History Channel reports 27 million tuned in . . . so what next?
The Bible miniseries premiered last Sunday night on the History Channel, reportedly the top cable telecast so far this year. Most reviews have been fairly positive, despite surprise expressed by many that a History Channel program would be Bible-friendly. Some Christians, however, raise significant concerns.
The series is a ten-hour, five-episode adaptation of the historical portions of the Bible intended to appeal to the biblically illiterate, the biblically bored, the biblically acquainted, and the biblically educated. Many religious leaders and the producers hope the docudrama will get many people interested in the Bible itself. Assuming that many of the 27 million viewers were not in the “the biblically educated” category, how should Christians now evaluate what they’ve seen? How should Christians follow up with their non-believing friends?
Scripture records that when the Apostle Paul was spreading the gospel through the Balkan peninsula, the people in Berea were wiser than those of Thessalonica because they responded to Paul’s message—that Jesus Christ was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament—by searching the Scriptures daily to see whether the things Paul preached were true (Acts 17:10–11).
We need to be “Berean” about this docudrama. A ten-hour series cannot convey all of the 4,100 years of history covered in the Bible, much less explain the doctrinal significance of all that history. And to the astute student of the Bible, most omissions are painful due to the important lessons embodied in them. Furthermore, this series, like many “Bible movies”—even widely regarded classics like Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments1—is not error-free. Thus the “Berean” response to this movie—whether you know your Bible well or not—is to read, re-read, study, and compare the movie to actual Scripture.
What then? What should we do with our knowledge of the discrepancies we discover? What do we do when an event dear to our own spiritual growth is missing or not presented in a way that explains its doctrinal significance? Certainly our non-believing friends will not be helped by indignant anger or arrogance as we display our superior biblical knowledge.
Instead, we can use the movie to involve others in fruitful discussions of the Scriptures. But if a particular omission grates on us, we should adjust our attitude to fit the commands in Colossians 4:5–6—“Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.”
Armed with a gracious attitude, a thorough understanding of Scripture, and a desire to have others know Jesus Christ as their Savior and the Lord of their lives, we should then be prepared to make use of the docudrama’s popularity to reach people with the actual Word of God. As Christian radio host Kathleen Benfield suggested during her WSHO talk show The Current Word this week, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 3:6–8, the miniseries has planted the plot of the Bible in the minds of many, so it’s time for Christian people to water the seed sown while praying for God to work in people’s hearts to give the increase.
Last Monday’s web article evaluating the entire 10-hour series mentioned its strongest point was its treatment of the Bible’s history as real history from the very first verse. Creation took six days, Adam emerged from the dust of the ground as a real human, the Fall into sin was a literal event that inaugurated all the evil in the heart of man and led to the Flood judgment, the Flood was global, and the Ark was realistic. Miracles were real miracles, the Red Sea was a real sea, and the parting of the Red Sea matched the biblical description reasonably well. Overall, this author gave the series shown on a secular network high marks for its potential to help people see how the coming of Christ fits into events many people think of as disjointed Bible stories. In essence, though the series skips vast segments of biblical history lightly mentioned in the narration in order to concentrate on a few selected events and people, it gives a reasonable overview of the plot of the Bible.
Now is time to take a few minutes to point out a few concerns most biblically astute viewers have already noticed in the first installment. (We’ll plan to do the same each week here in News to Note, concluding the Saturday after the series’ Resurrection Day conclusion.) This should not be considered either an exhaustive listing or nitpicking—just an effort to highlight things viewers should review in God’s Word in order to be wisely “Berean.”
The first episode takes us from Creation through some historical high points and leaves us poised with Joshua about to enter the Promised Land. Though Adam and Eve are treated as historical people, their light-colored skin doesn’t account for the more middle-brown color they must have had in order for our gene pool to produce all the skin shades we have today.
It’s doubtful the Ark was drippy as depicted, and the film’s animals were the ordinary species we see today, rather than a more “created kinds” assortment.2 And unlike the rainbow in the film, the biblical rainbow didn’t show up until after Noah’s family left the Ark, as a sign of God’s promise to never destroy the earth again by Flood (Genesis 9:12–17).
