Aronofsky and Noah as Midrash (Or, What Does That Even Mean?)

***This post is not a review of the film, so no spoilers unless you don’t know the story of Noah. And then in that case, SPOILER.

The newest blockbuster Noah has generated a wealth of responses from members of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities, many of them upset by the ways in which the film fails to live up to their religious expectations. Darren Aronofsky, in a few recent interviews, claimed that he drew upon his Jewish heritage by creating his newest film Noah as a midrash on the biblical story. He explains, “In all the midrash tradition, the text is what the text is. The text exists and is truth and the word and the final authority. But how you decide to interpret it, you can open up your imagination to be inspired by it” (Christianity Today).

Midrash aggadah in its simplest form is the practice of filling in the gaps within biblical stories. Midrash developed as a rabbinic form of problem solving; in order to resolve tensions within biblical stories, rabbinic writers reframed and explained these stories in light of their ethics and values. Midrashic material has been composed for centuries leaving a wealth of inspiration and interpretation for modern readers.

The extra-biblical and midrashic traditions of Noah, in particular, are filled with imaginative explanations that probably failed to find their way into your Sunday school class. Here are a few examples you may not have read before:

A Giant, Sleep Disorders, and a Drinking Problem

  • R. Levi said: The whole twelve months that Noah was in the ark, neither he nor his family tasted sleep because they were responsible for feeding the animals. R. Abba b. Kahana said: He brought branches for the elephants… Now some ate in the second hour of the night and some in the third hour of the day, hence you know that Noah did not taste a bit of sleep. R. Yochanan said: One time, when Noah was late in feeding the lion, the lion bit him, and he went away limping. (Tanchuma, Noah)
  • As the floodwaters swelled, Og, king of Bashan, sat himself on one of the rungs of the ark’s ladders and swore to Noah and to his sons that he would be their slave forever. What did Noah do? He punched a hole in the ark, and through it he handed out food to Og every day. Og’s survival is hinted at in the verse ‘Only Og remained of the remnant of the Rephaim’ (Deut 3:11).” (Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer 23)
  • Rabbi Meir said: One pearl was suspended in the ark, and shed light upon all the creatures in the ark, like a lamp which gives light within a house (Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer 23)
  •  At Noah’s birth the angels exclaimed, “This time we behold the man [who would birth a nation].” “No,” they were told, this one will be given to “drinking.” (Tanchuma Noah).

While some are troubled by what they perceive as additions or misrepresentations of the biblical text in the film, Aronofsky draws upon midrashic imagination to fill in the “rest of the story” only hinted to in the biblical text. This might startle Christians who have more strict views on textual interpretation, but midrashic story-telling has no problem with expanding the story.

Care for Ecology IS Within the Story

Some have raged against Aronofsky’s explicit environmental overtones in the film, but whatever his motivations, care for creation is part of the Noahic midrash.

  •  Why is Noah called “righteous”? Because he fed the creatures of the Holy One, and became like his Creator. Thus it says, “For the Lord is righteous, loving righteous deeds.” (Tanchuma Noah)
  • If He remembered Noah, why also the animals? May the name of the Holy One be blessed, who never deprives any creature of its reward. If even a mouse has preserved its family [i.e. species] it deserves to receive a reward. (Tanchuma, Noah)
  • AND IT CAME TO PASS AFTER THE SEVEN DAYS: R. Joshua b. Levi said: Seven days the Holy One, blessed be He, mourned for His world before bringing the Flood (Gen Rabbah 32).

Noah is Righteous but not the MOST Righteous

For those troubled by the darker portrayal of Noah in the film, Jewish tradition has never regarded Noah as a hero. The Zohar Midrash Hane’elam explains,

  • How did God answer Noah when he came out of the ark? Noah saw the whole world destroyed. He began to cry for the world and said, “Master of the world, You are called Compassionate! You should have shown compassion for Your creatures!” The Holy One answered him, “Foolish shepherd! Now you say this, but not when I spoke to you tenderly, saying ‘Make yourself an ark of gopher wood…’ (Gen. 6:14).” Because I saw that you were righteous before me, I lingered with you and spoke to you at length so that you would ask for mercy for the world! But as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch your heart. You built the ark and saved yourself. Now that the world has been destroyed you utter questions and pleas?” (See also Gen. Rabbah 29 “Even Noah, however, was left not because he deserved it, but because he found grace.”)

In Jewish lore, Noah is most often compared to Abraham. When God tells Abraham that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed, unlike Noah, Abraham pleads for the innocent. It is Abraham who is the father of the Jewish people, not Noah, and for precisely this midrashic reason.

Aronofsky approached the making of Noah from a long tradition of Jewish interpretation, using details from the Bible and midrashic lore to create a Hollywood epic about a mythic story. The goal was not to create a documentary of the “historical Noah” but to stand in its mythic stream. And in that regard Aronofsky represents well many of the themes of the midrashic legends.

No one should be seeing Noah with their Bible open, fact checking Hollywood. The Noah story is a meaningful religious story based on well known Ancient Near Eastern myths, shared by many religious communities, and no single community has claim to the “true story.” Further, the complexity of Ancient Near Eastern flood myths will not be settled by a Blockbuster film. Just because Aronofsky says his film is midrash, doesn’t mean his midrash is necessarily good or complete. Yet what this film and its midrashic motivations do show is the manner in which religious stories are remembered. Why is there so much controversy about some Hollywood flick? Because religious stories are remembered as part of our collective identity. But let us also remember, as Aronofsky’s film demonstrates, that the memory of our religious stories are larger than the biblical text.

“They [the generation of the Flood] forgot to be merciful to their fellow men, therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, made His mercy forget them” (Gen Rabbah 33).