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Noah: a movie review



Pastor and author Erwin McManus calls Noah "deep and thoughtful." Author Gabe Lyons calls it "a great, great film" and says it "does this epic story justice." At the same time, the film is directed by a well-known atheist. Will it help or hurt the cause of Christ?

Noah is one of the most difficult movies to assess I've ever seen.  What follows is my review, followed by biblical commentary on the true life and significance of Noah.  If you choose to see the movie, it would be a good idea first to review what Scripture actually says about this remarkable man.

Noah: the movie

I attended Noah on Thursday evening with two expectations.  First, I anticipated a movie that took some artistic license with Scripture but nonetheless provides believers with a great chance to engage the culture.

Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel take interpretive license with biblical events, but his depictions move me deeply every time I visit.  Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper is a haunting portrait of Jesus' final meal before his crucifixion, even though its artistic setting is far more Renaissance European than first-century Palestinian.  I am typically as positive toward popular culture as I can be without compromising the truth of Scripture or character of God.  I expected to be the same with Noah.

Second, I envisioned a movie I could invite non-believers to see, then talk with them about the grace that is central to the biblical Noah's life and story.  I expected some inconsistencies with Scripture, but assumed they would not create barriers to the gospel.

I was surprised on both counts.  My bottom line: Noah is a work of fiction.  Except for the character of Noah and the fact that there's a flood and an ark, little else in the movie is consistent with the biblical narrative.  And the God depicted for most of the movie is far from the God of the Bible.  (Spoiler alert: From this point forward, I will have to describe the plot in order to assess it biblically.)

In the Bible, Noah builds the ark.  In the movie, fictional rock-like beings who are supposed to be fallen angels do most of the work.  In the Bible, "Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him went into the ark" (Genesis 7:7).  In the movie, only Shem has a wife (more of this in a moment).  In the Bible, only Noah and his family board the ark.  In the movie, a fictional king named Tubal-cain (named in Genesis 4:22 but described only as "the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron") makes it on board as well.

But here's what bothers me most: the God depicted in most of the movie is not a deity a nonbeliever would want to know better.  He chooses to spare only Noah and his family, giving no one else an opportunity to board the ark and be saved.  However, the Bible calls Noah a "preacher of righteousness" (2 Peter 2:5).  Most theologians believe that he spent the 100 years it took to build the ark preaching to the people and warning them to repent before it was too late.  We see none of this preaching or compassion in the movie.

Scripture teaches that God "desires all people to be saved" (1 Timothy 2:4) and is "not willing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).  However, in the movie, Noah is convinced that all of humanity must perish lest they spoil creation again.  Even his family must eventually die, so that the race will end.

To his shock, Shem's wife becomes pregnant.  So Noah believes that God has instructed him to kill the baby if it is a girl, lest it propagate the human race.  After she gives birth to twin girls, Noah lifts his dagger to kill them, but tells God he cannot.  He believes that he has failed God's command.  Of course, none of this is in Scripture.  Shem's wife does not have twin girls on the ark, and Noah is nowhere commanded by God to kill babies.

Then, in a plot twist near the movie's end, his daughter-in-law suggests that God actually left the decision with Noah: he could choose life or death, goodness or evil.  He chose good, and life goes on.  Noah comes to believe that this is so, and God sends the rainbow that ends the movie.

In my opinion, there are three ways to interpret Noah.  Here's the most positive: the film is a fictional story centered on a resolute figure who seeks to serve God and eventually understands that the Lord has entrusted us with free will.  By choosing good over evil, he perpetuates all that is good about the human race.

Here's the most negative: Noah's view of God for most of the movie (a judgmental deity without mercy who ultimately commands him to kill his granddaughters) is the God of the Bible.  The director, himself an atheist, uses the movie to warn people away from this God.

Here's a middle approach: Noah is the quintessential postmodern narrative.  Noah thinks he is hearing the direct and unequivocal command of God to kill his granddaughters.  Eventually he decides that he was mistaken.  Therefore, there is no such thing as absolute truth or objective divine revelation.  Rather, each of us must make our own choices in this world.

Which approach is the director's intention?  I would guess the last, but you'll have to decide for yourself.

Noah: the Bible

Noah's actual story begins in Genesis 6, which states:

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.  The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.  So the Lord said, "I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them."  But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord (Genesis 6:5-8).

Our sin grieves the Lord and fills his heart with pain (v. 6).  He is holy and cannot countenance or condone our sin.  He must bring it to judgment, as he did with the Flood.

