Of all the things most hotly debated in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, perhaps nothing’s stirred more controversy than all the snakes.
They’re significant, for sure. We say a black snake slither out of a green one in the Garden of Eden—Satan out to give Adam and Eve a rough time. Thousands of snakes slither into the ark shortly before the Flood. Evil stowaway Tubal-cain chows down on a snake while hiding aboard the ark. And then, of course, you’ve got the snakeskin used as a magical talisman by Noah’s extended family—a glowing symbol passed down from generation to generation.
Aronofsky’s snakeskin has encouraged some Christians to believe that Noah’s “Creator” isn’t God at all, but the devil. By holding onto an aged snakeskin from the Garden of Eden, Noah and his family were following Lucifer’s pipe.
Not so, says Noah co-writer Ari Handel in Relevant Magazine:
When Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, it says God gave them a garment of skin—sort of a parting gift from God to mankind as we leave Eden and go out into the world. So we wondered what that was—and as we looked at commentaries about it, one of the common ones was that it was the skin of the snake. We wondered why that would be, and it occurred to us that God made the snake. The snake was good, at first. But then, the Tempter arose through it. In our version, we have the snake shed that skin, and the shed skin is the shell of original goodness that the snake left behind when it became the Tempter. It’s a symbol of the Eden that we left behind. It’s a garment to clothe you spiritually.
That’s pretty much how I interpreted the whole snakeskin thing when I watched the movie. And the symbolism of Aronofsky’s serpent echoes throughout the movie.
As Handel says, the snakeskin that Noah makes such a big deal about is the shell of God’s beautiful creation. Evil, somehow, slithered out of that creation and infected the world.
That’s in keeping with what Augustine taught the early church. Satan can’t create anything on his own. Evil isn’t a thing in itself as much as it’s a perversion of the good. It’s God’s creation twisted in ways that God never intended. Sex is great—unless it manifests itself in adultery or porn or whatever else falls outside of God’s design. Lies are, by definition, a twisting of the truth. To kill is to rebel against creation itself. Evil has to come out of something good: It has no other option.
Satan slithering out of God’s green snake fits with Augustine’s thoughts on the matter. But, of course, evil crawls out of more than just legless reptiles. It comes out of us, too.
In a critical turning point in Noah, our titular character comes to a realization that evil is not just in prime villain Tubal-cain and his crew. It’s in Noah, too. In fact, that evil’s buried in his whole family. There’s a snake inside all of us—an inescapable corruption that a flood won’t be able to completely cleanse. It’s a big revelation for Noah, and he begins to believe that to get rid of Satan’s serpentine influence forever, Noah’ll have to get rid of (directly or indirectly) anything that has a hint of evil inside.
But even though both Noah and Tubal-cain have some badness inside, Aronofsky—in my interpretation, at least—makes a critical distinction between the two of them. See,
Tubal-cain is in a state of rebellion.
Noah, whatever his faults may be in the movie, tries to do as he believes his Creator wills. Tubal-cain has no such goal in mind. While Noah wants to be a tool in God’s hands, Tubal-cain wants to hop out of God’s toolbox, run away and do whatever tools would otherwise do. More simply: Noah lives for God. Tubal-cain lives for himself. “Damned if I don’t do what it takes,” Tubal-cain says. “Damned if I don’t take what I want.” And so takes God’s creation, perverting it and twisting it for his own ends.
And then, curiously, he wonders why God has been out of touch. “I am a man, made in Your image,” he prays bitterly at one point. “Why will you not converse with me?”
When Noah feels like he failed God (which he doesn’t), it’s not out of rebellion, but weakness. He wasn’t strong enough to carry out what he believed to be the Creator’s terrible will. But Tubal-cain never wanted to follow God anywhere—not if God’s goals differed from his own. Just like Satan, really. It's interesting that, when you look at Tubal-cain's armor above, it looks a little ... scaly.
It’s telling that, when Tubal-cain smuggles himself aboard the ark, he kills an animal and eats it to regain his strength (a no-no in Aronofsky’s environmental fable). What animal? A snake, of course: He bites off its head and swallows it. Just as the rebel Satan came out of a snake, so the rebel Tubal-cain consumes one. He destroys a unique bit of God’s creation in rebellion. And so doing, he metaphorically takes a bit of Satan inside himself … the deed itself, not the snake, poisons the meal.