"By faith, Noah..."
The "Hall of Faith," found in the book of Hebrews, exalts the Old Testament hero for his righteousness. In the book of Genesis, we read that God speaks directly to Noah, promising a covenant and instructing him to build an ark to survive the flood. Again, Noah is noted for his righteousness. In Aronofsky's film, Methuselah tells Noah: "You must trust that he speaks in a way that you will understand." Noah is plagued by visions, and discerns that the Creator is giving him clear instructions. But the sheer consequence of these instructions don't resolve after floodwaters cover the earth: they fester within Noah's soul and mind, visions of hell on earth and the inherent evils of the human race.
If you're flipping through Genesis in context, you might note with some dismay that immediately following the Flood story is the Tower of Babel, a puzzling scenario that almost appears to nullify the entire premise of the Noah story. Are we to believe that humanity immediately went back down the tubes, invoking the wrath of God all over again? Noah himself may not be privy to Biblical context, but he's astute enough to recognize that sin is an inevitable vice of the entire human race: a curse passed down from Adam not only to the line of Cain, but also to the line of Seth. Man's capacity for free will is an imperfect blemish on the Creator's otherwise spotless creation. This, Noah discerns, is why the Creator would annihilate the human race, the line of Seth included.
Also in the Hall of Faith is another exaltation:
"By faith, Abraham..."
...who is also a recipient of God's covenant, yet without an heir to inherit it. Like Aronofsky's Noah, Abraham is a knight of faith. In one of the Old Testament's most horrific scenarios, he takes his only son to the top of a mountain and ties him to an altar, then raises his knife, fully prepared to end the life of his own child.
For Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, Abraham's religious conviction was paradoxical and irreconcilable. How could such faith drive any man to murder his only child? What IS faith? Abraham, Kierkegaard mused, was a true knight of faith: a conflicted and tortured hero who could not be understood, only examined with holy awe and terror.
It would seem Aronofsky took a page out of Kierkegaard's book when he fleshed out the character of Noah. The Biblical narrative itself leaves much to be desired: all we really know about the man is that he was righteous in God's eyes, and (lest we forget) after the flood he gets drunk and starts cursing one of his sons. So what is righteousness? Aronofsky himself addressed this in an interview, pointing out that righteousness is the "balance between justice and mercy." Justice and mercy... the two traits of God in the Old Testament that indeed seem paradoxical, yet shed light on many of the difficult Old Testament passages. According to Jewish tradition (Aronofsky's source for the film), God is both just and merciful. While it may sound nice, the psychological toll of this premise is something Aronofsky addresses head-on, and it's exactly this difficulty that is making many Christians uncomfortable with the film.
Like Abraham, Noah is singled out for a task of desperate importance. Abraham is to be the father of a blessed nation. Noah's task is decidedly more difficult - he must not only father the human race, he must look evil in the face and condemn it. He must watch as millions die around him, his stone-cold countenance fuelled by faith and faith alone. In one haunting sequence in Aronofsky's film, Noah stares ahead with a kind of suppressed horror as the camera tracks backwards, the sound of screams and helpless desperation filtering through the walls of the ark.
To make matters worse, his own family is challenging his understanding of God's command, appealing to his sensitivity and weak heart. How could they try to undermine God's will like that? Don't they realize that Noah's task is hard enough? "You must trust that he speaks in a way you can understand." In angry desperation Noah steps out into the rain and pleads with the Creator, begging him not to make him do this. It echoes of Abraham's desperate plea: "How could you ask me to kill my son?" It didn't matter that Ila's pregnancy was a miracle in itself. Isaac too was a miracle, but God's will is not our own. Early in the film, Noah kills several of Cain's wicked descendants, partly in self defence but largely in the name of "justice." This driving sense and an all-consuming conviction of faith has driven Noah to the point of obsession. He's seen more than any man should ever have to see, and the fate of the entire human race is in his hands. Killing off his own bloodline is the last thing he wants to do; at the same time, he knows it's what he must do.
In the climax the Abraham story, he raises his knife with all intent to kill. It is an act that goes against everything he could possibly understand, against anything that could possibly seem right or loving. It is the very antithesis of everything that God promised, yet he raises his knife. For that he is immortalized in the Hall of Faith.
"You must trust that he speaks in a way that you can understand."
In the climax of the Noah story, the knife is raised. But the act is not committed. In despair, Noah retreats from his family, believing that he had failed the Creator. He subjects himself to drunkenness and shame.
But is God not also merciful?
When Ila asks Noah why he didn't follow through, Noah replies, "in that moment all I could feel was love." Ila consoles him, reminding him that the Creator chose him for a reason; that the choice was in his hands. Free Will rears its controversial head.
We can never truly understand the will of God. We must trust that he speaks to us in ways that we can understand. We must wrestle with faith, just as we must wrestle with mercy and justice. Aronofsky's Noah is an obsessive, dangerous man. He is not perfect or pious. But he is righteous. For that, he is immortalized in the Hall of Faith.
Aronofsky could have easily ended his film with despair and tragedy, like many of his other dark, important films. After all, Scripture itself never so much as wraps up the story in a nice or even optimistic bow. But Aronofsky has too much respect for the Biblical account to leave Noah in hopeless isolation, and so makes a very welcome "departure" from the Scriptural account: he saves God's rainbow promise for the end. It immediately follows Noah's reconciliation with his family, and his passing of the birthright to his sons (Ham being notably absent, but not forgotten). The Creator smiles upon this.
"Noah" is a stunningly beautiful, appropriately challenging and theologically integral work of cinema. Do yourself a favour, and don't miss out on that.