The debut of the History Channel’s much anticipated 10 hour series “The Bible” created a lot of excitement among churches and Bible readers. The two producers in many ways embody the dual identity of the production. Roma Downey, of Touched by and Angel fame, imparts a welcome vibe of respect for the story. No debunking here! On the other hand, her husband Mark Burnett, gave us Survivor and Celebrity Apprentice, among others, and so we expect, well, “reality” however that’s defined. The series publicity stressed the desire simply to portray the story, without a lot of interpretive overlay. The producers also claimed to have consulted a wide range of clergy and scholars. Unfortunately, the most conspicuously touted consult was with Joel Osteen, which led to some howls and giggles in many circles. But in fact, a large cross-section of clergy from many traditions appear in the consultant list.
I was not able to find on the History Channel’s website any list of the consultants, but gleaning through articles in the New York Times and (gulp) Wikipedia produced a pretty good list of names. Also included in the consultation process were, reputedly, Joshua Garroway, a rabbi holding a PhD in New Testament studies from Yale who serves as professor of NT on the faculty of Hebrew Union College, a prestigious school located in Cincinnati, OH. Craig Evans, another NT scholar with an impressive vita of publications and an extensive list of appearances on the National Geographic Channel, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel. All the scholarly consultants I could locate held PhD’s from outstanding universities and most were young. Of the five I found, three were women. Surpisingly, none were trained in Old Testament scholarship. Given the historical and cultural richness of the OT, I found that puzzling and in the first episode, the lack of OT expertise showed painfully!
So…how was it? I confess here at the start, I was disappointed. I expected a production of much richer texture than what we got. The general look of the production was, to use a scholarly term, “cheesy.” That was distressing. But more puzzling to me were some serious errors in the story itself, especially given the PR that this was so heavily researched.
Right from the start, Noah on the ark is reciting the creation story to a young girl. But in the Bible, there are no children, male or female, on the ark. Just Noah, Mrs. Noah, the three sons and their wives. No kids (see Gen. 7:7; 2 Peter 2:5). And then, we get the fall of humanity happening…between Days 6 and 7 of the creation! I originally criticized this part of the program, but now I’m told in Ms. Benton’s comment below that a rabbinic tradition is the inspiration for that part of the storyline. It does not make it biblically accurate, but it does indicate the producers’ concern to find some background to flesh out the narrative. I only wish they’d gotten someone with specialized training in the languages, literature, culture, archaeology and theology of the Old Testament since half the program (and about three quarters of the Bible) is concerned with the OT. But I remain grateful for the illumination offered in the comment and glad to see seriousness in the producers’ efforts at that point.
As for the fall, I laughed also when Eve is eating the fruit, mercifully not portrayed as an apple, and we see a snake coiled on a tree nearby. But Gen. 3:14 has traditionally been taken to imply the serpent had legs, or at least, didn’t move like a snake, until God cursed it to move about on its belly. I will at least say that Downey and Burnett give us an Adam and Eve who are very attractive and very naked, though for some reason, dirty. Apparently lipstick was also part of the pre-fall women’s regimen.
The Abraham story fills the remainder of the first hour. Aspects of it are refreshing and interesting, but nowhere do we see signs of the kind of cultural and historical research that would have brought the story to life, and at times details are missing that are vital to the theological narrative, which Downey and Burnett stated was important to them. So they omit the vital line in the binding of Isaac that shows Abraham’s faith, when he speaks to his servant at the foot of the mountain, “…I and the boy will go worship and we will return to you…” That “we” is vital. But the movie shows no servant, just Abraham and Isaac. Also, Mt. Moriah, the scene of the offering, is portrayed as off in a howling, barren wilderness. But traditionally it is located at Jerusalem, which was a Jebusite town in the Middle Bronze Age, not a desolate wilderness. And oh yes: did anyone notice the WHITE CAMELS? I missed it until Angie kept asking me were ancient camels white. Duh. Now, there is some debate over the domestication of the camel, but I know very few archaeologists or historians who think that lots of people were caravanning with camels in the Middle Bronze Age. And if they were, I doubt very much that they were snowy-white. Judges 5:10 in some translations refers to “white donkeys” but white camels? That’s odd.
The narratives surrounding Lot raised another problem for me. The Bible narrates plenty of violence. It’s not a book for the faint hearted. But Downey and Burnett work in violence, of the corniest kind, in places where it’s not only absent from the Bible, it’s also gratuitous. The one place the violence works is Abraham’s raid on the kings of the east (Gen. 14) to rescue Lot. I confess I’ve never seen that portrayed and they were not shy about portraying Abraham as a tribal war leader.
It’s the extra violence I found puzzling. We have the angels entering Sodom. Now, for some reason, whenever God or angels appear in this show, I instinctively think of the ring-wraiths in Lord of the Rings. Never quite shook that. Anyway, the Bible says they camped openly in the town square and planned to spend the night there, with Lot almost forcing them to come home with him. D&B have the angels injured and pleading for asylum, with Lot taking them in. When the mob besieges Lot’s house, the Bible simply states that the angels blinded them, allowing Lot & Co. to leave the city. D&B have the eyes of the attackers bleeding, but not all the city is blinded, so the angels walk outside and proceed to slaughter the residents of Sodom. It looks like a scene from a bad martial arts movie. On the other hand, if you had your children with you to watch the new Bible movie made by that sweet woman from Touched by an Angel, you’d be having second thoughts just then. A good friend of mine with two school-aged daughters wisely decided to watch Tangled Sunday evening. Good move.
