Flood Warning

03.28.14

The Backstory of ‘Noah’ Is Full of Giants, Horny Angels, and a Grieving God

The first few chapters of Genesis contain some of the strangest prose in the Bible, but the big reveal is a God making peace with man’s sinful nature.

In the beginning, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, according to Genesis. Out of chaos, God created the universe and brought order. But fairly soon things started going very, very badly.

The first chapters of Genesis, what scholars call the Bible’s “primeval history,” depict a gradual distancing between God and his creation, a tour of man’s growing alienation. The Fall is followed by violence—the murder of Abel. Angels begin consorting with human women, and giants roam the earth. Then it started raining.

God created humans, in the biblical story, and he gave them each the ability to do right and wrong. When man chose wrong, and disrupted the Almighty’s design, the result was, as John Calvin said, “a perversion of the order appointed by God.” Despite God’s absolute power, a disruption from below began menacing his creation. And in the story of man’s beginnings—just five chapters in—God decided his creation was too bent on evil to continue.

The Los Angeles Times called Darren Aronofsky’s Noah—which opens today—“one of the most overtly spiritual movies any big Hollywood studio has made in years,” and said even though Russell Crowe plays the lead role, “the real star of the movie is the concept of original sin.”

Crowe himself stoked the religion angle by tweet-begging Pope Francis to screen the film. Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told the AP last week that there would be no papal screening of Noah, nor would the pope meet with Crowe and Aronofsky privately. That didn’t stop the film’s star and director from sitting in the pope’s weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square. And later there were conflicting reports from Paramount Studios that said the Noah team did meet briefly with the pope.

There’s been no word from the Vatican about whether the pope plans to see Noah. But the governments of some Muslim countries reportedly have banned the film because it violates Islamic tradition by visually depicting a prophet, and some conservative Christian groups have asked that the movie come with a disclaimer that it doesn’t portray scriptural truth.

Anyone who does see the $130 million film, and who is familiar only with the ancient flood story from childhood, is likely to find it to be a big, loud movie with spectacular special effects. They may also see an unexpectedly sad movie. According to The Los Angeles Times, Aronofsky—who is an atheist but “can pass for an armchair religious scholar”—consulted with Jewish and Christian theologians in the course of making the film.

The children of Israel continually strive to become God-like, and each time they do, they fail.

That means Aronofsky likely knows that modern scholars think the first five books of the Bible—called the Torah by Jews and the Pentateuch by Christians—were passed around orally, then written down by a number of sources, and finally stitched together by a later editor. One of those sources is an author that biblical scholars refer to as “J,” the Jahwist (or Yahwist), so called for his recurring use of the term YHWH, or “Lord,” when referring to God. It’s the Yahwist whose writing Aronofsky has adapted for the big screen.

Unlike those of his fellow Genesis scribes who were concerned with the law, genealogies, or the priesthood, the Yahwist is considered the Torah’s storyteller. He is thought to be the author of Adam and Eve’s herpetological encounter in the Garden of Eden. The tragic tale of Cain and Abel is attributed to him, as is the depiction of Noah’s predicament as the rains began to fall. Scholars believe that later in the Torah, the Yahwist is responsible for the story of the plagues, the Exodus from Egypt, and the wandering in the wilderness.

The Yahwist is widely assumed to have drawn on older traditions to write the earlier Genesis narratives, so in the Noah story, we may be reading the Yahwist’s own words for the first time, and they are among the saddest in the Bible. God realizes that his creation is irredeemably flawed. Evil and man are linked forever. Sin is endemic to the human condition, writes biblical scholar Sibley W. Towner, it is constant and it comes from deep within the human soul.

According to another biblical scholar, Robert Davidson, these verses are the only time in the Bible the word “grief” is used in reference to God. In true Yahwist anthropomorphic form, we see that human beings have broken God’s heart. In the Old Testament, the heart is not an island of emotion, but the seat of understanding and will. In God’s heart there is profound disappointment in man, and a bewilderment and incomprehensibility at how his plans have gone so wrong, writes Towner. And, as a result, he resolves to wipe his creation from the face of the earth.

But what’s that you say about angels consorting with human women, and giants roaming the earth? No, that’s not George R.R. Martin, it’s four verses at the beginning of Genesis 6 immediately preceding the story of the Flood, and it’s presumably God’s final straw. The passage is a vision worthy of an epic Hollywood treatment, maybe by Guillermo del Toro.

The verses are thought to be a fragment of a myth from what would have been ancient history written for people we now consider ancient. It’s a story about fallen rebel angels, boundary-breaking sex, violent giants ranging the earth, heart-breaking divine grief and the coming decimation of the human race.

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

Biblical scholars have called this passage among “the strangest,” “most obscure,” and “most difficult” in the Hebrew Bible. The verses have been called “atypical,” “puzzling” and—in language hilarious only outside exegetical academia—“controversial in the extreme.”

