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.