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The Bible Miniseries: History Slips, God Seems Absent

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on March 23, 2013
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Steadfast Lutherans: “The History Channel’s The Bible Parts 5 & 6: The Absent GodThe History Channel slips, and God seems “away from His desk, asleep at the switch.”

The Bible History Channel miniseries's 3rd installment aired last Sunday night, and over 68 million people have reportedly now tuned in. A lot of people are talking about the series, creating many opportunities for Christians to talk about the Bible itself and the God of the Bible. The second installment (discussed last week1) episode could be summed up as “good on history, soft on sin.”2 But being “Berean” (Acts 17:10–11)3 will be even more critical in the wake of the third episode, for this one takes many more liberties with the actual history and from the opening narration has a tendency to ignore God. Christians need to carefully compare all the history depicted with Scripture not only to keep the actual history straight but also to keep the greatness, the power, and the plan of God in view as we prepare to graciously engage unbelievers and those viewers less familiar with the Bible.

Jumping over the time of increasing idolatry and corruption, this episode focuses on the time of Babylonian captivity and then covers the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus, His baptism and temptations, and His call of Peter as a disciple.

Jumping over the time of increasing idolatry and corruption, this episode focuses on the time of Babylonian captivity and then covers the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus, His baptism and temptations, and His call of Peter as a disciple. The most significant departures from biblical history involve the captivity—Daniel and friends are taken captive at the wrong time, Nebuchadnezzar’s madness and unbelief is left unresolved, the facts are off regarding Persia’s conquest of Babylon, and the wrong Persian king tosses Daniel into the lions’ den, to name a few.

As I explained in my original review of the series,4 one of this episode’s most glaring inaccuracies is its assertion that Isaiah lived at the same time as Cyrus, the Persian king who freed the Israelites to return to their homeland. Such a historically false and egregious statement not only weakens the program but makes Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Cyrus into a worthless joke, for the biblical Isaiah—speaking prophetically by the instruction of God—prophesied Cyrus’s name and actions at least 125 years before Cyrus was even born (Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1).5 In fact, the biblical Isaiah prophesied Israel’s release from captivity before the nation even fell into captivity!

Furthermore, not only does this inaccuracy about Isaiah’s prophecy ignore God’s ability to know the future, the version of the program ultimately televised was introduced by narration that greatly diminished the role of God, even as it reviewed episodes previously aired. For instance, the introductory narration erroneously tells us “Moses earned his people’s freedom from slavery.”

This episode nicely depicts some of the political realities that led to idolatrous Israel’s fall to Babylon. It does show us the difficult position of Jeremiah as he tried to lead King Zedekiah back to God and the consequences of Zedekiah’s refusal. But, after the fall of Jerusalem, we see Jeremiah saying, “Everything we have fought for is lost” and fleeing like a terrified rabbit to Egypt to save his own skin.

The biblical Jeremiah, however, had acted in faith that God would someday restore the land to the people by himself purchasing a plot of land. And the biblical Jeremiah kept on trying to lead the remnant of people left behind back to God, but he was dragged off to Egypt by them in defiance of God’s instructions. The biblical Jeremiah was not just bold with the king, as the miniseries shows, but also faithful to keep serving God whether his audience was royal or common, no matter how much he suffered and was rejected as a result of his prophesies. The biblical Jeremiah, when he was so discouraged he wanted to give up preaching, declared as we should, “But His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not” (Jeremiah 20:9).

Meanwhile, over in Babylon, the scriptwriters gave the three men who ended up in the furnace (recorded in Daniel (3)) for refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue a repetitive sing-song mantra (“with all my heart I follow you, fear you, I seek your presence”), a pathetic replacement for the actual powerful testimony recorded in the Bible: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Daniel 3:16–18).

Also sadly and unnecessarily missing is the glorious conversion of this proud and powerful king Nebuchadnezzar to the worship of the one true God, as Nebuchadnezzar himself attests in Daniel (4).

On the plus side, although the writer of one critique justifiably labels this episode “The Absent God,” the miniseries’s Daniel does at least give God credit for his ability to interpret King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, the virgin birth is rightly depicted as a virgin birth, and the program does a reasonable job with the temptations of Christ.

Sadly, we don’t really hear John the Baptist deliver his convicting message concerning sin and repentance as he prepared the people in Israel for Christ’s arrival on the scene. The John the Baptist in the miniseries said the coming Messiah would “bring a new age of righteousness and justice” and that his “power will draw all men to a new world.” The biblical John the Baptist declared that dreadful judgment for sin was coming, that people needed to repent and make ready to receive their Messiah, and that the coming Messiah was the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The miniseries closes with a very adapted version of Jesus Christ’s encounter with Peter and a promise that together they would “change the world.” That Jesus will indeed do, but not the way that the disciples at first expected or the way some Christians even today expect, for He will change the world in judgment before changing it into a new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells.

And as we discuss the issues and questions this episode raises in the conversations God grants us, we must be especially careful to help people understand what God was accomplishing by allowing the people to go into captivity, refining the nation through which He was preserving the Old Testament Scriptures and through which He would one day send His Son Jesus Christ into the world.

We’ll tune in tomorrow to see how the message that ultimately did turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6) is depicted in this cinematic adaption. Let us consider how we can use the interest the series generates in the Bible to open doors for the actual message of the gospel.

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Footnotes

  1. News to Note, March 16, 2013
  2. News to Note, March 16, 2013.
  3. News to Note, March 9, 2013.
  4. The Bible on the History Channel: A Review.
  5. For details see Floyd Nolen Jones, Chronology of the Old Testament (Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books, 1993), page 301.

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