A Fig Tree without Figs

No, not mine; my fig tree continues to thrive.  I’m already contemplating what to do with the growing figs–all four of them–when they are ripe:  Will I eat them raw, or will I grill them?  And when will they be ripe enough to eat?  I squeeze them every few days to check (probably not a good idea).

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(This is a photo of my fig tree taken today.)

As I watch the figs on my fig tree grow bigger with each passing day, I’m reminded of another fig tree in the Bible: the one that Jesus encountered on the road between Bethany and Jerusalem during what has come to be called  ‘Passion Week’. The encounter is described in both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels (Mt  21:18-19, 20-22; Mk 11:12-14, 20-25).  The encounter went like this:  As Jesus was returning to Jerusalem after spending the night in Bethany, he became hungry.  Spotting a lone fig tree by the side of the road, he went over to it to get some figs to eat, but he found no fruit on the tree, only leaves.

Until I had a fig tree growing in my own backyard, I had no idea just how unusual that would be.  As I observed my own tree after the period of winter dormancy had ended, I noticed little green swellings–immature figs; leaves made their appearance after.  This growth pattern would be true of the fig trees that grew in Judaea as well.

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(This is what my fig tree looked like back in April.  Jesus’ encounter with the barren fig tree occurred just prior to the Passover in the Hebrew month of Nisan (our March/April).

If there were leaves on the fig tree encountered by Jesus, there should have been evidence of fruit.  Finding no fruit, Jesus said to the tree: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” (Mk 11:14). In Matthew’s account, the fig tree withered immediately (21:19).  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples observe the withered tree the next morning as they head back into Jerusalem (11:20). At first glance, Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree seems like a gross over-reaction.  After all, as Mark notes, Jesus found nothing but leaves for it was not the season for figs (11:13).  The first crop of figs does not ripen until June.

To make sense of Jesus’ harsh reaction, Bible scholars suggest that we think of it as a prophetic gesture, or sign-action.  Hebrew prophets not infrequently dramatized their messages in order to get their points across. Often their actions took bizarre forms.  Consider Jeremiah, for example, who was directed by the Lord to buy an earthenware jar, then take some of the elders and some of the senior priests, and together go out to the valley of Ben-hinnon.  There, Jeremiah was to break the jar in front of them to illustrate how God was going to break the people and the city of Jerusalem in judgment (Jer 19:1-15).

Jesus’ prophetic gesture was directed at a fig tree in the company of his disciples.  Why a fig tree?  The answer lies in the writings of the Hebrew prophets Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, and Micah where Israel is not infrequently pictured as a fig tree.  In the book of Hosea, God says:  “I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; / I saw your forefathers as the earliest fruit on the fig tree in its first season” (9:10).  In Joel, God calls Israel “my fig tree” (1:7).

History confirms that Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree was indeed a prophetic sign-action.  In AD 70, thirty-seven years after Jesus’ crucifixion (believed to have taken place in AD 33), Roman armies penetrated Jerusalem’s walls, destroying the Temple and razing the city. Not one stone of the magnificent Temple was left standing on another, just as Jesus had predicted (Mk 13:2). Sixty-five years later,  in AD 135, the Roman emperor Hadrian founded a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina, on the ruins of Jerusalem.  Jews were forbidden access to the new city built now according to Hellenistic plans.  Where the Jewish Temple once stood, Hadrian had a temple erected to the pagan god Jupiter Capitolinus.  And, in order to erase all Jewish connection to the land, Hadrian renamed what was once the Roman province of Judea as Syria Palaestina.  The fig tree had indeed withered to its very roots!

That Jesus’ ‘cursing’ of the fig tree was a predictive act is clear.  That said, it was obviously an indictment of Israel’s spiritual barrenness as well.  Not only had Israel’s religious leaders failed to recognize Jesus as their Messiah, they had become his fiercest opponents.  There was an outward display of religiosity–like the showy leaves on the fig tree–but no faith.  That would be true of many churches today as well.

