Thursday, April 4, 2013

History Channel’s Brutal, Bloody “Bible”


History Channel’s Brutal, Bloody “Bible”

Last month, I taught an introductory session for adults on the biblical book of Joshua.  I informed the class about two things that they needed to know from the outset:  First, that this is probably the most important book in the entire Bible for understanding the landscape of religious extremism.

And second, that almost none of the events described in the book actually happened.

The next day, one of the students in the class came up to me and thanked me.

“I was so worried that the stories described there were true,” she confessed, “and I’m so glad that they’re not.”

I cautioned her that biblical critics and archaeologists are far from unanimous on the subject, but that evidence points to a far less brutal conquest, if there was any conquest at all.  That relieved her, because, truth be told, the faith-driven carnage described in Joshua compares distressingly to the most virulent jihadist or white supremacist scenarios.  And the ethnic cleansing showcased in the book has been used as proof text by radical Israeli rabbis anxious to prove God’s militaristic intent and stymie hopes for a two-state solution.

The book of Joshua is, hands down, the most brutal book in the Hebrew Bible, in contrast, say, to the books of Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job, parts of Genesis (the Joseph story), and a whole bunch of prophets, including Jonah.

Which is, in a nutshell, what bothers me about the highly praised, carnage-filled, ten hour, five-part mini-series, “The Bible,” whose heavenly ratings bested the major networks and rivaled even those of the hit series, “The Walking Dead.”

Here’s my gripe: Joshua and Samson are in “The Bible.”  Ruth and Deborah are not.

There is much to praise about the series (and I emphasize that I feel qualified only to evaluate the segments relating to what Christians call the “Old Testament,” which Jews call the Tanakh).   The cinematography is gorgeous, especially in High Definition.  Some scenes are truer to the original text than prior cinematic versions.  The Red Sea crossing, for instance, is twenty thousand leagues above Cecil B. DeMille’s, not only because of improved technology, but because, in this version, the Israelites actually get wet.  Exodus 14 speaks of them crossing  on land “in the midst of the sea,” and nowhere does the text state that there wasn’t at least some mist or mud involved.  So in “The Bible” they are walking through a driving rainstorm, while, in the less accurate “Ten Commandments,” they don’t even need windshield wipers.

But otherwise, this “Bible” is quite DeMillian, right down to its 1950’s “Mad Men” ethos, reflecting a time when men were men and women were walking blow up dolls, whose sole job was to tempt men into sin; this was an era when God sat high in the saddle and chose sides in every battle.  Nowhere in “The Bible” do we find God depicted as the still small voice that summoned Elijah, the nurturing gardener of Genesis chapter two, the lover of Song of Songs or the replenishing well of Miriam.

Where are real women, like Rebecca and Rachel – the ones who don’t bathe naked on the rooftop, offer poisoned apples to their mate or give unsolicited haircuts in bed?  Real women are nowhere to be found.  Not in this macho movie.

I can only assume that the filmmakers chose Old Testament stories based on their Christological significance (Daniel being a prime example, and Joshua too), rather than out of any desire to showcase the dazzling landscape of ancient Israelite experience and theological reflection.  But does that mean that the entire series had to send us back to Pleasantville?

Actually, Romneyville.

This is a Red State version of the Holy Scriptures, if there ever was one (and I’m not even referring to the curious resemblance between the actor playing Satan and President Obama).  A kinder, gentler, Blue State Bible would have looked very different, providing a more nuanced approach, one with a little less blood and gore (OK, a LOT less), less brutal conquest and more “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  And one would think that a so-called “History” Channel might have at least thrown a nod to real history, rather than accepting without so much as a shred of doubt the most literalist perspective on biblical events.

Maybe what’s needed is not a Blue State Bible, but a purple one.  “The Prince of Egypt” was a purple film, pleasing just about everyone and offending no one.  Moses even had a wife in that film.  And the fact that it was animated allowed the viewer to understand it as myth, as story, rather than as literal history.

I would have loved to have seen more diversity in the casting of “The Bible.”  True, one of the three angels to visit Abraham is Asian, but only in the most insulting, stereotypical sense.  He’s the Kung-Fu angel, who Bruce Lee’d half the population of Sodom into submission before you could say “pillar of salt.”

