“First of all, she had a name, and she had a history.”

So begins “The Turning of Lot’s Wife,” a part of Christian poet Scott Cairns’s prose-poem cycle The Recovered Midrashim of Rabbi Sab. Cairns imagines—and invites us to imagine along with him—that Lot’s wife did not meet her ensalinated end because of any nostalgia for the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps instead she “saw that she could not turn her back on even one doomed child of the city, but must turn her back instead upon the saved.” Apocryphal and faintly irreverent? Yes, but that’s the midrashic tradition for you: speculating about lacunae in Scripture that have gone unconsidered, then using these speculations to challenge and enrich our too-comfortable faith. In “The Turning of Lot’s Wife,” Scott Cairns does this by making the impolite suggestion that true faithfulness is demonstrated by compassion for the unrighteous, not by flight from them. In Noah, director Darren Aronofsky participates in the midrashic tradition by insinuating that, while we may know Noah’s name, we may not have thought about his history as deeply as we think.

His goal is to situate us firmly in a world that has known the Fall but has not yet been given the Word—whether in speech, writing, or flesh.“Impolite” doesn’t begin to describe some of the creative liberties Aronofsky takes with Genesis 6-9. These range from the innocuous (Noah and his family are hardcore vegetarians) to the extreme (there’s a huge battle scene in which hordes of desperate people try to board the ark by force). By now, you have probably also heard about the Watchers—fallen angels who have become encrusted in stone and slag because of their defiance of God’s edicts. These formidable beings (derisively dubbed “rock monsters” by a handful of unimpressed Christian bloggers) assist in the ark’s construction, and when the time comes they helpfully stomp on a few marauding villains, too.

But—and this is an incredibly important but—there is a method to this madness. Aronofsky intends to transport his audience to a setting very far removed from the one that they first learned about in Sunday school. His goal is to situate us firmly in a world that has known the Fall but has not yet been given the Word—whether in speech, writing, or flesh. To borrow a turn of phrase from Tolkien, Aronofsky wants to take us to a place “where the stars are strange”: a primeval Creation where, for most people, the Creator’s grace was a distant memory but His judgment was a clear and present fact.

To this end, Aronofsky employs many of his accustomed stylistic flourishes to lend a thoroughly Old-Testament texture to his film. Jagged editing, surreal imagery (e.g., those unfairly maligned Watchers), and a stormy lead performance from a superbly brooding Russell Crowe all work together to construct a setting of sharp edges and dire consequences. Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel do not invent the darkness but merely accentuate it; viewers would do well to remember that the book of Genesis depicts rapes, murders, and betrayals right alongside its descriptions of divine providence and human faith. This accentuated darkness has a purpose, too. Thanks to Aronofsky’s staging, the central dramatic tension between mercy and divine justice is not a conflict between two abstract concepts. Rather, it becomes a matter of literal life and death.

Unbelievers have been occasional vessels for God’s truth, wittingly or unwittingly, for a long time. There is no reason to assume that this is impossible today simply because they carry movie cameras.In this context, many of the film’s more perplexing choices make sense. Aronofsky is careful to clarify why God is justified in wiping out humanity and why Noah is content to let it happen. The silhouette of Cain bludgeoning Abel to death with a rock is a recurring image throughout, and Noah’s harrowing sojourn in the camp of the despotic Tubal-cain reveals just how wicked people have become. This latter episode also convinces Noah, in an epiphany that is practically Calvinist, that depravity is inside every human being, including himself. If the Creator’s justice is to be truly absolute, Noah reasons, then all people must perish. Even him. Even his baby granddaughters. (On this, more in a moment.)

There’s a fearsome, Old Testament-style logic underlying Noah’s determination, especially since the audience knows that he is part of a faith tradition that includes the story of Abraham and Isaac. Yet we instinctively recoil from such implacable judgment, as do Aronofsky’s characters. “Have you no mercy?” is a plea echoed repeatedly in the dialogue. The implication is that justice untempered by mercy is too harsh for human beings to bear, and it is here that the film reveals itself as a serious-minded exploration of what it means to be sinful beings ruled by a righteous Creator.

Noah cannot bear to commit infanticide in the name of what he mistakenly thinks to be divine justice. At the moment of decision (filmed by Aronofsky in what is, for my money, the most remarkable shot of the year so far), the old patriarch is overcome by his love for his helpless grandchildren. Mercy is almost a reflex. And Aronofsky hints that this was not any garden-variety mercy, either; as Noah’s daughter-in-law tells him later, “The Creator put the choice in your hands, and you chose mercy.” A fallen human being acts as an imperfect vessel for God’s perfect will, a conduit for grace.

This is a film that was made by Hollywood in 2014.

It’s likely that some of these thematic undercurrents were not included intentionally by the filmmakers, of course. They don’t need to be. It may be strange and uncomfortable for Christians that Darren Aronofsky, an atheist, should be the one to show these things to us, but we should not be surprised. Read the stories of Balaam, of Nebuchadnezzar, of the centurion at the Crucifixion. Unbelievers have been occasional vessels for God’s truth, wittingly or unwittingly, for a long time. There is no reason to assume that this is impossible today simply because they carry movie cameras.

