Warning: Noah spoilers throughout.

Noah

Walking out of our screening of Noah last week, one of the first things I said to my colleague was, “I think the moral of the story was that God is evil.” While the movie strenuously, almost ridiculously tries to illustrate how much mankind deserved its fate, their sin is theatrically outweighed by the irrational violence of God. Bringing out the extreme, disturbing implications of the Noah myth was one of the movie’s greatest strengths, and what made it such an unexpected provocation. But it was confirmation of something I’ve often said: there’s no better tool for creating atheists than the Old Testament.

But I don’t mean to be flippant, so I’d like to make a more careful case for Noah as an exercise in anti-theodicy. The particular starkness of God’s evil in the film is perhaps rooted in the incoherent moral logic Aronofsky imposed on the story, especially the blanket innocence of the animals and the automatic guilt of mankind for what appears to be little more than obeying God’s commands earlier in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it” and to “rule over” every other living creature. The supposedly God-defying humanist speeches of Tubal-Cain, a real biblical character reimagined as Noah’s nemesis, are really just paraphrases of God from Genesis 1. While the movie’s environmental-disaster politics are interesting in other ways, their “man vs. God” perhaps renders even more cartoonish the wickedness of God that pervades the entire Christian logic of the fall.

Here is roughly what happens between Noah and God: God gives Noah a vision of the destruction of the world, for the express purpose of punishing mankind’s sin, and orders him to build an ark to save the innocent. In Genesis, God decides that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was all wickedness all the time” (6:8) and that the “earth was corrupt and full of violence” (6:11). Noah, nevertheless, was “blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God” (6:9). “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created … for I regret that I have made them,” God says (6:8).

It’s not very clear here what the sins are, but we know that man is accused of a) multiplying and b) being violent. But as Noah’s family quickly finds out, they’re just as violent as everyone else. After watching the shocking goings-on at a nearby camp of Canaanites, Noah realizes he and his wife would kill them in a heartbeat to protect their children. Near the end of the ark ride, he’s become a raving madman chasing two newborn babies with a knife, and his two oldest sons are prepared to bring him to what would appear to be a very righteous end. (They kill Tubal-Cain instead, and after a dramatic knife-raise, Noah leaves the babies in peace.) Even if most of this isn’t in the Bible, we know that the reboot of humankind produced even greater achievements in multiplication and mass murder. So God killed millions of people because they were violent, and then saved enough of them that they could return to exactly that state? It’s not surprising that Aronofsky’s Noah comes to believe that humans are supposed to die out in the new world. Either he kills those babies, or God is cruel and insane.

Long before Noah finds himself hoisting a butcher knife over a newborn, the storyline about whether humans are supposed to survive proves throughout the movie to be an extended illustration of the absurdity of trying to be on God’s side. God reveals enough about himself that Noah can get an idea of his plans, his orders, and the sort of moral logic he holds humanity to. But he’s apparently silent to everyone else, even those who beg him to speak to them. And the matter of applying God’s commands in concrete situations leads to incoherence right and left, often driving Noah to act like one of the damned in order to follow God’s logic consistently. (The familiar torture of the literal believer: This has to be right. But it can’t be.) It’s a fruitless exercise, because God is never consistent: he destroys things when he decides, and saves random people and starts over with no apparent plan in mind. There is simply nothing Noah could have done to deserve to be spared the flood; the only answer is that God made a sovereign choice. At best he was lucky God let him in the plot far enough in advance to save his skin; tough luck for everyone else.

The only conclusion we can draw from the story is that whatever grand, unknowable plan God may have in mind he, contrary to Christian doctrine, doesn’t rate human life anywhere near as highly as he expects humans to. Tubal-Cain turns out to be right: God is silent, unknowable, capricious; he does what he wants. We can’t beat him, but there’s not a lot of point in trying to follow him, either; there’s no guarantee that he will say anything, or that if he does it won’t lead you to madness and ruin. The fact that God might have an ultimate plan for the world, and even the apparent chaos ultimate leads to his holy ends, is a cold comfort if he’s constantly intervening in the human world, judging it by a logic no one can understand, and sending the unlucky to eternal damnation.

