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“The Bible,” Episodes 1 and 2

March 5, 2013

Films about the ancient Near East are few and far between, and since this blog is largely about legacy and historical memory, it would be remiss to let a new attempt at the subject pass without comment.

The Bible is a 10-part TV miniseries based on, well, the Bible, and produced by Mark Burnett (in his first non reality TV effort) and Roma Downey. The series has been noted for its small army of A list scholars who served as consultants. However, as one of the consultants, Rabbi Joshua Galloway, has noted, “the goal of the production was to remain faithful, or at least as faithful as possible, to the narrative and text of the Bible, as opposed to a historical critical approach.”

This means, for example, that Noah’s Flood is shown as global. It also sometimes means that the visuals tend towards a representation of modern western Sunday School flannelgraph ideas about what the world of the Bible looked like. As a result, the production at times felt like an updated Cecil B. DeMille epic, where Moses and Abraham are not solely based on what the Biblical text and scholarship tell us about their times, but must conform to what we expect them to look like. Certain conventions are observed, such as Moses and the Pharaoh of the Exodus growing up as rivals in the palace, simply because this is how we are used to seeing them portrayed on film.

This past Sunday’s episodes focused on Abraham and Moses, respectively, and the theme of faith is given strong weight as both men are seen doing things that appear completely insane to everyone around them. The scenes of Abraham leaving his home, almost sacrificing Isaac, and trusting that he would someday have a son were an excellent representation of Kierkegaard’s interpretation of Abraham, as a “knight of faith” plunging into the unknown based on his trust in God in spite of all reason to the contrary. This comes off to both his contemporaries and the modern viewer as borderline insane, but that is precisely the point. Trust is not always a rational act.

As far as historical commentary, there is not much to say about Abraham because there is not much that can even expect to be verified. Nomads by their very nature leave few archaeological remains. As a result, studies of Abraham and the Patriarchs have taken two approaches.

Bottom: Abraham from The Bible TV series. Top: Wall painting of Semitic Middle Bronze Age nomads from Beni Hasan, Egypt.

Bottom: Abraham from “The Bible” TV series. Top: Wall painting of Semitic Middle Bronze Age nomads from Beni Hasan, Egypt. Note the nomad’s woven patterns on their clothes and dresses, compared to the plain brown garb from most characters in “The Bible.” Also note that the nomads in the Beni Hasan painting are armed with spears and bows, while in “The Bible” Abraham and his men are armed primarily with curved Bedouin-style daggers.

The first is to study cultural context and geography, and try and pin the Patriarchs in some time frame (the Middle Bronze Age, the Intermediate Bronze Age, etc) where the culture matches the culture described in the Bible. At the end of the Early Bronze Age (c. 2200 BC) urban culture collapsed and cities all over Canaan were abandoned. For the next 200 years, the population was almost entirely nomadic before cities began to be re-established in the Middle Bronze Age II. Because Abraham was constantly bumping into and getting into conflicts with people in cities when his massive flocks started eating up every green thing around their farmland, most scholars who accept a historical Abraham choose to situate him in the Middle Bronze II.[1]

Others point to anachronisms in the text as a basis for arguing that the stories were composed in the mid 1st millennium BC and therefore too long after the fact to contain any historical information. The presence of camels, whose domestication is otherwise unattested until the 1st millennium, and Abraham’s frequent interaction with “Philistines” who did not arrive in the area until after 1175 BC, are longstanding problems in the narrative.[2]

One can point to some meager remains of camels from the 2nd millennium – a camel figuring from 19th century Byblos, a camel jaw found in a Middle Bronze tomb in Tell el-Farah, a figurine of a loaded camel from a tomb in 13th century Egypt, and so on.[3] The possibility has also been raised that the “Philistines” of Genesis as a use of a later name for a region that was inhabited by Canaanites in the Middle Bronze Age. It is worthy to note that “Abimelech” (the Philistine king in Genesis 21-26) is a thoroughly Semitic name.

Or, one could do what The Bible does and ignore all of this entirely, and make Abraham essentially timeless. Instead of being rooted in Middle Bronze Age nomadic culture, The Bible’s Abraham strides through the generic landscapes of our biblical imagination. Instead of Abraham, Middle Bronze Age sheikh and wealthy leader of a clan, we see Abraham, the leader of a motley group of suitably dirty individuals dressed in suitably dirty, vaguely “biblical” clothes, in a vaguely Bedouin setting, set in a brown and suitably “biblical” landscape.

Top: Abraham in "The Bible." Not much in view for Abraham's copious flocks to feed off of. Bottom: Area around Beersheva after winter rains, when nomads would have been grazing their flocks.

Top: Abraham in “The Bible.” Not much in view for Abraham’s copious flocks to feed off of. Bottom: Area around Beersheva in March after winter rains, when nomads would have been grazing their flocks.

The Bible’s treatment of Moses takes a similar approach, taking all of our assumptions about the story and returning them to us in the form of a production clearly indebted to The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt. Details such as Moses and the Pharaoh of the Exodus growing up together to become adult rivals are a staple of fictional portrayals of the Exodus, but are not actually in the Bible. The costumes and set design all seem designed to appeal to our American expectations of what the Exodus story should look like, rather than what ancient Egypt actually looked like. The world of The Bible is the world of our cultural imagination of the Bible, rather than the actual world of the Bible.

At the end of his book The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, Thomas L. Thompson wrote that:

But the stories about the promise given to the patriarchs in Genesis are not historical, nor do they intend to be historical; they are rather historically determined expressions about Israel and Israel’s relationship with God, given in forms legitimate to their time, and their truth lies not in their facticity, nor in their historicity, but in their ability to express the reality that Israel experienced. To the extent that this experience can be communicated, it is a revelation of the faith that was Israel’s. And it is through this communication in word that Israel’s experience became ours, and Israel’s faith our faith; for it is through this revelation that we are enabled to see through to the reality and the truth of the human experience which transcends the historical forms in which this experience has been expressed.[4]

While The Bible may seem to many to be fundamentalist in its outlook, it is actually fully in line with the views of Thompson. For The Bible does not intend to be historical, it is rather a “historically determined expression” about a “relationship with God” which is given in a form legitimate to our time. It seeks to express theological truths, but not by making references to solid history, but rather by “communication in word…to the reality and the truth of the human experience.”

Historical context has a way of changing our perceptions and deepening our understanding of the Bible by moving us beyond our cultural blinders and into the Bible’s own world. But, by creating an image separated from historical background, The Bible has (for its first week at least) given us faith disconnected from history. It is the same story we know from childhood, and it looks the same way it looked back then.


[1] For a recent defense of the historicity of the Patriarchs, see chapter 7, “Founding Fathers or Fleeting Phantoms?” in Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eerdmans, 2003).

[2] For more critical views, see Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts (New York: Touchstone, 2001); Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (New York: De Gruyter, 1974).

[3] Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 338-341.

[4] Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, 330.

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Article © Christopher Jones 2013.

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