“The Bible”—All About the Promise

March 4, 2013

Last night’s opening installment of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible on the History Channel was alternately inspiring and curious. For a skeptic like me, who believes that commercial television has a poor track record of rendering of the Scriptures faithfully, there were many pleasant surprises in this production. A few missteps, too, but all in all I give it a positive rating while observing with interest some of the editorial choices.

It is the making of those choices that interests me as a Christian educator and Presbyterian teaching pastor. If I were to design a curriculum to unveil “The Bible” in ten hours, what would I include and what would I leave out? What a torture to even think about it! So this review must begin with an affirmation that two Christians in Hollywood would want to take a stab at it at all, with all the risks that undoubtedly entailed.

Three main characters are presented in the episode entitled “Beginnings”: Noah, Abraham, and Moses. The story starts with Noah in the ark with his family and all those animals in close quarters. As the ride get rough, he encourages his family with the telling of the creation story. The photography and effects here were quite good and awe-inspiring. The description of the Fall and degradation of humanity is swift, but it gets the point across that human depravity had necessitated a rescue of one righteous family and a restart after the flood.

The narrator gives an introduction and transition into the story of Abraham as “the chance to restore the relationship between God and humanity.” The Bible’s characters “help define who we are, the choices we make, how we live and how we love, and how we struggle and overcome.” Throughout this narrative, scenes from Jesus’ life are shown and quotations from his teaching are heard. This little piece suggested to me that the overarching theme of the series is the central role of Jesus Christ in the Bible’s message. I for one appreciate that theology and the hint it provides to the rest of the story.

The second main character is introduced: Abraham hears the word of the Lord. The character of God is rendered in a young male voice, nothing particularly dramatic but certainly winsome: an attempt, I am sure, to disassociate from the “old man with a flowing white beard, sitting on a great cloud” image some may carry of God. Throughout the episode, we can appreciate that no visual rendering of God is offered, ever, and this is a good thing. The challenge it poses, of course, is in how to present the majesty, power, and tenderness of God by audio alone. The voice we hear never thunders, though there is plenty of thunder and lightning at times; the voice’s messages are generally brief, and the hearer is left to interpret the full meaning. Sounds a lot like real life to me, and it certainly does not contradict the Scripture’s account during this period.

A lot of ground is covered in the context of Abraham’s migration to Canaan: convincing Lot and his wife to come along, the separation of ways when grazing land became too small for both families, the Sodom tragedy, Hagar and Ishmael (Sarah’s Plan B in the face of her barrenness), the sacrifice of Isaac, and the rescue of Lot’s people from the four invading kings. We see a bit of Abraham’s personal struggle, a lot of Sarah’s, and generally a set of humanized characters doing the best they can with a promise.

The word “promise” is heard a lot, and will be heard throughout this episode, but the word “covenant” is never uttered as far as I can remember, though in the biblical narrative, the covenant God makes with Abraham is reiterated three times. And there is no circumcision; I guess I can understand that for a television show airing on a family night, but it is a big omission.

Checking facts, I was a bit dismayed by the interpretation of the separation of Lot and Abraham. The movie depicts this as an action initiated by Lot (and his ever skeptical wife; she definitely “has issues”) and we never get to hear Abraham’s gracious offer out of friendship and servanthood (Genesis 13:8ff). A lot more airtime is given to this family dynamic than it deserves, in my estimation, particularly in light of what is left out in the traverse to the next section of the episode.

We hear nothing more of Isaac, nor anything substantive about Jacob and his twelve sons. Most particularly, we never even hear the name Joseph, whose story in Genesis reaches over thirteen chapters and is the literary link to the Hebrews’ migration to Egypt. I would much rather have spent some time in the Joseph story, in exchange for less of Lot.

Fast forward, then, to the time of Moses, whom we meet in adulthood just as God spooks him with the (huge) burning bush. There are flashbacks to his rescue from the Nile and his upbringing in Pharaoh’s household. My initial impression was that Moses does not show the expected fear, awe, or respect of God speaking to him in the burning bush; upon a second review I am willing to modify that assessment somewhat. But throughout the unfolding drama, never once do we get any of the Moses-the-hothead character the Scripture certainly embraces; nor do we ever see any reluctance, or stutter, or any of the other causes for his push-back of God in Exodus 3-4. While one can be inspired by his faith, it seems to have come a little too easily.

The depiction of his interaction with Pharaoh and the ten plagues was brilliant and disgusting, as it should be. The Passover was well done, especially the blood on the doorframes, though we never see the meal or the unleavened bread. The events leading up to the parting of the Red Sea make sense and the suspense builds. But in the midst of the chaos, there is no pillar of cloud or pillar of fire to stand between the Israelites and the Egyptians in pursuit. A fine point, I know; but those pillars were the signs of God’s presence with the people. So we only get a verbal affirmation, “God is with us.” A missed opportunity, in my opinion.

The story advances to Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Joshua meets him on the hillside as Moses returns, but there is no notice given that the Golden Calf is the center of Hebrew frivolities and debauchery. The story stops there, and fast forwards to forty years later and the two spies who check out Jericho before they enter the Land. This is where the episode ends.