Genesis 6:1-4 foreshadows the Israelites repeated attempts later in Genesis to part with God in the wake of the covenant he’s made with them through Abraham (if they worship only God and obey his commandments, they will be his chosen people) and to become a great people without God’s help. But the children of Israel continually strive to become God-like, and each time they do, they fail. The Yahwist’s point is that Israel will always fail. Only God can be God. And to make that point, he borrows a myth from the ancient near east, molding it into a lesson for the people of ancient Israel about how those with a desire for power can breach their God-given, earthly responsibilities in an impossible attempt to seize the mystery of God’s divinity.

A story about the union of demi-gods and human women is completely foreign to the Hebrew Bible, a text that emphasizes monotheism—that, in fact, makes belief in one God a central component of the covenant between God and his people. But Israel did have neighbors, and as it developed as a nation, it became familiar with its neighbors’ myths.

Scholars say the story of sex between gods and women is similar to Hurrian myths found in Hittite texts from the second millennium suggesting that the Yahwist knew his audience would be familiar with such stories. In Canaanite mythology, even El, the supreme god, gets in on the action, fathering the gods Dawn and Evening after seducing two mortal women.  When the sons of God came to earth, they came with one thing in mind: babes. Earth was where the women were beautiful, and the sons of God were angels, so they had their pick of the most beautiful.

“These angelic beings let themselves be enticed by the beauty of human women to grievous sin,” wrote Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad. “They fall from their ranks and mix with them in wild licentiousness.”

The Italian rabbi and biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto wrote that in Israelite tradition, angels were divided into different ranks—higher and lower; close to the Lord (ministering angels) and others (destroying angels) who were called “demons.” In Genesis 6:1-4, it’s the destroying angels who come to earth, Cassuto wrote, pointing out that according to the Talmud, “although the ministering angels do not beget offspring, the demons do procreate.”

mission-at-nuremberg-bookcover
Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis. By Tim Townsend ()

As a result of what some scholars have interpreted as angelic rape, the human women give birth to a new race of supermen—the Nephilim, whom, according to The Los Angeles Times, Aronofsky has incorporated into Noah. The meaning of the word is unclear, but it probably is related to the Hebrew word napal, meaning “to fall.” It comes up only once more in the Bible, in the book of Numbers, where the Nephilim are described as giants who make the Hebrew visitors to Canaan feel “no bigger than grasshoppers.” The word likely originally described mythical semi-gods who walked the earth, a bit like the Sumerian king Gilgamesh who was two-thirds god and one-third human.

In the view of some scholars, these children of angels and women constitute a mythical warrior class, infamous for cruelty, pride and wickedness. The names of the giants were synonymous with violence, and ancient peoples feared them. But, the Yahwist describes the Nephilim as “heroes that were of old, warriors of renown,” not as gods or even demi-gods. When the Lord says, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals for ever, for they are flesh,” he’s instructing his people not to believe that any creatures of flesh and blood can live on earth forever. The boundary—set by God—between God and man is untouchable and unconditional, the Yahwist was saying, divinity is the province only of the divine.

The Yahwist’s theme with these four verses is the divinely-established  limits of acceptable human behavior—and the hazard of transgressing those limits. The story is not just about angels, demi-gods and giants. It’s about a human race, descended from Adam, that has chosen sin over God and will continue to obey the forces of evil until it is destroyed. The mythical nature of the story suggests evil’s chronic presence in the lives of human beings.

“It is the sign of a deep-seated corruption infecting all life,” writes Davidson. “Evil has a demonic dimension which fully warrants God’s stern reaction. Aptly, the story becomes part of the preface to the flood.”

Then, at the brink of what might have been the end of the story for all of us, the Yahwist introduces a note of hope. A little man who had a way with animals and boats “found favor in the sight of the Lord.” When the flood waters receded, Noah built an altar and offered God a sacrifice. The Lord returned to his recent place of grief—his own heart—and determined never again to destroy the world.

Sometime during the flood, it seems, God came to peace with the idea that his creation was predisposed toward evil. “The inclination of the human heart is evil from youth,” the Yahwist explains. God understood that the freedom of will, which made his human creation special, was both a fatal flaw and a benediction, according to Towner. That humans are capable of unthinkable good, as well as unthinkable depravity, was worth God’s mercy and protection.

Tim Townsend is the author of  “Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis” (Morrow), published this month.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cassuto, Umberto. A Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Trans. Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1961-1964

Davidson, Robert. Genesis 1-11. London: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Gowan, Donald E. From Eden to Babel: A Commentary on the Book of Genesis 1-11. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988.

Mathews, Kenneth A. The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Volume 1A, Genesis 1-11:26. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996

Rad, Gerhard von. Genesis: A Commentary. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972.

Speiser, E.A. The Anchor Bible: Genesis. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1964

Stigers, Harold G. A Commentary on Genesis. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976.

Towner, Sibley W. Genesis. Louisville: Westiminster John Knox Press, 2001

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. Trans. John J. Scullion, S.J. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.