Though eager to show violence, D&B hold back on sex, which is probably a good thing given the salacious though brief, look we get at Eve’s cleavage. The intention of homosexual rape expressed by the Sodomite mob is totally absent from the Sodom sequence, likely either a nod to a family audience or a bit of political correctness, and fortunately, the viewer is spared the sequel to the escape from Sodom. Apparently, from this scene, Sodom was destroyed for very bad booty dancing. Which might be just, after all…
For some reason, the movie leaps from Abraham straight to Moses, so we get no story of Jacob wrestling, Jacob reproducing, Isaac fondling Rebekah, or anything about Joseph. From how they handle the Moses segment, they might have had a limited eye-liner budget so had to leave out the long Egypt sequence involving Joseph! This is a mercy, since the Egypt scenes are awful. Everyone is fat, for example, even Pharaoh. But we know the Pharaoh’s were typically quite fit specimens. Ramesses II, for example, when ambushed by the Hittites at Kadesh just a few years after the Exodus, mounts his chariot and alone, charges the Hittite line. The Pharaoh’s are depicted driving a chariot, reins tied around their waist, firing arrows at targets or at enemies. The Pharaoh of the exodus was a young, vigorous man ready to embark on a career of international imperialism and diplomacy, not a fat mobster surrounded by sycophants. The mummy of Ramesses II shows us he was a tall, square-jawed, red-headed man, his hair still intact after 3200 years!
Side Note: Why, oh why, in every movie, is the “angel of death” portrayed as a kind of mist wafting through the town? I mean, what a great place for D&B to bring in their Ninja-Angels and buckle some serious swash! But no, it’s the same old death-mist.
I’ll say up front: I like D&B’s Moses. He’s not Charlton Heston’s majestic, slow statesman. He’s got a goofy streak that I personally found appealing. He looks like Willie Nelson, too, not a plus for everyone. Here I need to point out a few Moses-Movie clichés that are perpetuated here. The big one is that Moses and his “brother” were somehow rivals. The problem is that they normally take (rightly) Ramesses II as the pharaoh of the exodus and thus Seti I as Moses’ adoptive dad. But here’s the problem. Ramesses II ruled for 67 years after becoming pharaoh in 1279 BC. Moses was already 40 when he fled to the wilderness, and was 80 years old when he returned. The Bible indicates the exodus pharaoh was new to the throne when Moses confronted him, not an octogenarian. But if the Pharaoh of the exodus was Moses’ peer and rival, then we’d be watching a kind of “Clash of the Geezers” in Exodus. This is a problem for any proposed pharaoh of the exodus, not just Ramesses II. The Bible appears to telescope the generations of the pharaohs. The king of Egypt who sought Moses’ life must have died decades earlier, and a generation or two of kings passed. If Moses was 80 in 1279 (or so) B.C. then he left Egypt in 1319 B.C. (or so) during the reign of Haremhab…and it gets ugly from there!
So…movie writers: NO SIBLING RIVALRY IN THE MOSES STORY! I know it adds a lot of fun storyline material, but it wasn’t there, didn’t happen. Do your homework. At least nobody in this movie shakes their head dismissively in big-brother mode, saying “Moses, Moses, Moses…”
D&B do the sea crossing very much in the traditional mode. I have seen one movie that tries the “traipsing across the swamp” version, and whatever the historical merits might be, for movie footage it’s pitiful. The scene is a clear homage to Cecil B. DeMille, but for fun, we also see a nod to Prince of Egypt as Moses wades out into the water and plants his staff in the water. At least they make no attempt to perpetuate the silly idea that there were 2.5 MILLION Israelites, something that mars the Prince of Egypt scene that jerks one back and forth between gazillions of Israelites and little touching vingettes of individuals. The group depicted by D&B is the right size for a substantial segment of Egypt’s forced labor population, but small enough to escape through the sea in a single night. Of course, the Bible’s story of an entire night in which a pillar of fire kept the Egyptians back and a wind blowing all through the night to dry up the sea is just plain gone.
The segment on the giving of the law seems sketchy and rushed. We have no context for the arrival at Sinai, no sense of the need to found a people, a nation, no context of a covenant confederating this band into a new community. We have no depiction of the complaining in the wilderness the rebellion, the death of the exodus generation, nor of the deaths of Aaron and Moses, as far as I could tell. No last words of Moses (i.e. Deuteronomy moment).
And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for, the ultimate geek moment! There is one mistake in this movie that, though not tragic for most viewers, signaled to me the absence of any specialist in Old Testament studies from this project and is my almost-never-fail litmus test for how seriously the producers pursue authenticity.
But that will have to wait. This article is already too long!