Noah (Not) Grotesque (Enough)


I always wondered why Noah planted that vineyard, got so drunk that he incapacitated himself. I always suspected that it had to do with trauma. It’s a rotten human condition it is. The world is cursed, first by “man,” and then by God. The man is alone on a boat with his family surrounded by wild animals, adrift and at sea. In the Bible, Noah is called righteous “in his generation.” This means one of two things. Noah had to have been super-righteous to be righteous in such a corrupt and violent age. Or, no perfect saint, he was only righteous enough relative to that violent and corrupt generation. Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel seem to go with the latter interpretation in their Hollywood blockbuster, but go nowhere near as far as they could have.

No, Noah was not a stable person, not in the Bible and not in the movie. In the movie, Noah eeks out a life on hard scrabble earth. A peacible man, he descends into cruel, rampaging madness, made mad by a God who has asked too much, convinced that it’s his command to see to and to finish the annihilation of human life on earth.

To be sure Noah is clunky in parts. But this is how you make a biblical epic. It’s creation-centered, animal and violent. In the movie, there’s a mass grave, the tearing of limbs from living creatures, and human killing. The only kind of God that can stand up to that kind of scene is a rough God, indeed. As is well known, Aronofsky and Handel made use of rabbinic midrash as well works like the books of Enoch and Jubilees. Other scenes will remind you of the “Sacrifice” of Isaac and the primal herd imagined by Freud in Totem and Taboo. Shot in Iceland with an all Caucasian cast, the movie takes its story out of its ancient Near Eastern setting and gives it a Nordic look that makes the story feel even more pagan.

On firm scriptural and traditional foundation, Aronofsky and Handel could have made the story much worse, more grotesque. The movie gets it backwards. In the Bible, Noah first enjoys rainbow covenant of peace with God, the promise not to destroy the human condition ever again, and then he plants the vineyard, gets rip-roaring drunk past the point of incapacitation. In the movie, the family remains entirely too sympathetic. In contrast, in the rabbinic commentary Genesis Rabbah Ham castrates his father Noah. Against political theology, there’s no sense in the movie that in the Bible, the whole human story does not, in fact, miraculously regenerate, that the wheels of the whole human story are going fly off the bus again at the Tower of Babel, that there are some things that even divine violence and world apocalypse can do nothing to resolve, decide, or make right.

Now that’s “biblical,” no matter what the rightwing conservative Christians say. Aronofsky and Handel went as far as they could. I would have made the film ten times more awful.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Noah (Not) Grotesque (Enough)

  1. dmf says:

    In my dips into many of those old books I’m often struck by the monstrous aspects and not knowing what to make of it (especially as relates to the role of the texts in the lives of living peoples) I usually just leave it be, so I appreciate this review/reflection, thanks.

    • zjb says:

      pagan to the core! we love “monsters” at Syracuse University!

      • dmf says:

        David Miller and Charlie Winquist were always quite emphatic about the monstrous aspects of life and times when I was there but this wasn’t widely embraced as identity-politicians wanted to reduce everything chthonic into all too human social repressions…

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