Just a few facts to dispute—not nearly as bad as I might have expected:

1. Mention that Moses’ first encounter with Yahweh was at Mount Sinai, the location of the burning bush and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Whether the two sites are one and the same is uncertain. The Bible says Moses exited to Midian, which is understood to be parts of both Sinai and Arabia that flank the eastern arm of the Red Sea. No possible site for Mount Sinai rests in that area, but Exodus 3:1 could refer to Sinai if you take Horeb as an alternate name for Sinai. The connection caught my attention, but I’m still not sure about it. Thanks to my early readers of this post for pointing out the possible link I had missed.

2.  The number of Hebrews who left Egypt through the Red Sea is stated as 600,000 in Exodus 12:37, but the translation as “thousands” of the Hebrew word eleph is in dispute. In any case, that crowd awaiting its crossing of the Sea seemed awfully small to me; by the most conservative estimates, there should have been at least 100,000. A small point, I know.

3. We grant poetic license to the dramatic scene in which Abraham and Isaac hike up the hill for the sacrifice. No servants or donkeys as mentioned in the Scripture, and the depiction of Sarah panicking as she figures out Abraham must have gone out to sacrifice Isaac is nowhere in the text, of course. But it makes for a tearful and thankful reunion when it is all over.

So now, what do I think about the value of this production in the realm of faith? I am deeply grateful that no skepticism about God’s nature or intentions creeps into the narrative. There are many expressions of trust in God, by the principals, in the face of plenty of human hostility and/or doubt. God is not second-guessed, and the witness of God’s power is certainly there. I believe that the narrative is headed in the right direction and that it has great potential for building up faith. Whether it will instill new faith in the curious, I am not sure, simply because the holes in the narrative need to be explained somehow. But overall, we have a good start that focuses on two themes: “God will fulfill his promises, and God is with us.” This is perhaps the golden thread that will weave through the entire series, culminating in Jesus Christ. We can hope.


7 Responses to ““The Bible”—All About the Promise”

  1. Alan Harrell Says:

    I don’t have access to the History Channel, so will have to wait for a low-priced DVD of the series to see it for myself. I thank you for your review of the first episode. I feel much less apprehensive than before. However, I must dispute your comment about the Burning Bush location – Scripture locates this experience at “Mt. Horeb, the mountain of God” (Exodus 3:1), another name for Sinai.

    I read your blog faithfully, since I attend a church that is almost evenly divided on the question of whether to ordain gays. I fall mostly on the conservative side, but think it should not be such a big issue. After all, we ordain divorcees and people who commit adultery and other sins.

    • revmary Says:

      Thanks, Alan, for the word about Sinai/Horeb. Another reader made the same connection, so I have corrected the post to reflect the possibility that the two names refer to the same place.

  2. Michelle Nichols Says:

    Excellent summary, and it’s interesting that you mentioned several things my husband and I also discussed after watching last night. I think the thing I am sad to see missing in this series (so far at least) is Israel’s sin. The 40 years in the desert, Moses not entering the promised land due to his disobedience, etc. are completely undiscussed. At the risk of being negative, our sin is the reason we need a Savior, and skipping over Israel’s disobedience is kind of a key point to the big story on multiple levels. My mind immediately went to ways the narrator could have spoken about those 40 years without having to show them…

    I am looking forward to the coming installments, and there will be ample opportunity to see if sin/disobedience is skipped again (a victim of the “I’m ok, you’re ok” culture?) or addressed (thank you Kings and Chronicles). Overall I’m glad to see the series on mainstream TV!

  3. Steven Niccolls Says:

    I, like Michelle, had many of the same critiques as you did. My two big misses (like you pointed out) that they did not portray Moses’ reluctance at the Burning Bush and I did not like the fact they portrayed Isaac as a younger boy during the sacrifice. Isaac was a late teen ager and could have easily overpowered Abraham, yet portraying Isaac as a younger boy misses that point.
    I do like the fact God as using “the still small voice” to communicate.

  4. Harry Slye Says:

    Dear Mary,

    Thanks for you good post below. I made copies for the 40 members of the Bible study I teach every Sunday morning at Memorial Drive PC here in Houston.

    You have been kind in your observations on the first part aired last night and again tonight. And you have called attention to some deficiencies that may end up leaving the work less than memorable. I certainly agree that they needed a lot less of Lot and a lot more of Joseph and especially the reunion of the brothers in Egypt. The drama in Gen 50:15-21 is profound as you know. How profound the tears of shame and repentance of the brothers and the tears of grace of Joseph, and especially the significance of the words he says, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” Far more important than the time spent on Lot.

    In the little I have seen so far, Downey and Burnett are emphasizing the special effects and the crashing action over the power of the drama between God and the individuals with whom he speaks to the whole human family. I’m afraid the acting is thin and the writing and directing are equally deficient in my opinion.

    After 50 years in ministry I am greatly enjoying the experience of walking through all four Gospels together with about 45 people, including elders, who are learning to go slow enough to really see and really hear the depth of the remarkable stories of God with us – in flesh. Hollywood’s habits would never trust the spiritual power of the Word and may not truly understand it anyway. Just because you have experience with Survivor scripts and tricks doesn’t mean you are ready to present the Word of God.

    Thank you again for your service to the rest of us.


    Harry Slye

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