The opposite of Noah’s evil God might be the one in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, who is not entirely undetectable in the human world, but does not clearly intervene or judge. This God is much more plausible as the divinity who is so far beyond the human mind that only hints and glimpses indicate his presence and grace. His is the mysterious penumbra at the edge of the world that one could feel to be following them through all the inexplicable events of life, good and bad, and is the final oblivion into which we pass at the end. He does not categorically punish mankind because there are no grounds for him to do so; he has left us to struggle toward good in the midst of and even deeply intertwined with evil. We might plausibly claim that whatever plans are in the mind of this sort of God are able to redeem the suffering of human life, because we have no inkling of them.

This is matter that is not given near enough attention by believers who insist that faith must be literal, and must involve clear commands from God, in order to be meaningful. They seem to ignore the eternal paradox of religion: that its power comes from its ability to explain the world, but that its explanations are necessarily false. Thus there’s often an unsatisfying choice between vague religious notions that are plausible and robust ones that are not.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

  • Brad Kramer

    Certainly a lot of good questions for believers, especially of the conservative, inerrancy type. My only issue here is that it is difficult at points to disentangle whether you are judging Aronofsky’s god or the OT’s God (not exactly the same, as you acknowledge). I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I better stop here.

    • David Sessions

      I’m referring to the real thing, though I tried to indicate where the movie’s portrayal might make the case even more cartoonish than the Biblical account (for example the “animals are innocent” thing). But even the wild baby-killing stuff, though not part of the story, is actually a fairly realistic portrayal of what it’s like to follow a God who gives absolute commands and makes absolute judgements, yet leaves it to humans to decide what they mean in a particular situation.

      • Brad Kramer

        I agree that that’s a sticky theological issue, though not one in Genesis 6/7. God’s instructions to Noah are pretty specific.

        Your better point is that God is seemingly capricious, i.e. he destroys the world because he regrets creating it, only to remake it in pretty much the same way. The only way that the story of Noah is even remotely intelligible is if we grant God the moral freedom to kill any of his creation for his own reasons, as well as treat sin against God with a kind of gravitas that transcends individualist human moral reasoning (i.e. collective punishment for all life for the sins of humans-and maybe just adult humans). Christianity either needs to face these issues squarely or give up the gun. Of that I completely agree.

        (or, to step back even further, perhaps there is an essential quandry with humans deciding whether to grant God “moral freedom” for things. See: book of Job. Perhaps that’s an invention of humanism- even in the Christian sense of the word…)

        • David Sessions

          This is good. I agree, there’s a certain absurdity to analyzing a Jewish god according to modern Western philosophical categories. But I think you could argue that the humanism and those categories are in Christianity itself; these observations may not undermine God or religion period, but they perhaps undermine the Christian attempt to absorb the whole history of the Jewish God and still claim that he’s omnibenevolent.

          • Brad

            Well put! I think the Cross suggests a reverse theodicy- God defending himself as pure Love. The more I read the breadth of the Bible, the more I’m convinced by contextual distance from the stories gives me a decisive disadvantage in understanding the point, which kind of goes to your original question.

          • Brad

            my*

          • Patrick Sawyer

            Omnibenevolence is a slippery term. Theologically sound Christianity does not claim God is omnibenevolent as it seems you are defining and contextualizing it here, ergo that God is kind to all His creation at all times.

  • eroteme

    Good questions you ask. If he hears a Christian praise God for answering a prayer to heal a sick child an atheist friend of mine will immediately then ask that person if he will praise God for killing all the sick children who did not get better. I must say he has a point.

  • oaklandj

    The concept of G-d that it is perfect and always kind is obviously not true. G-d makes mistakes, lashes out in anger and goes too far…many times man is required to rein in its impulses (this is explored much more in midrashim than in the Bible, but look at Abraham weighing on behalf of the Sodomites in Genesis, the daughters of Jelophehad in Numbers, etc.). Not unusual for a new parent to be impatient with their first child, which is what G-d is a template for.

