A number of people have asked what I think about the television miniseries “The Bible,” now airing on the History Channel (see http://www.history.com/shows/the-bible for more information). I have not seen this program (although several folk have told me about the “ninja angels” at Sodom,and my Scots Presbyterian students were foolishly pleased to learn that Noah was, evidently, Scottish!). I think I probably should see it, both because this program shows how lots of people think about the Bible, and because it is probably going to shape how lots of people will think about the Bible. Still I am, truth to tell, uncertain whether I want to see it or not.
Usually, I am not very excited by attempts to transfer the Bible to television or film. My problem is not that such enterprises are not, or cannot be, done well. It is rather that any film of any book is not the book. No matter how faithful an adaptation it may be, the film is something new, something else. For example: I am a great fan of Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings films, and also greatly enjoyed the first film of his new trilogy based on The Hobbit.
These films feature scenes and lines of dialogue straight from the books, as well as a design sensibility drawn not only from J. R. R. Tolkien’s literary descriptions, but from Tolkien’s own maps and watercolors of Middle Earth.
However, the films are not the books. Scenes are missing or rearranged; characters are re-imagined, their interior lives left to be inferred from their actions and dialogue. Most particularly, the feel of Tolkien’s prose and poetry, the rhythm of his language, is lost. This is not a criticism: Jackson has, I believe, done as well with his adaptations as any lover of Tolkien’s books could wish. But the films are films, and to be good films, they need to do what films do best, rather than trying to do what books do.
In her article “Context in Written Language: The Case of Imaginative Fiction,” Margaret Rader observes, “Only in writing can the inference-suggesting information be so carefully controlled and restricted even as inferring and imagining are given full rein” (in Spoken and Written Language, ed. by Deborah Tannen [Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1982], 187). That is, a text not only guides us into new worlds, but also gives us tremendous freedom to imagine those worlds. Texts are specific—they cannot mean just anything—but their meaning remains open-ended, ambiguous. Pictures, though, are explicit. Pictures, especially moving pictures, show rather than tell—which can be an extremely powerful experience. Still, pictures are more controlling and more restrictive than texts. In a movie, Galadriel’s hair must be this color, not that. Boromir will move like this, Rivendell will look like this.
As a result, some of the open-endedness and ambiguity of the text will be, must be, lost in the translation. For an immensely complex and multi-layered book like the Bible, this can result in a sense of over-simplification, of dumbing down. My friend David Odell, a chemistry professor at Glenville College in West Virginia (and a mean clawhammer banjo player!) wrote, “The show reminded me so much of a children’s book of Bible stories—not that children’s Bible stories are bad, but that’s not what I expect to see in a documentary.”
A television show adapting the stories of the Bible, then, is not the Bible. There is nothing wrong with that, so long as we remember the difference! But there is another problem with such an enterprise. David also wrote, “I can’t help but find irony in how one minute Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments,
and a few minutes (or maybe the next episode) later, God is instructing them to kill their enemies.”
This, again, is not a fault of the series: the History Channel has only a limited amount of time, and is condensing the narratives of the Bible to fit into that time frame. But in so doing, they are giving those narratives a different context: within the linear flow of images that makes up a television program, rather than within the pages of a text, where a reader can range backward or forward, slow down or speed up at will.
In Scripture, the conquest narrative in Joshua has multiple contexts. One context places this narrative at the beginning of the story of Israel told in Joshua through Kings (called in Jewish tradition the Former Prophets). In that setting, the violent conquest of the people of the land in Joshua foreshadows the violence Israel itself will suffer, ending in the loss of the land given by God as Jerusalem is destroyed and its leading citizens are taken into exile in Babylon (2 Kings 24—25).
Joshua must also be read in another context: as the end of the narrative extending from Genesis through Deuteronomy (the Torah, or Law, in Jewish tradition). There, the occupation of the land is the fulfillment of an ancient promise (Gen 15), given to landless, homeless people (see Deut 26:5-10). Even so, the land is regarded, not as Israel’s possession, but as God’s. In Leviticus 25:23, the Lord declares, “the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” God allows Israel to live on God’s land.
A careful reader quickly discovers another, more subtle, context for this narrative. While in the main plot line of the Former Prophets the story of Israel’s entry into the land is a story of total war and conquest, the writers have preserved other, alternate traditions: old memories that conflict with the main plot line. So, while Joshua 10:40 reads, “So Joshua defeated the whole land. . . he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (see also 12:23), in Joshua 13:1, God says to Joshua, “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed.” The opening chapter of Judges describes large areas of the territory of Palestine that were not in Israel’s hands. In fact, the tribes are described as hanging on by their fingernails in the hill country, surrounded on all sides by well-armed enemies. This explains, I believe, why the oldest songs in Scripture (such as Exod 15:1-18 and Jdg 5:1-31) describe God as a warrior: the people of Israel, living under constant threat, found great power and encouragement in the image of the God who fights for us.
This is a far fuzzier, more ambiguous picture of Israel’s past than a single, linear story line can convey—far too fuzzy for good television. The ambiguity with which the whole biblical story regards the violence in Joshua does not translate well into images—but the screen loves a good battle scene (as is sadly evident in Peter Jackson’s movies, which are far more explicit in their depiction of violence and gore than Tolkien’s books).
Joshua has another biblical context that we must explore. In the Hebrew Bible, the Former Prophets (Josh-Kgs) are immediately followed by the Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (twelve short prophetic books sometimes called the Minor Prophets). The Prophets as a whole, then, begin with Joshua and end with Malachi. At the beginning of the Prophets, God says to Joshua, “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go” (Josh 1:7). At the end of the Prophets, God says to Malachi, “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel” (Mal 4:4 [3:22 in Hebrew]). The Prophets begin and end with the Law! Rather than being just another scene in a straight narrative line, then, the Torah given through Moses is the focus of all the Prophets. The depiction in the Ten Commandments of a just community, bound together by the love of God and of neighbor, is far more “biblical,” if you will, than the exciting scenes of mayhem a visual reenactment of Joshua, or Genesis, or Exodus, will convey. Context is key.
AFTERWORD: The Bible Guy joins believers around the world in celebrating the election of Pope Francis.
By taking the name of the humble reformer Saint Francis of Assisi (the first to do so), this Pope from Buenos Aires—the first Pope from the global South, the first from the Americas, and indeed the first since Peter who is not European—has begun very well indeed. May God’s blessing and guidance rest upon him.