Tag Archives: Bible

Noah

noahNoah (2014) is midrash on the story of Noah from Genesis 6-10. As is the case with many Biblical tales, the bare-bones version in the text would not make for much of a film. At one time, Hollywood simply added a love story to spice things up (see The Ten Commandments (1956), and later Disney sought out some classical rabbinic midrash to fill out The Prince of Egypt (1998).

Darren Aronofsky chose a different and very intriguing route with his account of Noah. In an interview with NPR, he said:

I think most people think of the story as the guy with the long white beard and the animals two by two, and it’s a jolly story, a nursery story for kids. But for me, I kind of sympathize with the people who didn’t get on the boat, thinking maybe there’s wickedness in me and I wasn’t good enough. So I always found it as a very scary, a first apocalypse story.

Rabbinic Commentary

Educated as a Conservative Jews in their youth, Aronofsky and co-author Ari Handel went to traditonal midrashim and to the books of Enoch and Jubilees to fill out the story of Noah. They then riffed on their own, creating what Aronofsky called “a Noah for the 21st century.” They took the sketchy details of the Biblical story and a few literary loose ends and created a fascinating backstory for the apocalypse:

Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden for disobedience. Their child, Cain, slew his brother Abel. Cain’s descendants took off into the world, aided by some fallen angels. In the Biblical text, there are two mentions of Nephilim, which is often translated “giants” but Aronofsky and Handel interpret as fallen angels (from the Hebrew root nun-pay-lamed, to fall). These angels, called “Watchers,” fall from heaven literally into the mud of earth out of attraction to humanity, and the combination of their heavenly fire and the earthly mud re-creates them as rock creatures. The Watchers become disenchanted with the sons of Cain, who only want to exploit the earth, and they abandon humanity.

When Noah (Russell Crowe) receives his call to build the ark, first in a dream and then via a hallucinogenic tea from his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) he encounters the Watchers and asks for their help. They gradually become intrigued by him and take the risk of assisting him. This action and contrition for their rebellion  brings about their own redemption, a contrast to the uncontrite human beings who die in the flood.

Cain’s descendants led by Tubal Cain are a hunter/industrial society under the rule of Tubal-Cain, the bad guy in the film. They have managed in only ten generations to mostly lay waste to the earth with mining and hunting. They have long threatened the peaceful and vegetarian descendants of Seth, and once they hear Noah’s prediction of a deluge to come, they want on the boat.

The big departure from the Biblical story is that in the Bible Noah and his sons Shem, Ham, and Japeth are named, but they all have unnamed wives who are included in the salvation by ark. In the film, Mrs. Noah (Jennifer Connally) is called by the name she carries in Genesis Rabbah, Naamah. The eventual Mrs. Shem is played by Emma Watson and named Ila. Ila is much easier to pronounce than her name in the Book of Jubilees, Sedeqeletelebab. As for Mrs. Ham and Mrs. Japeth, to say much about them would spoil the story. Suffice it to say that the story of the wives of Ham and Japeth is where the most interesting conflict in the story emerges.

“The Creator” is a very distant personage in this story, who speaks through dreams and visions. There is an interesting echo of the story of Abraham as well, as Noah struggles with his interpretation of the commands of the Creator. He believes he understands the message, and then something happens that calls his interpretation into question. He also suffers from survivor guilt; he is written here as a man chosen precisely because he loves life and loves Creation, and yet he is commanded to drown most of humanity and all but a remnant of the creatures on earth. The character arc in the Biblical story is really God’s – God moves from anger and destruction to mercy and love. In this version of Noah, the arc belongs to the title character.

Questions for Discussion

1. Aronofsky has said that he wanted to tell the story of Noah “for the 21st century.” How is this story specific to our time? Are there any contemporary issues upon which it comments?

2. We normally see angels pictured as beautiful creatures. What did you think of the Watchers? Did they seem to be angelic to you? Did watching them affect your ideas about angels at all? Why do you think Aronofsky called them Watchers?

3. Do you think God speaks to human beings? How can a person who believes he has received a divine message be sure he has understood it properly? If you were Noah, and you had the experiences Noah did in this film, how would you have understood your mission? Would you have been willing to carry it out?

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The Prince of Egypt

The Prince of Egypt (1998) is an animated version of the Exodus story, slightly tilted to focus on the relationship between Moses and Pharaoh.  The film follows the story of Moses (Val Kilmer) as he is saved from murder by his mother (Ofra Haza) and sister Miriam (Sandra Bullock) and put into the Nile, to be found later by the Egyptian queen (Helen Mirren).  He is apparently adopted by the Pharaoh Seti I (Patrick Stewart) and raised as the younger brother of Ramses (Ralph Fiennes.)  When Moses discovers his true identity, he is shocked, gets into trouble, and flees Egypt for Midian, where he finds the family of Yitro (Danny Glover) and marries Yitro’s daughter, Zipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer).

