I’ve finally gotten around to watching the first two episodes of the History Channel’s The Bible miniseries (I wanted to wait on the rest of the episodes because, you know, spoilers). The episodes, titled Beginnings and Exodus, cover the events of the Pentateuch – from Genesis to Deuteronomy.
Conceptually, having Bible stories at all on something called the History Channel isn’t problem-free. Even among theologians, the idea that the Bible is primarily historical truth isn’t exactly considered a settled matter. But I, personally, am okay with it. Whether or not the stories are historical in a literal sense, they are certainly worth discussing in a historical context. I’d feel the same way about a History Channel Trojan War miniseries. And, at least, the series begins with a card screen telling us that it is “an adaptation of Bible stories.”
The problem is that the card screen also tells us that “it endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book,” which is a rather misleading statement.
Throughout the episodes, the authors’ theological slant is plainly evident in what they change, what they add, and what they leave out. In several cases, the departures are significant, and they colour interpretation.
The most obvious example of what I mean is what I like to call the “Hot Jesus Injections.” Throughout the episodes, there are glimpses and hints of Jesus, even though it covers only the events from Genesis through to Deuteronomy. One of the three angels that come to Abraham (wearing a hood of a different colour from the two others, of course) always has his back turned to the camera or is seen out of focus, yet he is quite clearly the actor who will play Jesus later on in the film.
The same actor also provides the voice of God whenever he speaks to the patriarchs (and Sarah). This comes out rather silly because, of course, they chose an actor who could portray a “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” He can hardly muster the thunderous boom of the Old Testament God. So what we get are the patriarchs getting thrown about by these violent storms, seeing these great acts of nature, and then this totally chill, stoner voice with a slight reverb coming down from the skies. It’s decidedly underwhelming.
Which brings me to the subject of race. There’s some attempt to at least get white people with brown eyes and dirty-blonde hair at the lightest, so I guess that’s a start – and the angels accompanying God tick off a few diversity boxes – but I expect a Bible-based miniseries coming out in 2013 to do a whole lot better than White Jesus.
Several narratives are altered to make them less morally troubling. For example, turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt just because she looked back at her home as she flees is troubling, to put it lightly. So they set her up early on as someone who is chronically contrary, making sure that the audience will be predisposed not to see her as a victim.
When God tells Abraham to go into Canaan, Lot’s wife argues against the idea. Later, when they arrive, they find that they have so many animals that they cannot graze them all together. In the Bible, Abraham proposes that they separate, so Lot heads off to Sodom. But in the miniseries, it’s Lot’s wife who nags Lot into separating, clearly against Abraham’s wishes. That’s not just filling in the gaps to make a more compelling narrative for a screen adaptation, that’s outright contradicting the source material to fit a theological agenda. Just to make it even more clear that Lot’s wife totally deserves what’s coming to her, the miniseries has her scoff at faith in “a god we cannot see.”
All of this makes it absolutely silly when Abraham goes on about how he’s been promised “as many descendants as the stars, to populate our land.” This comes right after his separation from Lot because the land is already full with just their two households. Maybe he should adjust his ambitions a little…
The destruction of Sodom and God’s conversation with Abraham surrounding that event really struck me. In the biblical story, God is all in a huff and will destroy the whole city, but Abraham argues with him and manages to talk him down a bit – at least enough for God to send the angels in to find any good men. But in the miniseries, the conversation is about Abraham discovering Jesus’ plan, and Jesus being all “don’t worry, bro. I got this.”
Lot never offers up his daughters to the city-dwellers, and he never sleeps with them after. There’s also no mention of Abraham prostituting his wife (twice). But the narrator makes a special point of the fact that Lot “never saw Abraham again” after he fled from Sodom – which, even if it fits with the biblical narrative, was certainly not something that attention was drawn to. I cannot figure out why the miniseries chose to highlight this. Given that the narrator is used so seldom, I can’t help but think that it served some kind of purpose, but I can’t think of what it might be.
I found it interesting that the ‘baby in the basket’ narrative is almost entirely glossed over. The narrator never mentions it, nor does the princess (who tells Moses of his origins). All we get is half a second of footage of picking up the basket.
Once Moses escapes to Midian, a card screen tells us that he waits 40 years before God appears to him as the burning bush. I get that the actor they got to play Young Moses lacked the gravitas they needed to play Prophet Moses, but why choose 40? I don’t remember that being in the biblical narrative, so I can only think that it was just an excuse to get a more mountain man-looking actor in.
Speaking of the burning bush, the narrative was oddly done. I found the bush itself to be rather lacklustre, and the Hippy Jesus voice coming from it really didn’t lend it any of the mysterium tremendum that I had imagined from reading the Bible text. I also found that the miniseries Moses doesn’t show any of the humility that the biblical Moses had when encountering the burning bush.
Zipporah is entirely absent. On a related note, I found the Miriam-Aaron relationship to be rather disturbing. Miriam is shown to have two children, while Aaron apparently has none (or, at least, is never shown to be associated with any children other than Miriam’s). Neither is ever shown with a spouse. Not only that, but they seem rather close – and not in the way of a brother and sister – while waiting out the Passover night. I don’t know what that’s all about, but I got a distinct Lannister vibe from them, and it was creepy.
I found the ten plagues to be quite well done, visually. Interestingly, the “who can turn their staff into the mightiest serpent” contest with the pharaoh’s court magicians never happens. I suppose that the miniseries’ authors didn’t want to show anyone other than a God Approved Prophet having magical powers. Again, I feel that theology got in the way of retelling the story.
After the Passover plague, the pharaoh agrees to allow the Hebrews to leave. This was the same narrative I’d heard in Sunday School, and it was the same in The Ten Commandments. But, as we learned when we read Exodus 12, the pharaoh only allows the Israelites to leave because they lied and told him that they were just poppin’ ’round the corner for mo’. The lies (and the stealing from the Egyptians) are erased by the miniseries’ authors.
Once in the wilderness, there’s no golden calf, no rebellions, no reason given for why it would take them 40 years to get to Canaan. There is, however, the carving of the decalogue, which was actually a pretty cool scene.
Overall, the acting was quite decent (though maybe they could lay off on making the actors run around the block right before each take, because I found the huffing and puffing – particularly when Moses has his audience with the pharaoh – to be quite distracting), despite the many odd casting choices. I’ve already mentioned the white-washing and tokenism, but there were also some rather offensive choices, such as putting someone with dwarfism among the baddies who capture Lot. Because, you know, physical deformity is always a reflection of inner sin, right? Sort of the Disney method of character design.
There’s some odd absurdities as well. For example, there’s the scene where Lot is captured and Abraham’s household come to rescue him. For some reason, the captors decided to use the most absolutely useless gags I’ve ever seen – while gagged, Lot manages to call out, with perfect clarity, to his wife. I get that making a proper gag is really hard, but these are actors. They could have at least pretended not to be able to speak!
I also felt that the authors allowed their theology to get in the way of both accuracy and good storytelling (and, in many instances, both at the same time). It was enough that I certainly wouldn’t recommend watching it to anyone who hasn’t already read the relevant biblical chapters.
If watching TV isn’t your thing, good news! The stories of The Bible are now available in a book!