Biblical metaphors, as used in this essay, are a collection of symbols or comparisons that correspond to underlying meanings found throughout the Christian Bible. These biblical metaphors can also be lingering in movies, whether the director, producer, or writer wanted it to be intentional or not. However, John R. May believes that the important aspect to realize is not “religion in film” but rather “religion and film”. May states that his interests are in “the way in which the scene symbolizes the ‘handing on’ of knowledge or insight: and in this sense it is a metaphor that speaks directly to our contemporary concern about the interrelationship of religion and film.” (May, 23) Following May’s belief in ‘the force of interdisciplinary tradition’, I am going to analyze a biblical passage and its role within a movie, not just where it is found in the movie (i.e. analyzing the “religion and film” not the “religion in film”). After the analysis of both the biblical passage and movie, a commentary on reader response theory will be supplemented. I will first begin with the biblical verse that presents the metaphors found in the movie I will analyze farther along in this essay.
A reoccurring metaphor found throughout the Bible is the metaphor involving a garden. This metaphor can be seen in the passage, “For ye shall be as an oak whose leaf fadeth, and as a garden that hath no water.” (Isaiah 1:30) First we will examine the latter half of the passage, “… and as a garden that hath no water.” In this instance, the Prophet Isaiah is comparing the decline of the Jewish nation to a dried garden. During the time of the prophet Isaiah, Israel is experiencing invasions from the Kingdom of Assyria. After Israel is invaded by the Assyrians, Syria and Israel ask Judah to join an alliance against Assyria. After Judah refuses, Syria and Israel besiege Jerusalem, (the capital of Judah). Twenty years later, Assyria also lays siege to Jerusalem. (Hiers, 94) These events (ca. 738-714 B.C.) are obviously threatening a Jewish nation. Based on the aforementioned events, the metaphor of a garden (which is usually depicted as prosperous, green, and lively) that has no water (can be seen as dry, solemn, brown or dark, and uninspiring), shows the pessimism and unlikelihood of a strong Jewish nation. Now we will examine the former half of the passage, “For ye shall be as an oak whose leaf fadeth...” To understand Isaiah 1:30 more thoroughly, we must examine Isaiah 1:29 which reads, “For they shall be ashamed of the oaks which ye have desired, and ye shall be confounded for the gardens that ye have chosen.” The phrase “oaks which ye have desired” refers to idolatry worship. During the time of Isaiah, groves were a popular place to practice idolatry. These groves were usually erected on hills and furnished with temples, alters, etc. Therefore, in Isaiah 1:30 where Isaiah says, “For ye shall be as an oak whose leaf fadeth…” Isaiah is referring to the stray of man from God. As man is removed from God (idolized by man practicing idolatry in this instance but could refer to other sins) his well-being will be diminished because God will not be with them. This lack of well-being is symbolized in the “…oak whose leaf fadeth…” (Nielsen, 26, 32) The metaphor of man being removed from God can be carried to the latter half of the passage as well, with the “…garden that hath no water” being man that has nothing without God.
This passage is found in the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah (hereinafter, “Isaiah”). It is important to note that only some of the authorship of Isaiah is contributed to Isaiah himself and there is strong reason to believe that there are multiple supplementary authors. The current or “our” version of the Book of Isaiah was compiled in 200 B.C. as a compellation of smaller texts. For example, chapters 1-39 of Isaiah existed as a group of separate, little books prior to 200 B.C. and circulated as a separate collection of oracles. Then these first 39 chapters were combined along with Isaiah chapters 40-66 to create the Book of Isaiah found in the canon. (Liebreich p.259-260) Scholars usually break up Isaiah into three distinct sections that have fundamentally different characteristics. These sections are, in chronological order: Proto-Isaiah (Chapters 1-39), Deutero-Isaiah (Chapters 40-55), and Trito-Isaiah (Chapters 56-66). The Prophet Isaiah is thought to have written most of the Proto-Isaiah section himself; however there are a few exceptions to this view. Chapters 7, 21, and 36-39 in Isaiah are also found in 2nd Kings. Isaiah could have written these chapters himself, but scholars are unclear on who borrowed the passage from whom. A second abnormality is located in chapters 24-27, commonly referred to as “Isaiah’s Apocalypse”. These chapters are thought to be written and added into Isaiah by an author that lived well after Isaiah’s time. A third abnormality is a psalm of lament that is included in Isaiah 38:10-20. This psalm is attributed to King Hezekiah. (Hiers, 94) The second section the Book of Isaiah is labeled as the “Deutero-Isaiah” section and spans from chapter 40 to chapter 55. The “Second” Prophet Isaiah is given credit for most of this section. According to the Deutero-Isaiah Hypothesis, there are at least two (two is the most common number given) authors under the alias of Isaiah. This “Second Isaiah” is also known as, “the Great Prophet of the Exile” (Maynard, 213) or “the Isaiah of Jerusalem”. (Hiers, 93) Also, the name “Isaiah” isn’t even mentioned after chapter 39. (Hiers, 93) As