I turned to this History Channel production of The Bible with a cynical skepticism. My preconceptions weren’t aided by claims from some news media that the first installment of the series was TV’s most watched event. These claims were later brought into perspective. In fact the initial program was seen by 13 million viewers and outscored other shows that evening. It ranks as cable’s most-watched entertainment telecast this year. It did nearly as well for the History Channel as the record setting “Hatfields & McCoys” last year.
As I watched, my cynicism turned to admiration and I found myself on the edge of my seat, my attention never wavering, and I feel far more informed about the Bible and its characters than ever I thought I would be.
The opening of the superbly filmed and produced miniseries brings us to Noah’s Ark, looking as it should, and ravaged by terrible waters. We see many animals on board, as we thought we might, including zebras and ostriches; but our attention is grabbed by goats, and small cows, and two young and frightened deer, who like all the ark’s occupants are being saved from drowning by Noah and his family. Noah explains to his anxious children that God is saving them from a terrible flood. The tempestuous sea fills the screen, and Noah fights to save the storm-ravaged ark from being dashed into submission.
We move from this opening sequence to the story of the seven days of the creation of the world, told in a way even disbelievers won’t disdain, and to the Garden of Eden. This comes as Noah is speaking to his family about the history of the world. The special effects are a thrill to behold. Noah shows that God has already seen too much evil in the hearts of men, as Cain kills Abel. We have a brief glimpse of Adam and Eve, a striking couple. Noah tells us that on the seventh day, God rested. We are told, “There is one father in heaven and one teacher and he is Christ.”
The core of the miniseries begins with the story of Abraham. We respond emotionally to Abraham and his wife, Sarah, who is aging and cannot conceive. She tells Abraham to father a child by uniting with Hagar the servant girl, younger and attractive. Abraham and Hagar produce two children, and Abraham clings to Hagar, leaving Sarah to witness.
Three tall and strangely clad men, messengers of God, come to Abraham. They don’t have halos, but wear red hooded garments. One of the messengers is dark, African by his appearance. A second of the messengers looks Asian. The third, whose face we never see, wears a brown hooded cloak, and speaks the word of God. These visitors announce to Sarah that she will have a son named Isaac, meaning “to laugh.”
Isaac is born to Sarah, as prophesied, and we move ahead 13 years. Abraham and Sarah are at odds; Sarah, Abraham’s first wife, is jealous that her child, not being Abraham’s firstborn son, will not succeed him to bring about the hoped-for new nation. Abraham bends to her will, and assured by God that they will survive, he sends his son, Ishmael, and daughter (whose name is
Mahalath) who were mothered by Hagar into the wilderness.
Time goes by, and Abraham discerns that God wants him to sacrifice Isaac, his son by Sarah. Pretending to be going into the rocky hills to sacrifice a sheep, Abraham secures his knife, and calls to his Isaac, young and innocent, to follow. Abraham is going to kill Isaac.
At the final moment, as the boy cries out “Father, you’re hurting me!” and Isaac’s death is near, in the far distance a red hooded figure cries out, “Abraham!” Abraham realizes God is sparing his son, and that he, Abraham, has passed God’s test. Sarah comes, fearful that Isaac is dead. Isaac is safe, and a lamb will be sacrificed instead.
Those scenes give watchers an indication of the direction of the miniseries. We go on to witness Lot and his wife going into Sodom to set up a home. But Sodom is inhabited by evil women in thin veils, who dance, and engage in debauchery with the men. Sodom is an evil city, and the hooded messengers know it will be destroyed. The men who habituate the town are thwarted by the prediction of destruction, and they join forces to murder Lot and his wife. The History Channel doesn’t fail to amaze, as the Asian messenger of God discards his red-hooded vestment, and turns ninja-like, fighting back with spins and leaps, to defeat the men of Sodom.
Lot’s wife is instructed not to look back at Sodom, as fire rains down from Heaven. Lot’s wife is unsure. She is drawn, we suspect, to the debauchery in Sodom. She looks back, and we gasp as she turns to salt.
The series is strongly emotional, holds our attention, and is made for the modern age, worthy of high regard. The city scenes and the areas of the Promised Land are staggering in their scope. The role of Jesus is in the hands of Diogo Morgado, an actor whose name is a household word in Portugal. We note that while some thought only the Old Testament should be included, it was finally determined that the New Testament must also be embraced, simply because the entire Old Testament builds to the life of Christ.
Christians, Jews, non-believers, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus – all people – will be instructed by this History Channel production. What I have seen of it is inspirational, and maybe inspired.
The series is produced by the husband-and-wife team of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett. They saw it, in their first conception, as a love story, “The grand sweeping embrace, the love story that is the Bible.”
Nancy Dubuc, head of entertainment and media at A&E Networks, said “We take very seriously when a producer or a storyteller of his [Burnett's] magnitude is incredibly passionate about something, They tend to give it their all.” Dubuc insists, “I don’t see this as a Christian production. We are a global brand, and we appeal to all walks of life and beliefs… this is not a piece of conversion.”
The series will air Sundays in March on The History Channel.