'Noah' film spurs scholars to share research on ancient flood myths

By Allie Scalf | Spirited Thinking | April 24, 2014

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The release of Darren Aronofsky's film, "Noah," provided an opportunity for Ingrid Lilly to connect her research on ancient flood stories to today's pop culture.

Lilly, a Hebrew Bible scholar who received her Ph.D. in 2010 from Emory's Graduate Division of Religion (GDR), recently created the website, floodofnoah.com, where she and colleagues, several of them alumni or current students at Emory's GDR, began writing essays and sharing research on ancient flood myths. With the release of "Noah," the website used the film as springboard for dialogue.

"Genesis and flood stories are some of my favorite things to teach," says Lilly, currently a visiting scholar at the Pacific School of Religion. "With the website, I wanted to put the academic study of the Hebrew Bible on display for the general public, and the movie is a great opportunity to showcase ancient Mesopotamian flood stories."

After being featured on public radio's "On Point with Tom Ashbrook," Lilly noticed floodofnoah.com garnering more views by the general public. She recognizes that floodofnoah.com can offer a different conversation around "Noah."

"We are trying to elevate the national conversation around the movie," she says. "We put a huge effort into producing academic responses to the movie. Different colleagues were assigned a theme or a topic and there are about 20 essays all tackling a different aspect of the film."

Support from Emory colleagues

To create the wide range of content for floodofnoah.com, Ingrid Lilly asked several of her colleagues from Emory's GDR to help produce essays and content on the site. One of the website's editors and contributors, Jackie Wyse-Rhodes, is a Ph.D. candidate in Hebrew Bible at Emory.

Wyse-Rhodes is writing her dissertation on depictions of the natural world in ancient Jewish apocalyptic literature. Her research is rooted in works like 1 Enoch, which was inspiration for certain aspects in Aronofsky's "Noah." In her essay on floodofnoah.com, Wyse-Rhodes discusses Aronofsky's interpretive choice to include rock giants, called the Watchers in the film.

"The idea of the Watchers does come from Genesis, but they are not called Watchers there but Sons of God," says Wyse-Rhodes. "Between 200 BCE through 200 CE, apocalyptic literature was popular and some writers took the four verses in Genesis about the Sons of God and expanded them into a 36-chapter story in 1 Enoch called, 'The Book of the Watchers.'"

Wyse-Rhodes notes that Aronofsky's representation of the Watchers does differ from 1 Enoch and other ancient Jewish apocalyptic literature. "With the Watchers, Aronofsky makes a move that is totally unique. In 'The Book of the Watchers,' we read that the Watchers longed for families, so they descend to earth and marry women. In 'Noah,' they descend because they feel sorry for Adam and Eve when they are kicked out of the garden."

Aronofsky made some other interpretive choices about the Watchers as well. In the film, the Watchers are punished when they come to earth and they become rock giants. "The rock giants are pure Aronofsky," says Wyse-Rhodes.

Although there are some differences, Wyse-Rhodes enjoys Aronofsky's interpretative choices. "What I do love of Aronofsky's interpretation is that in Genesis, the flood is humanity's fault. Aronofsky preserves that but lets the Watchers play a part. In 'Noah,' the Watchers help Noah build the ark, which is also in 1 Enoch."

Unlike 1 Enoch, the film shows the Watchers being redeemed when they are taken back to heaven. In ancient literature, they are judged and punished.

Other Emory GDR contributors to the website include: Kelly J. Murphy, editor, Kent Brintnall, Christopher B. Hays, Amy Cottrill, Megan Bishop Moore, Nicole Tilford, and Adam Ployd.

Noah, pop culture and social issues

Not only does floodofnoah.com incorporate aspects of ancient flood myths, says Lilly, it also open up "social issues connected to the flood, the main one being climate change."

The film has received criticism for having an environmental agenda, but Wyse-Rhodes feels that Aronofsky's emphasis on the natural world as "righteous and being without fault" is in line with ancient Jewish apocalyptic interpretations of the natural world.

"Aronofsky's movie firmly places fault for desecration of the world, which he depicts through strip mining greed and extinction, as the fault of humans 100 percent," notes Wyse-Rhodes. "And that agrees with the flood story in Genesis where human corruption and greed bring the flood. Humans are the reason God deems the flood is necessary, and the natural world, including animals, is what needs to be saved."

While climate change is a concern in the film, there are other avenues to explore the flood story in American pop culture. "When we talk about the culture of Noah's flood today, there are a lot of ways it crops up in American culture, like young earth Creationism, comic books, depth psychology, post-Katrina disaster art, and futuristic architecture," says Lily.

"We want to give thoughtful reflection on American religion and how the flood continues to live in our culture today."

Benefits for professors

As Lilly publishes and discusses essays with contributors, she has been exposed to new content on flood myths.  "Someone let me know about a manuscript of Genesis from the 11th century the other day. It contains a picture of Noah's ark as a Viking Ship. The authors took poetic license and describe the journey of the ark like a medieval expedition on the sea."

As a general editor, Lilly hoped that the website could gather content like the 11th century manuscript, and by doing so, professors could have greater exposure to materials on Noah and the flood. As a professor, Lilly recognizes that faculty spend a lot of time searching for videos, art or a song to incorporate in their lectures, and the website can help provide these materials.

The site also has made an impression on its contributors. "In thinking about how to produce a website like this for the public, it helps academics open ourselves to the public," says Lilly. "And this opens us up to different conversations that we could be tackling in our work."

Not only does the website broaden the form of writing, floodofnoah.com sheds light on the reception of the history of the Bible. "Because we are all trained in separate fields, a biblical scholar will know far less about how the Bible was received by Islam or how it was produced in medieval art," says Lilly. In creating the website, she has been amazed by how many discoveries have been posted in areas like this, noting that the Bible has been an interesting trajectory to follow through human history.

In collecting these materials, Lilly sees the website's project as creating social goods, such as allowing people to reflect on the Bible in our culture today. While Lilly recognizes that the Bible "is sort of owned by ideologically polarized groups," she hopes the website helps "unlock the Bible" in an illuminating way.