in the Proto-Isaiah section, even temporarily accepting the idea that there are two Isaiahs, there are a few abnormalities. Chapter 50 of Isaiah is thought to have been written by the prophet Ezekiel (however this claim is mostly speculative). The Deutero-Isaiah section has a few slight changes in word choice from the Proto-Isaiah passages. One small difference is in the description of God. In the Proto-Isaiah section, God is portrayed as majestic; however this changes in the Deutero-Isaiah section where God’s uniqueness and eternity is emphasized. The third section of Isaiah is the Trito-Isaiah group of passages that covers chapters 56 to 66 of Isaiah. The group responsible for writing this section is commonly attributed to the disciples of the “First Isaiah”. Or, if the word ‘disciples’ doesn’t accurate describe this group of people, this group of authors were at least part of Isaiah’s “school”. (Hiers, 93) Please note that the passage I have chosen is located in the Proto-Isaiah section.
To put the selected passage into context I feel it is important to, at the very least, outline the beginning of the Book of Isaiah and provide basic but essential information about its author. The “First Isaiah”, or the Isaiah the Book of Isaiah is supposedly named after, lived from about 742-690 B.C. Isaiah is the first known prophet to carry on his work to Judah. (Hiers 93-94) Isaiah is introduced as “Isaiah son of Amoz” in chapter 1 of Isaiah. His name, literally translated from Hebrew to English means, “The Lord saves”. Isaiah began his ministry in 740 B.C.; the year in which King Uzziah died. He was married and had two sons named Shear-Jashub (Isaiah 7:3) and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (Isaiah 8:3). Isaiah most likely spent his life in Jerusalem and was most influential under King Hezekiah. According to Jewish tradition, Isaiah was executed by being sawed in half. (Book of the Bible, Isaiah)
The selected passage (Isaiah 1:30) was extracted from the first chapter of the text. This chapter is written in an extremely harsh tone. Isaiah is angry at all of the people of Israel for abandoning God and committing sins. An example of Isaiah’s pity and anger can be shown through the passage:
“And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers. Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water: Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves: every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them.” (Isaiah 1:15-23)Chapters 1-5 and 28-29 of the Book of Isaiah are about prophecy and judgment against Judah. The people Judah believe they are safe from the wrath of God because of their covenant relationship with God; however God tells them this is not the case. Chapters 24-34 deal with the prophecy of a “Messiah”. Chapters 36-39 concern Hezekiah’s triumph over the Assyrians. At the end of the book, Isaiah prophesied the exile of Babylon.
Literary forms of the Proto-Isaiah section of the Book of Isaiah include prose, songs, poetry, and narration. Narration is found all throughout Isaiah as well as prose (although less common) as in the rest of the Bible. The two less common literary forms found in Isaiah are songs and poems. “A wisdom poem is found in Isaiah 28:23-29, along with poetic material in chapters 13-23. A taunting song against the King of Babylon is found in Isaiah 14:4-23 and the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7.” (Book of the Bible, Isaiah) Literary devices used in the Proto-Isaiah section of the Book of Isaiah include personification, imagery, allusion, and the type of skillful repetition that can be found throughout the Bible (and therefore unimportant to elaborate on here). Personification is used in Isaiah 24:23 when Isaiah uses the word “ashamed” to describe the sun and the moon. Isaiah’s forceful imagery can be seen in Isaiah 30:27-33 as Isaiah describes the face and facial functions of God. (Book of the Bible, Isaiah)
“Behold, the name of the LORD cometh from far, burning with his anger, and the burden thereof is heavy: his lips are full of indignation, and his tongue as a devouring fire: And his breath, as an overflowing stream, shall reach to the midst of the neck, to sift the nations with the sieve of vanity: and there shall be a bridle in the jaws of the people, causing them to err. Ye shall have a song, as in the night when a holy solemnity is kept; and gladness of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe to come into the mountain of the LORD, to the mighty One of Israel. And the LORD shall cause his glorious voice to be heard, and shall shew the lighting down of his arm, with the indignation of his anger, and with the flame of a devouring fire, with scattering, and tempest, and hailstones. For through the voice of the LORD shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod. And in every place where the grounded staff shall pass, which the LORD shall lay upon him, it shall be with tabrets and harps: and in battles of shaking will he fight with it. For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared; he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the LORD, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it.” (Isaiah 27-33)
Allusion is used by Isaiah when he refers to the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea found in Isaiah 11:15 and Isaiah 43:2,16-17. Another event Isaiah alludes to is the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah in 1:9. (Book of the Bible, Isaiah)
Now I will turn to the movie that the metaphors in Isaiah 1:30 are present in, “Avatar”.
