This week, Ross teaches from Torah reading Metsora. The teaching in this reading describes the progressive steps to to bring one who was once “unclean” back into the fellowship of the community of the holy. Ross spends a good deal of time discussing the Hebrew term, “tamei,” translated as unclean. The reading begins, this is “the torah of the leper, on the day of his cleansing” (Leviticus 14:1-2). Ross shows how this phrase is used in a prophetic text to describe the bringing back of scattered Israel and their ultimate restoration into fellowship of the community of the holy. This class also covers a teaching prevalent in Judaism known as “lashon hara.” Throughout the teaching, Ross connects the literal texts with an implied allegorical interpretation supplied by the ancient prophets of Israel. You will not want to miss this teaching.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. While I claim to be no authority on the man, I have always been inspired by his speeches and have a great admiration for his work to achieve social justice and equality on behalf of his people.
I am a student and teacher of Scripture, and so from this perspective I wanted to share something that I discovered several years ago. My studies and teachings follow the Annual Jewish cycle of readings from the Torah of Moses. Time and again I have noticed interesting points of congruence between current events and the stories contained within the words of the Torah portion. Several years ago as I prepared my class on the portion of Scripture that deals with the Exodus from Egypt (Bo – Exodus 10:1 – 13:16), I immediately thought of Martin Luther King, Jr.
As it turns out, the week that Dr. King was born, all over the world, Jewish people were reading Moses’ words to Pharaoh – “Let my people go!” Like a modern day Moses, Martin Luther King Jr. would devote his adult life to a struggle for freedom for his people. Did these words carry in the wind into the ears of a small baby who would grow up to speak them again to the oppressors of his own generation? I leave it to the reader to ponder.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed on April 4th, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The night prior he would deliver a message that once again connected his life’s work to Israel’s greatest prophet Moses. Listen to the final speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He would be killed the next day.
Ever see a movie with someone that has read the book? Rarely do we hear anyone say that the film was better than the book. Why is that? The reason, I believe, is quite simple. Our minds form a picture of what the words would look like if acted out on screen. We picture the scenes described by the author, cast the right actors for each character, and visualize every detail of the story and so, before an Aronofsky has a chance to present his interpretation, everyone who has ever read the book has already directed the movie in their own mind. When the story selected by a director is literally, the book, the number of critics grows exponentially. It would be quite easy for me to join in with the all my coreligionists and declare the film a departure from the Bible’s version. Aronofsky does in fact take certain liberties with a story that almost every man, woman, and child has read. Elements that are not mentioned in the Bible are added, key points are changed drastically, but the essential and timeless message survives the flood of destruction brought about by its creative critics.
Noah in the Bible
The Bible tells Noah’s story in the early chapters of Genesis. His name occurs fifty-eight times in the Scriptures and is etiologically explained at his birth; “This one he will comfort us from our work, and from the toil of our hands, from the ground that YHVH has cursed” (Genesis 5:29). Our introduction to the man Noah says much in a few words. His life was somehow to be relevant beyond his own and indeed this is how the bible presents him.
According to Genesis, Noah lived in a time of total depravity. The days of Noah can hardly be described merely as days of “eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage” (Matthew 24:38, Luke 17:27). During his days, the earth’s population was increasing, but not nearly at the rate at which “bad” increased. YHVH took note at the behavior of humankind and provided a sad commentary. The badness of man was on the rise; and “every formed thought of his heart was only on bad all the day” (Geneses 6:5). It was so bad that YHVH “regretted that he had made man in the earth and it pained his heart” (Genesis 6:6). The earth was corrupted and full of violence (Genesis 6:11) leaving no alternative but to say that “an end of all flesh has come” (Genesis 6:13). Everything would perish, all living flesh (Genesis 6:17) that is, except for one man and his family.
Noah, we are told, found grace in the eyes of YHVH. He was a righteous man (cf. Genesis 7:1), complete in his generations (Genesis 6:8-9). Like Enoch before him (Genesis 5:24) and Abraham after him (Genesis 17:1), he is described as “walking with God.” Only Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives would be saved alive. This would be accomplished by constructing an ark. Noah, his family, and representatives of “every living thing,” would enter the ark and thereby survive the coming destruction that was decreed to strike the earth. Provisions were to be collected as food for the ark’s passengers, and while a brief description of the ark is provided, nowhere in the story is the actual construction related.
