SPOILER ALERT! Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen Noah (which you should definitely go see).
Personally, I loved the movie Noah and think we should be glad that it beat out Divergent and Muppets Most Wanted (both of which are also good movies) at the box office this past weekend. Thousands of people watched a movie based on a Bible story highlighting questions of goodness and wickedness, justice and mercy. Those are conversations worth having and hopefully it provoked many to explore the Genesis account and discuss the movie with their Christian friends.
Many Christians, of course, were upset by any deviations from the Biblical account — or from their own interpretation of the Biblical account. While I hope many non-Christians dive into Scripture, I’m also hoping Christians revisit the narrative as well to discern what is actually in the Bible and what are the gaps they’ve filled in themselves.
Toward that end, some thoughts on elements of the film:
The Watchers. I assume there’s a Biblical reason for it, since everyone does it, but the filmmakers followed most Christians’ example and conflated the “sons of God” with the Nephilim, who are both mentioned in Genesis 6:4. No one really knows what either was, although one of the most common interpretations of the “sons of God” is that they were fallen angels who wanted to sleep with human women — we should probably be grateful the filmmakers opted for a different interpretation. The Nephilim were some sort of giants — they’re called “men of renown,” so I suspect they were more human in appearance than the film portrays. The Nephilim are mentioned again in Scripture — they are the giants in the Promised Land in relation to whom the Jewish spies felt like grasshoppers (Numbers 13:33). I found the backstory given to the Watchers to be fascinating, even if the Ent-like rock creatures themselves weren’t my favorite interpretation (see Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters for that).
Vegetarianism. This is where I really want Christians to re-read their Bibles. It sure doesn’t seem to me that God gives humans permission to eat animals until after the flood (see Genesis 9). Prior to that, they only talk of eating plants. Abel does raise flocks (possibly for wool?) and sacrifice animals to God, but there’s no mention of eating them. I’m as carnivorous as the next guy, but that doesn’t change the fact that Noah was probably a vegetarian before the flood. To suggest that the wickedness of man included eating animals when they weren’t supposed to makes sense to me.
Environmentalism. More broadly, is there an environmental angle to the film? Well, it is portraying a Biblical tale where God wipes out all humans but one family while preserving the animals, so it’s kind of hard to avoid a somewhat pro-environment message. But also, keep in mind that we’re dealing with a mere 10 generations after the Creation, among peoples whose history would be primarily oral. It makes complete sense that God is referred to as “The Creator” and that those who follow Him believe it’s important to preserve those things He’d declared to be “good” in the Creation account. I also found the reference to taking only what we need to be reflective of a culture that lives much more closely to the land than we do today. They’d be more akin to the tribal cultures we are familiar with than our own cultural context. Rather than reacting against what we may interpret as environmental propaganda, let’s use this as an opportunity to wrestle through to a better understanding of Scriptural context.
The Wives. Did Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives enter the ark? Technically, yes — two of the wives just did so within the belly of the third. Granted, this is a significant deviation from what we assume happened based on the bare bones description in the Biblical account, but it did set up a very interesting question worth wrestling with — do we trust in God’s provision or do we try to meet our needs our own way? Interestingly, it was in trying to meet the need his own way that Noah got messed up in the head and decided that humanity should end with his family, which then blinded him to God’s provision for that need. And before you say, “Eww, gross, you wanted Ham and Japheth to marry their nieces?”, be reminded that logic dictates a lot of intermarriage in the first few generations of humanity.
Noah Goes Nuts. Well, the drunk, naked Noah is Scriptural, so they had to set that up somehow, right? Actually, I felt like it raised a lot of interesting questions about hearing from God. In the Biblical account, God simply “speaks” and Noah acts, but there’s no record of Noah responding to or interacting with God. With the Bible, we too often fall prey to forgetting that its characters were people like us who experienced God in many ways similar to our own. We assume a big, booming voice from heaven very clearly told Noah what to do. The suggestion that his instructions actually came by way of visions and his grandfather is intriguing. And the suggestion that he got his wires crossed and misunderstood (when he wanted to kill his grandkids) is humbling. Maybe there aren’t as high of stakes, but how often do we wrestle with whether or not we’ve clearly understood God? And how often are we more certain of what God said than we should be?
The Creation Account. I loved the scene where Noah recounts Creation. And I thought the filmmakers did an excellent job of walking a fine line of leaving evolution open as a possibility without declaring it to have happened that way.
Methusaleh’s Death. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that if you do the math, Methusaleh dies the year of the flood. I’m glad they kept it that way.
Animals 2 by 2. I’ve heard Christians compliment them on getting this right, when actually this is one area they got wrong. While there was one pair of each of the unclean animals, there were 7 pairs of the clean animals (Genesis 7:2-3). This is a place where filmmakers stuck to the popular understanding even though it’s not entirely Biblical. Can you imagine how much they’d be getting attacked if they’d actually been Biblical on this point?
Anyway, those are some general thoughts I had following the film and reading others’ commentary. Personally, I think the fact that we are even having this discussion is a win.
I’m excited about the upcoming Noah movie, but am also well aware that a lot of Christians have expressed concerns and the movie has already come in for a great deal of criticism. While I can’t speak to the legitimacy of much of that criticism until I’ve seen the movie, some of it has demonstrated a need for Christians to revisit the Noah narrative themselves, to make sure their critiques are, in fact, Biblical. There are also a few other things they need to be aware of.
