In many of my past articles I have explored the symbolism of death and how it is related in the Bible and by our Tradition to the arts and technology, to hybridity and the foreigner, the serpent, to the cave, to Cain, to animality and to periphery in general. Aranofsky’s recent Noah movie deals intently with many of these same images, and in seeing the often confused and bewildered reactions it has garnered, I am only confirmed in my imperative to make this symbolism more available.
Aronofsky’s Noah is a Jewish movie. It is imbued with a rabbinical approach to the Bible by interpretation through storytelling. It is a very rich vision of the story of Noah, one which boldly takes on the silly literalism of American Christianity and dares to suggest that the Bible is actually about something, manifests something, and is not simply a string of accurate stories that document God’s intervention in the world. Traditional Christians should not be afraid of this. Our liturgy, our traditions, our icons are full of extra-Biblical material and details which act as interpretation, pointing to the meaning of what is already in the Bible. For example, when we say that the skull of Adam was buried under the cross of Christ and that his blood ran down upon it, this is not just some odd historical detail about the crucifixion which is not in the Bible, rather it is a detail that is already interpreting for us what the crucifixion does. Often our apocryphal stories are more fabulous, more miraculous than the Bible, and we are capable of accepting parts of them with different levels of traditional authority while rejecting or arguing over other details from the very same stories. We live with these, we discuss, accept, reject these because our purpose as a Church is not to be “Biblicaly accurate”, but to participate in the transfiguration of creation through the Holy Spirit. In a similar manner, this type of interpretation through storytelling is what Aronofsky’s Noah is doing.
Yet Aronofsky’s Noah is not a Christian movie. It is powerful, rich and complex in its symbolic structures, but there is a crucial element missing in its symbolism, and that is what I want to attract attention to.
Let’s start with the toughest part, the rock monsters. In the movie, the fallen angels are represented as huge rock-monsters. This has been an unending source of criticism for the movie. In the Bible and in tradition, there are many suggestions that the cause of the flood, or at least part of its cause is the result of fallen angels, fallen angels that have somehow mingled with men. In the Bible, there is a reference to a mingling, understood as a sexual transgression between the higher and the lower, between the sons of God and the daughters of men. There are two traditional interpretations of this mingling, one is that it represents the mingling of the descendants of Seth with the descendants of Cain. The other is that Angels fell to earth through desire for women and their unnatural relationship caused the giants. In the Enochian tradition, this intermingling of angels and men is also the source of technology, the angels teach men the arts and crafts, modification of nature which is seen as perversion of nature and it is these perversions which lead to the flood. The way to understand this in our own world is that the higher things, spiritual things, truth itself can be denatured and create monsters when they are applied inappropriately, when they “fall”. There is a truth in a nuclear weapon, a truth of God, but this truth has fallen into a monstrous body.
In Genesis, Adam is made by God with dirt/dust and spirit/breath. The result of this perfect union of the substances of the lowest (dirt = earth) with the highest (spirit = heaven) creates a glorious body, a body represented in the movie as golden using a symbolism the Orthodox are quite used to when we think of the halo. Considering this Biblical image, it is quite powerful that in this movie, the fallen angels appear as an improper union of the heavenly (here represented by light) and the earthly. Instead of Adam’s luminous body, the rock bodies are deformed and incomplete. Like the Jewish Golem, they become dark cavernous shells, prisons for the faintly perceivable glory hidden within. And it is these monsters who teach Cain’s descendants how to mine the earth and create cities, iron, all those things the Cain’s line are attributed with in the Bible. They do this to help men, but it turns against them and Cain’s descendants destroy the earth. In the movie, the final representative of the Cain’s line is Tubal Cain who is credited in the Bible of having created metallurgy. The image of iron related to Tubal Cain is important. The first thing Tubal Cain gives Ham (the future cursed son of Noah) to attract him is an iron war hammer/axe, the same hammer/axe Tubal Cain uses as a blacksmith. In this the very symbol of the tool is linked to the weapon, just as the traditional image of Cain changing his till into a spear. Finally the giants use their knowledge to help Noah build the ark, and in this we see the first glimpse of the duality of the supplement, the idea of death and the combating of death by death. We see that both the cause and the solution of the crisis originates in the same place. Finally the rock-monsters are transformed, their “light” is liberated when they they flip things around again, turn against Tubal Cain, acting like a peripheral defense of the ark when it is being attacked, and doing this by brandishing huge iron chains. Iron against iron.