After the Flood, the movie shows the beginning of God’s plan to “restore the relationship between God and humanity,” according to the narrator, pointing ahead to Jesus Christ. The focus of the remainder of episode one is therefore on Abraham and Moses. Thus the scattering of people from the Tower of Babel—the basis for our many languages and the isolation of people groups—is skipped. The story of Lot moving to Sodom is in the movie, but Sodom’s true character, as described in the Bible, is missing. Scripture indicates that the problem with Sodom was rampant homosexual behavior, a concept noticeably missing in the film.
Abraham’s test—when God told him to sacrifice Isaac—though prominent loses some important elements. In particular, Isaac, being much too young, was understandably resistant to the idea of being sacrificed and pleading for his life. From a biblical timeline, however, we know that Isaac was considerably older and could have never been placed on the altar by his elderly father had he not cooperated. Thus, by his implied willingness to be sacrificed, Isaac symbolizes Jesus Christ, who two thousand years later did sacrifice Himself for our sins. Abraham also had faith that God would restore Isaac from the dead (Hebrews 11:17–19 and Genesis 22:5) to fulfill His promise to provide a blessing to all people. When God provides a substitute for Isaac, the film substitutes a standing lamb for the substitutionary ram caught in the thicket by its horns (Genesis 22:13). Its resemblance to lambs seen in later episodes and its appearance with the hooded actor whose voice obviously matches the voice of Christ (as seen in previews) does, however, visually demonstrate the sacrifice that foreshadows Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
This Moses, like the Charlton Heston version in the Ten Commandments, doesn’t kill the Egyptian in secret (Exodus 2:11–15) and later seems to have forgotten that he wasn’t really eloquent (Exodus 4:10). Moses also seemed extremely willing to charge forth in God’s service to free his people. The biblical Moses, however, took a good deal of convincing (Exodus 4:1–17). As the Yul Brynner pharaoh in the Ten Commandments, this pharaoh doesn’t drown, as Psalm 136:15 implies. The parting of the Red Sea, like that in the Ten Commandments, was cinematically accelerated (Exodus 14:21). And I would have loved to have heard this eloquent Moses stand by the Red Sea and make the analogy to salvation in Christ clear (1 Corinthians 10:1–4) by proclaiming, “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today” (Exodus 14:13).
Sadly, the narrator missed this opportunity to explain the picture of salvation from the deadly sin-debt that Passover represents.
Finally, back in Egypt we saw the Passover lambs’ blood smeared over the doors. Sadly, the narrator missed this opportunity to explain the picture of salvation from the deadly sin-debt that Passover represents. Later in the series (AiG has been sent all ten hours to preview), when we reach the Crucifixion, Christ’s role as the perfect Passover sacrifice (1 Corinthians 5:7) is indicated by a countdown, but the narration could have made this powerful point at the first Passover. Thus, while Adam’s original sin appears in Noah’s explanation for the world’s evil during the opening Ark scene, the fact that the blessing for all people that God is preparing through Abraham’s descendants is to be a sacrifice for man’s sin is not made plain.
Several problems mentioned here weaken the film’s potential to present the Gospel message on its own. Even in biblical events that paint pictures of God’s justice and mercy to be later fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice, the film often misses the chance to make that connection clear.
The genuineness of the Bible’s history from Creation to Christ, the corruption and failure of men, and the necessity of trusting God to fulfill His promises come through in the film, but the fact that we need to trust God to take care of our sin problem—while pictorially depicted in repeated sacrifices (Hebrews 10:1–4) leading to the Lamb of God’s crucifixion in a few weeks—is not explained well. That omission could be due to the series’ producers meeting a standard set by the History Channel not to proselytize too heavily. As Christians therefore, we need to be prepared to fill in the gaps. According to 2 Timothy 3:16–17, our authoritative and effective source for our explanation is the Word of God. Now that the plot has been presented, we should prepare ourselves to help viewers—children, unbelievers, and fellow believers—apply what they’ve seen to their spiritual benefit, for faith comes from hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17).
Rating note regarding children: The filmmakers said the film should be considered PG-13 in terms of violence. Furthermore, while there is no nudity, viewers will see Hagar’s and (in a later episode) Bathsheba’s bare backs and will not fail to grasp the nature of their activities.
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