There is a note in the first few frames that the film is based on the story in Exodus, with some changes in the story.  In the Biblical account, Moses is adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh, and his childhood is left to midrash and imagination.  In this version, Moses is adopted by Pharaoh’s queen and raised as the brother of the next Pharaoh, raising the stakes on that relationship.

The film asks the viewer to consider the personal price Moses pays when he comes into conflict with the people who raised him and turns instead to the people from whom he came.  It also raises the profile of the women in the Moses story, especially the prophetess Miriam, his sister, and Zipporah, his wife.  It does this in ways that do not so much contradict the Biblical tale as they add to it in the spirit of midrash.  Miriam sees what her brother will be.  Zipporah is portrayed as a fierce and independent woman, which is congruent with the story later in the Biblical text in which she circumcised her own sons when Moses neglected to do so.

The animation is beautiful, and the writers wisely did not create the “cute” characters that plague too many animated films.  This is a serious film that happens to be made in animation.  The figures are beautifully drawn, and the computer-generated animation that powers miraculous events in this story does so in ways that convey the power and mystery of those events in the text.  The handling of the death of the firstborns of Egypt is gentle enough for children to see:  we see only the hand of a child who has dropped dead out of our sight, and then the body of the Pharaoh’s son.  The handling of the other plagues is similarly restrained.

The Prince of Egypt won an Oscar for Best Music, Original Song for “When You Believe.”  The enormous team who brought this film into being have given us a gift to enjoy every Passover, or every time a child asks, “Who was Moses, anyway?”

Commentary

In every generation, the haggadah admonishes us  to experience Yitziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) as if we had personally been present.  Before I saw The Prince of Egypt, I was skeptical about the power of an animated film to move me towards that experience.  This is an extraordinarily powerful film and would make an excellent addition to any household’s Passover activities.

That said, the script differs in some important ways from both the Biblical text and the text of the Haggadah.  It also differs from the tale as told in the oft-televised  The Ten Commandments (1956.)  Rabbi David Debow offers a template for a compare-and-contrast exercise for those inclined to parse it all out.  While there is no harm in learning stories from movies, just keep in mind that this film is a version of the story.  It fills in many of the gaps in the Exodus text, and it is worth remembering that this is not the only way (and certainly not the definitive way!) to tell the tale.

Moses is vivid in this film in a way he is not in most other depictions.  His character looms so large in religious tradition and the popular imagination  that he often seems distant or wooden.  The Prince of Egypt demands that we think about what it might have been like to be Moses.  What might it have been like to grow up a prince in Pharaoh’s court?  Was it hard to realize his true birth?  What had to happen for him to become the Moses who would go to Pharaoh and insist, “Let my people go”?  How could a man go from pampered princeling to a true leader?  What price did he pay?

The film also gives us a Miriam who is a true prophetess.  Some commentators have suggested that there are Miriam stories missing from the text; was she such a strong female figure that some redactor in the past snipped out parts of her story?  There is  a strong feminist angle to this version of the story, in which Miriam is a prophetess from early in her life (a depiction consistent with traditional midrash).  She is Moses’ protector and provocateur, insisting that he live up to the promise she saw in him.

Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) is initially played for comedy and his role in the story is much diminished.  It is one of the few faults I find in this film.  He does not speak for Moses, and is not his partner until the very end.

More than anything else, I was moved by the way in which the miracles of the burning bush, the plagues, and the Red Sea were portrayed.  The computer-generated animation achieved the wonders that deMille pointed to in his 1956 version without falling into cliche.  All through the film, in fact, there are echoes of deMille’s vision, and that of the directors of other Biblical epics, but here instead of costumes and pageantry, the animators approached true majesty.

Questions

The Biblical text tells us that God hardened the heart of Pharoah.  What hardens his heart in this film?  Why is he so unbending?

How is this Moses like the Moses of your imagination?  Is your Moses older? Younger? Angrier? Sadder? More idealistic?

What does this story mean to you?

Double Feature

The Prince of Egypt covers the same Biblical ground as The Ten Commandments. It has been said that Charlton Heston will forever be “Moses” in the eyes of many filmgoers, and certainly his Moses is different from this one.  Which Moses would you choose?  Why?

A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009) is the most explicitly Jewish film thus far from Joel and Ethan Coen. It is a black comedy, blacker even than their previous film No Country for Old Men.  Its violence is purely emotional, but none the less harrowing for that.  It begins with a quotation from Rashi, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”  It then proceeds to a folk tale in Yiddish about a man named Velvel who is helped on the road by an acquaintance of his wife; he invites the man back to his home for a bowl of soup.  His wife, however, is convinced the man is a dybbuk, a body possessed by the soul of a dead person, and she stabs him/it with a fork.  The visitor stumbles out into the snow, and we are left with the question:  who was right, the man or his wife?  Was the visitor a righteous man or a demon? How can one know?

