Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Bible, Part 3

Rembrandt's Jeremiah
The third instalment of The Bible series on TV was on last night. It was just a single episode (#5) and covered the fall of Jerusalem and a few stories from the life of Daniel. This time, I am happy to say, I agreed with the filmmakers' interpretation.

I liked the way that they had a relatively unknown Bible character (Zedekiah) and how they had Jeremiah in the story as well. Although he does not appear in the Book of Kings, we see from the Book of Jeremiah that he was an important figure in the last days of Jerusalem.

They included the story of Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar's dream (Daniel 2), Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), and Daniel in the lions' den (Daniel 6). I was disappointed with Nebuchadnezzar's response to Daniel's interpretation of his dream. He says something like "You're a brave man, I value that; you will serve me." In the Bible, however, it says that he "fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him" (Daniel 2:46).

Donald Wiseman (1918 – 2010)
When we come to the story of Daniel in the lions' den, the TV series has Cyrus as the king, instead of Darius. This website lists this as one of the inaccuracies of the series, but in fact they are – correctly in my opinion – identifying Darius and Cyrus. This is following a suggestion first offered by Donald Wiseman in 1957, and it comes from a particular interpretation of Daniel 6:28. The Hebrew word usually translated "and" can also mean "namely" or "that is" – "So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius – that is, the reign of Cyrus the Persian." The identification of Darius and Cyrus indicates that Daniel had an important part to play in the return of the Jews to Palestine. It's great to see that this interpretation has now become somewhat mainstream.

I also appreciated how the episode was working hard to connect to the New Testament. It correctly construed Cyrus as a Messiah-figure (see Isaiah 45:1) and when he entered Babylon on a donkey, people throw palm fronds in his path, in subtle anticipating of Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The episode emphasises Daniel 2:44, which surely is one of the most significant prophecies in the Old Testament. And the fourth beast of Daniel 7 is (correctly) interpreted as the Roman empire, which enables the series to jump forward into the New Testament era.

Finally, I was interested to note that the episode also borrowed from the "Prayer of Azariah", appearing in the Septuagint version of Daniel, and included in the Apocrypha. I guess that's better than just making up one's own dialogue in telling these stories.

Read my reviews of Part 1 and Part 2

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Bible, Part 2

My Presbytery meeting finished early last night, and I was home in time to watch the next instalment of The Bible, which consisted of episodes 3 and 4. The story covered Joshua, Rahab and Jericho, then skipped to Samson, and then skipped again to Samuel as an old man, when Israel asked him for a king. Saul was portrayed particularly well, I thought.

There is another gratuitous battle scene in Jericho – as if the Bible didn't have enough – but I suppose it helped to explain why the spies were known to be in Jericho. I was glad they had the scene with the Commander of the Armies of Yahweh, but the TV series portrays him as merely angelic, whereas the text hints that it is God himself, since the one thing he says to Joshua is "Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy."

One annoying thing about the series is that it adopts a late date for the Exodus (c. 1250 BC) which means that it is 150 years from Joshua to Saul – whereas 1 Kings 6:1 says that it was 480 years from the Exodus to Solomon. One consequence of adopting the late date is that the period of the judges needs to be squashed, and it must be concluded that the judges were ruling at the same time. This has the effect of making the judges local heroes – something the series is explicit about. But it goes against the emphasis in the text on the judges "judging Israel" and not just particular tribes or localities.

Samson killing the Philistines, by Gustav Doré
The other thing that annoyed me was the interpretation of the word eleph. This is traditionally translated "thousand" as in "Samson found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, and put out his hand and took it, and with it he struck 1,000 men" (Judges 15:15). But some scholars, who find the large numbers in the Bible hard to accept, suggest that "eleph" means a military unit – something like a dozen men. The TV show follows this, and has Samson killing a dozen men with the jawbone of a donkey. Not only does this make the feat so much less spectacular, but Samson himself talks about the "heaps" of men he has killed. The strongest argument, however, against the "military unit" idea is that it means Gideon is only reducing his army from 400 to 300, instead of from 32,000 to 300. For a helpful discussion on this issue, see Barry Webb's new commentary on Judges, pages 71-74.

As for the popularity of the series, the phenomenal ratings have died down a bit – last night's episode had only 600,000 viewers. Or is that meant to be 600 × 12 = 7200?

