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I said on Twitter earlier today that one nice thing about Darren Aronofsky’s new Noah movie is that I have another illustration for the students in my Pauline Epistles class of how the apostle does not read Old Testament narratives.

What I meant is that Paul has a habit of locating the explanation for divine mercy and grace in God’s own determination to have mercy rather than in the worth or character or achievement of its recipients. He does this most prominently with the Abraham material (see especially Galatians 3 and Romans 4), transforming the story of a faithful patriarch into an instance of what he calls the “justification of the ungodly”: Abraham too, just like the former pagans to whom Paul addresses his letters, was in need of forgiveness and redemption. But Paul also follows the same pattern with Isaac and Jacob (Romans 9) and even the righteous remnant of Israel: that faithful band, along with their exiled co-religionists, constitutes an illustration of justification by grace, not works (Romans 11:5-6).

Paul didn’t talk about the Noah story in his extant epistles, but here’s how I imagine he would have read it.

Noah found favor with God, says the text of Genesis (charis, or “grace,” in the Greek translation of Genesis 6:8). And, for Paul (in contrast to many of his fellow Torah-reading contemporaries), “grace” is defined as a gift given to the unfitting (Romans 4:4-5). Genesis subsequently notes that Noah was a righteous man (Genesis 6:9), and according Paul, that’s the proper order: first grace, then the status of righteousness. It’s not that God found someone who had already attained a certain level of goodness and then crowned it with the verdict of justification. For Paul, the reverse is true.

And this is what Aronofsky’s film complicates. On the one hand, the movie features a startling exploration of unrighteousness—“wickedness,” the screenplay calls it—in Noah’s own family. Even after the violent hordes are drowned, murderous rage is still present among the select few that are preserved inside the ark. Noah’s immediate family, including Noah himself, can’t escape the corruption that finally doomed those outside. In that way, I was surprised by how close Aronofsky gets to the indictments of Genesis 6:5 and 8:21 that bookend the story of the flood. On either side of the narrative, evil lurks. There was evil before the flood, and there was evil afterwards, and the film depicts this reality with raw power. So far, so Pauline.

But near the end of the film, Emma Watson’s character, Ila, gives up the game. She says to Noah that perhaps God preserved him because God knew that he had a merciful heart. Perhaps, she speculates, that’s exactly the sort of person God could count on to renew the world non-violently, peaceably, and responsibly after the flood. And in this way, the film ends up locating the rationale for God’s mercy in some native spark of goodness in Noah that will, viewers hope, make the new, post-flood world more livable than the antediluvian one.

In his commentary on Genesis, the great twentieth century Lutheran scholar Gerhard von Rad notes how un-Pauline such a reading is:

This saying of Yahweh [“And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth...,’” Genesis 8:21] without doubt designates a profound turning point in the Yahwistic primeval history, in so far as it expresses with surprising directness a will for salvation directed towards the whole of Noachite humanity, “although” (the Hebrew particle can be translated in this way) “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” So far as that is concerned—Calvin says in his exposition of the passage—God would have to punish man with daily floods. In its hard paradox this v. 21 is one of the most remarkable theological statements in the Old Testament: it shows the pointed and concentrated way in which the Yahwist can express himself at decisive points. The same condition which in the prologue is the basis for God’s judgment in the epilogue reveals God’s grace and providence. The contrast between God’s punishing anger and his supporting grace, which pervades the whole Bible, is here presented almost inappropriately, almost as an indulgence, an adjustment by God towards man’s sinfulness.

The point of the Noah story, on von Rad’s deeply Pauline interpretation, is not that Noah possesses in himself the seed of a better humanity. The point is that God promises to show mercy, even when Noah’s offspring prove just as violent and evil as the descendants of Cain.

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