As long as ten hours may seem for a movie, when you consider the scope of the Bible, it’s a pretty short span of time. Five hours each for the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is roughly a thousand pages of tiny print. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is about 300 pages of regular print. The Old Testament was here covered in five hours; the first 100 pages of The Hobbit came out as a three hour movie at Christmas. Something is bound to be left out.
This means it’s fully to be expected that the writers/producers of “The Bible” would have to be very selective in the material they focus on.
So what choices do you make?
A Few Thoughts on the Key Elements in the OT
There are certain key figures in the Old Testament who are unavoidable because of the significance given them in the New Testament as well as their ubiquity in the Old Testament. At least four people fall into this category: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David. Of those, Abraham and David are given special place in the gospel story (Abraham as the one to whom God made the promise that anchors the whole Bible and David as the great king/man after God’s own heart/terrible sinner/ancestor of Jesus); Jacob is the father of the whole family of Israel; and Moses as the great prophet and giver of the Law casts a huge shadow over the whole New Testament, not to mention that he led the people of Israel when God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. We could name other people and events, of course, but these would be a place to start.
And there’s no question that Genesis 1-3, with its story of the creation of the world and people as well as the turn away from God in sin at the garden (usually referred to as the fall), is of enormous importance for our understanding of God’s intentions for the world and for people as well as for diagnosing our basic problem of sin.
In addition, the problem of evil and God’s provision in the midst of human error, pride, and/or suffering is a major theme in the Old Testament. Here we might think of the lengthy, novel-like story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 37-50, the book of Job, the laments in the Psalms, and little books like Esther and Ruth.
I will also mention in passing here the ongoing struggle of the people in obeying God, which is the reason for the ministry of most if not all of the prophets (and connects to the crucial story of the exile), but I will address this struggle at greater length in a later post about the portrayal of the people of God in the mini-series.
What Happens in the Mini-Series?
So what choices does the mini-series reflect?
As I said yesterday, my comments are based solely on the first two hours of the show. The first two hours covers roughly the first five books of the Bible. At the end of the second hour, Joshua (Moses’ successor as the leader of the Israelites) is about to begin leading the people into the Promised Land. By that point we’ve covered almost all (except David) of the absolutely key figures and have seen examples of the kinds of themes and struggles that fill out the New Testament.
The movie opens with a particularly vivid and captivating scene during the time of the flood (Genesis 6-9), in which Noah retells the story of humanity’s disobedience to his family members who are on the boat with him. While this is a reasonably effective device, I’m afraid that it means we are left with no hint about God’s good intention for his creation and the loving relation (with God, each other, and the rest of creation) for which he made people. From the very beginning, a viewer might be forgiven for thinking of God as primarily angry and frustrated, if not cruel.
In the most bizarre choice of the first two hours, the series spends a full twenty minutes dealing with the capture and rescue of Abra(ha)m’s nephew Lot, which in the Bible takes up only half of a chapter (Genesis 14). It’s hard to resist the suspicion that this biblical episode was highlighted because of its potential as a heroic battle sequence (but that’s for the next post, on violence in the series).
Abraham himself is given relatively thorough treatment, but we get hardly any sense at all that most of his story is about his struggle to believe God’s promise: one moment he believes, the next he falters and tries to make his own way. Here Abraham is a combination of a warrior, an eccentric adventurer, and a passive husband. While those are certainly features of his characterization in Scripture, they are not the focus; the writers seem to have missed the point. The scenes involving the sacrifice of Isaac, while not perfect, are about as well done as anything in the first hour.
At the end of the first hour, the entire life of Jacob and the whole long story of Joseph are treated… with about a twenty second voice-over! This is frankly inexcusable. Why spend twenty minutes with Lot, who is finally a minor figure in the Bible, and deal with these two major characters with a passing nod? I admit there is no way Joseph could have been treated at length, but still… Lot is the one who takes these patriarchs’ place?
The second hour is less of a problem when it comes to the writers’ narrative decisions. After all, the story of the Exodus is worth a full hour: this is the Old Testament’s great story of deliverance. But even here, why is time spent on a sibling rivalry between Moses and the Pharaoh’s son Ramses? The whole idea of this owes its existence to such movies as The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt: is the average viewer even aware that there is nothing in the Bible that even hints at this happening? It might be understandable to forgive movies like the ones just mentioned for playing up this possibility, but this series is called “The Bible”… strange.
To be continued…