The Bible—Episode Three Disappoints

March 18, 2013

Continuing our examination of the History Channel’s five-part series The Bible, the third episode that aired last night offered highs and lows, and overall I was disappointed. Serious factual errors marred the Exile narrative, and after studying 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Jeremiah and Daniel again today I have finally sorted out the problems. I understand the difficult choices that must be made in order to condense the story, but the episode entitled “Hope” gave wrong information. So, in order to equip my friends hoping to use the material for a Sunday school class, I offer my comments and corrections.

The period covered by this episode starts with the reign of the last king of Judah, Zedekiah, whose story is found in 2 Kings 24:15–25:7. It concludes with Jesus’ call to the fisherman Peter to follow him and “change the world.” Yikes! This is a span of about 600 years, much of which is called the “Intertestamental Period” (the four hundred years between the last word in the Old Testament and the opening of the New in approximately 4 BC).

The first segment depicting the fall of Jerusalem at the hand of Nebuchadnezzar and the exile was generally all right factually. It is the tale-end of a bitter and violent history, ending with the monarchy of Zedekiah.  The serious problems with chronology begin with the second segment featuring Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar (Neb) as the central characters.

In the left column, I have listed the events as they occurred in the show. On the right are the events in the order given in Scripture.

Movie version

Biblical Chronology

Daniel works in Neb’s court as a visionary.

Neb’s dream about the tall statue of a man

Daniel’s claim, “No one but God can read your mind.”

 

 

 

 

Demand that all worship a statue of Neb

Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah refuse

Throws them into the fiery furnace.

They scream in terror; the Lord appears and they do not burn.

 

[Narration about the compilation of the OT during Exile]

Neb is insane; he cannot let the Israelites go.

 

 

 

 

Cyrus from Persia is announced as the new ruler.

Satraps challenge Cyrus to test the Hebrews’ loyalty to him. “No prayer for 30 days.”

Daniel prays, is taken into custody, and thrown to the lions

God protects him, he is not devoured.

 

 

As a faith response, Cyrus says “Your God is real. I will let you return to Jerusalem.”

Daniel’s prediction of the great beast with iron teeth; the son of man come on the clouds . . .

Daniel works in Neb’s court (Daniel 1:17-21)

Neb’s Dream #1—Tall statue of man (Dan. 2:31-45).

Neb’s own seers (not Daniel) protest, “No one but the gods can read your mind” (Dan. 1:11).

Daniel says, “I’ll do it. No man can explain the king’s mysteries, but God in heaven can” (Dan. 2:27).

Daniel rewarded with great responsibility in royal court (2:48f).

Neb made an image of gold and demanded all worship it (3:1-6).

Han, Mish and Az remain standing.

Neb is furious, and throws them into the furnace (3:7ff). But they do not burn and a fourth figure is seen with them.

Neb’s Dream #2—The Tree

Daniel interprets it, and it comes true

Neb goes mad (4:28-33),

But comes to his senses and acknowledges God, sanity restored (4:36). End of Neb’s story.

Enter Belshazzar, writing on the wall, Daniel’s interpretation comes true, exit Belshazzar (Dan. 5).

Enter Darius, new Babylonian king (Dan. 6).

Demands that prayer cease for 30 days (Dan. 6:6-9)

Daniel refuses, is thrown in with the lions (Dan. 6:10-20).

But God intervened and saved Daniel (Dan. 6:21-22).

Darius praised God and favored Daniel (Dan. 6:24-28).

Cyrus came from Persia to overcome the Babylonians. The Lord “moved the heart of Cyrus the king to” let the Israelites return to their homeland with all the plundered stuff (2 Chron 36:22-23)

 So how was this narrative supposed to go?

  1. Nebuchadnezzar did go insane, but it was temporary until he acknowledged the hand of almighty God. He was restored to health and wealth (Daniel 4:36). [factual error]

  2. Neb was followed by Belshazzar, for whom Daniel interpreted the handwriting on the wall. [This particular omission is excusable under the “poetic license and condensation” rule.]

  3. Belshazzar was followed by Darius, who is the Babylonian dictator forbidding prayer and throwing Daniel into the lion’s den. [factual error and chronological misplacement]

  4. Cyrus, the Persian, came into power and was moved by God “out of the blue” according to 2 Chronicles 36, to let the Israelites go back to their homeland. Cyrus’ decree is not based on any particular “logical” motive, like witnessing the miracles of deliverance. This is an important point, because through it, God is demonstrating that history itself, under God’s sovereignty, is the judgment of God, and what God takes away from Israel at the hands of the Babylonians he restores through the agency of the Persians.

