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Noah Goes to the Movies

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Paramount Pictures is set to release the movie "Noah" on March 28th, and the conversation about movies based on biblical stories is making its rounds on news sites.

The main question seems to be whether or not the movie will follow the biblical story and the degree to which the biblical character of Noah will be "based on the Bible."

Making a movie about the Flood where the main character follows the character of Noah would be an interesting accomplishment - seeing as the Bible's story does not develop the character of Noah.

In order to explain this, three related things need to be established: the relationship between "story" and "history"; the development of characters in ancient Hebrew storytelling; and how the Bible's Flood story compares with similar stories from the literature of the Ancient Near East (ANE).

Stories as Windows into History

For Evangelical Christians like myself, the most difficult thing about the first chapters in Genesis is appreciating the relationship between literature and history.  By 'history' here I mean simply the things that actually happened.  By 'literature' I mean how people write about things that actually happen.  I would hope it would not be controversial to say that the vast majority of what we know about history is the result of reading books.  The rest is the result of what we have been told by the previous generation.

'Literature', broadly thought of, is thus the 'window' through which we view most of history.  Understanding the differences between how we use literature today to account for our history and how the people of the Ancient Near East did the same is crucial to understanding the first chapters of Genesis.  Most will agree that the development of movable type and the printing press changed society and culture probably more significantly than any other single development.  In the ANE, long before the printing press of course, the ability to read and write was limited and writing materials were scarce.  From our perspective, then, the masses were 'illiterate'.

Or were they?

It might be better to describe them as 'heteroliterate'.  They had a very highly developed sense of 'story', even if those stories were transmitted orally.  Now to say they were telling 'stories' is not to say they were merely making things up.  It is to say the oral form of passing down history through generations placed a greater premium on things like how background information set up the story and how the story developed the characters of the persons involved than our modern conventions, which place a premium on the actual sequence of events (chronology) and verbatim reports of things said.

The texts of the ANE, then, are 'literary artifacts'.  Much in the same way that pottery and other similar artifacts are studied by archaeologists to reveal aspects of culture and everyday life, ancient texts give us a window into the 'heteroliteracy' of ordinary people in the Ancient Near East.  When we consider the Hebrew Bible, we do not have to abandon our belief in the unique inspiration of the Scriptures to recognize the Hebrew Bible as part of the larger ANE literary tradition.  As Evangelicals we generally do not subscribe to a 'dictation theory' of inspiration (the idea that God somehow 'dictated' the Scriptures word for word).  Our belief in inspiration allows for the human authors to exercise the literary conventions with which they were otherwise familiar.

So if we narrow our view of ANE literature to the texts of the Hebrew Bible, we see many similarities.  Background information is provided to set the stage for dialog.  The intentions and motives of the round characters are integral to the point of the story in the mind of the author.  'Accuracy' with incidents of 'fact' as we are used to testing it in our modern reading of history is less important.  This isn't to say the things reported in stories in Genesis did not happen.  It is to say that the question of exactly how these things happened is far less important to the biblical author who comes from the ANE literary world than it would otherwise be to us.  The question of why these things happened is, however, particularly important to the biblical authors.  They craft their stories accordingly, taking liberal license with things like chronology and reported speech and appropriating their literary world and its forms in ways that if we step back and see this world as 'heteroliterate' might actually shock and amaze us with its sophistication.

Throughout Hebrew storytelling the why of events is developed in dialog which is cast to reveal the intentions of the God of the Bible; over and again the stories in the Hebrew Bible reveal that the God of the Hebrew Bible is not like the other 'gods' of their literary world.

Character Development in Hebrew Stories

A Jewish scholar from the University of Maryland - Adele Berlin - describes character development in ancient Hebrew stories.  Some of her description is familiar: Stories have flat characters and round characters.  A flat character is one who acts in the story merely to help advance the narrative.  A round character is more central to the suspense of the story.  If we find ourselves wondering in a story what one of the characters will do next, that character is a round character.  But the easiest way to tell between the two is by looking for intentions, motives and emotions.  Rarely will a story delve into the emotions, motives and intentions of a character merely inserted to advance the narrative.  But in order to draw us into wondering what the round character will do next we first have to learn something about who they are - their inner life.  So where we rarely learn anything about the inner life of a flat character, it is how the story draws us into the inner life of emotions, motives and intentions of the main characters that make those characters round.

