• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Sunday, January 12, 2020

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Abraham's Sacrifice

    It's clear that the stories of Abraham posed a bit of a problem for the makers of "The Greatest Heroes of the Bible" series. On the one hand he is clearly one of the most pivotal characters in the entire Bible and yet they delayed telling his story until season two, and only gave him a single episode, in contrast to Moses and Daniel who got two each (though he did also feature as a minor part in the Sodom and Gomorrah episode).

    Any outward suspicion about this is only confirmed by actually watching it. The narratives about Abraham lack the big screen potential of, say, the Samson cycle, but there is a good deal of material there: the promise of children; his fathering Ishmael; the two texts about him attempting to pass Sarah off as his sister while in foreign lands;the death of Sarah; and, of course, his aborted sacrifice of Isaac. Whilst no filmmaker has really succeeded in making stand-out adaptation of the material, there is at least enough material to fill a 49-minute TV episode. The Bible Collection managed to spin it out to three hours.

    In this case, however, the filmmakers decided otherwise. The incidents with Pharaoh and Abimelech are omitted and instead a fictional conflict with an invented people-group is inserted instead. Early on Abraham accidentally kills the other son of the city people's ruler and the rest of the episode revolves around him seeking revenge, with some assistance from Hagar's uncle. This extra-biblical material takes up the vast majority of the run-time, to the extent that the dramatic moment with a knife on Mount Moriah is given just a couple of minutes. Furthermore, whereas most episodes in this series end with the spectacle of a biblical miracle, here God's moment of judgement is the fictional conclusion of this invented story.(1)

    Of course, it is possible that this additional plot has some sort of basis in some ancient tradition or script with which I am unfamiliar and, even if  not, dramatic licence is not in itself inherently problematic. In this context, however, it seems both unlikely and somewhat out of keeping with a series attempting to provide a relatively conservative affirmation of the Bible's main narratives.

    As is typical of the series as a whole,where the biblical material is used, it tends to be amended to try and place the hero in the best possible light. Abraham is problematic in this situation. The most-well known story (the testing his faith to see if he would kill his son) is almost impossible for modern audiences to relate to, at least as described in the texts, and the tale of him impregnating his slave girl only to send her and her child into the desert with just a bit of bread, some water and some divine well-wishing is not much better. Sarah takes the brunt of blame for the latter here.

    With the former, Abraham remains spatially distant from Isaac the entire time they are on the mountain, until God reveals it was just a test. At the moment Abraham unsheathes his knife he places his own body between him and his son at first, and as soon as he turns round God steps in to give him the all clear. It feels like a significantly more palatable version of the story and certainly not one which will make many think about the text in a more significant manner. Next time around the series picks up with Isaac's son in Jacob's Challenge.

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