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Man’s Justice And Mercy, Or God’s? The Failure Of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah


If you didn’t see Noah at the movie theater this weekend, that doesn’t necessarily mean you escaped it. Social networks and websites are awash with reviews, commentaries, and observations on the film – Noah was a trending topic on Facebook and Twitter all day Saturday. Much of the pre-release press was on the positive side. Much of the press that I’ve come across post-release has been more tempered, if not downright hostile.

And no one seems to be able to stop talking about The Watchers (the giant rock fallen-angel creatures that play a major part in the first half of the film.)

I didn’t like the film Noah, though there are positives to the film: It was well-acted with very high production values; the cinematography was excellent; the visual effects were summer-blockbuster-caliber. Despite all this it ends up being a rather dull and tedious exercise in cinema. Most every moment is heightened for dramatic tension, Clint Mansell’s score percussing the point that This. Is. Important. And there are many artistic choices – The Watchers being one example – that end up failing, to the film’s detriment.

Yet Noah’s fatal flaw was not any of the above. Many films end up being good but flawed with far worse achievements in the above categories. Noah fails because it turns a story from the Bible whose protagonist is God into a story whose protagonist is man. God sends justice and the character Noah rightly interprets this, but when the other side of the coin is revealed – mercy – it’s not at all found in God but instead entirely in the human characters. Thus the God of Noah is far off, raining down justice from the heavens and yet remaining inscrutable and silent when the man Noah is forced to make a choice to execute justice or show mercy; a choice that the film’s plot and Noah’s character arc entirely depend on.

The movie does get the justice of God right. The utter wickedness of man is well portrayed. The Bible reads, describing humanity, “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5, English Standard Version for all biblical texts in this review) The filmmakers make artistic choice about how this looks – and they do spend much time depicting the rape of creation as a fruit of this wickedness – but murder and brutality against fellow man are just as effectively shown.

The viewer is left without doubt that mankind should fall under God’s wrath – a wrath that is swift and total. The deluge is depicted in horrifying detail with water pouring from the sky and exploding forth from the ground. Noah and his family are safely on the ark, but they too must suffer. The screams and cries of the last of humanity desperately trying to escape death by drowning seep in, echoing within the walls of the ark. There’s a powerful shot of the ark floating near a rocky outcropping – likely the top of a mountain – with dozens of people perched atop, only to be swept to their watery doom by a massive wave. The wrath of God over sin is a terrible, terrible thing.

The filmmakers choose to play out the idea of justice on a personal level as well. Noah knows of man’s sin, and receives God’s judgement of the world in faith; he accepts it. As he builds the ark and prepares for the coming deluge, he is forced to come face to face with the wickedness of man. In so doing, Noah becomes so overwhelmed with the need for justice that he takes it upon himself to condemn his own family. They will ride out the flood on the ark in order to care for the animals and release them when the waters subside, but then they will go to their graves with no further offspring and humanity – created in God’s image but now irreparably fallen – will cease to be.

This notion of ultimate justice is brought to a head when Ila (a real person fictionally elaborated for the film), Noah’s daughter-in-law by Shem, finds herself pregnant aboard the ark. Noah, resolute in carrying out what he sees as the necessary justice, announces that if the child is a girl he will murder it at birth rather than allow the chance of humanity living on in the world. Before the waters subside, Ila gives birth – to ratchet things up, it turns out to be twin girls – and Noah approaches her, knife in hand, to execute what he believes is God’s sentence of death.

Noah’s hand is stayed. Noah shows mercy rather than demanding justice. Noah know that he, Ila, the family, and these newborn children all remain sinful. Yet mercy rules the day. But what is the reason? “…[A]ll I had in my heart was love” Noah despairingly says to his wife. He sees himself as having failed God in his failure to execute justice. To Noah, mercy is finally weakness, and in his despair he drinks himself into a stupor (the filmmakers’ interpretation of Genesis 9:20 and following).

The mercy Noah reveals to be crucial to mankind’s survival is not God’s mercy, nor is it revealed to be God’s will or even from God. Instead, the merciful acts of the film are grounded in human emotion. Noah’s hand is stayed because he feels love. Noah’s wife pleads that Noah’s sons would have wives so that they could have love, and in having it thus realize their innate goodness. The filmmakers repeatedly have it proclaimed that goodness, mercy, and love are human choices to be made, implying that in such choices lies man’s redemption. The filmmakers even portray this in the characters of The Watchers, who finally make a choice to help and love Noah and his family and in so doing receive their redemption and are allowed to return to heaven.

What is missing is the fact that the biblical story of Noah is one of not only God’s justice but also God’s mercy.

In the biblical account, God does not remain silent but explicitly reveals to Noah what He is up to. There is no question that all of mankind except for the eight souls who will be rescued in the ark will die at the just hand of God. Yet God assures Noah that He is establishing his covenant with Noah. God does not leave Noah in the dark as to His will, but mercifully reveals it entirely to Noah. In fact, God even mercifully cares for Noah and his family in that, when the creatures and Noah’s family have all gone into the ark, the Bible states that “the LORD shut him in.” (Genesis 7:16)

Martin Luther saw in this short phrase a profound statement of the kindness of God. He wrote in his commentary on Genesis, volume 2, “This was truly a long voyage and one that abounded in mourning and tears. Yet they sustained themselves by their faith, never doubting the kindness of God toward them. They had become aware of His concern for them when they built the ark, gathered provisions, prepared other necessary things for this event, and finally also when the Lord closed the ark as the Flood rose (emphasis mine).”

For Christians, it is crucial that the account of Noah and the Flood is one of God’s mercy in addition to His justice because of what the New Testament reveals about this event. Christians see in the events of the Flood a picture of God’s care for His Church in the midst of trials: “if [God] did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly;…then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials…” (2 Peter 2:5, 9)

Christians also see the events of the Flood as a preview or picture of God’s cleansing mankind of sin and saving them for Himself through the waters of Holy Baptism. “God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:20–21)

There are other thematic flaws in Noah, which show as somewhat suspect the claims that the film holds closely to the biblical text:

  • God’s revelation to Noah is portrayed as obtuse and mystical, often puzzling. But Scripture reveals God to be straightforward and clear not only with Noah, but with all whom He communicates in the early chapters of Genesis.
  • Noah tells the story of Creation to his family, depicting it as beginning out of nothing by God speaking light into existence, but then developing on its own without the miraculous hand of God involved, a version of theistic evolution.
  • The temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve is depicted without the deceitful influence of the Devil. The serpent is shown briefly, but no communication between he and Eve is portrayed (or described in any way by Noah).

Perhaps Noah was doomed no matter what the filmmakers tried. The Biblical account has no one speaking but God until its climax. The action is almost entirely in God’s hands. Darren Aronofsky, the director and one of the writers, has stated that moving the actions and motivations of God over to Noah was an intentional choice to attempt to humanize the story. As far as that goes, mission accomplished.

But when the true story isn’t about man’s justice and mercy, but instead wholly about God’s, then justice isn’t served. Humanizing only results in an anthropocentric story, rather than theocentric; Man, in his sometimes fickle and mysterious choices of justice and mercy, becomes god. And in this way Noah fails.

Michael Schuermann is a Lutheran pastor in Sherman, IL. His writing can be read at DaringLutheran.