But Berlin adds to this a third, sort of 'middle' character - the 'type character'.  This is a character in a story who acts and speaks in ways the hearer of the story would recognize to be stereotypical.  Berlin uses the character of Haman in Esther as an example.  Parodies of the pretensions of the Persian court were common during that time and the book of Esther reads in many respects very much like such parodies.  Characters like Haman act in exactly the stereotypical fashion we expect them to, and we enjoy some sense of satisfaction when they get their comeuppance at the end.  But the literary genius that is the Book of Esther is found in how right in the middle of what otherwise reads as a whimsical parody for the Feast of Purim is found the serious matter of trust in God's superintendence of history - that Esther was brought to her truly honored place in the Court to preserve the Jewish people.

The Character of 'Noah' and the Character of God

And this is where we have to start if we are going to evaluate the Noah movie for how it conforms to the biblical account of the Flood.  We have to start by identifying the characters, and we do this by first looking for intentions, motives and emotions.  So what do we find?

Noah is reported to us and being 'righteous', 'blameless' and as having "walked with God."  But that is it.  We do not learn how it is that he reckoned himself to God in the midst of godlessness.  We do not learn about his emotions.  The closest we get to learning about his motives is the sparse report of Noah doing all that God commanded him concerning the ark.

But even before we get to that point in the story we learn of the intentions of 'mankind': "Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." (Genesis 6:5).  And we learn of the emotions of God: "The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The Lord said, 'I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.' But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord." (6:6-8).

The round characters in this story are mankind (collectively) and God.  While Noah is clearly very important in God's larger plan to redeem mankind and the earth, in the Flood story itself, Noah is actually a flat character.  He is certainly crucial to advancing the narrative of redemption, but the Flood story invests little in developing the character of Noah.  Indeed, in the Flood story Noah never speaks.

And it is in this exact respect that the Bible's version of the Flood differs dramatically from the most developed 'Flood narrative' in other ANE literature.  In Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Gilgamesh version of the Flood story is dramatically similar to the Bible's version.  But what can be seen immediately through the dialog is how the Gilgamesh version develops the "Noah" character as the hero of the story.  The utter, complete silence of Noah in the Bible's version sets the Bible's version apart quite dramatically in this respect.

The dialog in the Gilgamesh version also provides a stark contrast between the God of the Bible and the 'gods' in the Gilgamesh story.  The latter are portrayed as unleashing the flood because of pique at mankind's noisiness.  They are shown as cowering in fear at the violence of the storm.  And at the end they engage in petty finger pointing and quarreling.  The dialog in Genesis presents the firm judgment and omnipotence of God, in stark contrast to capriciousness of the gods of ANE literature.

What the Bible's version accomplishes in light of these similarities and differences is establishing the character of God.  It does this by deliberately not developing the character of Noah.  In doing this, the Flood story establishes a contrast between the intentions of mankind and the intentions of God.  Mankind's intentions are toward self-destruction.  God's intentions are toward redemption.  Recognizing this contrast is absolutely essential to understanding the Bible's view of God's judgment.

Genesis, Storytelling and the Cinema

And this is why Christians ought to welcome a retelling of the Flood story.  I am looking forward to seeing "Noah" upon its release.  I am hoping to see a thoughtful treatment of God's redemptive intentions in judging the earth and how they might be contrasted with mankind's corrupt and violent intentions.  I am quite sure the screen writers and director will take artistic license with their development of the character of Noah - they will have to since the Bible's version does not develop the Noah character in any storytelling sense.

If the Ancient Near East handed down its stories orally, and began the development of written history, the printing press transformed this centuries ago.  And we have further transformed this dynamic through the 20th century to the present day in the cinema.  The relationship between story and history will always pose challenges when we consider God's desire to reveal Himself to us in His Word.  The arguments which come with these challenges are important arguments.  But we will be missing a significant opportunity if we allow an argument over the character of Noah to overshadow the contrast between the intentions of mankind and the intentions of God.  The character development in the biblical story develops this contrast.  The Noah movie will renew our opportunity to engage in our own dialog with our neighbors about the intentions of God to redeem His creation - and how His judgment is a necessary part of those intentions.

See my new book: Community Conservatives and the Future: The Secret to Winning the Hearts and Minds of the Next Conservative Generation.

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