History Channel’s The Bible: Episode 3, “Homeland”

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Forty years after the events of the last episode (in narrative time, it hasn’t actually been that long since I wrote that post!), we open with Joshua praying in a deep, melodious voice that I am sure gets that actor oodles of gigs as a movie trailer narrator. The prayer serves to establish Joshua’s character – both his identity and goal.

His prayers over, we then zoom up Joshua’s nostril has he tells his spies to sneak into Jericho, and then into the spies’ nostrils as they agree.

We really get right up there.

We really get right up there.

I pointed out in my review of episodes 1 & 2 that the series tends to make up details to make the baddies seem like actual baddies, rather than just guys who happen to have settled in the wrong area (or, in Lot’s wife’s case, had complex feelings about leaving her home forever). So, of course, the figures of authority – apparently something like police officers – in Jericho are complete jerks. Right off the bat, one of them calls Rahab a “whore” and acts like a complete creepster.

The spies are fairly incompetent, and have perhaps forgotten to wear britches because everyone in town recognizes them immediately. They spend their time in Jericho running from alley to alley, recognized by more people at each turn, pursued by an ever-growing mob. Finally, they settle on the winning strategy of holding a knife to Rahab’s son’s throat and threatening to kill him unless Rahab protects them. Which, for some reason, doesn’t make them baddies. Rahab, like everyone else in town, immediately recognizes the Israelites, to which they reply, “you’ve heard of us?” As if they haven’t just spent the better part of the evening running from an entire town full of people who’ve heard of them and recognize them. At least the show managed to stay true to the text in making these the worst spies in the history of espionage.

Rahab agrees to delay the guards while the spies escape, either because she’s wowed by their super powerful deity or because they’ve just been holding a knife to her son’s throat. With a big third wall-breaking smirk, one of the spies gives her a red cord and tells her to tie it to her doorpost so that “you’ll be passed over.” Get it? Like the Israelites in Egypt? Get it??

When they get back to camp, they tell Joshua that the battle’s already half won because the citizens of Jericho believe that God is on the Israelite side. Joshua snaps at then, “God is on our side!” Yeah, dude, they know. That wasn’t the point. In fact, this happens several times during the episode. Some character will use “they think” language, and a Holy character will pause for a moment to shout, full froth, that God really really is with them, and then everyone resumes the scene as if nothing happened. I can just imagine some guy in the screenwriter circle with serious anger issues demanding that the line be added, in full caps, at regular intervals throughout the script. Perhaps he even brought a Bible along so that he could thump it to accentuate every second word.

The hapless spies failed to find a way into the city, but the angel of the Lord comes to Joshua and gives him the “Walls of Jericho” choreography. It’s the black one this time. We’ll see the white one later. The Asian band of our rainbow was apparently benched for this episode.

Bible_03_02_The Angel of the Lord

When the walls of Jericho fall, Joshua yells something that sounded something like “he truly is the saviour of the world” – or, perhaps, “this truly is the centre of the world.” Either way, it makes little sense in this context. Unless, of course, our True Believer scriptwriter wanted to remind everyone that Jesus is what it’s all about, even in the Old Testament.

Must more fitting with the tone of the Deuteronomic history is Joshua’s other shout: “If we obey the Lord, anything is possible!”

Samson

A hundred years pass and the Philistines are being jerks. The show introduces the concept of judges (plural), but completely skips most of them over to get to Samson – a strong black man with dreadlocks. In Judges 16:19, a reference is made to Samson’s “seven locks.” Some – particularly those in the Rastafari faith system – believe that this indicates that Samson may have worn dreadlocks. I found it interesting to see that theme taken up here.

Choosing to make Samson black is interesting, too, especially given the direction in which they decided to take the story. Rather than being the personal revenge story we get in the text, here it’s depicted as a sort of defence of interracial marriage – further, it’s one where our sympathetic character is the person of colour. Samson and his mother are black, whereas the Philistines are all portrayed as white.

Samson with Delilah

Samson with Delilah

To make it work, they’ve written out the lion and the riddle and the first wife’s betrayal. Instead, the Philistines murder Samson’s wife (by setting her on fire, no less) because “our people should never mix.”

Except that it isn’t quite that simple. The Philistines (you can tell they are baddies because they all wear Jack Sparrow eyeliner) are shown to be against Samson’s marriage to a Philistine woman from the start, but so is Samson’s mother. At her own son’s wedding, she is shown pursing her lips judgementally, prompting Samson to ask her what she wants from him. “What would you have me do? Reject the woman I fell in love with just because she’s a Philistine?”

Bible_03_Wedding

Because it’s a lot harder to CGI burning foxes than just to have a couple of stunt doubles wail on each other, Samson’s revenge involves the latter as he shouts, “for my wife!”

JAWBOWNED!

JAWBOWNED!

As in the text, Samson escapes and hides in a cave for a bit.