Death and duality
The duality of death is presented very powerfully in the movie. I have written many times about this duality, about the paradox of its consequences. We are shown the garden of Eden and the tree of Knowledge/Life is in fact two trees crossing each other. As Eve tastes the fruit, Adam is “distracted” and looks to the ground to touch the dead skin left by the serpent who has shed it (the word used to describe the serpent in the Bible which is usually translated as “crafty” also means “naked”). And so the fall is presented as this lowering towards death. We know that Adam picks up this “garment of skin”, as this skin is passed down through the descendants of Seth. The skin is wrapped around the arm and used to bless the succeeding generations. This wrapping around the arm suggests of course the tefillin, the leather strap used by Jews to bind the law to their body as a memorial (Exodus 13:9, Deut. 6:8, 11:18), but it also suggests the serpent wrapped around the pole/tree which represents this duality of death, and which I have spoken of elsewhere (The Serpents of Orthodoxy). And so the duality is powerfully brought forth, because when Tubal Cain sneaks into the ark with the help of Ham, it is with this same animal skin that Tubal-Cain will curse Ham in the the final moments in the Ark. So the serpent, that is death, is both a source of blessing and of curse.
The duality of Noah and Tubal Cain.
One of the biggest errors in approaching the Noah movie is to want Noah to be the “good guy”, to want him to be the “hero”. This error is also made by some upon reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament. All the human characters in the OT have a dark side, none of them are “the good guy”. Understanding this will help us see things we could not see otherwise and it will help us avoid undue emotion when the character we want to be the “the good guy” does things we do not agree with. We need to see Noah and Tubal Cain as two extremes, two opposites, somewhat as I have explained about the left and the right hand. Noah is the “servant” of nature. He only gathers what he needs from the earth, he does not eat meat, he does not build cities, he does not even farm. He has integrity to a fault. He is like a radical Greenpeace vegetarian ecologist who despises the “carbon footprint” left by man. Noah even chides his son for picking a single wildflower from a hill. Tubal Cain “dominates” nature. He is passionate, powerful and preaches human will. He eats raw meat with blood, digs mines, makes cities, weapons and war. He is like a gas-guzzling, gun-toting industrialist who hates those hippy idealistic tree-huggers. Many people have been annoyed by the portrayal of Noah (especially the gas-guzzling gun-toters), but just as it is Tubal Cain’s excessive approach to the role of Man and creation which has led him to do anything necessary to preserve his lineage, so also it is Noah’s excessive attitude towards creation, this excessive diminution of Man which leads him to believe he should kill his own family. Noah doesn’t just want to circumcise Man, he wants to castrate him. Both go too far.
There is in fact a very powerful scene in the movie, in the very moment where Noah wants to kill his family to eliminate Man from the earth. Hidden in the Ark, Tubal Cain has a surprising speech in which he uses the very words of the Bible to say that God put man in the Garden to have dominion over creation. He does this as he bites the head of a living reptile, extinguishing forever that species to assure his own survival. In this moment, both men are shown in their extreme, where they are both right in some way, both wrong in another, but pulled into the radical consequence of their opposition.
What is Missing
This movie understands very well the duality of the world of the fall and death and though it attempts to present one side as being better (Noah’s side), it cannot avoid its own logic in bringing the duality to both its suicidal extremes. So what is missing from this movie? What is missing is the one who is in between Noah and Tubal Cain. What is missing is the Lord who washes his followers’ feet, the King who dies for his subjects, the Shepherd whose sheep obey his voice, but who also gives his life for those very sheep. What is missing is the one who can unite the blood of Tubal Cain with the wine of Noah, who can unite the Garden of Eden with the Heavenly City, who can both die and conquer all at once.
This missing link could also have mended one of the most disturbing aspects of the story. In the movie, the angels fall by compassion, not by desire or pride as is usually posited in our Tradition. This is a very grave inversion. In a similar fashion, when Noah does not kill his granddaughters, it is understood by him as a transgression, as a sin of compassion. How can this be? The real question should be: how can we understand the golden sparks of heaven trapped in the world of the Fall, that world where the Garden is lost and Adam’s glorious body is tarnished? If we see these hidden sparks of divinity coming down by compassion, as a condescension from on high, can we conceive this compassion as anything else but a fall from above, as a breaking of the divine law of Justice, a transgression of the absolute division between Heaven and Earth? It is only in the Incarnation of Christ that these problems can be solved, only in a perfect union without confusion of two fully distinct Divine and Human natures into one single person. In this, the duality of Heaven and Earth is resolved without being annulled, and the glory of Adam’s body is restored at an even higher level than in the Garden. In this we do not have to understand the descent of the influence of Heaven or even technology and the arts as necessarily fallen and monstrous. Rather, when all these descents “remember” their heart, their origin, they can be transfigured, not into dis-incarnated light, but into “resurrected” shining bodies.
And so I think that Aronofsky’s Noah is a powerful movie, because we live in a world that has indeed forgotten the possibility of the Incarnation, a world that has been abandoned to its extremes and Man’s disregard for God’s creation is one of the symptoms of this accelerated Fall. Noah is also a powerful movie because it dives into the symbolic fabric of the Biblical story, the type of symbolism that I will continue to expound in my future articles. The only thing missing is what makes all one, a vision of Christ, the vision of the heart.