The Bible– Part Two

There is a famous line from the old Monty Python movie ‘The Life of Brian’. Someone is listening to the Sermon on the Mount, but he is distant from the speaker. He thinks he hears… “Blessed are the cheesemakers” instead of ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers”. Perhaps he was actually watching and listening to the pilot for this new History Channel special, The Bible. Perhaps they were especially watching the better part of an hour spent in Episode 2 on the titillation of the story of Samson and Delilah (cue the Tom Jones version of the song ‘Delilah’). Picture Samson in dreadlocks portrayed by an African American. Picture Delilah portrayed by a woman who appears Spanish or Italian. Neither of these persons look anything like what the original Samson or Delilah would have looked like, but hey, it’s only appearances– right? We don’t really need to get the particulars right. The only question is— ‘Are you Entertained?’

It is not a problem that we have an edited version of the Bible presented in 10 hours. After all, John Huston presented us with a movie of the same name 40 some years ago, and he hardly moved the needle past the stories in Gen. 1-11.

The problem in part is what is chosen to be presented in this version of ‘the Bible’, how much time is spent on it, and how it is presented. The Jew or Christian watching this portrayal should expect that the portrayal be faithful to the story itself, and also to its historical context.

Such a person has a right to object when: 1) the story is told wrongly, or 2) the wrong thing is emphasized about the story, or 3) something essential has been omitted. Perhaps of even more concern in a Biblically illiterate age is that this TV show will be the only version of the stories that many will know at all. It therefore behooves the producers (who apparently also produce ‘the Voice’) to get it right. Sadly, it appears they had few if any actual historical or Biblical scholarly consultants for this mini-series.

Episode 2 begins with Joshua and the taking of Jericho, but after that the story skips directly to Samson and Delilah….and lingers there far too long. We hear nothing of the rest of the book of Joshua, nothing about better judges like say Gideon, and then from Samson we skip directly to Saul.

The presentation improves some when we get to Saul, as he is accurately portrayed as a troubled soul— jealous, insecure, not prepared to follow God’s dictates in detail. The producers accurately make clear that the rejection of theocracy (with prophets as liasons) in favor of monarchy (with prophets as prosecuting attorneys for God) is a fall from grace, is actually a failure of Israel to truly trust God. So far so good.

So then we spend the rest of the two hours portraying battles with the Philistines, and of course the famous David and Goliath story given prominent play, and then the demise of Saul and Jonathan. The friendship between David and Jonathan is given short shrift, and this leads to a comment about characterization. Characterization of complex figures like a Saul or a David takes time. Taking time to do this is forfeited in order to make the story more about action, action, action. The major characters are turned more into action figures rather than intriguing and winsome, and sometime despicable human beings.

Inexplicably, after introducing the character of Michal, David’s first wife, and from the family of Saul no less, she disappears entirely from the story (even when David dances before the Lord as the ark enters the city of Jerusalem) in favor of skipping right to the sordid tale of David and Bathsheba. Equally inexplicably Uriah the Hittite is portrayed as David’s right hand warrior when he is fleeing from Saul, long before the David and Bathsheba episode.

An opportunity for real pathos is missed entirely when the mourning of David for the loss of his first child by Bathsheba is given much too little time, time that is instead spent on then showing David playing ‘Sim City’ or ‘Temple Builder’ with the already 3-4 year old Solomon (whose story apparently will show up in Episode 3). Solomon sure grew up fast. If we are looking for a more felicitous segment in Episode 2, we could turn to the presentation of David reciting Psalm 23 as he faces off with Goliath, and Goliath loses his head—- literally.

Presenting a mini-series on the Bible that professes to be at least an attempt to be faithful to the content and intent of the stories is a task which requires care and prayer. I wish I could say the choice of episodes, presentation and editing regularly reflects such care and prayer. I wish I could say that it has the appearance of paying attention to what scholars and Bible experts say about these stories and gets the details right. Sadly, there is little hint of either. And this is truly too bad.

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  • Oscar

    This is all I expected from The History Channel. After watching three episodes of “The Story of Us”, a compacted and trivialized history of the world, I decided that the channel’s treatment of the Bible would fare no better, so I decided to skip it in favor of “The Walking Dead”. At least I was entertained!

  • Levi

    Excellent article! You’ve accurately summed up many of the same problems I had with this series so far.

    However, this does not diminish my excitement to see the rest of the series. It’s about time that the Bible was given a proper budget with such a solid cast, and I’m just glad that so many people seem to be tuning in.

  • Ray Dymun

    I surmised after episode 1 that this was not going to be the breakthrough treatment many others whom I respect had claimed. My wife watched me as I pulled out my bible after Saul just committed suicide (by himself) without first being wounded by an arrow. As Oscar said, this is the History Channel and we at least can be thankful that Bart Ehrman hasn’t had a cameo yet; but episodes 4 and 5 haven’t been aired.

  • Mary Liz

    I was entertained and interested in filling in the gaps with what I remember and questing the errors to keep me sharp on the Bible. Much of the Bible is not even a real part of the life of the USA today…politics, virtual daily life…etc has no idea what the Bible says….we need and Ezra to read it loud and long once again……!

  • mark

    It would be interesting to see actual Middle Eastern actors in these roles. It ‘s easy to why Hollywood, fifty or sixty years ago, told these stories from an Anglo-American perspective. That was their primary audience and multiculturalism was less a factor than today. Things, however, have changed a good deal since Charleton Heston played Moses.

