A friend posted an article on Facebook about the movie Noah which asked, “Should Christians say no-ah to this twisted Hollywood take on the Old Testament story?” You can read the article here. I was really glad when I saw it because the trailer generated curiosity when I saw it, and this article finally made me search for what intrigued me.
As soon as I saw the trailer, my curiosity was piqued. The darkness of it, the cruelty, etc. Then I immediately thought of the 1999 animated film Prince of Egypt. Not because it was dark, but because it was such a fantastic retelling of the story of Moses that the familiar was transformed into the unknown and unfamiliar. New details! New questions! New ideas! It was an exciting and emotional retelling story about the man who would guide the birth of the Jewish nation.
Why was it like that? Because the writer, Jeffrey Katzenberg, drew from Jewish midrash (storytelling) 1 and inserted his own based on his understanding of those stories as a 20th Century Jew. See here. Midrash are not only ancient stories, they are also modern retellings and interpretations of ancient tales. They don’t have to exist agreeably with existing stories. And it’s okay if they disagree. It’s a story. It’s a way to make you think. Some are more authoritative than others, but they all serve the purpose to help us understand and learn.
Which leads me back to Noah. There has obviously been a lot of artistic license going on in this film. And the article referenced by Facebook friend gives me the impression that the Christian community is not taking too kindly to it. Therefore, I would like to put forth my question, does this movie use midrash to tell a relatively short tale?
Who are the writers? A suspiciously Jewish-named pair, Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. And I’m off to a good start as the answer to my question is already starting to take care of itself. With just a brief search, I found this great article about the movie on the Jewish Journal here. I won’t go into it in length, but I’ll say that, yes, they did use Jewish midrash and inserted their own. Just like I suspected.
And this makes perfect sense. Jewish writers with a Jewish background relying on Jewish sources to tell a Jewish tale, while also filling in a couple of details with their own understanding of things.
Here’s where the important difference comes into play. This is a story with Jewish origins and footholds, and is a tenant to the Christian faith too. Broadly speaking, Christianity is not receptive to new ideas about their established traditions. The fundamentalist Christians are threatened by ideas that stray from the literal text of the Bible. Which, don’t forget, has its own midrash wherein Noah is a happy story about lots of fuzzy animals and fun boat ride. To be fair, this is widely used as a children’s story in the Jewish world too.
Simply, the difference is the worldview. Christianity holds a fairly tight worldview on how things should be interpreted. When those established ideas are threatened, the backlash is unavoidable. Judaism is much more open to questions, doubt, and entertaining new ideas. For instance, Judaism has made room for evolution in its understanding of Creation even by Rashi, an 11th Century rabbi who has provided Judaism with one of the greatest commentaries on Torah even to this day. Which, compared to Christianity, well… some say God put the dinosaur bones there to test their faith.
In the end I think the value of the movie will come down to how open are you to ideas that are not established by your faith? Are they threatening? Or are they entertaining and provide new ways to think about an ancient tale?
A movie isn’t for the purpose of defining a faith. Even the writers, having a Jewish background, both consider themselves atheists. It’s a story. A story that should make you think about something in a new way. That’s all. It’s not taking over your faith. It’s a modern equivalent of sitting around the fire listening to a great storyteller. Is he trying to convert you to his interpretation of the story? No, just sharing the things that he has always thought about it.
Sit down at the fire. Have a listen. Enjoy yourself. Try to learn something from it, even if you don’t agree with it. It’s just a story.
- Midrash is essentially traditional stories that fill the many gaps in the biblical narrative. An example of this is that the Bible tells the priests to make sacrifices, but it never gives exact directions (as it does with the construction of the mishkan). The midrash steps in and fills those details from stories of how the Jewish people fulfilled those commands given by God. Midrash also fill the gaps in the stories of Creation, the Exodus from Egypt, the battles of King David… etc. ↩