Rezori: Noah, and the lessons he can tell us about water

The new Russell Crowe epic Noah is triggering a debate about religion, but Azzo Rezori says a longer look reveals much about our history of managing resources.

Is the Biblical figure a holy man or an 'environmental wacko'?

Russell Crowe stars in the upcoming epic Noah, with Jennifer Connelly. (Paramount Pictures/The Associated Press)

Less than a week, and Noah will be among us, in full cinematic splendour courtesy of Hollywood.

In one way he already is among us. The pre-box-office debate Hollywood likes to get going in order to promote upcoming blockbusters is in full gear. The cannons of criticism are being loaded. Some have already gone off.

All indications are there's going to be lively crossfire when filmmaker Darren Aronofsky's ark strikes ground in movie theatres on Friday.

Good old Noah. The storms of his flood will have been nothing compared to the storms of approval and disapproval after his film avatar Russell Crowe has given his account of what really happened.

We have the Bible's version, but it's very condensed. Just the basic plot with next to no details about the man himself. Did he have blue eyes? Brown? Green? Was he tall? Short? What kind of a smile did he flash when levity got the better of him? Did he smile at all? Was he right-handed or left-handed? Did he have dimples? Is it really a sacrilege to ask these questions? He was human, after all.

And what was it all about anyway? Was it about punishing wickedness, as the Good Books would have it? Or was it about something much more trivial but also much more disturbing, as the earliest existing version of the flood story suggests?

Let's go back.

A tale from clay tablets

Long before Moses penned the Book of Genesis somewhere in the Sinai desert, scribes in the lower reaches of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley wrote down the Epic of Atrahasis. What's left of it is on three clay tablets in the cuneiform writing of early Mesopotamian civilization.

Director Darren Aronofsky's Noah is described as being "inspired" by the Genesis account of Noah and the flood. (Paramount Pictures/The Associated Press)
Tablet 1 talks about seven senior gods, a lazy bunch who've passed the hard work of carving and sculpting the land with its fertile rivers and valleys to their juniors. The juniors are fed up and revolt. To save their skins the seniors say, "OK, OK. We'll create humans."

Let the womb goddess create offspring

and let them bear the load of the gods!

Tablet 2 has the chief god go back to sleep. But before long, he's awakened by the activities of the newly-created humans as they dig canals, irrigate and cultivate the land, build cities, and — worst of all — multiply like gerbils.

I am losing sleep over their racket.

He sends a plague down on them. Then a drought. Then a famine. When none of that works, he resorts to water.

The flood roared like a bull.

Like a wild ass screaming, the winds howled

the darkness was total, there was no sun.

Tablet 3 tells the story of Atrahasis ("the very wise") who was alerted to the impending flood by one of the other gods, and (here we go) builds an ark, fills it with animals, drifts on water, water everywhere, sends out birds, lands on top of a mountain, and makes a sacrifice to the gods, who rue the utter destruction they wrought and promise never to do it again.

But to make sure that overcrowding doesn't become a problem again, the gods afflict humans with a number of population-controlling miseries — barrenness in women, miscarriages, demons who snatch children, while humans quite effectively add their wars to the mix.

Now, one of the early criticisms of Aronofsky's film is that his Noah is not nearly enough the iconic holy man cast in the Bible and far too much, in the words of one conservative pundit, a raging "environmental wacko."

Here's one possible counter-argument.

According to the Atrahasis story, the flood is not about punishing humans for their wickedness but about dealing with them as a nuisance - too many of them, too busy, too noisy, too clever for their own good (and for that, the gods have only themselves to blame because they sacrificed and killed the smartest of their own kind to give humans the gift of thinking).

A story is brought full circle

An anthropologist's analysis of the whole thing might go something like this.

The story of Atrahasis is really the story of one of the first recorded environmental disasters on the planet, namely of the over-cultivation of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, resulting in recurring droughts, floods, famines and ultimately unusable and deserted lands.

One of the people who leaves is Abraham. He moves west into modern-day Palestine and takes the story of the flood with him. Over generations of retelling, Atrahasis becomes Noah, and with only one god involved now, the pagan myth about pesky humans morphs into the biblical tale about wickedness.

According to this scenario, all Aronofsky's film does is take us full circle back to the original.

About the Author

Azzo Rezori


Azzo Rezori has been working with CBC News in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1987, and reports regularly for Here & Now and other broadcasts.