Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Thoughts on the series "The Bible"

Yesterday, I was discussing "The Bible" series with a co-worker. The 4 part series was hailed by Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Rielly, and probably others before its premier in the History Channel. My friend thought it was somewhat of a let down, in the parts that were glossed over, and some of the acting. Overall, I like it, and have been watching it. Certainly, the producers, Roma Downey and her husband deserve credit for even attempting to make a modern film about the Bible.

Discussing it however, brings up an interesting point: namely that the Bible is notoriously difficult for the modern reader to slog through and understand. The Old Testament, in particular, can be difficult to understand without some background and history. I know this will offend some of you, but to read it as if it were the literal words of the Almighty is to miss much of the message. Much of the Bible was first written down during the Babylonian Exile, as a way for the Jews to keep the faith. What must be understood is that the Bible stories showed God's grace in time after time saving the people of Israel, His Chosen People. It is written from their point of view.  To appreciate it, one must also take on their point of view, and look at things as the ancients looked at them.

Take, for example, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God says to Abraham that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are so evil, that he will destroy them. What their great evil was is never mentioned in the Bible, probably because it wasn't that important to the story.  What is important is that Abraham knows that his nephew, Lot, lives in one of the cities.  Abraham then begins a thinly veiled negotiation with God with the result that if even only 10 righteous men can be found, God will not destroy the cities.  Now, to the nomadic sheep and cattle herders sitting around a camp fire at night, and hearing this tale, cities were places of evil in any case.  Of course, as it turned out, only one righteous man could be found, Lot.  But God does not punish the innocent, so he send two angels to get Lot out of the cities before they are destroyed.  God's great grace is shown by his being willing to spare the cities if even just 10 righteous men can be found, and the herculean efforts to spare Lot, the lone Hebrew living in the cities.  The men of the cities, however, are throw away characters who aren't even named.

The Bible also often doesn't tell us any extraneous details, details that the people who heard these stories would assume, but that we may not.  A modern writer might write that "He went out the door to his ground floor apartment, and found the keys to his red,1965 Mustang.  He backed it out of the parking space and turned west."  But the ancients didn't bother setting the scene for us, for they lived there.  They were more interested in understanding God's will.  When God told Abram to come out of the city of Ur, to a land he would show him, no mention is made of anyone else.  The modern reader gets the impression that Abram and Sarai set out alone across 500 miles of wasteland to the Promised Land.  In fact, Abram was probably a leader of a huge tribe of people, who brought their tents, their belongings, their cattle and servants with them.  After all, Abraham brought 10,000 men to war against the Kings of  the Plains to rescue his nephew.

Also, the Bible is not history, at least not as we understand it here in the West.  The Old Testament only contains a few dates, and these are relative.  The only date I am familiar with in the New Testament is the date of the Resurrection, which takes place on the first Sunday after the Passover.  The closest writing to that we understand in the modern sense is Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Letters from Paul.  Place names often shift, and it is difficult to get the context of certain peoples and places. For example who, or where are Gog and Magog? If you click on the link, you will see that even scholars have trouble placing these two names, but evidently in the 6th century BC these two names must have been known. Of course, no modern map will help you find the Hittites (Central Turkey), Persia (Iran), Babylon (Iraq), or the Philistines, who apparently came from Crete. 


  1. I agree with your conclusion about the mini-series. They'd never have been able to get it made if they crammed any more detail into it. We'll just have to trust that God will enlighten hearts, and that the message will get to those who need it most.

  2. Rev. Paul,

    You are probably right about how much they could cram into the film. As for taking the Bible literally, I should have explained that I read the Exodus, for example, and I believe that the plagues of Egypt actually happened in substantially that order. But I also look beyond that to the fact that God both literally and figuratively set his people free from bondage. To me, anyway, that is a hopeful message for all of us.

    Take care, and God bless you,