As I read the story of the withered fig tree, I can’t help but think how differently I must view it compared to someone reading it in, say, 1017 or 1517 or 1917.  Unlike earlier generations of Bible-readers, I am part of that generation which has witnessed the return of the Jewish people to their historic homeland; the creation of the modern state of Israel; and the re-taking of Jerusalem.  To me, these events say that the story of God’s ‘fig tree’, Israel, is still unfolding.

 

 

 

 

My Fig Tree Is Making Scripture Come Alive

Last summer I was given a small fig tree to grow in a container in my backyard.  I hadn’t  realized that such a gardening feat was even possible until I saw a fig tree with ripening figs, growing in a container on a friend’s small wooden deck.  I knew then that I wanted one for my back yard, too.  Watching an exotic tree grow would be fascinating, I thought, and if all went well, in time I might have the satisfaction of eating a couple of my own home-grown figs.

There were no visible changes in my little fig tree before it shed its few leaves and went dormant for the winter.  With the coming of spring, my fig tree suddenly came to life!  First there were barely-discernable tiny green bumps on the two stems, signs of fruit to come; then leaves began to sprout.  No visible flowers, though.  The tiny, green flowers produced by a fig tree grow inside a receptacle called a syncomium, which eventually becomes the fig.

As I watched the transformation unfolding before my eyes, I was reminded of Jesus’ response to his disciples who wanted to know when the prophesied destruction of the Jerusalem Templewould take place:  “[L]earn the parable from the fig tree:  when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near, ” he had said to them (Mark 13:28).

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My Fig Tree As It Begins to Grow Fruit and Leaves in the Spring

As I thought about this, other occurrences of fig trees in the Bible, both literal and figurative, came to mind.  The first mention of a fig tree comes in the third chapter of Genesis in the story of ‘the Fall’.

The Garden of Eden must have been indescribably beautiful:  “the LORD GOD made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground–trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Ge 2:9). Only two trees in the garden are named:  the tree of life standing in the very middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9).  Out of all the trees in the garden, only one was ‘off limits’ to Adam and Eve:  the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  If they were to eat of it, God warned them, they would die (2:17).

Nevertheless, our first ancestors, seduced by the lies of the crafty serpent, did eat the fruit (3:6). (What kind of fruit it was, we don’t know, but it probably wasn’t an apple.)  Instead of finding themselves clothed in fine white linen like gods, Adam and Eve discovered that they were stark naked, and so they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves up before running off to hide from God among the trees (3:7-8).

Growing up on the prairies and thus having no idea what a fig tree looked like, I had envisioned Adam and Eve frantically stitching together leaves about the size of arugula to make some sort of covering.  Their leafy creations have been translated variously by Bible translators:  aprons (KJV), loincloths (ESV), loin coverings (NASB), and coverings (NIV).  Knowing now just how big fig leaves get to be, even on a tree as small as mine, I think they were able to put something together quite quickly.

My Fig Tree at the Time of Writing This Blog

The primordial pair chose what was no doubt one of the largest leaves among the trees in the garden  The suggestive shape of the leaf may have had something to do with their choice as well!  Medieval artists seem to have thought so.  Adam and Eve and their fig leaves were depicted frequently in medieval art.

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A Painting of Adam and Eve by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) (Public Domain)

Making coverings from fig leaves was an act of desperation by the primordial couple, experiencing shame and fear for the  first time.  Sin had entered the picture, ending their intimate relationship with God.  Yet, even before God drove them out of the garden, He announced His plan to restore that relationship.   He cursed the serpent and declared war on him:  “…I will put enmity / Between you and the woman, / And between your seed and her seed; / He shall bruise you on the head, / And you shall bruise him on the heel” (3:15).  Christians believe that the “seed of the woman” is a reference to Jesus and, thus, this passage has come to be known as the Protoevangelium, the ‘first gospel’.  The good news:   the estrangement between God and humans will not be permanent.

