Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Thoughts on the first installment of "The Bible" - Noah, Abraham, and the Exodus

For whatever reason I had only heard about this miniseries a few weeks back in passing conversation. When I had heard about however my initial thought was "Well, maybe the History Channel will do it more justice than the Discovery Channel", meaning my expectations for this were not set very high.

I guess I am naturally skeptical when it comes to mainstream television taking on the scripture that lays the foundation for our faith. It's easy enough to understand why, considering many of the documentaries I have seen produced by History, Discovery, and the like always invite the same people to try to discredit what I hold dear.

The more I researched this though, the more I came to understand that this wasn't going to be a documentary, more of a drama acted out on the small screen. My skepticism was eased only slightly. I figured History might have skimped on the budget and some injustice would be done.

Because I work my other job on Sunday evenings I had to catch a repeat broadcast. Sure it meant staying up later than I wanted to, but this was a big time television event that was being heavily promoted, so I figured I owed it to myself and any of my congregation to watch it and be ready to tell them what I think of it.

I'll give you fair warning, this may contain spoilers...wait a minute, it's about the Bible, so you should know what's going to happen!

The Bible scholar in me was surprised that the creation account was told by Noah. I found that to be rather unlikely unless for some reason the oral tradition had been passed down, but then I figured some things might have had to occur in this dramatization of the Bible story for effect, so I didn't let that bother me as it otherwise might have. What I was impressed to see was that it was no localized flood being shown.

The story moved quickly to Abraham. I appreciated how he was portrayed as a very human character, who hears the voice of God, but is not exactly sure as to where he is supposed to go, only that he is to go and take his family with him. I could imagine the apprehension his family might have had, and their skepticism and wondering if Abraham had been hitting the wine a bit too hard. But they follow, and eventually he parts ways with Lot, who takes the land surrounding Sodom, and that of course gets him into trouble.

Up to this point in the drama I am not really seeing anything portrayed that is too egregious. I am thinking quite the opposite in fact.

Lot and his family is saved by his uncle Abraham, but they continue on their separate ways. Personally, I would have liked to have seen Melchizadek portrayed as he is a figure that appears just the one time but it's an important appearance, even in the New Testament. I suppose though the producer didn't think he was important enough to include, so I digress.

Abraham is still clinging to his belief that he is going to be the father of a great nation and have descendants as numerous as the stars. Sarah, his wife, is less convinced and insists that if indeed he is going to be this father God promised he would have to do so through the maidservant Hagar. Abraham's reluctance to do this is portrayed quite well, but he follows Sarah's suggestion, and soon Ishmael is born.

14 years later Abraham is visited by messengers of God, who tell him that Sarah is going to conceive. Again this news is met with some skepticism, but soon afterward Abraham's camp is rejoicing that Sarah has born a son, Isaac. There had been however some tension brewing between Sarah and Hagar. Sarah confronts Abraham with the choice: is Ishmael the son of promise, or is Isaac? Abraham is shown dreading the decision, so Sarah suggests that he consult with God, and the next few scenes show Abraham sending Ishmael and Hagar away, though it breaks his heart to do so.

Meanwhile, Lot and his family are having their own issues. Having once set up their camp in the region surrounding Sodom, they have since found themselves living inside the city and it is about to be destroyed. The heavenly messengers come and give warning to Lot and his family to flee from the city. Life there is however good for him and he doesn't want to see the city destroyed, so he pleads for its behalf. And while God relents, the conditions for it to be spared are not met and Lot and his family begin to evacuate. They are warned to not look back, but Lot's wife doesn't heed that warning, and she is turned into a pillar of salt.

Some time passes again, and Abraham is faced with yet another decision. His eldest son Ishmael has already been sent away long ago, and now Isaac is required to be sacrificed by God. This may be the most difficult decision Abraham makes up to this point, and very reluctantly he decides it is better to follow God's will. Abraham calls for Isaac and they gather up wood for the sacrifice, but no sacrificial lamb. Isaac notices this and makes mention of it, but Abraham says that God will provide.

Sarah is seen thinking about what has just transpired, and it dawns on her that Abraham is intending to sacrifice Isaac, and she begins to rush to try and stop it. But it is too late, God has already done that, and Isaac has been spared. Here's where once again some artistic license was used, but it didn't detract from the story. That however is the last we see of Abraham or Isaac in this production.

At this point I am thinking that this miniseries is really a whole lot better than what I figured it would be. But then I realized that there was still a lot of time left in the first episode so before I praised it too much I had better watch it to the end.