Read my review of Part 1

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

So much is missing, but better than expected

Last night I watched the TV miniseries The Bible on channel Nine. This was a double episode, out of a series of ten.

Naturally, a series like this has to skip lots of stories. It starts with Noah, skips the Tower of Babel, focuses extensively on Abraham, skips Jacob and Joseph, and then focuses on Moses. Within the story of Abraham, it skips the wife-sister narratives, and focuses on the battle of Genesis 14, the destruction of Sodom, and the testing of Abraham in Genesis 22.

It raises the question, are we allowed to "fill in the gaps" – in imagination, teaching, or, in this case, on screen – when the Bible is silent? For example, I thought Lot's wife was really well portrayed. The Bible tells us almost nothing about her, and she does not speak at all, but from what we do know about her, (and how she is turned into a pillar of salt), we can build up an impression. Her portrayal in this series (with lines like "The future is in the city") was extremely plausible.

I thought the episode had a good introduction. It starts with Noah in the ark. What were the people doing all that time? The Bible doesn't say. The TV series has Noah telling the story of creation to his family. I see that this aspect has been criticised on the basis that the the creation account was not written until much later. However, I think it very likely that there was a strong oral tradition (particularly along the covenant line) of the creation story being passed down.

It is important to point out that this series is not particularly Christian. There is very little here with which a non-Christian Jew, for example, would disagree. There was, for example, no reference to the protoevangelium – the promise of the Messiah given in Genesis 3. However, when the three figures appear to Abraham, the scene is done very well – two show their faces, while one stays hidden. The hidden one would be the one who, according to the biblical text, is the LORD himself.

Tempesta's depiction of the battle is more faithful to the text.
I found the Battle of Siddim disappointing. According to the Bible, Abraham has an army of 318 men, and seems to fight a pitched battle. In this series, it's a stealth attack with a mere handful of men. (Was this due to a low budget?) The mysterious but important figure of Melchizedek is dropped altogether. And there is nothing here about about Abraham winning a battle on behalf of the kings of the land (even the king of Sodom!) In fact, the promise of Abraham being a blessing is missing, though offspring and land are emphasised. So "I will make you a father of many nations" becomes "I will make you a father of God's nation". If I can put it like this, the series is too Jewish. It doesn't have the universal scope of the promises that the biblical text exhibits.

The story of Sodom is toned down a bit, kind of the way you might tell it to children. But it means we have Sodom without the sodomy. There is no hint of homosexual rape, and Lot doesn't offer his daughters to the mob. (The daughters look very young anyway.)  The series has been criticised for its ninja angels, and although I like the idea of depicting angels as warriors, I would have though the Bible had enough action without needing to introduce more.

The depiction of Abraham's faith is rather disappointing. When God speaks to him, it is inaudible (unlike with Moses and the burning bush) and as a result Abraham seems somewhat mad. When Abraham is tested in the TV series, he says to Isaac, "The Lord will provide a sacrifice, my son." That is a significant departure from the biblical text of Genesis 22, which has "a lamb for the sacrifice". This change makes the viewer think that Abraham doesn't really believe God will rescue Isaac.

Of course, we need the New Testament to fully understand this story. Hebrews 11 says that Abraham "considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back." B. B. Warfield says that the Old Testament is like a richly furnished but dimly lit room – we need the light of the New Testament to illuminate it.

In this picture Pharaoh is drowned, but the Bible doesn't say that.
Even I learned something knew while watching it. I have to admit that it only occurred to me while watching the show that the (non-)sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis is a prefigurement of the Death of the Firstborn in Exodus. And I was surprised to see that, in the series, Pharaoh survived the crossing of the Red Sea, only to discover that the Bible is not totally clear on this point. It says that "Pharaoh drew near" (Exodus 14:10) that God "will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen" (v. 17), that "the Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, and his horsemen" (v. 23), and that "of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained" (v. 28). Similarly, Exodus 15:4 says "Pharaoh's chariots and his host he cast into the sea, and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea." This does rather make it seem that Pharaoh sent his army into the sea rather than going in himself. Psalm 136:15 says God "overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea", but that could refer to the military defeat rather than actual drowning.

This post obviously doesn't exhaust the possibilities of what can be said about this series. There are a few more inaccuracies that I haven't mentioned here. For a couple of other interesting blog posts on the series, see here and here.