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“The Bible,” Episodes 3 and 4: The Protestant Midrash is Strong in This One

March 11, 2013

After last week’s opening episodes, I still held out hope that The Bible would show improvement as it moved into better documented periods of history.

This was only partially vindicated. On the strong side, the narrative and storytelling really took off in these episodes. Samson’s one man war against the Philistines, the manhunt for his capture, and his death in a collapsing Philistine temple were exceeded in thrilling drama only by the tragedy of Saul’s rise to power and descent into madness. Saul and Samson (played by Francis Magee and Nonso Anozie) gave the series something it lacked up to this point: Complex, internally conflicted, morally ambiguous characters.

Philistines battle with Egyptians in a relief scene on Rameses III's mortuary temple in Medinet Habu,

Philistines battle with Egyptians in a relief scene on Rameses III’s mortuary temple in Medinet Habu,

The series gets some plaudits for its accurate depiction of the Philistines, who are shown as suitably Aegean in appearance, with accurate dress, leather cuirasses, feathered headress helmets, and long broadswords. Most of our knowledge of Philistine battle dress comes from the Medinet Habu reliefs of Rameses III, and the costume designers for this show did their homework in this regard. The series also gave a nod to scholars who translate kidon in 1 Samuel 17:6 as an Egyptian khopesh (sickle-sword) by showing Goliath armed with a large version of that weapon.

The geography of the episodes was also much improved. While not exact matches, Jerusalem was shown on a hillside, Jericho was shown in the Rift Valley at the foot of hills, and Saul’s war in southern Israel actually looks like southern Israel. The one obvious goof in this regard are the external shots of Saul’s hometown of Gibeah, which is shown situated at the foot of a massive cliff in the series. Ancient Gibeah was actually on a hilltop, with expansive 360-degree views of the surrounding territory.

    Tell el-Full, the site of ancient Gibeah. An unfinished palace begun by King Hussein of Jordan sits atop the site.

Tell el-Full, the site of ancient Gibeah. An unfinished palace begun by King Hussein of Jordan sits atop the site.

Yet, the series continued to make a large number of basic factual errors which directly contradict history, archaeology and the biblical text. The Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle is repeatedly violated by Joshua and David seeking to pray before the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, in the opening scene of Episode 3 the Ark is sitting in the open, shaded from the sun by a tarp. The characters continue to write in block Hebrew script (500 years too early), Delilah is paid to betray Samson with silver coins (also 500 years too early), the Philistine temple has proto-Ionic column caps (an Israelite phenomenon) and (my favorite) a Canaanite soldier is seen fighting Joshua in hand-to-hand combat while wearing a Roman lorica segmentata cuirass.

cavalry

What is much more baffling is the presence of cavalry throughout both episodes both in battle and as messengers. Chariots were common in Late Bronze and Iron Age I warfare, but we have no evidence of mounted cavalry in the Near East until Tukulti-Ninurta II introduced them into the Assyrian army in the early 9th century BC.[1] Even then, Assyrian cavalry had no spurs or saddles (although these may have been necessary in the film for safety reasons). For the wars between the Israelites and Philistines in the 11th century BC, cavalry comes three centuries too early. Donkeys were the transport animal of choice. Chariots would have been the only use for horses, which were extremely expensive and hard to care for.

In a previous article on Mary I used the term “Protestant Midrash” to describe interpretations of the Biblical text which have no explicit textual basis and are not historically supported, but have entered into tradition anyways because they teach a desirable moral lesson. The Bible is full of this.

The most obvious example is the series’ treatment of Samson. Much of the plot revolves around Samson’s marriage to a Philistine woman, her murder, and his subsequent relationship with Delilah. In the book of Judges, Samson’s father disapproves of his marriage, asking “Is there no woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?”[2] His father in law then gives his wife to a Philistine husband, and she is later murdered by a Philistine mob.

samsonClearly, tension between the Aegean Philistines and semitic Israelites led to both communities disapproving of intermarriage. The Bible then tries to translate this into terms understandable to the modern viewer by keeping the Philistines Greek but casting an Afro-British actor as Samson. This takes the moral lesson out of the world of the Iron Age southern Levant and into the cultural language of our modern world, in order to teach a lesson about racism.

While admirable in intent, this ahistorical method of storytelling misses a much bigger story that is lurking under the surface of the Biblical text, waiting to be unearthed by historical scholarship.

David’s companion Uriah appears as a major character throughout episode 4, loyally fighting alongside David until David has him killed and takes his wife. But look closely at Uriah’s identity in 2 Samuel 11:3 or 1 Chronicles 11:14. Uriah the Hittite. That’s right, Uriah was neither an Israelite nor even a Semite, he was of Indo-European ancestry. How did this happen? Later on in 2 Samuel, David buys a threshing floor in Jerusalem from a man named Aravnah the Jebusite. It seems that David did not massacre the inhabitants of Jerusalem when he captured it. They were still living in the city and Israelites were living alongside them.

This implies that not only did the Israelites not massacre the entire Canaanite population of the land from Dan to Beersheva, it indicates that non-Israelite inhabitants of the land could rise to positions of great prestige in the early Israelite kingdom. The moral lessons here – of meritocracy, of earning rank on the basis of ability, of a society based around allegiance to a common set of religious ideals rather than ethnic ancestry – are profound. Yet, you’d miss them entirely in the Bible of our popular cultural imagination. It takes a careful, scholarly reading of the text to bring it into the light.

Regardless, I’ll still be watching. This show may still have some surprises yet. Also, most of the critics whose names have been attached to this series are New Testament scholars, so I’ll be interested to see how the second half of this series (which begins next week) is going to look.

References:

[1] H.W.F. Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria (Londong: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984), 71-72.

[2] Judges 14:3

Image Sources: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pulasti_%28Philistine%29_and_Tsakkaras_%28painting%29.png; Photo of Gibeah © Christopher Jones 2012; last 2 are screen caps from the series.

Article © Christopher Jones 2013.

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