Forget about the millions missing Top Gear, the BBC are expecting record viewing figures for another programme next Monday (30 March): a made-for-television film about the life of Noah, with David Threlfall playing the lead role and moving from shameless to righteous.
But it is Noah with a difference, for although the film reflects the basic story, it adds three novelties.
The first is that it answers one of the great mysteries about the Noah story. We know who was in the ark; Noah and his wife, along with his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japhet and their wives…so, the names of all the men, but what was Noah’s wife called? If Mrs Noah was one of the few people righteous enough to be saved in an otherwise wicked world, then surely she is important enough to have a name?
The BBC have come up with an answer, based on the Book of Jubilees (4.33) in the Apocrypha – a collection of books from the biblical period that were not included in the Bible itself, and so are regarded as interesting but not sacred. Apparently, her name was Emzara, which – in husband and wife shorthand – becomes ‘Emmy’ and so along with other famous biblical couples such as Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, we can now add Noah and Emmy.
The second novelty contradicts the Bible’s statement that Noah had three sons, and instead gives him a fourth. Moreover he is a rebellious one, who does not see any point building an ark, likes the city life and its immorality, and reckons that the fierce storm that suddenly erupts will pass over. It makes for good drama, while it also ties in with Koran’s version of Noah, where there is indeed a fourth son who is at odds with his father.
But the third novelty is the most significant: it has always seemed strange that there was only one good family in the entire world: was everyone else really so rotten? In the BBC version, Noah is told to take into the ark not only all the animals, but also anyone righteous who believes in God, and he ends up with some sixty other people. In today’s culture of trying to create a more religiously inclusive climate, that feels much better.
But the best bits of the film are the family discussions, which replicate those of modern parents and their children, with Noah trying to persuade his sons about his beliefs and they being somewhat sceptical. When one of them argues back: “You brought us up to think for ourselves…but then when we do and we differ from you, you don’t like it!” , it echoes the religious Catch 22 of all liberal parents.
There is also a darker contemporary side: for a case can be made that Noah was an extremist: he said he heard the voice of God …that he alone knew the will of God…that he was right and everyone else was wrong….and claimed the world was doomed and unbelievers would perish.
In a world in which ISIS says similar things, it begs the question of when is someone a prophet and when a fanatic? When is their message helpful and when dangerous? One answer might be that we cannot judge a person’s beliefs, but we can judge their consequences. So if they cause destruction or discrimination, then something is badly wrong, whereas if they lead to a caring and just society, then their essence is sound. That is why ISIS fails the test, whereas other faith groups pass it.