Noah is not without flaws. The big battle scene is grafted unevenly onto the rest of the film, and one wishes that Aronofsky’s portrayal of “the Creator” evoked more than just a silent presence in the heavens. But it would be churlish to complain when the rest of the film is so fascinating, provocative, and insightful. Consider the climax: that terrible breathless instant before wrath is turned aside by love. In the tradition of midrash, Noah is apocryphal and extrabiblical—but you knew that already. What don’t you already know?


  1. “His goal is to situate us firmly in a world that has known the Fall but has not yet been given the Word…”

    Given that Mr. Aronofsky is in fact an atheist and given some of his other comments about the movie, I would suspect that while such a situating is an *effect* of his story, it is probably not his *goal*.

    1. “…suspect that while such a situating is an *effect* of his story, it is probably not his *goal*. ”

      Maybe not.

      In an interview Aronofsky made it very clear that in the film, all humans believed in God’s existence.

      However Cain’s birth-line could no longer ‘hear’ God and therefore had decided that God had left the Earth to Man to do with as Man pleased.

  2. Insightful write-up. Seeing the movie as a Midrashic commentary is a nice perspective from which to judge it. I’m excited to see and think about it in this way.

  3. I saw the movie and…. well, extra-biblical would be a good word to describe it… the only thing that was really biblical was water and the utter depravity of man…..I walked out after the movie and thought, “I’ve been played….”. They had such a wonderful opportunity to make a great movie and they botched it. I would agree with the writer about that one moment at the end where the movie almost redeemed itself wrt the mercy and grace of God and Noah. The problem is, that moment is total fiction…. but, still the point it made was good and wonderful.

    At least I went to the matinee’ and spent a minimal amount of money on this farcical movie. To rationalize my going to the movie, I’ve convinced a number of people not to go… don’t waste your money. It took 24 hours to get the movie out of my head. I felt like I had to give my brain and my heart a shower when I got home.

    My companion stated after the movie, “that was exhausting” …. she was right. There was no way to rationalize anything in the movie into the biblical text. It was just bad, really bad. It was just exhausting trying to do that.

    As far as them not getting the Word… really not true. They were given the Word…. it was given to Adam… grace and mercy were on their way, forward looking to the Messiah in Genesis 3… Rather than go to the movie, read Genesis 6-9 and see for yourself the faith and bravery of Noah… read the Gospel(s) where Jesus referred to Noah, “As it was in the days of Noah…”. If you think about it, He’s the only one who was actually a eyewitness to the deluge. Than, read the New Testament book of Hebrews of the faith and bravery of Noah… read the whole chapter…. one verse in that narrative resonates with my heart, “… of whom the world was not worthy.” So true. Someday I’ll get to speak to Noah face to face and get the whole story. In the meantime, I’ll rely on extra-Hollywood to get Biblical truth right… ugh, I need to go take another shower….

    1. Let me help you here…I read a review where the author explained that this is NOT a Biblical tale but a story teken from the Kaballah! Not exactly Judeo-Christian in it’s take at all. More pagan!

  4. RE: All the complaining about using “The Creator” to the exclusion of “God”. Isn’t “God” simply a generic name, like president, king, uncle etc.? And doesn’t “Creator” actually carry much more freight in the world than “god”? It’s only a problem because we treat “God” as well as “Christ” as names. But “Christ” was not Jesus’ surname. Neither is “god” God’s name.

    I submit that Aronovsky uses a more meaningful term with “Creator”. The trouble is that it’s less a part of Christian’s daily language, and wafts faintly of environmentalism.

    1. The word Creator was used by my grandfather. It was commonly used for centuries to refer to the one God of t Judaic/Christian tradition. It is used by the Founders in “The Declaration.” It has only not been commonly use in the past few years- — since the 60’s.

  5. Question: Where does the world (and Hollywood) get its bad theology? Answer: Plenty of it comes from the Christian church. Consider for a moment that MILLIONS of Noah’s ark pictures are drawn in Sunday schools every year, yet the vast majority of the artwork fails to depict CLEAN ANIMALS in larger groups (of seven – per the Genesis 7 plain text). This simple fact demonstrates that children are learning from biblically illiterate adults and institutions. Surely, if Christendom cleans its own house and reads its own book, the rest of the world won’t be as dirty and confused. http://thecleaneatgreen.com/noah

  6. Interesting take. I haven’t seen the film yet, but it seems obvious to me that, atheist or not, Aronofsky would make a Jewish film. What pains me about all the bugaboo surrounding the film is that many detractors seem unable to acknowledge that “biblical literalists” don’t have a full claim on this story. Noah is first and foremost a Jewish story, and it has been shaped by thousands of years of oral tradition. But only Christians of a dualistic, Marcionist bent would find that incompatible with the Gospel.

  7. I can’t fully explain how much I agree with your words, and I am glad that you have written this piece.

    I’m glad you brought up the apocryphal texts and extrabiblical sources, and I’m glad you pointed out the mercy vs. love conflict.

    But I’m especially glad of this thought: “Unbelievers have been occasional vessels for God’s truth, wittingly or unwittingly, for a long time.”

    I wish other people would accept that.

  8. Great review. While I was mystified by parts of the movie I was impressed by how Justice and mercy mercy were treated and the – new insights to an old story!

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