Also like the text, the Philistines start harassing nearby Israelites (in this case, Samson’s mother is included in the group). The History Channel couldn’t help but to add a little Hollywood flair, however, as the Philistines pull the old “for every arbitrary unit of time you make us wait for Samson, we will kill one of you! Starting NOW!” canard. The Israelites find Samson and convince him to submit.

The Philistines have Samson in chains, there’s a baddie/goodie exchange, Samson breaks free, then comes the jawbone.

It’s on his escape from his fight that Samson meets Delilah, violently grabbing a water jug out of her hands and then, inexplicably, thanking her as though he’d asked for it like a normal human being. This apparently sets Delilah swooning.

The Philistines approach Delilah and try to convince her to betray Samson. At first, they argue that he’s been going around butchering Philistines – entirely the impression of the text, but a lie in the context of the History Channel’s spin on the story. Delilah is unconvinced, “He’s changed, he’s a different man since he’s met me.” I mean, sure, he was covered in Philistine blood when she met him, but he hasn’t even tried to commit genocide since!

What finally convinces her is the offer of money. That meshes with the text, but it feels worse here, somehow. Delilah is portrayed as having genuine affection for Samson, defending him and even crying when he is captured. Yet her greed overrides her affection to the point that she methodically sheers his hair while he sleeps, with no indication of internal conflict.

As in the text, Samson is blinded. Where the adaptation deviates, however, is that it has him brought to Dagon’s temple immediately. When Samson regains his strength, it is through prayer only. There has been no time for his hair to grow, so the History Channel has chosen to just skip over the possible pagan elements that, I suppose might have been theologically troubling to their resident Bible thumper – the one who peppers his speech with shouts of “God is with us!” – even when simply discussing the weather or how to conquer nearby cities.

Finally, we get the Hollywood trick of having Samson’s mother pulling rubble away to reveal her son, and Samson’s chapter ends with her crying over his corpse.

Samson’s mother features quite prominently in the adaptation. In the text, she’s unnamed – clearly important, and it’s notable that God speaks to her rather than her husband, but still rather effaced. Here, however, the reverse is the case. Samson’s mother is written into a number of scenes, while her husband is entirely absent. Anyone who didn’t already know the story might well get the impression that her pregnancy was, like Mary’s, one that needed no human help getting started.

Of course, she receives the news of her pregnancy from the creepiest angel ever. Seriously, the guy is as bad as a Jerichoite. God’s HR department needs to have a sensitivity course with its angels to talk about personal space, I think.

Bible_03_03_Creeper Angel

Samuel

Micah’s idol, the concubine’s rape, and the ark’s adventures are all skipped over, and we move straight into Samuel’s old age. The voice over tells us that poor Samuel tried his best to unite the Israelites to fight against the Philistines, but he has failed.

Unlike his text self, he assumes that his sons will succeed him, and defends him from the Israelite accusations that they are corrupt and have been accepting bribes. He is clearly meant to be a goodie, but his resistance to the monarchy is not explained. Given the lack of eyeliner on the Israelites asking for a king, they seem to be sympathetic characters too. Rather than coming across like a legitimate question that is up in the air, it ends up just looking like Samuel is a horrible guy and a bad leader who the show really really wants to convince us is on the good side. The whole scene feels awkward and rushed.

Samuel explicitly personalizes the rejection of his sons and the judge system, crying out that the people “have rejected me” and adding “and you, God” as though it were an afterthought.

When God shows Samuel the king he’s chosen, Samuel says, “that could never be me. But I will still be your prophet!” I don’t know what impression I was supposed to draw from Samuel’s scene, but it struck me like a corrupt old man scrambling to keep hold of power. Like I said, it was awkwardly done.

In a nice touch of framing, we return into a nostril as the episode comes to a close.

Bible_03_08_Saul 2

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Judges 16: A heart in an egg in a well in a church on an island in a lake…

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Unfortunately for Samson, he failed to get laid in Judges 15. He’s a very goal-oriented sort of man, though, and he doesn’t let one failure get him down. So he makes his way to Gaza – one of the five major cities of the Philistine confederation (according to my study Bible, p.315) – to go “in to” a prostitute (Judges 16:1).

But poor Samson can’t seem to be able to pursue relations of an intimate nature without some sort of disaster. So, of course, the Philistines find out where he’s laying. Presumably afraid of bursting in to some scene of unspeakable horror, they opt to set up an ambush by the city gate, assuming that they would be waiting until morning.

It’s unclear what happens to the ambushers, but at around midnight, Samson wakes, comes out of the brothel, rips out the city gate, plops it up on his shoulders, and drags it up a hill near Hebron.

The fatal flaw

Then, as we all found out in Sunday School, Samson falls in love with Delilah. The Philistine lords approach her and offer her a sum of 1,100 pieces of silver from each of them if she can find out what Samson’s weakness is.