Genesis tells us that Noah was 600 years old when the flood came upon the earth (Genesis 7:6). The story clearly says that Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives all entered the ark, as did all the animals. Safely inside the ark, YHVH closed the door of the ark and the flood ensued (Genesis 7:17ff). It rained for forty days, during which time, “all flesh expired that moved upon the earth” (Genesis 7:21-23). This included birds, beasts and humankind.
The waters remained “strong upon the earth for 150 days,” and then God remembered Noah and the animals. A blowing wind over the earth began to blow and the waters began to recede until the tops of the mountains were observable. The ark came to rest upon the “Mountains of Ararat” (Genesis 8:1-5). Noah sent forth birds as a way to see if habitable land was finally exposed and once he determined that this was the case, he opened the covering of the ark and followed the divine command to leave the ark. All the families, both human and animal exited the vessel, and Noah built an altar and sacrificed some of the animals. Upon smelling the sacrifice, YHVH declared that he will never again curse the ground because of man since he realized that man has a proclivity towards bad from youth. Nonetheless, God blessed Noah and his family and charged them to repopulate the earth and to begin again. He established a covenant with both man and animal, restated his commitment to life and displayed a colorful, heavenly sign to seal the matter.
After leaving the ark, Noah planted a vineyard, drank of the wine and became drunk. Short on details as we are, it is apparent that Ham “sees” his father’s nakedness. When Noah awakes from his wine, he utters his only recorded words.
“Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants he will be for his brothers!”
He then said; “Blessed is YHVH, God of Shem; Canaan will be a servant for him!”
Noah lives 350 years after the flood and dies at the age of 950 (Genesis 9:28). With this basic structure, Aronofsky began his work of retelling the Noah story for a new generation.
(Spoiler Alert! I highly suggest that you read no further until you have viewed the film!)
Nearly a decade after announcing his intent to make a movie about Noah, and three years working on the film, Noah finally hit the screens. The director provided some insight into the film in an interview with MTV (Webb, 2014). Contrasting his approach with a commonly repeated story “for kids about Noah and the animals and an old man with a white beard” (Webb, 2014), Aronofsky rightly argues that the story as we have received it, is anything but a children’s tale; “its about the end of the world” (Webb, 2014). “It’s about justice, and over the course of the film, mercy and grace are learned. And that’s very much what happens to Noah in this story” (Webb, 2014).
Indeed, the story in its simplest form remains in Aronofsky’s version. It presents an age-old struggle between two branches of the original line of Adam: the descendants of Adam’s third son Seth (the good guys), and the descendants of Cain (the bad guys). From the outset we see this dichotomy of good versus evil. Noah’s family according to Aronofsky is peaceful and vegetarian; they don’t understand why the “others” kill and eat flesh. The film is true to the bible here as one will clearly see by a casual reading of the early chapters of Genesis. Noah’s family is depicted in the film as demonstrating an inherited responsibility to take care and respect both creature and creation. Noah touchingly communicates this to a son when he picks a flower and is told that they take only what they need.
The others have no such feeling of responsibility, but throughout the film use power and strength to take what they want. For the dark side of humanity, strength is manifested in “getting,” and interestingly enough, this is the meaning of the name Cain, the ancestor of the antagonist in our story. The movie does an excellent job depicting the depravity of man. The scenes of a barren and burnt earth convey a semblance of an encroaching darkness creeping across the face of the land due to the spread of bad. Aronofsky demonstrates skill in the film’s insinuation of the sinfulness of man and of “city life” where people are seen dragged through the streets, presumably to be forced into unwanted and unseemly acts. Violence and bloodshed are commonplace. In a few scenes, people eat the flesh of living animals. It is doubtful that most viewers will recognize that this is one of the prohibitions listed by the rabbis in Sanhedrin 56a, as one of the seven basic laws incumbent upon all humankind.
