Noah and Discernment

I’m note exactly a fan of Russell Crowe, but having read so many divergent views of Noah, Dave and I went to see it last night. (Warning: if you plan to see the movie and don’t want to hear any of what happens in it, stop reading.)

There is always a danger seeing a film “based on” a story we are familiar with. Inevitably the film will convey something or other that seems to us inconsistent with the story as we know it. There is a particular danger with films based on the Bible, as divergence from the text will seem to some as offensive or sacrilegious.

I confess I could have lived without the giants who lumbered around and helped Noah and his family build the ark. (And I couldn’t figure out what good those giants actually did given how many years it appeared to take the build it – at least several years judging by the growth of Noah’s sons and future daughter-in-law.) And, as I already said, Russell Crowe doesn’t do a whole lot for me. But I did find the film worth seeing.

I think when we imagine God telling people like Noah what he wanted them to do, we imagine God giving the equivalent of a written set of complete instructions with every “i” dotted and “t” crossed. In this movie, Noah has a dream of being underwater, of death and destruction, and he sought out his grandfather Methuselah to help him understand what God was calling him to.

That portrayal, I think is more consistent with the way God most often speaks to us – in ways that are far less clear than a fully developed blueprint. A dream, an intuition, something someone says, something that arises in prayer – ways that require discernment and prayer to understand more fully what God is calling us to. That invite us to speak with a spritual director, a wise elder like Methuselah, or a friend, as we discern.

The movie also reminds us that our discernment can be clouded and we don’t always fully understand what God may be asking. One of the things in the movie that really struck me was Noah and his family hearing the sounds of people screaming in terror as the waters rose. I confess that is not something that was ever in my vision when I imagined that scene. But of course people in a wooden ark that was certainly not soundproof would hear the cries of people outside as the waters rose. Noah’s wife and sons plead with him: Certainly there is room on the ark; shouldn’t we try to save some of these people? No, says Noah. Is that what God wanted? For everyone but Noah and his family to perish? Or was God testing Noah’s mercy?

A similar scene occurs later in the movie. Noah has become convinced that God wants the human race to completely die out. So when his son Shem’s wife, who he thought was barren, is with child, Noah swears that if it is boy, the boy will be the last human to live, but if it is a girl, he will kill it so that there may be no more breeding of humans. He is unmoved by the pleas of his wife, son and daughter-in-law and insists he will kill a girl as soon as she is born. However, when he finally sees his twin granddaughters he cannot bring himself to kill them. Is he disobeying God’s will by refusing to kill them? Or, as the twins mother suggests, was he exercising the mercy God wanted him to choose?

The point is not how Noah should have answered those questions – that is between him and God. But it is a good reminder of our need to carefully discern – and to have the humility to recognize that our discernment may be faulty.