And angels, take off those hideous hoodies!

Then there is Samson, the one major Old Testament figure assigned to African American actor, but he appears less like an ancient gladiator than an offensive lineman for the Crimson Tide, protecting the quarterback’s blind side.  Samson is all brawn, no brain.  If you are going to aim for diversity, why not cast an African American as Moses?  Or Adam?  Adam and Eve as a mixed race couple would have been very interesting. But this is the 1950’s and “Loving vs.Virginia” wasn’t decided until 1967.

Had Deborah been “The Bible’s” Judge of Choice, her story would still have given the film plenty of bloodshed, but lots more intrigue.  The Deborah story is no less gory than Samson’s, but at least a woman is in charge – and is she ever!  And with female warriors, horses, oodles of mud and sliding chariots, the ratings potential would have been limitless.

Where is Joseph in this series?  Not pure enough, I suppose. Intermarried, with Egyptian kids. That didn’t happen in the ’50s.  And what about Jacob?  Was Jacob too much of a mama’s boy to merit any action here? Would “The Bible” have been too sympathetic to his NRA-friendly hunter-gatherer of a brother, Esau?  And what about the Tower of Babel, with its lessons of hubris?  No place for ambivalence in this spectacle of triumphalism.

This Red State movie is a neocon’s delight.  All the villains are pure Evil, reminiscent of professional wrestlers and those villains on the old B- movies, or that “Batman” series with Adam West. I’d love to see Pharaoh take on Nebuchadnezzar in a steel cage match, with Herod getting the winner, with Hulk Hogan and the Joker waiting in the wings.

We know Abraham was a warrior, but in the Tanakh he forges multiple alliances and makes treaties with gentiles, including one with the king of Salem – later to become Jerusalem.  Not here.  No, in “The Bible,” we meet the post 9/11, Bush-era Abraham, who chooses to effect regime change all by his lonesome, assisted by the shock and awe of those Kung Fu angels.

Like Abraham, “The Bible’s” Moses is a Marlboro Man, not burdened in the film by attachments to any Midianite wife and kids.  Those appendages conveniently don’t exist in the film.  He and Abe are depicted as rugged individualists, unconcerned about their place among the nations, since, after all, they have been chosen by God.  Theirs is the only nation that matters.

With God on our team, how can we go wrong?  God will keep helping us pile up the victories; all we need to do is keep God happy and protect His blind side.

In “The Bible,” Abraham comes off less a faith hero than, I shudder to say this, psychotic. In this post Newtown world, with clergy-abuse of children rampant, Abraham’s abuse of his own sons hardly evokes surges of faith in the casual viewer.  His suspension of the ethical translates into a straight-faced suspension of empathy that would have made even Kierkegaard shudder.   And, straying from the Genesis text,  the film has no angelic hand staying Abraham’s knife at the moment of truth, with bound Isaac atop Moriah; and, far worse, no clear proclamation that God rejects human sacrifice.   All we see are those angelic hooting hoodies on the hillside, signaling for a break in the action like some football coach (perhaps Samson’s) throwing the challenge flag.

Seeing Isaac’s binding here reminded me of a scene in Woody Allen’s “Without Feathers”:

And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.”


And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor. I can’t believe it.”


“But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?”


And the Lord said, “It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”

The problem is that, unlike Allen’s Akeda scene, “The Bible” is not intended to be parody.  Many young people watching the film will not be inspired to greater acts of faith; they will be disgusted and turn from faith altogether. And not all of these young people live in blue states.

Many Americans who purport to be “religious” feel that these sacred stories must be accepted as literal truth, as history, rather than as sacred truth, as story.  But the literalist view is fraught with danger.  Jews, Christians and Muslims all have vast post biblical traditions that protect us from those dangers – from taking “eye for an eye” literally, for example, or the ethnic cleansing prescribed in Deuteronomy and executed in the book of Joshua.  Maimonides made it clear that such brutal militaristic adventurism has no place in God’s world.

We need a Blue State Bible, or at least a purple one, a kinder and gentler   version, one appropriate for our interconnected, inclusive world.

Maybe they’ll show it on Oprah’s Channel.

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