The film will draw most of its criticism because Aronofsky adds details that are not found in the bible story and he changes certain elements that are clearly presented in the well-known epoch of Noah. In an answer-seeking visit to his grandfather Methuselah, Noah is given a seed that we learn is from the Garden of Eden. When Noah places the seed into the earth, a stream bubbles forth creating a forest from which he will harvest the wood for the construction of the ark. To solve the problem of building such a great vessel, Aronofsky solicits the help of a group known as the Watchers. His representation of this group is strange and unrealistic, but the existence of the watchers and their association with a band of “fallen” heavenly creatures is not unknown to us. A reading of the first four verses of Genesis chapter six, combined with ancient texts such as the Book of Enoch provide us with a source for at least the presence of a third group on the earth at the time. Aronofsky presents an attack against the ark by those who are faced with extermination. While this is not described in the bible, one can easily imagine that people on the outside would want in once the destruction began. Aronofsky ignores the bible’s number of souls preserved on the ark. The bible says that Noah, his wife, his sons, and his son’s wives were on the ark (Genesis 7:7, 13) and that all others died (Genesis 7:21-23). While this seems like an oversight with no possible explanation, rabbinic writings preserve a story about a stowaway named Og that may prove to be the inspiration for this apparent departure from the bible. Further, Aronofsky only allows one of Noah’s sons to bring a wife onto the ark and she is thought to be barren. Were it not for a chance encounter with a berry seeking grandfather who heals her womb, this would be the case; but we soon learn that she is pregnant and that Noah is determined to follow through with the perceived decree to bring an end to all human life. It becomes obvious that Aronofsky’s Noah will not allow the child to live if it is a female and then the proverbial other shoe drops! In a series of dramatic scenes we learn that humanity has been given another chance, but only if Noah is willing to allow it. Some no doubt have ignored the spoiler alert and so all I will say is that one only needs to consider the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 to find a possible source for this departure from the version contained in the bible’s story.
While Aronofsky departs from the received story in many ways, he still presents a version of a classic tale of good versus bad in his Noah. Beneath the surface of the story with which we have become familiar is an ancient epoch of a righteous man who faced an incredible challenge. As evil increased all around him, he had to remain righteous in his generation; the advancement of all that is good fell as it were, to him. In a final scene he blesses his children wearing a special phylactery of sorts that had been finally recovered and that bound his history to all future generations. The biblical Noah says very few words; they amount to two verses of curses and blessings bestowed upon his descendants (Genesis 9:25-27), and perhaps this is appropriate. Maybe the greatest challenge passed from Noah to us involves not what he said, but in his determination to usher in a new world where only righteousness dwells and those whose heart is only on bad all the day will no longer walk among us.
References, Credit and further reading
Tabor, J.D. (2014). Tabor Blog. Retrieved from http://jamestabor.com/2014/03/29/bashers-of-the-noah-film-should-re-read-their-bibles/
Webb, C. (2014r, March 28). Darren Aronofsky explains why his Noah isn’t just an old man with a white beard. MTV News Stories. Retrieved from http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1725013/darren-aronofsky-noah-interview.jhtml
*The sketch used in this blog post was made by my 12 year old son Tobias. He is also an accomplished actor and you can find his work on IMDb here. I also had the privilege of hearing his interpretation of the drawing. Though I can’t do it justice, here is the gist. On his left cheek is a shadow representing the approaching bad. Noah is looking away towards the light of a new day, but with the weight of the transition on his mind and conveyed in his eyes.
In this week’s class Ross teaches on the subject of miracles and healing, but from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible. Working from the book of Leviticus he shows that the role of the priests was not to heal the various ailments described, but rather to describe how to identify and diagnose states of “impurity.” He then works carefully through various examples of healing and miracles in the Hebrew Scriptures to show some of the common misconceptions that are presently taught in the name of faith. Is it true that one must possess faith to receive a miracle? Are sickness and poverty always the result of sin? What role did the prophets play in the miraculous? Focusing primarily on the life and works of Elisha, he answers these and many more questions related to the miraculous and in so doing challenges modern examples of the same. You will not want to miss this teaching.
In this week’s class Ross teaches his third in the Leviticus series. The class covers material found in Torah reading Shemini. He points out that in order to draw near to YHVH one must do so as commanded. The bible gives several examples of those who attempted to draw near apart from what is commanded. Ross focuses on two specific examples. The first example is the story of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu and the second is Uzzah. In both of these stories, people died because they failed to recognize the realm of holiness. What precisely is holiness? Can one truly be holy? Ross shows that, not only can people live a holy life, but that we are commanded to be holy. This class will challenge some of the popular views of holiness. You will not want to miss this class.