 

 

Christmas and the Spirit of Inclusiveness

One of the things I love about this time of year is the music.  There is such a wealth of wonderful Christmas carols, some old, some contemporary:  how to pick a favourite?  The carol O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is one that never fails to move me.  Its haunting melody captures, I believe, the sense of longing felt by the Jewish people down through the centuries as they looked for their promised messiah.  Christians believe that promise was fulfilled with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  In the words of another carol, “The hopes and dreams of all the years are met in thee [Jesus] tonight,” ( O Little Town of Bethlehem).

I still vividly recall the words to a carol I sang as a child with my school choir at the Christmas choir festival held annually in one of the big churches in my home town:

Winds through the olive trees softly did blow

round little Bethlehem long, long ago.

Sheep on the hillsides lay white as the snow;

Christ came to Bethlehem, long, long ago.

In a sign of how much things have changed in the multicultural West:   At their annual ‘December’ concert this year, 285 schoolchildren from the French public schools in Canada’s capital Ottawa and the surrounding area sang a piece arranged especially for them:  Tala’ al-Badru ‘Alayna, which translates into English as ‘The Full Moon Rose over Us’, a number based on a traditional Arabic song purportedly sung to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad upon his arrival in Medina after leaving Mecca.  Robert Filion, the choir’s director, said that he had wanted to do a Muslim-inspired piece for some time, but that he had had difficulty finding anything.  (I can just imagine, given Islam’s ambivalence towards the performance of  music.)

Coming upon this ancient Islamic piece known as Tala’ al-Badru ‘Alayna,  Filion commissioned Laura Hawley to compose a new arrangement.  To make certain that what they were undertaking wouldn’t cause offense, Filion and Hawley consulted with the local imams, who obviously gave their project a ‘thumbs up’.  And so, in the name of inclusiveness, school children performed a Muslim-inspired song at their December concert.  The song has been very well-received–getting more than 600,000 views on YouTube–and is slated to be performed for a second time at an upcoming Christmas concert in one of Ottawa’s churches.  Many who heard the piece took it to be a song of welcome to the Syrian refugees arriving in Canada.

A Muslim-inspired song at a multicultural school concert is one thing, but at a church Christmas concert?  Recognizing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, even in song, presents a dilemma to those churchgoers who will be present at the concert.  The Jesus of the Qur’an is not the same as the Jesus of the Gospels.  Muslims revere Jesus, too, but only as a prophet, one prophet in a line of 28 prophets, a prophet who was superseded by their Prophet Muhammad.

The Jesus we Christians celebrate, on the other hand,  is called Emmanuel, a Hebrew word which translates as ‘God is with us’.  The writers of the Gospels tell us that Jesus was not merely a prophet, but God in human form.  In Jesus the Christ, God personally launched a rescue mission to save His fallen creation.  This is the Jesus we sing about at Christmas time.   God taking on human flesh:  That’s amazing.  Maybe that’s why there’s so much amazing Christmas music!

Pope Francis: A Credible Voice on Climate Change?

Pope Francis’ recently-released encyclical on the environment (June 18) has been hailed by environmentalist David Suzuki as a “powerful, scientifically and morally valid call for radical change that will reach an audience far beyond the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.” Suzuki called the pope’s eco-encyclical “scientifically valid.”  There is solid science behind the pope’s document, claims Suzuki.

Three days after issuing his eco-encyclical, Pope Francis travelled to Turin, Italy where he paid a special visit to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in order to venerate the Shroud of Turin, the cloth in which Jesus allegedly was buried and which purportedly depicts an image of the crucified Christ from head to foot.  The pope sat before the dimly-lit display case containing the stained, rectangular length of cloth for several minutes, silent, head bowed, in what appeared to be a time of reflection and prayer.

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Shroud of Turin (Wikimedia Commons / public domain)

What the pope did was to pay his respects to an object that science has ‘outed’ as a medieval forgery.  That the cloth in the display case is a fraud has been demonstrated in a number of ways (too many to describe in detail in this blog, so I will limit myself to a few of the most important ones).  In 1988, radiocarbon-dating tests were carried out on the cloth in three different labs:  in labs at the University of Oxford, the University of Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.  All three labs radiocarbon dated the cloth to between 1260 and 1390.

