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Not your grandmother's Bible school

Here's how Noah, the movie, differs from the Old Testament story

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Back in February, the Hollywood Reporter documented some of the controversy surrounding Darren Aronofsky's Noah, which opened Friday. As with any work of art based on the Bible, the studio was concerned religious viewers would question its faithfulness to its source. But Aronofsky has been clear he intends for the film to appeal to believers of all faiths as well as nonbelievers. He told the Reporter he wanted to create "this fantastical world la Middle Earth that they wouldn't expect from their grandmother's Bible school." After all, the movie is a little more than two hours and the story in the Bible is all of four chapters, the majority of which dwells on the construction of the ark and the duration of the rain.

This relative lack of detail has led to numerous interpretations over the years in various religions and traditions, and Aronofsky, like these other interpreters, fills in the gaps with many of his own ideas. In The New Yorker, he called it "the least biblical biblical film ever made." How much of Noah is based on the text as it appears in the Old Testament? Below, we break it down.

 

Before the flood

 

LIKE the Bible itself, the movie begins its story at the very beginning. At one point, Noah tells his children the story of creation and broadly stays true to Genesis, though he conflates the second and fourth days: The Bible tells us the greater and lesser lights (commonly accepted to be the sun and moon) were created on the fourth day, not the second.

When it comes to the current state of the land, the movie sets up two factions: Lemech and Noah, the good men, and Tubal-Cain and his people, the "evil" men. The evil men are descendants of Cain, which is in line with what Genesis states in Chapter 3, which is that Cain moved eastward, built cities and had children.

 

Zohar

 

THE evil men have mined the land for "zohar." This element looks like gold and has essentially magical powers -- it's used to make light and, later, for a sort of antediluvian pregnancy test. Zohar is not mentioned in the story of Noah, but the Hebrew word does appear later in the Old Testament in Ezekiel and Daniel and is commonly translated to refer to a light of some sort.

 

Methuselah

 

In the movie, Methuselah, Noah's grandfather, lives alone on the top of a mountain and has a constant craving for berries. He also keeps hallucinogens and has some mystical powers -- including the ability to repair reproductive organs. He dies during the flood. Not much is said about him in the Bible, though he is the oldest documented person mentioned in the book. (After the flood, God proclaims that man won't live more than 120 years.) Doing some math using the genealogy the Bible gives us, it makes perfect sense that Methuselah would have died in the flood: As the Bible tells it, he was 187 when Lemech was born and Lemech was 182 when Noah was born. Noah was 600 when the flood came, the Bible says, which would make Methuselah 969, the same age the Bible claims he was when he died. The Bible says nothing about an obsession with berries.

 

Lemech

 

LIKE his father Methuselah, Lemech, Noah's father, is only mentioned in the Bible for the purpose of documenting the genealogy from Adam to Noah. The movie not only takes liberties to flesh out his character, apparently inventing some sort of birthright ritual involving snakeskin (we could find no evidence of this in the Bible), but it has him killed by Tubal-Cain when Noah is just a teen. The Bible says Noah was no teen when his father died; he was 595.

 

Tubal-Cain

 

THE character of Tubal-Cain, the movie's lead villain, is almost entirely invented. In the Bible, there is a descendant of Cain named Tubal-Cain who is described as "an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron." However, it's unclear in the Bible if Tubal-Cain even lives in the time of Noah, and there is definitely no mention of any stowaways on the ark.

 

Noah's wife

 

IN the movie, Noah's wife is named Naamah and could be seen as almost an equal to Noah. She consults with him about the ark and about raising their kids. In the Bible, like all the women in this story, she is simply referred to as Noah's wife and all we know is that she was on the ark. Oddly though, Tubal-Cain's sister in the Bible is named Naamah, though we know nothing else about her and it's not clear she was alive when Noah was.

All that is said of Shem's wife in the Bible is that she was on the ark and she had sons. The rest, including her barrenness and then her healing at the hands of Methuselah, was added in the film. While we know she had children, there is no mention of twin girls.

 

Na'el

 

The entire character of Na'el, the woman that Noah makes Ham leave behind, does not appear in the Bible. The Bible says Ham's wife was on the ark.

 

Watchers

 

THE movie introduces the characters of Watchers -- CGI stone giants that do God's bidding. While there are no rock monsters in the Bible, the section right before the flood does say, "There were giants in the earth in those days." We don't learn anything else about them.

 

The flood

 

IN the movie, Noah finds out about the flood because of two slightly confusing prophetic dreams, both of which find him submerged in water. In the Bible, it's much more straightforward, and God simply tells him what's happening. God gives Noah specific directions and dimensions and Noah builds the ark. While in the movie Methuselah gives Noah a seed from Eden to plant -- which overnight turns into a forest that provides all the material for the ark -- in the Bible there is no reference to where Noah gets all the wood.

Everything with Tubal-Cain and his people attempting to board the ark is also invented for the movie. In the Bible, there is no reference to anyone else trying to get on the ark. In addition, in the Bible, there is little information about what happens on the ark. We are only told the chronology -- with days and months -- and that, just as in the movie, they landed on a mountain. In terms of knowing when to descend from the ark, the movie has Japheth sending out a raven -- who returns -- and a dove who comes back with an olive leaf. In the Bible, the dove is sent out three times. The first time it returns, the second time it comes back with an olive leaf, and the third time it doesn't return.

 

Noah's drunkenness

 

AFTER the flood, we see Noah separated from his family and, in despair, getting hammered. In the Bible, Noah gets hammered, too, though it's not clear it's in despair. The Bible also leaves some ambiguity as to what happens while Noah is passed out naked. We find out that "Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him." What exactly the younger son (presumably Ham) did is unclear -- in the Bible, seeing someone's nakedness is often translated to mean having sex with them, and there are some who interpret this to mean that Ham sodomized his father -- but Noah curses Ham's descendants because of it, saying they will be servants to Shem and Japheth's descendants.

 

Vegetarianism

 

THE movie implies that Noah and his family don't eat meat -- when Noah and Ham are attacked by Tubal-Cain's people, Ham is confused about why they'd be killing animals. There is some biblical implication that, before the flood, people didn't eat animals. After the flood, God says, "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things."

 

Reference to the binding of Isaac

 

IN the movie, Noah believes he needs to kill his two granddaughters to fulfil God's will -- he believes God wants all of mankind to die out, including him and his family. There is no indication of this in the Bible -- there aren't even any granddaughters mentioned in the Bible -- but this part of the movie does bear some similarities to the story of Abraham and Isaac. In that story, Chapter 22 of Genesis, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. However, it's an angel who stops Abraham, while Noah stops himself out of his own free will.

-- Slate

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2014 A14

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