The James Cameron movie “Avatar” (2009) may not be religious in nature, but certainly has religious metaphors and themes. . In “Avatar” the notion of a garden will be broadened to include the giant forest on the satellite Pandora (much like how the Garden of Eden in Genesis 1 doesn’t follow the modern concept of a garden).
Let me begin my discussion on the religious implications of the forests of Pandora by offering a brief plot summary to put the importance and relevance of the Pandoran forest into perspective. The main character, Corporal Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) is flown, via spacecraft, to the distant moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri System (which takes 5 years, 9 months, and 22 days to complete the journey) named Pandora. On Pandora there is a large RDA Corporation base (a mining company) complete with military personnel, bulldozers, military aircraft, military robots, living quarters, research labs, a mess hall, and an air traffic control tower; all surrounded by a large fence. Sully is to replace his twin brother in a scientific expedition to gain the trust of the Pandoran 10-feet tall, forest dwelling humanoid natives called “the Na’vi”. Sully’s twin brother had years of training in using an ‘avatar’ but after his death during a mugging; Sully was the program’s only replacement because an avatar was made specifically for Sully’s brother’s DNA. Since they are identical twins, Sully can operate the avatar during the expedition. An avatar is a hybrid combining Na’vi and human DNA to create a Na’vi looking creature that can be controlled via a mental link. These avatars can be controlled remotely and are originally supposed to be used to gain the trust of the Na’vi people. By talking to the Na’vi using similar bodies and speaking in the Na’vi’s tongue, the human hope the Na’vi to aid/make concessions to the humans trying to mine unobtanium. Although the purpose and nature of unobtanium is unmentioned in the movie, the movie does say that unobtanium is worth “$20 million a kilo” and the largest deposit of unobtanium is under the Na’vi “hometree” (their tribal stronghold). Sully has three months to learn the culture of the Na’vi, be accepted into their tribe, and convince the Na’vi to move as they will be killed if they do not. Sully gets separated from the researchers collecting biological samples from the forest, is saved by a female Na’vi named Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana). Neytiri was planning on killing Sully (as the Na’vi can tell who is using a hybrid) but ends up helping him and brings him back to her tribe at hometree after she senses that the forest is drawn to him. Sully meets Neytiri’s father who is the tribal leader (Eytukan played by Wes Studi) and Mo’at, Neytiri’s mother and the tribe’s spiritual leader. The audience then learns that the forests and all of the organisms living in Pandora are linked by what can only be described as a bio-botanical neural network. Sully admits in one of his video logs that the Na’vi are never going to leave their beloved and sacred hometree. The administration of the RDA Corporation orders the hometree to be destroyed along with any Na’vi inside eliminating any diplomatic chance. The Na’vi are forced to migrate within the forest to their sacred site, “The Tree of Souls”. Sully and a few of the scientists attempt to stop the demolition process and are imprisoned. They escape and fly a movable lab deep into the forest in a radar ‘dead zone’. One of the scientists in seriously wounded in the escape attempt and Sully (in his avatar state) presents her dying body to the Na’vi. He begs them to try and, using a ritual dedicated to Eywa (the Na’vi deity that lives within the forest), attempts to transfer the scientist’s being from her human form to her avatar. The attempt fails and the wounded scientist dies. The climax of the movie is relatively unimportant for the purposes of this paper and just contains cinematic action as the Na’vi, led by Sully as his avatar, have a large battle with the humans. At the end of the battle, the Na’vi are losing due to inferior technology, when Eywa summons the (usually very hostile and aggressive) Pandoran wildlife to fight alongside the Na’vi and defeat the humans. The end of the movie shows Sully’s mind and essence in his injured human body being imported into his avatar body permanently, via the ritual dedicated to Eywa.