These dates are significant, for the shroud surfaced in 1355, a time of relic frenzy in Europe.  Any abbey or cathedral that housed an important relic could count on attracting pilgrims, which in turn would greatly enhance that institution’s status and financial standing.  Consequently, there was an incentive to recover ‘relics’.  The shroud now housed in Turin turned up in the possession of a French soldier-of-fortune who, rather revealingly, wouldn’t tell how and where he got it.  And he wasn’t the only one to acquire Christ’s ‘burial garment’, for it seems there were at least 26 to 40 burial shrouds to be found in Europe’s ecclesiastical institutions.  Significantly, a medieval pope himself rejected claims made concerning the Shroud of Turin:  in 1390, Pope Clement VII declared that the Shroud of Turin should not be said to be the true burial cloth of Jesus.

The object of veneration on display in Turin’s cathedral, moreover, is not woven in a style typical of 1st century cloth.  In 2009, a shroud was recovered from the 1st century AD tomb of a Jewish priest in Jerusalem.  The shroud retrieved from that tomb shows that the style of weaving at that time was primitive.  The Shroud of Turin is too intricately woven to be a genuine 1st century artefact.

Furthermore, Jesus’ dead body–according to the biblical record–wasn’t wrapped in one long piece of cloth but in multiple cloths.  Jesus was buried according to Jewish custom of the time.  His corpse was wrapped in “linen wrappings” and a “face cloth” was placed on his head (Luke 24:12; John 19:40; 20:3-7 NASV).  John’s description of Lazarus’ emergence from the tomb is instructive:  “The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth…” (11:40).  The idea that Jesus was buried in one rectangular piece of cloth 4.47 meters long by 1.13 meters wide doesn’t ‘square’ with Jewish burial practices at the time or with the biblical account of his burial.

Pope Francis undoubtedly knows what  investigation has revealed about the Shroud of Turin.  Recent popes, however–unlike Pope clement VII–won’t take a stand regarding its authenticity.  They won’t call it a relic, but neither will they reject it as a fake.  Instead, they choose to label the cloth “an icon that inspires.”  When Pope Benedict XVI viewed the cloth in 2010, he spoke of it as an “icon of Holy Saturday.”  The current pope, after spending several minutes in silence and contemplation, called it “an icon of Christ’s great love for humankind.”  I can’t help but wonder:  How exactly does a fraudulent relic call to mind Christ’s great love for us?

It would seem that the pope places importance on scientific facts when they help to promote a cause, i.e., combatting climate change, yet on other occasions can ignore them i.e., Shroud of Turin.  In his “scientifically valid” eco-encyclical, the pope calls on not just Catholics, but people of all religions to come together to promote an “integral ecology.”  Human activity is responsible for global warming, he claims in his document.  But the science of climate change is not settled.  Certainly, the planet is heating up, and the weather is doing wacky things.  I’m not convinced, however, that the rising temperatures are wholly due–or even partially due–to human activity.  And the pope–given his inconsistent acknowledgment of scientific facts–will have a hard time convincing me.

Walking in Jesus’ Footsteps at an Archaeological Dig

Last month, I was privileged to do something Christians have been doing now for almost two millennia: I travelled to the Holy Land. It is Helena (c. 248-c. 328), mother of Constantine I the Great, who is credited with turning a then-obscure, backwater Roman province, Syria Palaestina, into an important destination for Christian pilgrims from the 4th century on. (In AD 135, the emperor Hadrian had changed the name of the Roman province Judaea to Syria Palaestina in order to obliterate any connection with the Jews after the Bar Kochba Revolt.) The empress-dowager Helena Augusta travelled throughout Syria Palaestina , ‘identifying’ sites where important events in Jesus’ life had occurred. Having been given access to the imperial treasury by her son, Helena had churches erected at a number of these locations. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem are the two most well-known. Helena’s travels in the region set off a flurry of pilgrimage activity. Visiting these so-called ‘holy sites’ became a way for medieval Christian pilgrims to obtain indulgences–and remains so for Catholics today.