    And yet, whether you call the force that brought existence into existence and created the universe that we inhabit and can barely wrap our heads around to understand (yet) G-d or something else, it seems to have a logic and meta-level of justice that evades us…

  • Ben Blankinship

    I would like to
    thank you for these thoughts on Noah, the movie and the
    biblical story. The comments set me back on my heels a bit, and made
    me think. My first reaction was, “It’s no surprise the movie
    version of a biblical story would cause confusion; movies are
    notoriously bad vehicles for conveying the subtlety of biblical
    wisdom.” But the more I thought about what you wrote, the more I
    realized your objections were not to the movie, or to any mistakes it
    made. You were offended by the Noah story itself, and specifically by
    its reflection on the nature of God.

    My second reaction
    was to ask myself about the meaning and significance of the Noah
    story and its place in the Bible. Most of us would agree that the
    first eleven chapters of Genesis are not historical but mythical in
    the original sense of that word: that they convey deep and important
    meanings not by relating actual historical events, but by revealing
    universal truths of the human condition. To paraphrase Leon Kass, the
    stories are important not because they tell us what happened, but
    because they tell us what always happens. So I asked myself, what is
    it about the Noah story that the good people at Patrol misunderstood?
    How could they have drawn the conclusion that God is evil from a
    story that actually tells us God is good? And I admit, the more I
    thought about it the more I was drawn to your arguments. A god who
    kills untold numbers of people, not to mention animals, just because
    he “repented” having created life cannot be a good god. It’s easy
    to say the story is not “historical,” the events never happened.
    But that merely begs the question: If the story is not there to
    report some history that actually happened, why is it there at all?

    So I spent this
    Easter morning reading the flood story again, and reading Robert
    Alter’s commentary on it in The Five Books of Moses and Leon
    Cass’s corresponding chapter in The Beginning of Wisdom. And I
    think I see why your reaction and mine are so different.

    Allow me to pause
    at this point: if the reader is in the process of grieving the death
    of a loved one, please proceed to the next comment. There is nothing
    in the following that will help with your present grief, and much
    that might upset you. It is not my intent to portray this line of
    thought as in any way helpful to the grieving while they are
    grieving. I think it is true, and I think it is the only helpful
    way to think about the issues raised by the Noah story (or the rest
    of Genesis for that matter). But the time of grief is not the time
    for analysis of this sort.

    That said, we can
    begin, I think, with an agreement that it is evil for one human to
    murder another, or to needlessly kill an animal. (We can disagree,
    for now, over what exactly constitutes “justifiable homicide,”
    and whether morality requires we all be vegans. Those questions,
    while interesting and worthwhile, are separate.) Murder is evil
    because life is sacred. But I suspect our thoughts will diverge as
    soon as we ask what “sacred” means.

    From a human
    perspective it is easy to make the mistake that murder is the
    difference between life and death; that is, a person who would have
    lived is now dead, and the murderer is the cause. From a larger
    perspective, this is simplification to the point of misunderstanding.
    Murder is not the difference between life and death; it is the
    difference between dying today and dying at some future time. This is
    the one indispensable truth that runs through Genesis from 2:17 to
    50:26. Man is mortal. The murder victim was going to die eventually.
    The murder does not change that essential fact: it changes the time
    at which the death occurs.

    Murder is evil
    because life is sacred. But what does that mean? Sacred means
    “reserved to God.” Murder is evil not because the victim would
    otherwise live forever. Murder is evil because God has reserved to
    himself the decision of how long each of us will live. For a human to
    interfere with that decision is an affront first to God – the
    murderer takes the liberty of “playing god” – and second to the
    victim – the murderer deprives the victim of years of life that
    belong to him, that he deserves, that God had decided to give him.

    But if you look at
    it from that perspective, it is meaningless to say that God has done
    evil by ending a life “prematurely.” God cannot violate the
    sacred; the whole meaning of “sacred” is “God alone is allowed
    to have this.” If a human uses something sacred for his own
    purposes he has done wrong. To suggest God has done wrong by using
    something sacred for his own purposes is to miss the whole point.

