movie? Let’s just say that of all the options of interpretation, Aronofsky took the most dubious one.
Now, before we go further, if you haven’t seen the movie, then SPOILER ALERT.
You’ve been warned.
2. What was up with Noah wanting to kill the twins?
That is nowhere in Scripture, neither Shem’s wife giving birth to twins on the ark, or Noah thinking they needed to be murdered to ensure the total ending of the human race. That was a dramatic plot created by the writers of the movie. Now, could it have been true? Yes. Noah could have misunderstood God’s end game – and thankfully, the movie makes it clear that Noah did misunderstand the Creator on that point. But it’s fanciful conjecture on the part of the writers. This, to me, was artistic license. There only would have been a problem if, instead of in the misunderstanding mind of Noah, they tried to actually make it the call of obedience from the Creator. Fortunately, they didn’t. It was all part of Noah as a tortured soul (and he may very well have been – many biblical heroes were), searching out the intent of God with a resolve to obey.
3. What was up with the “magic” that seems to run through the antediluvian world?
Rocks that strike and create fire, plants that grow instantly, and Noah’s grandfather (Methuselah) seemed to have powers along the lines of Gandalf. All in all, it seemed to be offering raw fantasy completely out of synch with the biblical tale. But as many Christian reviewers have noted, such as Alissa Wilkinson in Christianity Today, the world was different before the flood than it was afterward. People no longer had the longevity of living hundreds of years; there was a different relationship between humans and animals; it apparently never rained; and snakes walked on legs (at least, one did).
So yes, artistic license was taken to imagine this very different world that changed so dramatically after the flood.
It should be noted that there is a difference between the Jewish tradition of Midrash, which is using your imagination to fill in gaps, and contradiction, which is purporting something that contradicts your source. In various interviews, Aronofsky made it clear that he was very much attempting Midrash. And, of course, he had to. The account of Noah is quite short, stripped of almost all dialogue, and does not offer long descriptive discourses. There was some contradiction (unlike the movie’s version, all of Noah’s sons did have wives and brought them on to the boat), but the nature of the antediluvian world was ripe for imagination, and Aronofsky took advantage of it.
So if you haven’t read the original blog praising the movie, you can read it here. Regardless, if you’ve seen the movie, I hope this helps. But once you get past some of these issues, wrestle with the biggest one of all the movie puts forward:
Our sin before a holy God, and the issue of His justice in relation to His mercy.
James Emery White
On the Nephilim, see Walter C. Kaiser, Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce and Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (InterVarsity Press).
“Movie Review: Noah,” Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today, March 27, 2014, read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones, is now available for pre-order. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.