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Will the Real Noah Please Stand Up?

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Take a story of, literally, "biblical proportions" about the total devastation of life on planet earth, add an all-star cast including Russell Crow, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson and Anthony Hopkins, and give it a $125 million budget with lots of special affects. How could this film go wrong? Unfortunately, Noah doesn't add up to the sum of its parts. Instead, it feels like a huge miss.

The problem for the filmmakers, and also for many of us as we read the story of Noah in the Bible, is a failure to understand what kind of story it is. Which leads us to interpret it in ways that either miss the point or distort the point. Comedian, television host and outspoken atheist Bill Maher recently lambasted the film, and the 60 percent of the American public who read the Noah story as literal history. How literally should we take the story?

In the case of the filmmakers, they didn't feel the story had enough drama. It wasn't enough to build an ark, put two of every kind of animal on it and to see a flood wipe out the earth's population. It needed something more. So, while Genesis 6:18 says that Noah, his wife, his sons and their wives were all on board the ark (implying that God intended them to repopulate the earth after the flood) the filmmakers rewrote the story so that Noah was sure that God wanted the race to end with him and his family. [Spoiler alert:] In the film, only one of his son's has a wife, and she is supposed to be barren. The real drama of the film comes when Noah learns his barren daughter-in-law is pregnant. She gives birth to twin daughters, and Noah feels God wants him to kill the babies! This leads at least one of his sons to want to kill him. This is Noah, Hollywood style. In the end, the book is far better than the movie.

But there's something more that makes this particular adaptation of the Noah story not work, and it is possible that it dooms every film adaptation. Portraying or reading this story too literally often obscures the point of the story. The earliest stories in Genesis were not written to tell primeval history. They were written to tell readers about themselves, and about God.

Reading the Noah story as an historian's account of ancient history leaves Christians needing to prove that it was really geologically possible for water to cover the earth to a height 20 feet above the tallest mountain. They find themselves wondering precisely how many species of animal could fit in the ark, or how Noah managed to get them all in there. Or, as Maher pointed out in his shtick on the film, how a good and loving God could choose to kill every man, woman and child on the planet.

The primeval stories in Genesis were told and retold around the campfires for hundreds if not thousands of years before being written down. For an oral culture with no books, no television, no radio, no sports and no movies, stories were the vehicle both for entertainment and for teaching truths about humanity, morality and God. The story of Noah was likely rooted in catastrophic floods of the ancient past (perhaps the end of the last Ice Age when catastrophic floods were seen across the northern hemisphere which would explain why flood stories show up in far-flung cultures around the world). Yet the point of telling the story was not to report ancient history. It was to teach hearers, and readers, about themselves and about God.

The story of Noah, like other stories in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, are archetypal. Noah's story tells us that human beings have an inherent tendency towards violence both towards their fellow human beings and towards the creation itself. The story tells us that this violence grieves God. Genesis 6:6 says, "And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart." The story also tells us that God chooses to give humanity another chance. And the story reminds us that God is concerned not just for humanity, but for all of his creatures.

These are powerful messages in the Noah story that are as relevant today as they were when the stories were told around campfires, or finally written down. But these messages are overshadowed in the film. They are also often overshadowed when some Christians insist that the stories be read like an historian's report of ancient history.

Am I suggesting the Noah story of the Bible is not true? No, quite the contrary, I'm suggesting this story tells us deep and profound truths about God, about humanity and about life. But while it is rooted and grounded in the ancient memory of massive floods that had been passed down for millennia, its point is not to tell us about a man named Noah who lived long ago, but to tell us the truth about ourselves, and about God's grief over human violence, God's concern for his creation and God's willingness to give humanity a second chance.

I discuss all this in more detail in a chapter called, "Were there dinosaurs on the ark?" in my new book Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today (HarperOne, 2014). Click here to read more.