For the sake of time I suppose 400 years is glossed over, and it is at this point the narrator says something I disagree with. The Israelites find themselves enslaved in Egypt, with the only explanation of how they got their being a famine had driven them there. That's true, but there is so much more to that story, but then the narrator says that they had forgotten God. I suppose that this might have been just an oversight on the writers part, but they had certainly not forgotten about God. In what had been glossed over, Isaac, then his son Jacob, and then his son Joseph, had demonstrated great amounts of faith and passed that on to their descendants. While the enslaved Israelites had perhaps not seen God reveal Himself to them in the same manner, they certainly knew of their forefathers and the promise made to them, and clung to that regardless of how preposterous it may have sounded to them.

Moses is, by this time, a young adult who is unaware of his true heritage. Again I believe artistic license is used here as, Biblically speaking, he had been weened by his own mother from a very young age who I don't doubt would have passed on the stories to him.

Bringing it back to the production however, Ramses, the would be Pharaoh, is jealous of Moses and all the special attention he has received despite not being Egyptian. Once Moses learns of his true heritage, he sees the brutality of the Egyptian people and in a fit of anger strikes an Egyptian slave master and kills him. I will say of all the onscreen depictions of that which I have seen, starting with Charlton Heston with The Ten Commandments and moving through to The Prince of Egypt, this is what I would probably consider to be the most accurate portrayal of what it probably looked like.

Yet once again I believe artistic license was employed as Moses, in scripture, ran because he realized others had seen him strike down and kill the Egyptian. In this, his amulet is found in the hand of the dead Egyptian was was buried in quite the shallow grave.

The rest of the Exodus story though stuck very close to the Biblical account. But what I thought was of particular interest was the way Moses approached his assignment to free God's people. It seemed as though he really enjoyed watching Pharaoh be humiliated, as though he was taking some kind of pleasure in it. I am not sure if the real Moses would have done that, but I figure we probably don't know one way or the other.

As expected however, Pharaoh relents and frees the slaves, and they are seen rejoicing and heading off toward the Promised Land.

Yet not much time passes when Pharaoh realizes that the slaves and their God had just bested him, and he vows revenge on his dead son's body, with Moses being buried in the foundation of the now dead prince's pyramid.

Pharaoh and his army catch up to Moses and the Israelites at the sea. I know there is some debate on whether or not it is the Red Sea, or the Reed Sea. That's a rabbit trail I don't intend to go down at this point so I am going to stick to "the sea." At this point Israel begins to complain and say that Moses had brought them their to die. Moses corrects the people and says God brought them there, and he enters the sea and with his rod, he thrusts it into the sea and it is parted (quite spectacularly I might add, the visual effects of this miniseries are very very good). Israel passes through the sea on dry ground, and as soon as they have crossed through it is closed up and the Egyptian army is swallowed up, and Pharaoh is left even more humiliated.

Israel then is seen making camp at Sinai, while a cloud surrounds the mountain and Moses receives the commandments. What isn't shown here though is the rebellion of Israel or the earth opening up and swallowing the revelers (does it make me a bad guy if I wanted to see that!), but again time is moved forward quite quickly and Joshua, with no explanation given as to why, is now the leader of Israel and they are getting ready to enter the Promised land. Part one of the miniseries ends with the introduction of Rahab, as Israel is getting ready to attack Jericho.

I know this is a rather long read so far, and for that I apologize. Perhaps I can work on keeping it short and sweet from here on out. I have to say though, even with the bits and pieces of artistic license and the stories that were not depicted which, in my humble opinion might have helped things make a bit more sense, I believe this was a very well done beginning, and from the bits and pieces I have seen of the remaining episodes I think I ought to raise my expectations a bit.

To be fair, given with how well done The Ten Commandments was, I can understand the writers, producers, and director wanting to avoid those comparisons, although I will say the scene at the sea where Moses waded in and thrust his staff was nearly identical to the scene in the Prince of Egypt, even down to how the water was parted. I suppose though asking to keep things strictly by the book, especially given that History is not primarily an evangelistic network, is a bit much to ask. Yet, even the deviations from the Bible in no way undermined the Biblical accounts in any way, which is what I was concerned would happen.

Is this miniseries perfect? No. Do I wish some things would have been addressed that weren't? Yes. But maybe that will open up a door to fill in those blanks with someone.

Well done, History Channel. Well done.

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