I was not in Israel on a religious pilgrimage; nor was my reason for being there a strictly religious one. Among other things, I wanted to stroll Tel Aviv’s famous beach promenade; see the breath-taking view of Haifa from atop Mount Carmel; visit Israel’s northernmost city, Metulla, on the Israel-Lebanon border–all things I subsequently did. That said, it was the possibility of walking where Jesus and his disciples once walked that was, for me, the most exciting prospect. And that prospect did become a reality–or as close to a reality as is possible two millennia later.

Retracing the steps of Jesus and his disciples became a reality–not at a ‘holy site’, but at an archaeological site. Unlike the holy sites I had visited earlier that day, there was no beautiful Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church on the grounds, no tranquil flower garden, no statues, no card shop, no restaurant, no tourists or pilgrims, no parking lot filled with buses. In fact, there were only three of us there that late afternoon: the guard in the guard house at the gate, plus my husband and I.

We were at the site of ancient Bethsaida, identified as such only in 1987. Bethsaida is a city mentioned several times in the New Testament. Three of Jesus’ disciples were from Bethsaida: Philip, Andrew, and Peter (John 1:44). Bethsaida was the site of one of Jesus’ more unusual healing miracles: He healed a blind man, not instantaneously as he usually did, but in two stages. First, he put his own saliva on the blind man’s eyes, but the blind man saw only “trees walking”; next, Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes and the man’s vision was completely restored (Mark 8:22-25). Bethsaida was one of three Galilean cities cursed by Jesus for their lack of repentance (Matthew 11:21).

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The excavations at Bethsaida are still underway, but one feature of the ancient city that has been uncovered is a cobbled street dating from Jesus’ time. It is highly likely that this north-south paved road which passes between the ruins of two residences was walked by Jesus and his disciples, probably more than once. This archaeological site, still under excavation, offered me something no holy site had been able to do: the opportunity to retrace Jesus’ steps–quite literally.

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And that’s what I proceeded to do, stepping on as many of the paving stones as possible. It was thrilling!

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Images from Israel

This is my sixth day in Israel now.  Today is Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, a good time to reflect on what I have seen and experienced so far.  Three things in particular stand out in my mind. 

My flight from Frankfurt landed me at Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv in the early hours of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  At 10 a.m. that morning, a siren began to wail.  All the cars on the busy street in front of my hotel stopped promptly, their drivers got out and stood motionless, heads bowed, for two minutes.  Pedestrians on the sidewalks stopped as well.  I knew that people throughout the length and breadth of Israel were performing the same rite at that very moment in time.  I stood at the hotel window, hoping the people on the street below  would regard me as a fellow participant, and not merely as a gawking tourist.  How does one even begin to remember adequately the staggering loss of six million innocent victims at the hands of the Nazis? 

Another particularly poignant moment for me was the visit in Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives.  The gnarled olive trees I saw were the same ones under which Jesus prayed and agonized over his coming betrayal and death. 

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It is thought that the gnarled olive trees even predate Jesus’ time.

On my way from the Old City to the Mount of Olives, I had passed the only one of the seven gates into Jerusalem that is closed up:  the Golden Gate.

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In 1517 when Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem (the walls one sees today), he deliberately closed up the eastern gate to Jerusalem, the gate now known as the Golden Gate.  He had heard rumours that the Jewish Messiah would enter Jerusalem through the eastern gate.  He summoned the rabbis who confirmed this.  To prevent this ever happening, Suleiman sealed up the gate and established a Moslem cemetery in front of the gate, believing no Jewish messiah would ever pass across Muslim graves.  Too late, Christians would say!  The Messiah has come.

There is so much to see and experience in Israel.  The Jewish  Sabbath provides welcome respite from the flurry of sightseeing, however enjoyable that might be.

