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Previously on The Bible: It Doesn't Even Sound Right

March 21st 2013

I didn’t actually watch the whole program on The History Channel, as my penchant for televised versions of Biblical accounts kind of waned once I learned that Cecile B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” was not a literal depiction of what supposedly went down in Egypt some 3,500 years ago.  As I was a yeshivah boy with a short attention span, Charlton Heston was Moses to me until I was able to appreciate my studies a bit more.  What a disappointment that turned out to be.   When I finally learned of the Exodus in school, I kept seeing the film in my head as we reached each scene in the Chumash (Five Books).

I heard Dathan sneer the name Moses, and I heard God call in his deep voice, “Moses.”  Alas, it was all an act.  I was told many times in shiur that the TV version was wrong.  So I stopped watching it, figuring at least for this part of my education I did not want to be totally misinformed.  

Yet, when I was flipping through the channels today, I landed on the History Channel right at the top of the hour as one episode of The Bible ended and another was beginning.  The intro, much like any other multi-part television show, proclaimed, “Previously on The Bible.”  It made me laugh, as if I didn’t know what happened previously in the Bible.  It was telling a world of young impressionable minds what happened previously in the Bible and there are people who watch it and say, “Wow, I’m glad it showed me that, I really didn’t know.”

What struck me so funny was how we trivialize our faith today. Previously on The Bible to me is the best example of what’s wrong with our world. I admit that I watch TV a lot, the news and satire – kind of the same. I watch shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy because I want to laugh at how silly we often are, and those shows highlight society’s foibles in such an open way.

Then I watch pure fantasy, like Criminal Minds and Shameless because they’re both so ridiculous they are entertaining each in their way. One makes us appreciate real police work and how hard it must be tracking evil people, because they seem to figure it all out in an hour and we know it's never that simple. The latter just makes me feel good about my life. Thank God Frank and Monica Gallagher were not my parents; it’s all uphill from there.

But then I see shows like The Bible, and I saw the estimates on record viewership it received  - nearly 11 million - and realized that there are countless people who are learning history, religion and maybe their facts from television. Not to say that this program is bad, wrong or even correct and true to the Book (I am told it is not even close on any account), yet when the announcer said, “Previously on The Bible,” it felt as if we have just stopped trying to learn and better ourselves, and have simply yielded our lives and future to Hollywood’s narrative. 

It needs to be said that I was given a parochial education, so maybe I am taking too much of my familiarity for granted.  Knowing that there is a vast community of Christians across America who also go through Sunday school and Bible studies, I have think that there should be many among the viewers who share some knowledge of Bible stories, if not the learning of the Bible itself.

From entertainment to enlightenment

I used to watch the Starz series Spartacus because the blood and sex were fun, yet in the final season it just seemed like a hopeless waste of expectations. You can only watch so many body parts undress or get sliced up before it becomes all the same, and it’s not as if the story is compelling anymore. I did learn history. Spartacus can fight and win every battle on my 70-inch TV up until the last show, but I know what happens. Spoiler alert: Spartacus and his merry men must come to an end. That is history.

Before I watch to see what happened previously on The Bible, the end of the program offers some insight to what will happen next On the Bible.  So, what will The Bible show me if I watch through the end? Is there a cliffhanger? Will Moses not make it across the Red Sea? Will he get to step into Israel in this episode? Should I watch to see if Samson gets to keep his hair, figuring he won’t make the same mistake twice? Does it end differently than the Books I know? No, Delilah took the silver and cut his hair – again. Foolish Samson!

But the announcer’s message, “Previously on The Bible,” indicated to me that there are those who both may not know what happened before and probably do not know what happens by the time The Bible ends. Sad, isn’t it?

The "Good Book" is something we all must study and we all must reach our own conclusions. Study it as a book of history, or study it as a book of religious instruction. It is not enough to blindly trust the words of our teachers; it was given to all of us and it insists that it must be taught to all of us — and studied by us. The televised depiction just seems like an attempt to treat it as some dramatized historical fiction, to sum it up.

Moses said to the people, "Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Deuteronomy 30:11)

In other words, he said, study the text; it is simple to understand and observe.

As this piece draws to a conclusion, I found myself sitting in front of the television with The Bible on in the background and I watched King Nebuchadnezzar gouge out Zedekiah’s eyes with with his thumbs with the zeal of a lunatic and I realized that they made the Babylonian King look eerily similar to the Philistine leader who took Samson’s eyes the same exact way a half hour earlier. Literary license, I suppose.  Without a thought as to the accuracy of it all, I thought to myself, "Man that guy seems to enjoy that."

Had these tales been taught to me with such color and excitement, perhaps I would have been more interested. It would have been wrong, but maybe I would know more than I do now.

As we approach Passover with the expectation of the reliving the Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the sea and the wandering through the wilderness, I hear the phrase “Previously on The Bible” and hope everything I have learned up until now does not suppress the excitement for what I hope to learn anew as we sit together and find new hope, new interest and newfound appreciation for an old tale, meant to offer new perspective every time.

Juda Engelmayer is an executive at the New York PR firm, 5W Public Relations

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