The religious parallels in “Avatar” to the Bible are numerous, even if James Cameron didn’t intentional mean for them to be there. However, keeping within the scope of this essay, I will focus on the relationship the Na’vi have with the forest and the connection the Jewish people and the kingdom of God have with the Biblical “garden”. In “Avatar” the Na’vi people have a deity named Eywa that is embodied in the forest who, although unseen, is not unheard. This is a strong parallel to the garden in the people. Referring to the Bible, the ‘garden’ in Isaiah 1:30 represents the Jewish nation (God’s Chosen People) and also represents the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is sometimes synonymous with heaven. According to most, if not all, Christian belief, the ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ Christians go to heaven (assuming you don’t believe in predestination) where they can live as they did in the real world alongside God. In “Avatar”, the forest on Pandora represents the Na’vi nation or people. They are a struggling race fighting to be accepted and survive; much like the Jewish people. In addition to the forest, there is a “Tree of Souls” that has the beings of the ancestors of the Na’vi. In the movie, the Na’vi practice prayer and even call it prayer when they speak to their deity or ancestors. Therefore, I conclude that the Tree of Souls is like heaven. When a Na’vi dies, their memories, voices, personality, etc. all get uploaded, via the bio-botanical neural network, to Eywa. This is much like Christians entering heaven as the same being they were on Earth. So, as the Biblical garden represents heaven, the Tree of Souls represents a type of heaven of the Na’vi, and the Biblical garden represents the struggling Jewish Nation, as the forests of Pandora represent the struggling Na’vi.
Another aspect of the latter half of Isaiah 1:30 that I have not mentioned is “…hath no water.” Even this concept has some parallels in “Avatar”. In the Biblical sense, “hath no water” refers to a failing, or straying from God. In “Avatar”, when the humans attack hometree, they attack first with smoke and then with incendiary after the Na’vi are too slow to evacuate. Sully’s link is broken for a while after he is forcefully disconnected, but when he returns in a subsequent scene, Sully is surrounded in ash. The landscape is dry, burnout, and somewhat barren due to the incendiary burning out the area. This can be seen as a failing on the morals of the humans; the remains of the forest being dry and “hath no water”. This scene represents the human failing of greed (for the unobtanium) and a stray from God.
An even looser metaphor used in “Avatar” can be found using the first half of Isaiah 1:30 when the author says, “An oak whose leaves fadeth”. In the Biblical context, as Kirsten Neilsen points out, the oak could refer to idolatry worship. (Nielsen, 26, 32) In a sense, this is what the Na’vi are doing when they sit around the Tree of Souls in circles of increasing circumference prayer to Eywa. Eywa isn’t a physical being that is there in front of them, Eywa is the bio-botanical neural network that encompasses the planet. Eywa is in everything, but the Na’vi chose to worship this one particular tree due to location or beauty. This is a form of idolatry and although God disobeys this form of worship, it seems to be alright with Eywa. Therefore, the oak in Isaiah 1:30 and the Tree of Souls in “Avatar” could be seen as a parallel.
I would now like to turn our attention to the author and director of the movie “Avatar” to examine if his background and experiences placed these metaphors in “Avatar” purposefully, or if their inclusion seems accidental. Conveniently, the author and director of Avatar happen to be the same person: James Cameron. I will only be examining the related aspects of James Cameron’s life (i.e. religious denomination, previous religious works, etc.). James Cameron happens to be an atheist. James Cameron himself stated, “"I've sworn off agnosticism, which I now call cowardly atheism. I've come to the position that in the complete absence of any supporting data whatsoever for the persistence of the individual in some spiritual form, it is necessary to operate under the provisional conclusion that there is no afterlife and then be ready to amend that if I find out otherwise." (Meegan, 8) Just because James Cameron is an atheist, does not mean he couldn’t have accidentally, or even purposefully for that matter, added religious metaphors to his films. Other films/media entertainment from James Cameron include Xenogenesis, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, The Terminator, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Alien IV?, True Lies, Strange Days, T2 3-D: Battle Across Time, Titanic, Dark Angel, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Avatar most recently. (James Cameron – IMDb) Upon examination of these entertainment works, there seem to be nothing inherently Biblical or even religious for that matter. Perhaps, under meticulous observation of several or all of the movies, one may find something Biblical in nature. However, even this isn’t guaranteed. Cameron was born in Ontario in the 1950s which is historically not as religious as say, the American South. (James Cameron – IMDb) There is no evidence that Cameron even attended Church or joined any type of Sunday School or biblical study course. Based on these findings, I conclude that there isn’t any reason to believe that James Cameron even knew about religious symbolism, and that religious themes and metaphors found throughout Avatar were merely happenstance.
