Roma Downey and Mark Burnett’s miniseries “The Bible” on the History Channel sparked some deserved head scratching on this site and elsewhere as to how many liberties with a source text are OK in a dramatization. This is serious enough when it comes to secular history (recall the Connecticut Senator who bristled at how his state’s delegation was incorrectly depicted in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”) but takes on added gravitas when the source text is held by millions to be holy writ.
The issue becomes more interesting if a dramatist’s liberties with the text err on the side of rationalization: leaving things out which if included might cause viewers to see the story in a very different way. The creation and the flood got edited down in “The Bible” show to what amounted to a quick promo, sidestepping all the controversy over the when, where and what of it to render it innocuous for all manner of believing audience.
But leaving things out might also be a way of sanitizing a text that, if presented full out, might come across as exactly the opposite of an edifying evening’s entertainment. Nowhere in “The Bible” is this editing more in evidence than with the testosterone tale of Samson versus the Philistines recounted in Judges 14-16.
The “controversial” aspect of the show for some in the biblical blogsophere turned on the casting of black actors to play Samson and his mother. This shouldn’t be a problem if one is thinking of this as a purely dramatic exercise (any good actor can play Hamlet today regardless of race, for example, and the always excellent Helen Mirren played “Prospera” in a gender-switched film version of “The Tempest” recently).
Previously, the angels in the Sodom story were played by Asian and black actors, but given that “The Bible” goes out of its way to show the Philistine leader fuming over Samson marrying into their clan, the choice of black performers for the Hebrews only this once is rather curious. Just how many black Jews were there in the Bronze Age? Perhaps more importantly, the only direct reference in the Bible account to someone fretting over Samson’s choice of spouses was his parents — why can’t you marry a nice Hebrew girl?
That there was some sort of tension between the Jews and Philistines is clear enough from the story, though one may note that it was the Lord who was evidently “seeking an occasion against the Philistines” and Samson proved a conveniently available lunkhead. The biblical story kicked off at the nuptial party, where Samson suckered some Philistines into wagering 60 prized garments that they couldn’t solve a riddle — one Samson unfairly based on information only he knew (a nest of honeybees he found living inside a lion he had recently slain).
When his dinner guests understandably failed to solve the riddle, the poor losers decided to extort the solution from Samson’s Philistine bride by threatening to burn her and her father in their house unless she wheedled the secret out of him. Which she did, but this was no great loss to Samson, for “the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him” and he went down and killed 30 men in the village, resourcefully using their garments to pay off the bet gone wrong. One can imagine what high moral lessons students in gang-plagued urban schools might draw from this tale, should students start paying more attention to the Bible as Downey and Burnett recommend.
Meanwhile, spotting how upset Samson was over his bride’s lapse in domestic loyalty, his Philistine father-in-law had summarily traded her off to Samson’s best man, but did offer the hero an even prettier sister as replacement bride when he came asking about her later. You’ll notice how women are treated as so much commodity here, not people whose opinions ought to be consulted about little things like getting married — yet more “lessons to be learned” in school Bible class?
By now Samson was itching to do some “mischief” to the Philistines, which consisted of animal abuse and arson: he caught 300 foxes, tied their tails together, attached some lit torches, and set them off into the Philistine grain fields, which burned up along with their olive orchards. Is it just me, or are things escalating out of hand here?
The Philistines figured out who was responsible, but rather than attacking the supernaturally strong Samson directly, these firebug-prone delinquents set his wife and father-in-law alight instead (a reprise of the original fire threat at the start, remember, suggesting that, at least as the Bible tells it, Philistines have more kindling than moral sense). Where’s an independent secular police or conflict counselor when you need one?
Now I find it very interesting that none of this intervening set up ended up in the Downey/Burnett version. By editing out all the tit-for-tat background they give the quite inaccurate impression that the house fire stemmed solely from the Philistine leader’s outrage over inter-tribal marriage. It was at this point that Samson commenced to smite the lot of them “hip and thigh with great slaughter,” by the way, which the Downey/Burnett version did include in their show.
Now Samson continued to show his poor judgment of girlfriends when he immediately fell for another Philistine of questionable character, Delilah (rather sympathetically treated in “The Bible” version) — who participated in an even more contrived scheme to learn the secret of his marvelous strength. As with the sucker bet earlier, the Philistines threaten Delilah to find out the secret of Samson’s strength, but once again the Downey/Burnett version edited down the story: the Bible has Delilah pumping him about the secret of his strength, and Samson giving her blatantly wrong answers, which she would convey to her Philistine extortionists, who would then discover Samson was still strong.
This went back and forth and back and forth to the point where it ought to have been obvious to both Samson and Delilah that something was very suspicious about the others’ behavior, yet neither seemed to notice. Suddenly turning dull as a sack of hammers, though, Samson stupidly spilled the real beans about the curious correlation of his strength and hair length (the only part of the sequence that ended up in “The Bible”), followed by the dramatic sheering, blinding, and temple toppling that likewise provided Cecil B. DeMille with a nice vehicle for Victor Mature back in the 1940s.
At this point the secular historian in me can’t help wondering, as with the incinerated citizenry of Sodom and Gomorrah, whether the Philistines were being fairly treated in the original Bible stories in the first place (where even the Judges account gives us pause, such as the field burning incident). We have no independent accounts of any of these tales. These people may have been as lopsidedly iniquitous as the Bible proclaims — or maybe not. All you have to do is think of how extremist Palestinians and Israelis characterize each other today (or the combatants in any civil war or similar conflict) to wonder whether we might be handling tales like Samson very differently had we some accounts of it from the Philistine perspective.
Watching “The Bible” brought to mind 20th Century Fox’s 1937 film “Suez” (about the building of the canal back in the 19th century) that got its history so out of sync (canal builder Ferdinand de Lessups having an affair with Empress Eugenie when the latter would have been still a teen, and long before marrying Napoleon III) the French government lodged a snitty protest. Who then should raise a hand to protest the distortions in the Downey/Burnett version of the Samson story?
Well, I guess we have to. Treat the text fair and square, or as dramatic exercise — but maybe you can’t manage both (at least with a straight face) when it comes to religious topics.
Next installment in “The Bible” saga: the Exodus, Samuel and Saul, when God puts his thumb on the moral scale.
Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose. He’s always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor’s in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).