The “Noah” Movie: Not the Noah I Know

Saturday afternoon, I went to see Darren Aronofsky’s movie “Noah.” I purposely did not read any reviews of the controversial movie in advance so as to make up my own mind about the value of the movie. Aronofsky, a self-described atheist, says that he was motivated to make the movie because of his childhood fascination with the story of Noah. And that’s how the story of Noah is frequently regarded, as a children’s story. We’ve all seen the glossy storybooks with colourful pictures of pairs of animals walking in neat rows up a plank into a charming wooden ark directed by a smiling Noah. The Genesis account of Noah and the Flood is not a children’s story, far from it, and how it came to be seen thus is baffling. Must be all the animals! Children and animals just seem to go together naturally.

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Vintage Noah’s Ark by Dawn Hudson publicdomainpictures.net

For those who go to see Aronofsky’s “Noah” movie, the one question on their minds–at least, on the minds of those familiar with the Bible story–undoubtedly is: How closely does Aronofsky’s movie follow Genesis chapters 6-9? And so it was with me. After seeing the movie, my response would have to be: Aronofsky gives new meaning to the expression ‘artistic licence’. The changes he makes to the story are legion. In Aronofsky’s “Noah,” Tubal-cain, a meat-eating, sword-wielding, thuggish king somehow makes it into the ark along with Noah’s family where he has an evil influence on Noah’s son Ham. All the Genesis account tells us about Tubal-cain was that he was the forger of all implements of bronze and iron (4:22). In Aronofsky’s “Noah,” the grandfather of Noah, Methusaleh, is a guru-like figure who lives in a cave and who magically heals Shem’s wife. In the Book of Genesis, Methusaleh is known only for living to a very ripe old age, and for being the father of Lamech (5:25-26). In Aronofsky’s “Noah,” the Watchers, gigantic stone-creatures, help Noah build the ark. The Genesis story never informs us as to who helped Noah build the ark. In Aronofsky’s “Noah,” God destroys the world because the people have destroyed their world, i.e, they are guilty of ecological sin. In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, God sends the Flood to judge humankind for its corruption and violence (6:11-13).

No deviation from the biblical text bothered me quite as much as Aronofsky’s portrayal of Noah. Here’s what the Book of Genesis tells us about Noah. His father Lamech called him Noah, which means ‘comfort’, anticipating that Noah would some day, in some way, be a source of rest to the toil-weary inhabitants of the earth (5:29). Noah, alone of all humankind at that time, found favour with God in the midst of a totally depraved culture (6:8). Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time, and he walked with God (6:9). Noah did according to all God had commanded him (7:5). Noah’s first act on leaving the ark was to build an altar to the LORD (8:20).

This is not the Noah we see depicted in the movie. At one point, Aronofsky turns Noah into a knife-wielding tyrant threatening to kill his first grandchild at birth, believing that it is God’s will that all human life should perish from the earth, including new life. Indeed, Noah views his survival and that of his family as punishment from God! (As to where the idea of a knife-wielding Noah might have come from: I got the sense that Aronofsky had conflated the story of Noah with the story of Abraham and the command to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah in Genesis 22.) One of the most disturbing scenes, for me, was that of Noah’s daughter-in-law, sobbing and pleading, her twin newborn daughters in her arms, with Noah stood poised above, ready to kill. A deeply troubling picture of Noah, God’s agent of salvation!

Interested in creating a blockbuster action movie Aronofsky, understandably, does not explore the deep significance behind the Noah story. With Noah, we meet for the very first time the idea of a righteous remnant, faithful to God in the midst of a wicked and hostile culture, a recurring motif throughout the Bible. In Genesis chapters 1-5, we meet the God Who Creates. With the story of Noah, we encounter for the first time the God Who Saves. The Judeo-Christian God is both Creator and Saviour. With Noah, we see the first manifestation of God’s grace. It is also with Noah that God establishes His very first covenant. The story of Noah is about so much more than a flood, a strange boat, a whole lot of animals, and eight people.

Yes, go see Aronofsky’s imaginative retelling of the Noah story if you want an adventure story. But familiarize yourself with the biblical narrative first.