Reader Response Theory is the interpretation that the reader holds concerning a certain text. David J.A. Clines says, “More and more people are coming to see that texts themselves do not have meanings that readers then proceed to discover. The making of meaning occurs, in some way, in the interaction of text and reader, at the hinge between language and experience.” (Clines, 15) Yairah Amit, a renowned biblical scholar, makes a similar argument: “… The title of any biblical story is a product of a commentator, and the reader is free to disagree with it and to change it. That is to say, the reader may engage in the same work as the various commentators who gave different titles to the same story. What all this means is that the biblical stories call for dynamic reading, which must determine the boundaries of the stories and even their titles.” I would like to spend some time talking about my response and interpretation of Isaiah 1:30 and “Avatar” by James Cameron.
When reading Isaiah 1:30, I was approaching the passage as an Atheist first. Reading the bible from a critical and perhaps over-analytical viewpoint, I almost read over the metaphors in Isaiah 1:30 at first and had to go back and reread the passage. After rereading I was able to identify the metaphors the author was trying to portray. The notion of the garden representing a Jewish state was fascinating to me, as well as learning about the oak groves being the popular locale to practice idolatry in biblical times. Perhaps the reason this was so inspiring to me is the fact that I consider myself an Empiricist. I was so used to the moral lessons, philosophical answers, and religious worship that are found within the Bible, I was surprised that something so… tangible and simple (i.e. a garden and an oak tree) could be used to convey such a deep and complex message. In addition, the author could achieve this with just describing the natural processes of the subjects of the passage.
Even though I am not a “reader” of “Avatar”, rather an observer/listener, I believe that the Reader Response Theory can be used albeit slightly modified. I first watched “Avatar” before I even knew I would be taking this course. When I saw it I remember thinking about the ideas and rituals around the forest and Eywa as being extremely comparable with both modern and ancient religion. On the one hand, I felt that the culture felt very prehistoric with the way the Na’vi were living off the land and their tribal structure; very primitive. On the other hand, one can see the vast similarities between modern day religions and the “religion” of the Na’vi. Even so, the first time I watched “Avatar” I took a very literalist approach; taking the movie at face value. I focused mainly on the cinematic aspects of the movie; for example, animation, music/soundtracks, character development, basic aesthetics, etc. The second time I watched “Avatar”, I watched for the sole purpose of writing this essay. The movie impacted me more so on the second run-through because, having learned about biblical metaphors, the movie was more intriguing. Instead of taking a literalist interpretation (as the first time I watched it), I took a more allegorical interpretation; focusing in on the minute details of the beliefs of the Na’vi. Furthermore, I felt a shift from a Modernist view to a Post-Modernist view. I started to see how different characters felt about the forest and honed in on and tried to interpret their own epistemologies.
Amit, Yairah. “Reading Biblical Narratives – Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible” Fortress Press Minneapolis. 2001. pp. 14-21
"Book of the Bible, Isaiah :: Zondervan NIV Study Bible." Biblica
International Bible Society and Send The Light
IBS-STL Global. Web. 20 Oct. 2010. http://www.biblica.com/niv/studybible/isaiah.php.
Clines, David J.A. “The Bible and the Modern World” Sheffield Academic Press. 1997. pp. 15
Hiers, Richard H. “The Trinity Guide to the Bible” Trinity Press International. 2001. pp. 93-97
"James Cameron - IMDb." The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 17 Nov. 2010. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000116/.
Liebreich, Leon J. “The Compilation of the Book of Isaiah” The Jewish Quarterly Review. New Series, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Jan., 1956), pp. 259-277 Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1453218.
May, John R. “Religion in Film” The University of Tennessee Press. 1998. pp. 23
Maynard, John A. “The Home of Deutero-Isaiah” Journal of Biblical Literature. Vol. 36, No. 3/4 (1917), pp. 213-224. Published by: The Society of Biblical Literature. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3259227.
Meegan, Rebecca. "Chapter 1". The Futurist (hardcover ed.). p. 8.
Nielsen, Kirsten. “From Oracles to Canon – And the Role of Metaphor” SJOT: Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament Jun2003, Vol. 17 Issue 1, p22-33.