I finally got a chance to watch the premier episode of “The Bible,” which aired on Sunday night on the History Channel.
I admit that I went into my viewing of the episode with high hopes and low expectations because many television adaptations of the stories of Scripture have been cheesy, low-budget affairs that left me shaking my head in shame.
“The Bible” didn’t necessarily disappoint, but it didn’t excite me either. All in all, the episode was a wash for me.
I do not want to recap the scenes of the first episode; rather I want to explore a few issues I noticed as a Bible nerd and pastor.
First, we must consider the selection of stories that were told in this first episode.
There is enough material in Genesis alone to fill a 10-part miniseries. Therefore, the producers had to choose those narratives that emphasized the mantra continually repeated in the episode: “trust in God.”
The stories chosen are among those “more familiar” to the general public and thus make the miniseries compelling to the widest audience.
I thought that the mixture of the flood narrative with the creation account of Genesis 1 was very well done and shrewd.
By combining two major narratives, which could dominate an entire episode themselves, the producers quickly moved the plot of the episode to Abram, where there is certainly more “meat” on the bone for filmmakers.
Another highlight was the sacrificial scene in which Abraham takes his son, Isaac, to the mountaintop as an offering to God (Genesis 22). It was a new experience for me to see that scene acted out with its themes of betrayal, murder, sorrow and hope all thrown into one.
This scene is also where I began to realize why I was slightly bothered by the episode’s details.
In the Scriptures, it is God who speaks to Abraham and instructs him to sacrifice Isaac as a test.
In the TV version, Abraham seemingly comes to this idea of child sacrifice on his own (in other instances of communication between Abraham and God in the show, God’s voice is heard by Abraham and by the audience).
It is a further complication (and certainly foreshadowing by the producers) that a lamb is caught by its foot at the top of Mount Sinai at the exact moment of the sacrifice. In the scriptural account of that incident, it is a ram caught by its horns that takes Isaac’s place.
This may seem like the splitting of hairs by a Bible nerd, but I think these two accounts are indicative of an assumption the producers have made in weaving together a grand narrative.
It is clear to me that the producers are moving the plot along toward the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and they are making subtle attempts to connect the selected Old Testament narratives to that event.
By altering the details of the narratives, the producers run the risk of overlaying their specific understanding of God’s redemptive activity in too heavy-handed a manner for educated Christians to stomach.
Such interpretation and plot manipulation can become the narrative of the show, rather than the biblical narrative it intends to bring to life.
I also noted a few times that the producers filtered the biblical stories through 21st-century sensibilities.
First, Abraham’s relationship with Hagar.
In the episode, it is Sarah who mourns her inability to bear Abraham a son, contrary to God’s promise.
She recommends to Abraham that he impregnate the woman Hagar, who just happens to be in the camp with Abraham, Sarah and their entourage.
Abraham resists, acting shocked and slightly revolted by the idea of “cheating” on Sarah. When he is finally convinced, we see him coming out of Hagar’s tent with a look of disappointment, anger and shame.
The scriptural account in Genesis 16 offers few details of the encounter between Abraham and Hagar, and even less of Abraham’s moral perspective on the situation. What we know about ancient cultures, though, renders the 21st-century morality demonstrated in the episode moot.
Hagar was a slave. She had no choice in the matter most likely, and I doubt that Abraham would have demonstrated the same martial fidelity we see in the episode when Sarah gives him the “hall pass.”
Second, the segment concerning Sodom.
In the producer’s interpretation of this thoroughly troubling narrative from Genesis 19, the two angelic visitors to Lot’s house are warriors.
These men take Lot, his wife and their two daughters out of the city, in harmony with Scripture.
However, the two angelic warriors then draw inappropriately modern swords and proceed to cut down dozens of Sodomites in true action-flick style.
Apparently, the producers couldn’t find enough action in this segment of the narrative to make it palatable to American audiences, so they created some swordplay, blood and death to spice things up.
In the final analysis, “The Bible” is a well-made show about some of the more popular stories of Scripture. It has an agenda that will certainly be demonstrated in future episodes, though, for now, the driving theme of the series is “trust in God.”
As I wrote previously, the broader culture needs to hear and see the Scriptures, and I understand that any production of the Bible will necessitate some interpretation. Of the shows I’ve seen that try to bring the Bible to life, this is the best.
However, as a Bible nerd, I am aware that even this good effort cannot help but leave gaps that must be filled in by ministers and mature Christians everywhere.
Brock Ratcliff is a minister at Madison Chapel in Madison, Miss. He also teaches mathematics and computer science at Clinton Alternative School in Clinton, Miss. A longer version of this column appeared on his blog, Fides Quaerens Intellectum, and is used with permission.