The Bible—Episode 2: Homeland

March 11, 2013

In my quest for enrichment material to aid my Bible teaching, I am watching with interest a dramatic rendition of the Bible in ten hours of television. The second installment in History Channel’s five-part miniseries The Bible covers the period in Israel’s history from the conquest of Jericho (from the book of Joshua) through King David’s later reign (through 2 Samuel 12). We witness in vivid and violent detail four main chapters in Israel’s life:

  1. Conquest of Jericho (the two Israelite spies, Rahab’s help and redemption, the fall of Jericho’s walls, the taking of the city)

  2. Period of the Judges (the Philistine threat, Samson’s rise in resistance, Delilah’s role in Samson’s demise)

  3. The Era of Kings (the people looking to Samuel for a king, the anointing of Saul, Saul’s disobedience and the consequences, the rise of David and his friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan, David as a loyal king-in-waiting ministering to Saul, Saul’s paranoia and jealousy, Saul’s demise at his own hand after Jonathan’s fall in battle).

  4. David’s ascension to the throne of Israel (victory over Goliath, short glimpse into his years-long success, the capture of Jerusalem, the encounter with Bathsheba, the cover-up including Uriah’s murder, Nathan’s rebuke, the birth of Solomon, the postponement of temple building to Solomon’s reign).

Out of necessity, the storytelling simplifies and condenses a complicated biblical narrative, but the movie’s interpretation is generally faithful to the overall arc of the Bible stories even while it leaves a lot of material out. Continuity is provided by voiceover narrations, which are impressive as summary and theological commentary this week—brief but frequent and sufficient.

The writers are using a couple of devices that fall into the “poetic license” category. One is the appearance of women—most notably in this episode the mother of Samson—who humanize the story and interpret a range of emotions in response to the unfolding drama. The other is the casting, which freely employs actors of different races to portray key figures. Samson, for instance, is black even though the elders of Israel are Caucasian. The Philistines are white and somewhat European looking (which is of no consequence, because the origin of the Philistines remains a history-mystery). I haven’t found any clue in the biblical text to explain the casting choice for Samson. It does not bother me, though I have read a little chatter on the subject in cyberspace. The theater companies in my area (San Francisco Bay) have an “open casting” policy, so the practice of “color-blind” assignments is familiar to me. But I would be interested to know if there is some message or rationale in the choice the cast directors made here.

The chaotic period of the judges conveys a characteristic of the time and place that is often underestimated by the casual Bible reader. When the Israelites invaded from the east and began their conquest of the promised land, they entered territory held by many pagan tribes and peoples, most notably the Canaanites (subdivided by city) and the sea-people, the Philistines. I thought this episode brought this feature out very well. Scholars and archeologists are finding evidence that the Chosen were surrounded by pagans, including the Philistine Dagon worshippers to the west, for most of their existence. This situation put constant pressure on Israel’s religious sensibilities and remained an ongoing source of temptation and an alluring alternative to Yahweh’s ways.  This will be very important to the story in later chapters.

Meanwhile, I am impressed with the way the program has captured details from the biblical text that I had previously overlooked in my reading. My favorite example in this episode is David’s approach to Jerusalem through an underground water tunnel (no, it can’t be “Hezekiah’s tunnel,” which doesn’t appear in the Bible until years later). But look! There it is in 2 Samuel 5:4ff:

The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land . . . David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack [them].” . . . David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David.

Such accuracy of detail in this instance is amusing to me, in light of the fact that another detail in the conquest of Jericho was so “off.” According to the Scriptures, Rahab was given a red cord to hang from the window so the Israelites could see from outside the city where she was in order to preserve her life. But in the TV version, she hangs it on her door post inside the city walls, where it could be seen only by the fighters moving from apartment to apartment—reminiscent of the Passover perhaps, but not precisely in the text. Poetic license, theological commentary, or story simplification? You decide.

I had also under-appreciated the “balance of power” between kings of Israel and Israel’s prophets, a theme that comes up twice in this episode with the depiction of Saul’s accountability to Samuel and David’s spiritual ballast in Nathan. In Saul’s case, the line was crossed when he impatiently took matters into his own hands and offered a sacrifice in preparation for battle, and did not wait for Samuel to get there to do it. In David’s case, the warnings and rebukes of Nathan were God’s judgment upon his sins of adultery and murder. But the word from the prophet that David would not be the king to build the temple came through loud and clear.

This interplay between king and prophet highlights an ongoing theme of the series. Tomorrow I will finish this review by reflecting on the interaction between God and his people in this time period, determine how “the voice of God” comes through, and make an assessment of the episode’s likelihood to inspire faith. There will be some lessons for us, not only as Presbyterians, but as those representing the Word of God to the unchurched and biblically unfamiliar.


5 Responses to “The Bible—Episode 2: Homeland”

    • I thought they did a pretty good job considering all they were trying to cram into this two hours. I’m pretty sure that watching this again on DVD will make a lot more sense than this first exposure. I was disappointed that Rahab wasn’t depicted as the heroine she is – a missed opportunity. And I wondered about Samson’s casting too – but if communicating the message is more important than the detail, then I think casting him as a black man in the midst of a mostly-white cast of Hebrews communicates one of the Philistines’ stated objections to “Israel’s” involvement with “their women.” In today’s political climate I think most people tend to understand Israel as a political entity rather than a race. It is a visual medium after all and unfortunately that message is more easily conveyed in terms of racism. On the other hand, we have all these British and Irish accents – Babel? 🙂

  1. Neil D. Cowling Says:

    One scene that was an enormous disappointment to me was that of the anointing of David by Samuel. Why not follow the text more closely with the lineup of the sons of Jesse with the whispered rejection of all the sons in favor of the youngest, David? Instead we get this chance encounter of David out with his sheep. The producers missed a chance to make the theopolitical point that the passage of power does not go to the eldest evident in the stories of the patriarchs and which continues even today. The political way of primogeniture, so apparent in monarchies throughout human history, is not God’s way. The point could have been made silently just by including a few of the other sons, all older, who impressed Samuel: “When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’”. and “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him IN THE PRESENCE OF HIS BROTHERS; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” 1 Samuel 16. .

    • revmary Says:

      I agree, Neil! Some of these omissions make me wonder “Why?” Is it simplified because the writers don’t think the audience can handle too many details? Because they deem those details irrelevant to the story? Or it’s too expensive to produce? In this case, David’s context would have added so much . . . thanks for bringing that out. —Mary

  2. Gwen Brown Says:

    Hi Mary, et al., I agree loss because of no brothers with David, I was disappointed with not using at least part of David’s actual & amazing speech to Goliath….I Samuel 17:45-47 ” But my biggest disappointment came with Nathan rebuking David (and where was the most potent parable in scripture?) and David NOT repenting. He simply accepted the death of the son after he’d prayed for his life. Then Nathan told him to be “comforted by Bathsheba and and God will give you another son, Solomon.” Solomon is a wonderful example of forgiveness after repentance and moving on. I am sorry they opted out of that. Today I was thinking, if no one had read the Bible and this was their first exposure to the stories and Lord, what must they be thinking? Gwen

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