  5. So, to be clear, Cyrus was not the king who prohibited praying. Such an obvious big error calls into question the research of the production team.

Having said all that, there were two moments in these segments that were moving and faith building for me: first, the gentle perseverance of Jeremiah and the consistency of his message. This was no mad man, and popularity did not dictate his content; and second, the appearance of God in the fiery furnace. The calm and wonder it elicited was somewhat negated by the panicked screams of the three Hebrew men, which I felt to be inconsistent with the biblical narrative. In Daniel 3, they show great poise heading into the furnace, and the story does not keep us in suspense about the arrival of the fourth figure. So I think there was a bit more drama here than the biblical text calls for. Nevertheless, when God shows up, everything changes!

And may I just say, it was cheesy to interrupt Daniel’s encounter with the lions right at the moment one expected his demise, and cut to commercials. Chalk that up to commercial television, an additional disappointment.

I’ve gone way over my self-imposed word limit here, so I will reserve the rest of my comments for next time. In my follow-up post I will evaluate the bridge between Old and New Testament and the introduction of Jesus.

 

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6 Responses to “The Bible—Episode Three Disappoints”

  1. Eric Harvey Says:

    Hi Mary,

    To defend the research of the production team, I think they were trying to strike a balance between the biblical chronology and chronologies known from Babylonian, Persian, and Greek sources. Nebuchadnezzar II ruled from 605-562. Nabonidus took the throne in 556, the fourth king after Nebuchadnezzar. He moved to the desert and became a hermit to devote himself to the moon-god Sin, and made Belshazzar co-regent in his absence. He took back over when the Persians encroached, in order to defend Babylon. Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon (peacefully, it seems) in 539. Darius did not become king of Babylonia until 522, after the reigns of Cambyses II and Bardiyah. The Book of Daniel identifies Darius as a Mede, but there are no other sources that identify any Mede named Darius (the last king of the Medes before they were conquered by the Persians was Astyages, who was deposed in 549). The Medes never ruled Babylonia; their control was over Assyria, in the north.

    So it seems the biblical author confused his chronology, cutting out Nabonidus (and the three kings before him) and putting Darius in between Belshazzar and Cyrus. From your description (I haven’t watched the series yet) the movie crew left out everyone between Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus, but at least did not misplace Darius in history.

    I’ll have to make some time to watch this series and see how it is!

    • revmary Says:

      Hello Eric! Thank you for taking the time to explain this scholarly tension—see how practical your PhD studies have become all of a sudden! I had no idea this discrepancy existed. It is a bit confusing to me, though, that the screenwriters would use extra-biblical sources to this degree for a series on “The Bible.” I mean, every Sunday school kid is going to say, “It was Darius, stupid!”

      • Eric Harvey Says:

        Glad to help! Yeah, there’s definitely an argument for staying true to the literature when you’re adapting literature. You’ll notice they’re not changing every detail, too—they use the name Nebuchadnezzar (the Hebrew-ized version) instead of Nabû-kudurri-utsur (his name in Babylonian). So they’re not even being consistent!

  2. Harry Slye Says:

    Dear Mary,

    Thanks again for your observations on this series. Your detailed comparisons between the text and the movie are very helpful and important for us to pass on to others. My wife and I watched the portion last night that portrayed the baptism and temptation of Jesus, and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with the calling of Peter and the great catch of fish. We finally turned it off because the script and character interpretations departed too much from the text of the Gospels.

    If Downey and Burnett were in control of the making of this then they do not understand what was actually going on in most events. Therefore, they leave out key moments of dialogue in the text and they cannot portray the characters well enough. They are biased toward violence in nature and people. Their Catholic viewpoint became apparent with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It is so biased toward Simon Peter that Andrew and James and John are erased from the calling of the first disciples. Only Simon is shown in the boat and Jesus calls only him to become a fisher of men and “change the world.” The writers of the film did not recognize the importance of Peter’s exclamation, “Depart from me LORD, for I am a sinful man.” As you know, that makes his calling all the more a sign of the grace of God in the Word become flesh. But all four were called and all four left their boats and nets and families to follow Jesus. Would that have added any time to the film?

    What is the sense of telling the key stories of the Bible if you are going to rob them of the glory of God. We should ask ourselves whether this is a form of taking the Lord’s name in vain, especially after 2000 years of listening to his written Word with the light of God the Son and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

    Harry Slye

    Katy, Texas

    • revmary Says:

      Thank you, Harry…I will get to Part II of Episode Three in my next post. You raise an interesting point, though, about the Catholicism of the producers (much like we did when Mel Gibson directed -The Passion of the Christ-). Let’s see how that plays out in Episode Four.

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