Toward that end, I’d recommend rereading Genesis 6-9 and remembering the following:
- Who were the “sons of God” who married the daughters of men and had children by them? Angels? Fallen angels? We don’t know. Given the context, many interpretations have a very sexualized nature to them, but Noah filmmaker Darren Aronofsky says they took a more metaphorical approach to avoid being too graphic for families.
- Who were the Nephilim? These “heroes of old, men of renown” are also a mystery to us. Personally, my favorite interpretation is found in Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters, but that, too, is just a guess.
- What did the “wickedness of man” at that time involve? Well, apparently violence, corruption, and evil — the Bible doesn’t get any more specific than that. We should be careful not to project our own ideas of the most heinous sins onto the situation and assume we’re correct. The Noah narrative occurs just a few chapters in Genesis after God gave man stewardship responsibility for the earth, so an interpretation that part of the wickedness involved stewarding the earth poorly is valid and not necessarily an attempt to create environmental propaganda.
- How did the people of Noah’s day respond to his building of a boat? Here again, we don’t know. Regardless of how many sermons we’ve heard on how we need to be “fools for Christ” just like Noah seemed to be when he built a boat in the middle of the desert, the Old Testament narrative is silent on this question. The New Testament does refer to this time, but simply to draw a parallel with the Second Coming and state that most people were oblivious and caught unawares by the flood.
- How did God speak to Noah? You guessed it — we don’t really know. The Bible says He “spoke” which we tend to assume means a big, booming voice from heaven, despite the fact that our own experience of God’s voice tends to be different than that.
- How did Noah respond to God? He obeyed. But apart from his actions, we have no record of him speaking to God in response to what God tells him. When God told Abraham He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham urged Him to show mercy. Why didn’t Noah do the same? Apparently this question drove much of the film’s explorations of what it means to be righteous.
- How did Noah refer to God? Well, as noted, typically he doesn’t — his conversations with God are almost all one-sided with God speaking to him. But on the one occasion he does speak in reference to God, he uses Yahweh and Elohim, which we usually translate “The LORD” and “God.” However, it’s worth remembering that out of respect many Jews today are cautious about pronouncing God’s name and instead use substitute names for God (e.g., “the Creator,” which we hear in the film trailer). That’s worth keeping in mind when considering criticizing the film for not including the word “God.”
- Did Noah get drunk and naked? Yes, he did. The film may or may not merit criticism for how it portrays that, but remember that it is in fact part of the Biblical narrative.
- Was Noah a “preacher of righteousness”? Yes, but that doesn’t come from the Old Testament narrative, that’s from 2 Peter 2:5. Since the film seems based on the Old Testament narrative, I’m not sure we can fault them if that’s not part of their characterization.
- Isn’t the film adding extrabiblical material? Well, yeah, but so does the Son of God every time the actor playing Jesus changes his facial expression. Any portrayal of Bible stories is going to fill in gaps, hopefully they just do so in a way that doesn’t contradict what’s actually in the text. And hopefully we as Christians are aware of when we’re projecting extrabiblical understanding of our own (if you believe there were 3 wise men, you need to re-read your Bible — but that’s another post for another time).
Rather than prejudging the film and staying away, I’d encourage Christians to see and evaluate it for themselves and, more importantly, engage friends, family, and coworkers in the discussions of faith the movie is already provoking.
A major movie is highlighting a Bible story and drawing out themes of goodness, wickedness, mercy, and justice. The culture is ripe for frank and honest conversations about faith. Are we ready?
I’m continuing to work through “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group” by Joel Comiskey in conjunction with our team of small group coaches, which I lead. Lesson two is on learning – specifically, learning from failure, learning from your own small group leadership experiences, and learning about your leaders by spending time with them.
Learning from Failure
Comiskey points out that there are no shortcuts – we learn from experience and we gain experience by making mistakes. While mistakes invite self-condemnation and attacks from the enemy, the reality is that Jesus uses inadequate people – it is in our weakness that He becomes strong. We must continually cling to that truth and keep trying.
God hates passivity. Comiskey quotes Henry Cloud and John Townsend in Boundaries: “The sin God rebukes is not trying and failing, but failing to try.” As Hebrews 10:38 says, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.”
Learning from Leading
For small group coaches, one of the best experiences to learn from is leading small groups ourselves, which is why we make that a prerequisite for coaches. This allows us to draw from our own experiences – both positive and negative. In fact, often it is our failures that are more helpful to our leaders than our successes. I’m always amazed at God’s ability to redeem anything, and in coaching one of the most gratifying experiences is to see God repurpose our own negative experiences to benefit our leaders.
Learning through Spending Time
Simply put, we learn about our leaders through spending time with them. But how much is enough? And how much is too much?
While we ask our coaches to meet with their leaders a minimum of three times each semester, over the long term we seek to learn how much time a leader needs from us. That will vary depending on the leader. As Comiskey notes, the key question is whether or not the leader feels cared for. It may be as simple as asking, “How much time do you need to spend with me to be a more effective leader?”
We are life-long learners. Comiskey identifies the foundational coaching principles as listening, caring, developing, strategizing, and challenging (which he explores in the following lessons). As we learn from our failures, from our own leadership experiences, and from interaction with our leaders, we can build upon those principles and continue to grow in our ability to coach.