    Now might be a good time to revisit the Bible in a more authentic way. Perhaps, even, telling more of the historical narrative that lurks just beneath the surface of the Bible’s religious iconography. The light brown haired actor portraying Jesus is a good example. He looks more like the lead guitarist for a 1970′s southern rock band than a first century Jewish Rabbi.

  • ao

    Great points, Ben! You articulated a lot of what bothered me about last night’s episode.

    It’s worth mentioning that Samson being played by a black guy is just as absurd (or not absurd, for some) as all the other characters in the miniseries being played by white people. I know that’s your overall point. I just know that a lot of people who saw the show are thinking that it was weird for Samson to be black, but they didn’t even realize that it should be weird that all the characters up until this point were white. We have a bias in the West in how we portray Biblical figures in art. In our minds, we almost always picture them as white anyway, so when they’re portrayed in any other race other than white, we cry foul, not knowing that we should’ve been crying foul the whole time. Jesus was not a handsome Portugese man with penetrating eyes and a beautiful smile. =)

    Also, not only has the series been pretty much “action, action, action” like you said, but by removing entirely the fact that the Israelites killed women and children, too, like in Jericho, the movie makes them look like valiant, just-war warriors by modern American standards. All we see is how cool the Israelites are in battle with their smooth moves and sharp knives as they kill enemy soldiers. But when is the series going to show even one woman or child killed by the Israelites during battle?

  • Billyv

    I’m pretty sure Mark Goodacre was a consultant on this series.

  • ao

    And Darrell Bock said he was a consultant on the series, too. I guess we can’t judge the quality of their consulting until we get to the New Testament. But based on the clips of Jesus’ life that’ve already been released, I’m skeptical that it’ll be much better than what we’ve seen so far. By the way, there was a 30-minute promo episode for the series that came out a couple weeks before the series began. In that promo, when Roma Downey says that they had many Bible experts consulting with them during the production process, the b-roll footage showed Joel Osteen on set engaging with the actors, director, etc.

  • Michael Snow

    Unfortunately, I was at my sister’s (who has the history channel) when this came on. I found it a real bore. Yes, no pathos over the death of the child. Real opportunities were missed: David cutting off Saul’s garment and then humbly submitting to him; Nathan’s confrontation of David with the moving analogy of the man with one lamb; and the very premature rejection of David as the builder of the temple and no mention of the reason–”you are a man of war and have shed much blood…”

  • Nathan Bierma

    I went into the series expecting the very worst, and so it could only exceed my expectations, which it did slightly. I guess I don’t share any expectation at all that a Jew or Christian has a right to expect the story to be portrayed rightly, with the right emphasis, without omitting essential things–especially in a mass entertainment product targeted toward viewers with low biblical literacy. (Ironically, a reality TV producer is the least likely person in my book to portray this story as, well, reality.) I guess I parcel out my outrage over historical accuracy in small amounts. Think of the minor controversy about the historical accuracy of the recent movie Lincoln, which may be less egregious but goes to show that the telling of history is always at the mercy of the storyteller. And at least with the life of Lincoln we have more of a neutral, agreed-upon historical record to use as a baseline. At the risk of opening the can of worms of the historicity of the OT, just look at 1&2 Chronicles to see that historicity was a moving target from the very beginning. Not to let Burnett and company off the hook or elevate him to the level of Kushner or the Chroniclers, but to me his crimes against history may be more misdemeanors than felonies.

  • lawrence

    David cutting off Saul’s garment and then humbly submitting to him;

    I agree it was a bore as well, but I think that was on the show.

  • JR

    I watched the first episode of “The Bible” and the only reason I am commenting on the show is because they claim it to be “biblical accurate”. They not only depicted stories wrongly but they destroyed “bible typology”. For example, the showed Noah in the ark with the water coming in and Noah plugging a hole in the ark. The Bible says that Noah pitched the ark “within and without”. Meaning, that not one drop of water entered the ark. Then the ark is a picture of Jesus as our “ark of salvation”. The salvation that Jesus gives “has no holes”. When they showed Moses and God’s People crossing the Red Sea – water raining down and ground getting wet. Exodus 14:22 says “And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon dry ground”. Either the show is right or the Word of God is right. Then the producers compromised in showing the “men of Sodom” wanting to kill the angels when in fact anyone knows that the “men of Sodom” wanted to know (have sex) with the angels. I can go on but just those I mentioned shows that the show is not “biblical accurate” as they claim.

  • Mark Goodacre

    Yes, I consulted on the series. There were several other academic consultants too, including but not limited to Craig Evans, Paula Gooder, Helen Bond, Candida Moss, Michael Coogan, Walter Brueggemann, Joshua Garroway. I would say that the highest profile academic consultant has been Craig Evans. See my post on the topic here:

    I am sorry to hear that you have not enjoyed the series so far, Ben. I hope that your opinion will develop further with the remaining six episodes.

    Best wishes

  • Mark Goodacre

    Oh, minor note. “Picture Samson in dreadlocks portrayed by an African American”. The actor (Nonso Azonie) is actually British.

  • Lori

    I totally agree with JR and a few others here. This show is NOT accurate according to the Bible. Many, Many things not in line. Seems like Hollywood will be Hollywood — catering to (or afraid of) the liberal left! They’ve taken the truth and twisted it to entertain with “action” etc. So sad. I thought maybe at least people who don’t know the Bible (and there are way too many today!) would learn more about it, but they aren’t learning the truth here. God’s Word is not compromise nor twisted truth. It’s so sad that Mark Burnnet and his wife, Roma Downey have done this injustice. (And by the way–I can’t even recognize her because of the botox in her face!) Another Hollywood way. Soooo sad!