Fast forward to 1967, and another Jewish household.  Larry Gopnik (Michael Stulberg) wants to be a righteous Jew living a decent life.  He is married, he is a physics professor, he is near to receiving tenure at his university, he has two children, a girl and a boy.  The boy will be bar mitzvah soon.  But below the surface, almost nothing is right:  his son smokes pot incessantly, his daughter steals from his wallet, saving money for a nose job, his wife has decided to leave him for a widower friend.  Someone is sending anonymous hate mail about him to the tenure committee.  He is pursued by a wild assortment of large and small misfortunes, from fender benders to the Columbia Record Company to a  student who intends to bribe and/or blackmail him.  He is nervous about one scowling, gun toting neighbor, and attracted to another, a woman who has “trouble” written in her eyeliner.  His brother lives on the couch, constantly draining his “sebaceous cyst,” drawing complaints from the police about gambling and sodomy.

Like Job, he has comforters who do not comfort.  He seeks advice from friends, who offer platitudes.  He seeks out his rabbis: the youngest mouths senseless banalities, the middle-aged one offers a story without an ending, and the ancient, allegedly-wise one — no, I won’t spoil the surprise.  Advice comes from other sources too, including his son’s stereo:  the Jefferson Airplane repeats over and over again, “You gotta find somebody to love,” offering the answer that Archibald MacLeish suggested at the end of his play on Job, J.B..

Commentary

If indeed the Coen brothers intend to suggest Job to audiences, they do it without invoking any of the resolutions that Job-stories generally offer.  MacLeish suggested that love was the answer.  The tacked-on ending to the Biblical book insists that all will be restored to the righteous in the end.  This movie, though, ends on the bleakest of notes, with an ominous phone call and an approaching storm.  Disaster clearly lies ahead — and yet since the viewer is in 2009, and the story ends in 1967, the world didn’t come to an end.

One might be tempted to say, well, then, it’s all meaningless.  And that, too, is a possible answer.

For me, watching this film as a rabbi, this film was nearly unbearable to watch.  I was furious with the rabbis, furious with the wife, furious with the friends — but I have to ask myself, what would I say to Larry Gopnik if he walked into my office and demanded an answer?  The film was sharpened by coincidences:  this winter I have watched too many friends suffer through inexplicable troubles, things they did not bring upon themselves, misfortune upon misery, and the Coens are right:  all these events demand a cry of Why?

The quotation that opens the film, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” is Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 18:13, from Parashat Shoftim, “You will be tamim with Adonai your God.” Tamim is a Hebrew adjective which can be translated “simple,”  “blameless,”  or “wholehearted.”  The son who “does not know how to ask” in the Haggadah is tam.  Noah is described in Genesis as an ish tam, a simple man (Genesis 6:9.)   Job is also described as tam v’yashar, a blameless and upright man (Job 1:8.) Larry Gopnik is a simple man in a different way:  he seeks answers in the elegant simplicity of mathematical equations.

Rashi suggests that understanding may be beside the point.  We are free to ask “why?” but there are no clear and easy answers.  What remains is the possibility of remaining a decent human being in the face of it all.  Another quotation from rabbinic literature comes to mind: “In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.”  (Mishnah Avot, 2.5)

Another Rabbinic Point of View

For another rabbinic take on this film, read Rabbi Anne Brener’s billiant article on it in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

An Israeli take on the film

Ella Leibowitz’s article in Haaretz on A Serious Man offers yet another completely different view on this film.

The Ten Commandments

200px-10Command56The Ten Commandments (1956) was the last film that Cecil B. DeMille directed.  It is the most famous of the “Bible epic” genre, telling the story of Moses (played by Charlton Heston)  and the deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt under Pharoah.

The film was actually a remake of a 1923 film, The Ten Commandments, also directed by Mr. Demille.  Both films feature the heroic style of acting favored in silent films.  The 1956 film was notable for its “cast of thousands,” for the location shots (parts of it were filmed in Egypt and the Sinai) and for its use of special effects, particularly the parting of the Red Sea.

The screenplay differs significantly from the account in Exodus, making use of various midrashic sources, the Qur’an, Josephus, and elsewhere. The film continues to be enormously popular, and has been parodied many times.

Commentary

“…and he looked just like Charlton Heston!” is the punchline of many a joke told by many a rabbi to liven up a sermon.  Despite the fact that the screenplay makes Hollywood chopped liver of the story in Exodus, this is another of the films that qualifies as a “must see,”  because it is a key part of popular Jewish culture.

Just be sure to actually READ Exodus sometime.  Also, take a look at the story of deliverance as told in the traditional Passover Haggadah.

Questions

If you were going to make a film about the deliverance from Egypt, would you use the screenplay of this movie, or the screenplay of  1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt, or the story in the Haggadah, or the story as told in the biblical book of Exodus?  If you were going to use elements of each, which would you choose, and why?