The Bible: History Channel version

Without really intending to, I found myself watching a segment of the History Channel’s The Bible, about the birth of Moses: the slaughter of Hebrew babies, the rescue from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, his place in the royal household. Even while experiencing discomfort bordering on revulsion at the production’s occasional exaggeration and amplification of the biblical narrative, I couldn’t stop watching as Moses kills a cruel Egyptian taskmaster; flees into the wilderness looking for all the world like Norman Mailer after a night of drinking, brawling and carousing; and encounters Yahweh in a burning bush that reminded me of a Saturday night fireworks display over Navy Pier here in Chicago. I watched on, apparently as millions of other American viewers did – many more than expected – as Moses returns to confront the new Pharaoh he had bested and wounded in a sword fight years before, when they were young men growing up in the royal palace. I don’t recall anything like that in the Bible either, but on I watched: the plagues, the Passover angel of death moving through the city streets as a stealthy fog with a mind of its own (like the fog of insecticide spewing from city trucks driving down the alleys of the town in which we lived at the time before we realized that we were poisoning our own children along with the mosquitoes), the frantic escape and heart pounding race to the Red Sea, which parted in the nick of time and then flooded over Pharaoh’s pursuing army, drowning everyone.

Great stuff, even though there’s a lot of death and destruction – Egyptian infants, Egyptian soldiers, orchestrated and carried out by God.

The problem with cinema and television representations of the Biblical story is that they are so utterly literal. Most of us, over the years come to an accommodation with biblical texts that stretch the imagination – the sun stopping, for instance – particularly texts that portray God as vengeful, angry, murderous. We parse the Red Sea story as a myth, in the best sense, a story about an important truth about God and human beings that rises above the details of the story itself. Maybe it was a swamp, the “Sea of Reeds,” maybe the pursuing Egyptian chariots became mired in the mud, maybe the people of God remembered and retold the story of their ancestors’ unlikely escape from Egypt and added details with each generation’s retelling. The trouble with the History Channel’s The Bible is that it tells the story literally, in living color, and somewhere in the process a distortion occurs. It is the same distortion that is inherent in all biblical literalism. Drowning and dead Egyptian soldiers are not the point here. The point is the gracious providence of God that operates in history as hope and justice and love.

As I watched, mesmerized, I found myself asking, “Who could believe in a God like this?” Later in the story, “Who could believe in a God who orders his people to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, making certain that everyone – women, children, cattle, are all dead, to make way for God’s people?” Who could believe in a God like that? The problem with literalism is that it misses the point in the effort to get the details of the story right.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan who directs The Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico and writes a daily online meditation which I try not to miss, offers a working hermeneutic for interpreting scripture. About any text, Rohr proposes, “If you see God operating at a lesser level than the best person you know, then the text is not authentic revelation.” If God is love (1 John 4:16) then no person could be more loving than God, Rohr says. “God is never less loving than the most loving person you know”.

God only knows how many people can’t believe in God because of what the Bible seems to say and what many people seem to believe about God. Most of us develop something like Rohr’s hermeneutic over the years and, in fact, do not believe, indeed cannot believe, that God told the Hebrew people to kill everyone who got in their way. Maybe they did it, killed everyone. People do those kinds of things consistently in history. But the voice they heard telling them to kill everyone wasn’t God. It couldn’t have been.

The sad reality is that many do not operate with that hermeneutic and continue to believe that God orchestrates death, destruction and human suffering, and orders people to kill. And that, in my mind, is a gross and harmful distortion.

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