28 February 2014

Is a "line-by-line retelling" of Noah possible? An unnecessary "explanatory message"

The story of Noah and the great flood has long been a favorite of children and many story books have been written and drawn about it (and even various play sets), but in the process much of the actual Biblical story has been largely watered down (pun intended).

From the church of San Maurizio, Milan, Italy
But this "safer" portrayal of the destructive flood may soon be balanced with a new film produced by Paramount Pictures to be released in U.S. theaters on March 28, 2014.

For reasons I cannot fully comprehend, Paramount Pictures has decided to place an "explanatory message" at the beginning of the forthcoming film Noah:

I do not watch a lot of movies but very much very enjoyed Russell Crowe's performance in Gladiator and Jennifer Connelly's performance in Labyrinth (I'm not sure if I've seen either of them in different films). The trailer for Noah looks very good and I hope to see the film after it opens here in Rome in mid-April. Now, on to the purpose of this post.

The wording of the above mentioned disclaimer is as follows (I would like to the actual movie web site, where it can also be found, but I cannot manage to find a way to connect to the English version, only the Italian version, which will not be very helpful for most of you):

The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.
What is the need for such a disclaimer, you ask? A panel discussion at a meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters suggested such verbiage would help "audiences better understand that the feature film is a dramatization of the major scriptural themes and not a line-by-line retelling of the Bible story." Honestly, is it not obvious that the film is a dramatization and not a literal account?

I dare say, this move will not help with the media's happy portrayal of most Christians as unthinking dolts, for several reasons.

First, it demonstrates how little of the Scriptural account of the life of Noah most Christians - even "fundamentalist Bible Christians" - actually know. The life of Noah is told in Genesis 6-9. The filmmakers have, then, just four short chapters from which to make, as they say, a major motion picture event (though his birth is briefly mentioned in the final verse of chapter 5 and his sons born after the flood are mentioned in the first verse of chapter 10). These four chapters in which Noah has a central part, much of which is descriptive, are simply not of sufficient length to make a full-length film following "a line-by-line retelling."

Second, attempting to create a movie following the account in Genesis "line-by-line" would be most difficult if not impossible, as even a cursory glance at the preparatory account of the flood would show:
  • In Genesis 6:19, God instructs Noah to bring "two of every sort" of every living thing of all flesh (birds, animals, and creeping things).
  • In Genesis 7:2, God seems to alter his command to Noah, this time telling him to bring "seven pairs of all clean animals" and "a pair of the animals that are not clean" and "seven pairs of the birds of the air".
  • Then, curiously, in Genesis 7:8, when Noah begins loading the ark he brings on board, "of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female". More than one pair of every clean kind would be needed after the flood when Noah "took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar" (Genesis 8:20) and let's not forget the animals that would surely soon be eaten (Genesis 9:3).
  • Even once Noah enters the ark, the numbers are confused. In Genesis 7:15 we are told that "two and two of all flesh" entered the ark with Noah, but in verse 16 it seems that only "male and female of all flesh" (that is, one pair) boarded the ark.
How is one to reconcile these different numbers in a simple way for a film while stilling maintaining a "line-by-line retelling"?

Better yet, how are we to reconcile these seemingly contradictory accounts with the Scriptures themselves? It's a question I've pondered for years but is one that does not seem to have concerned the Fathers (who don't seem to mention it) or the biblical scholars (who simply say it is a matter of two separate sources (the so-called J and P traditions, which is not very satisfactory) having been brought together without smoothing out the rough edges, if you will.

Third, in regards to time, the greater part of the story concerns the 40 days of rain and flood (7:12) - or perhaps 80 (7:17) days or even 150 days (8:3) - where not a lot besides the drowning of men and beasts alike occurs. You cannot very well making a movie depicting 40 days of continuous rain. Nor can you show another two weeks simply sitting around on the ark waiting for the waters to disperse. That would become tediously dull rather quickly.

Fourth, regardless of how you figure the numbers, there certainly seem to be two separate accounts that have been interwoven with mixed results and repeated elements of the story.

When considering all of this and what to make of it, we have to remember that the Old Testament cannot be fully understood without being read in light of the New Testament (and vice versa). This is why Saint Peter wrote:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him (I Peter 3:18-22).

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