It’s never explicitly stated that Delilah is a Philistine, by the way – as Samson’s other dalliances have been. We know only that he met her in the valley of Sorek – which, according to my study Bible, “led into the north end of the Philistine plain” (p.315). She is also, obviously, in cahoots with the Philistine elders.

Delilah, who is subtle and sly with the feminine wiles of a Biblical Mata Hari, asks: “Please tell me wherein your great strength lies, and how you might be bound, that one could subdue you” (Judges 16:6).

Well, at least she said ‘please.’

Samson somehow figures out that it may be a trick, so he lies to her. He tells her that if he is bound with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, he will become weak. The Philistine lords give Delilah seven bowstrings and lie in ambush while she binds Samson (presumably while he sleeps). To test the bindings, she yells out a warning and Samson easily snaps the bowstrings.

Delilah reproaches Samson: “Behold, you have mocked me, and told me lies; please tell me how you might be bound” (Judges 16:10). This time, Samson says that if he is bound with new ropes that have never been used, he will lose his strength. Of course, this was a lie too and he easily snaps his bindings.

The third time she asks, Samson tells her that she must weave “the seven locks of my head” (Judges 16:13) with a loom to drain his strength. (Rastafari, who try to follow the Nazirite rules of Numbers 6, interpret this reference to “seven locks” as meaning dreadlocks.) Predictably, when Delilah yells her warning, Samson pulls easily away from the loom.

Samson and Delilah, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1609

Samson and Delilah, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1609

Finally, she pulls out the big guns: “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me?” (Judges 16:15), just as Samson’s unnamed bride said in Judges 14:16. For all his strength, Samson is a sucker for emotional manipulation, so he finally tells Delilah the secret of his hair.

If you were a child in the ’80s, you might have thought – as I did – of the Heartless Giant story from The Storyteller. In it, a young boy must defeat a giant who cannot be killed because he has hidden his heart. And so every day, the boy asks the giant where his heart is kept until, finally, the giant reveals the location (though in that story, the giant’s motive makes a bit more sense – the boy is clever and tricks the giant into thinking that he’s on his side). The big difference between the two stories is that, here, the giant is the Good Guy.

With his secret finally in her hands, Delilah has Samson fall asleep on her knee, and he does it because he’s Samson and he’s always found thinking hard when it comes to women. In Sunday School, Delilah then cuts Samson’s hair. Here, though, she has some guy come in and do it for some reason. It’s an odd detail – why can’t she do it herself? Would it be too much like Samson is defeated by a woman to have her be the one cutting his hair?

Regardless, when she wakes him, he doesn’t realize that “the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20) and tries to break himself free, only then to realize just how fickle his God’s affections are. The Philistines rush in and gauge out his eyes, putting him in bronze fetters and then make him grind at the mill in prison. But unbeknownst to them, hair grows back…

The fall

The Philistine lords have gathered to offer a sacrifice to Dagon in thanks for allowing them to capture their arch-nemesis. Dagon, according to my study Bible, “was an ancient Semitic deity whose cult had been adopted by the Philistines after their settlement in the land” (p.316). In their thanks, they describe Samson as “the ravager of our country, who has slain many of us” (Judges 16:24). I wonder if Samson ever had one of Mitchell & Webb’s “Are we the baddies?” moments.

As part of their celebrations, they decide to have Samson “make sport for us” (Judges 16:25). It’s unclear to me what this means. Abbie at Better than Esdras reads it as making him fight in deathmatches. In my own reading, I interpreted it as putting him on display, perhaps with intention of pelting him with rotten vegetables.

In a stunning feat of architecture, the Philistines have managed to construct a building large enough for 3,000 people to be sitting on the roof, yet it is entirely supported by two pillars close enough together that one man can touch both at the same time. Further, a man standing between these two pillars is visible to the 3,000 on the roof. It’s practically an eight wonder of the world for sheer goofiness.

Samson, now blind, is led by a boy holding his hand to his spot between the two pillars. His hair now grown, he prays to God to grant him the strength to avenge one of his two eyes (perhaps he never much liked the other one). It’s very clear that this great final exploit, as all his others have been, is completely personal. He was not raised by God to deliver Israel from the Philistines, no matter what the editor might claim.

Samson has his guide-boy places his hands on the pillars and, his strength now renewed, pushes them apart – knowing that he will die too – to kill the Philistines. “So the dead whom he slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during his life” (Judges 16:30).

His brothers and other members of his family (once his mother’s womb opened, it was apparently left open) collected his body and buried him in the tomb of his father, between Zorah and Eshtaol.

Samson’s story closes by telling us that “he had judged Israel twenty years” (Judges 16:31), a repetition of Judges 15:20. He did not, as Brant points out on Both Saint and Cynic, get “his people out from under the oppressive thumb of the Philistines.” Throughout, his motivations and exploits have been personal.