But good news dawns on the black horizon: "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (v. 8).  Through Noah, God extends this favor to the rest of mankind.  And through Noah, God saves the human race.  So, what do we know about this man?

The man who saved mankind

Nothing is known of Noah's early days.  He first appears in Scripture when he is 500 years old (Genesis 5:32).  If we think him an old man, we should meet his grandfather, Methuselah.  This patriarch lived 969 years (Genesis 5:25-27), longer than any other person in the Bible.  In fact, he died in the year of the flood: he was 187 years old when Lamech was born; Lamech was 182 years of age when Noah was born; and Noah was 600 years old when the flood came (Genesis 7:11).  You can do the math.  It may be that Methuselah died in the flood.

How did they live such long lives in those days?  It is possible that the word translated "year" meant a different period of time.  Perhaps the numbers used were symbolic in nature.  But the most likely option is that these men and women actually lived such life spans, well into the time of Abraham (cf. Genesis 6:3, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years").  It would seem that God either needed or chose to populate the earth through such long lives.

Noah's name apparently means "rest."  It came true for him and his Ark, but not for the rest of humankind.

God was grieved over the sin of humanity (Genesis 6:5-7).  However, as we have seen, "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (v. 8).  "Favor" translates the Hebrew word chen, meaning to bend or stoop; it shows the act of a superior man stooping down to an inferior one.  This is the Old Testament's primary word for grace; this text is its first use in all of Scripture.  It is the perfect picture of what God did for Noah and what he does for us today, extending his undeserved grace and favor.

God wanted to do this for all of mankind, but they would not accept his mercy.  To the contrary, they rejected every offer of forgiveness and grace.  As noted earlier, 2 Peter 2:5 says that Noah was a "preacher of righteousness" to the world.  He spent 100 years building the ark, and apparently preached to the fallen culture all that time, but no one outside his family believed his message.  

On the other hand, Noah positioned himself to receive such grace.  He was "a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God" (v. 9).  His righteousness did not earn God's favor, but it put Noah in position to receive what God wanted to give.  Noah was by no means perfect.  But he responded to God's grace, for himself and his family.

The ark that saved the world

So God called Noah to build an ark which would preserve his family and the rest of God's creation.  Its dimensions would be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high, creating a displacement of 14,000 tons.

The ark possessed a carrying capacity of 522 standard railroad cars: 188 for 45,000 animals (17,600 species), three trains of 104 cars each for food, family, and room to move about.  Building this ark took Noah 100 years (he was 500 years old at the beginning, and 600 at the end).  Then "the Lord shut him in" (Gen. 7:16), another picture of divine grace.

Now the rains came, falling for 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:12).  They covered the mountains to a depth of 20 feet (Genesis 7:20), flooding the earth for 150 days (Genesis 7:24).  Five months after the flood began, the Ark came to rest "on the mountains of Ararat" (Genesis 8:4).  Eight months after the flood began, the tops of the mountains became visible (Genesis 8:5).  A year and 10 days after the flood began, the earth was completely dry (Genesis 8:14).

Then God made a new covenant with Noah and with all humanity.  He would never again destroy the earth by a flood (Genesis 9:11, although 2 Peter 3:10 says the world will one day end by fire).  In this covenant, God prohibited idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, robbery, and eating the flesh of a living animal.  Then he gave the world the rainbow (Genesis 9:13-17) as the sign of this covenant and promise that no rains will ever destroy the world again.  The Lord proved that he has the power to end life, and to preserve it.

The story of the ark and flood is so remarkable that some discount it as myth.  But the text is written as historical narrative, with no hint that it intends to be understood as symbolic.  And other ancient documents also tell of a universal flood, as we would expect if such an event did indeed affect the entire human race.  If God made the universe, he certainly possesses the power to perform the miracle this story describes.

Noah obviously believed in such a God of power.  It is likely that he built his ark against the coming flood when no one had ever seen rain; God initially watered the earth from streams or mists which "came up from the earth" (Genesis 2:6), so that "rain" is not mentioned until Genesis 7:4.  He spent 100 years at the task, with no record that anyone helped him.  He persevered, and received the grace God intends for us all.

Conclusion

Today we "find favor in the eyes of the Lord" exactly as the biblical Noah did.  We obey his word as we know it, positioning ourselves to receive the grace he wants to give us.  And he offers us a place in the ark of his salvation, protection from the coming flood of justice and judgment, and eternity in a new land filled with promise and peace.

Our Father is a God of grace.  As Augustine said, he loves each of us as if there were only one of us.







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