    To say, “it was
    evil for God to drown thousands or millions of people in the flood”
    is to say, “it was evil for God to decide that people who might
    otherwise have lived 70 (or 120 or 969) years should only live 65 (or
    35 or 5) years.” I hope it is clear on the face of this statement
    that the first formula sounds like a serious indictment, and the
    second formula does not. The problem is that we tend to
    anthropomorphize God, and judge him as we would judge one another.

    Murder is evil, but
    can it be “evil” for God to end a life? If your world view
    includes the idea that God is the giver of life, the answer must be
    “no.” The reasoning is simple. None of us did anything to earn or
    deserve the gift of life. God has given each of us life, and has
    decided in his own wisdom (or, if you prefer, has decided
    arbitrarily) how long that life should be. (Or perhaps he creates
    each of us with an allowance of 70 years, and adds to it or subtracts
    from it based on our decisions, or some other factor. Who knows?) It
    is fundamentally illogical to say that God has done “evil” by
    giving one person a life of 100 years and another person a life of
    100 days. In each case it is a gift to be appreciated, and to say,
    “you are evil because you gave me less time than I wanted” makes
    as much sense as a child saying to his parents, “you are evil
    because you gave me a bicycle when I wanted a pony.”

    This is why, I
    believe, Genesis begins the way it does. God creates, and everything
    that exists is his property and exists for his good pleasure. He
    creates humans, and gives them the power to make decisions, but they
    never cease to be his property, and his will is always sovereign. Any
    time a human follows God’s will it is good, and every time a human
    disobeys God’s will it is evil. It is unclear whether the first
    humans would have lived forever if they had not disobeyed God, but it
    is crystal clear that, by choosing to disobey, they brought on
    themselves the gift or curse of mortality.

    Cain murders Abel,
    and the reader is informed that Cain has done a terrible evil.
    Otherwise, we are not told of any human death. But here is Leon Cass
    describing what he learned from Robert Sacks about the “begats”
    in Genesis 5: “To discover the worm in the family tree we must read
    with a magnifying glass – and with a timeline and calculator.
    Because the text reports the lives of these antediluvians in sequence
    – chronicling each man’s birth, the number of years he lived before
    and after begetting his first son, his life span, and his death –
    the complacent reader does not notice that there is more than a half
    century (between the year 874, in which Lamech is born, and the year
    930, in which Adam dies) during which all nine generations of
    human beings, from Adam to Lamech, are alive at the same time,
    with all their myriad descendants. … Noah, born in
    1056, is the first man born into the world after Adam dies. Noah is
    therefore the first man who could have no direct contact with the
    first man and, therefore, with a living memory of the Garden of Eden
    and its prospect of immortal life. More important, Noah is the first
    man who enters a world in which death is already present, the first
    man who grows up knowing about death, knowing that he must die. …
    Noah (not Adam or Cain) is the prototype of self-consciously mortal
    man.”

    Therein lies the
    difference between Noah and his contemporaries, and therein, I
    believe, lies the difference between those who say the God of the
    Noah story is evil and those who say he is not. You cannot understand
    the story without understanding Noah’s perspective on mortality. And
    you cannot understand the actions attributed to God in the story
    without embracing God’s sovereignty and man’s mortality. Again, it is
    not a history about what happened, it is a myth about what always
    happens. Man thinks himself immortal, and it leads him to question
    and distrust God. Man becomes painfully aware of his mortality, and
    it leads him, one hopes, to embrace the gift of life, and eventually
    the Giver of that gift.

    • Patrick Sawyer

      Ben,
      I think you mean Leon Kass (not Cass). And while I think Dr. Kass has a flawed understanding of Genesis in certain important ways, there are many things you say here that are helpful and germane to this discussion. As Sovereign and Owner of all that is, God’s rights and responsibilities with His creation are of an entirely different species than what our rights and responsibilities are with His creation. Sadly, our pride often blinds us to this fundamental distinction. Thanks for your comments.

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