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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reaction to the First Episode of "The Bible"

I finally got a chance to watch the premier episode of The Bible, which aired on Sunday night on the History Channel. I wrote a post[1] late last week in anticipation of that episode and in response to a Wall Street Journal article that the producers of the miniseries had penned.

I admit that I went into my viewing of the episode with high hopes and low expectations. So many television adaptations of the stories of Scripture have been cheesy, low-budget affairs that left me shaking my head in shame. The Bible didn’t necessarily disappoint me in this way, but I still came away with neither a sense of excitement nor shame. All in all, the episode was a wash for me.

I do not want to recap the scenes of the first episode; rather I want to explore some of the “under the hood” things I noticed as a Bible nerd and pastor.

First, we must consider the selection of stories that were told in this first episode. Those stories included Noah and the Flood (with a dialogue of the Creation narrative from Genesis 1), the call of Abram, the desertion of Lot from Abram’s camp, Abram’s rescue of Lot, the birth of Ishmael to Abram and Hagar, the destruction of Sodom, the departure of Hagar and Ishmael at the birth of Isaac, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the birth of Moses and rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter, his murder of an Egyptian, the burning bush encounter, Moses’ return to Egypt and the plagues, the Exodus from Egypt through the Red Sea, the reception of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, and finally Joshua’s reconnaissance of Jericho and the introduction of Rahab. 
            My first observation is that the producers had to choose what stories to include in the series. There is enough material in Genesis alone to fill a 10-part miniseries! The producers had to choose, therefore, those narratives that helped them make their point, which was “trust in God,” a mantra repeated over and over in the first episode. I understand the exclusion of some of the Genesis material for the sake of plot development, and there are certainly sections of that book that can be excluded because of the general audience implied in the network airing of the program (i.e., Lot’s daughters offered to the men at Sodom and their later rape of their father after Sodom’s destruction.)
            The stories that the producers chose are indeed those that are “more familiar” to the general public, and thus they are the ones that would make the miniseries more compelling to the widest audience.
            I thought that the mixture of the Flood narrative with the Creation account of Genesis 1 was very well done and shrewd for two reasons: first, there is enough material between Genesis 1 and 9 to dominate and entire episode, which would have been impractical. Secondly, the creation accounts are the ground of so much discussion and argument that the producers could have spent too much time and production interpreting and then rendering their interpretation of Genesis 1-3. Thus, by combining two major narratives (especially these two oft-argued ones) the produces quickly moved the plot of the episode to Abram, where there is certainly more “meat” on the bone for filmmakers.
            Another highlight for me was the sacrificial scene in which Abraham takes his son Isaac to the mountaintop as an offering to God.[2] It was a new experience for me to see that scene acted out with its themes of betrayal, murder, sorrow, and hope all thrown into one. I was moved to tears by the (admittedly mediocre) acting of Isaac and by the miraculous appearance of a lamb as a replacement for the boy on the altar.
            This scene is also where I began to realize why I was slightly bothered by the details of the episode. In the Scriptures it is God who speaks to Abraham and instructs him to sacrifice Isaac as a test. In the TV version, Abraham seemingly comes to this idea of child sacrifice on his own (in other instances of communication between Abraham and God in the show God’s voice is heard by Abraham and by the audience). It is a further complication (and certainly foreshadowing by the producers) that a lamb is caught by its foot at the top of Mt. Sinai at the exact moment of the sacrifice. In the Scriptural account of that incident it is a ram caught by its horns that takes Isaac’s place.
            This may seem like the splitting of hairs by a Bible nerd, but I think these two accounts are indicative of a serious assumption that the producers of The Bible have made in the weaving together of a grand narrative of Scripture. It is clear to me that the producers are moving the plot along toward the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus and are making subtle attempts to connect the Old Testament narratives that they have selected more appropriately serve that plot. Please understand – I believe that Scripture should be interpreted in light of the Cross and Resurrection. The lens through which Christians read Scripture is that of Jesus’ Incarnation and his teachings. It is his interpretation of Scripture that drives our interpretation of Scripture.
            Therefore, I understand the producers’ redaction of the Biblical narratives to serve this purpose. However, by altering the details of the narratives they run the risk of overlaying their specific understanding of God’s redemptive activity in too heavy-handed a manner for educated Christians to stomach. Further, while it is clear that no interpretation of Scripture or any other source in film is without directorial interpretation, such interpretation and plot-manipulation can become the narrative of the show rather than the Bible it intends to bring to life.
            Underneath all of this is one major reflection I had at the conclusion of the episode: it is impossible to produce something like The Bible intends to be without filtering it through 21st-century sensibilities. Consider two elements of the first episode:
            First, Abraham’s relationship with Hagar. In the episode it is Sara who is mourning her inability to bear Abraham a son, contrary to God’s promise. She recommends to Abraham that he impregnate the woman Hagar, who just happens to be in the camp with Abraham, Sarah, and their entourage. Abraham resists, acts shocked and slightly revolted by the idea of “cheating” on Sarah. When he is finally convinced to go through with it, we see him coming out of Hagar’s tent with a look of disappointment or anger, or even shame.
            The Scriptural account[3] we have few details of the encounter between Abraham and Hagar, and even less of Abraham’s moral perspective on the situation. What we know about ancient cultures, though, renders the 21st century morality demonstrated in the episode moot. Hagar was a slave. She had no choice in the matter, most likely, and I doubt that Abraham would have demonstrated the same martial fidelity that we see in the episode when Sarah gives him the “hall pass.”
            Further, it is anachronistic to see Lot’s wife arguing with Lot in front of Abraham and Sarah. I realize that we’ve come a long way in our treatment of women from the times of the Old Testament,[4] but the 21st-century perspective on husband/wife relationships was hard to swallow.
            Second, the segment concerning Sodom. In the producer’s interpretation of this thoroughly troubling narrative from Genesis 19 the two angelic visitors to Lot’s house are warriors. These two men take Lot, his wife, and their two daughters out of the city, in harmony with Scripture. However, the producers saw fit to make the two angelic warriors draw inappropriately modern swords and proceed to cut down dozens of Sodomites in true action-flick style. Apparently the producers couldn’t find enough action in this segment of the narrative to make it palatable to American audiences, so they created some swordplay, blood, and death to spice things up.
            Why?! Isn’t there enough morally questionable content in this portion of Scripture? Would it have been more objectionable to have Lot say to the crowds outside his house, “I beg you brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please…”[5] Apparently so. We, the viewers, can handle some canned death and dismemberment that’s not in Scripture, but we couldn’t stomach the morally inflammatory content of the actual narrative.
            In the final analysis, The Bible is a well-made show about some of the more popular stories of Scripture. It has an agenda that will certainly be demonstrated in future episodes, though for now the driving theme of the series is “trust in God.” I maintain that the broader culture needs to hear and see the Scriptures, and I understand that any production of the Bible will necessitate some interpretation. Of the shows I’ve seen that try to bring the Bible to life, this is the best. However, as a Bible nerd I am aware that even this good effort cannot help but leave gaps that must be filled in by minsters and mature Christians everywhere.

[2] Cf. Genesis 22
[3] Cf. Genesis 16
[4] See William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. IVP, 2001.
[5] Genesis 19:8, NRSV.

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