• 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


    Wednesday, April 21, 2021

    Nehemiah: The Joy of Jehovah Is Your Stronghold (2020). Parts 1&2

    Nehemiah  is a rather overlooked biblical character. Not only has he been almost entirely ignored by filmmakers, but 18th and 19th century operas and plays; novelisations; picture Bibles and Christian art have been significantly less concerned with his story than that of earlier characters from the Hebrew Bible. Even those reliable staples of Victorian-era Christian Art - James Tissot and Gustave Doré only produced a handful of works between them, such as Doré's "Nehemiah Inspects Jerusalem's Walls" and "The Rebuilding of the Temple" Tissot's "Nehemiah and the King" and "Nehemiah Sees the Ruins of Jerusalem.

    So it's something of a surprise to discover that last year (of all years!) the Jehovah's Witnesses made what appears to be the first significant screen adaptation of the story. Nehemiah: The Joy of Jehovah Is Your Stronghold (2020), split into two parts, covers most of the material in Nehemiah, before delving into the Book of Malachi in towards the end of part two. That in itself is an unusual choice, but it's even harder to fathom given the film's treatment of Ezra. 

    The precise relationship between the two men is somewhat unclear. In the popular imagination, however, they are often seen as more-or-less contemporaries, not least because partway through the book of Nehemiah, Ezra pops up to read the law to the people - a moment that's pivotal to the text as a whole. Scratch the surface, though, and there are reasons to think this passage was inserted at this point in the text for thematic emphasis, rather than historical verisimilitude. It's hard to establish a smooth chronology and as a result some scholars see Ezra as preparing the way for Nehemiah's work, others see them as more or less contemporaries, while still others seeing his reforms as coming significantly after Nehemiah's.

    The film begins with a prologue that gives more or less the traditional chronology,1 and goes on to call Ezra as "a man who had come before" Nehemiah, and show that he was still around to read out the law the marketplace at the start of part two. But both men are still young and therefore contemporaries, so the decision to sideline Ezra, to the extent that he doesn't even feature in part 1, but gives such prominence to Malachi is an interesting decision. 

    This is probably an attempt to downplay the racist messages which are found in both Ezra and Nehemiah, but are largely attributed to Ezra. The film largely summarises Ezra's policy of wide-scale divorce foreign wives (Ezra 9-10) and dispelling foreigners from Jerusalem (Neh 13:3) as responding to a single misdeed, "divorcing our wives to marry foreign women" which is the most (still not that) palatable part of his policy. Later Nehemiah speaks out those who have divorced their Jewish wives to marry those from other tribes.

    The inclusion of the Malachi material takes up a sizeable portion of part 2 and allows the portion on tithing to be included. It's worth remembering at this point that this film is a teaching aid produced by a worldwide denomination - as indicated by a preacher at the start of the film - and the film includes one of the passages that is used, in various forms of Christianity, to promote the idea that 10% of church-members' income should be given to the church.

    I first watched this film a month or so ago and in the meantime the issues I've reflected most upon are to do with the sets and lighting. Even the "distressed" sets have the feel of being brand-spanking new.This is somewhat contrary to most 21st century epics, where the trend has generally been to portray all biblical era sets as being old-looking and rundown. The increasing popularity of Italy's medieval town Matera as a location is both a cause and an effect in this respect. 

    While I must admit I love the look of Matera, and that aesthetic, at the same time it's also something of a construct. As much as the buildings we see on screen represent something from the past, that does not mean they would have been old at the time of the story. Indeed, at some point, all buildings were new. Modern cities tend to feature architecture of various ages and while we might hypothesise that certain cities after a recent razing might be more homogeneous, or that the time range might be narrower due to lower standards of expertise, even those assumptions can be challenged. For example, some buildings from this era still stand today - hardly indicative of shoddy craftsmanship. Of course, what's particularly interesting in the case of Ezra-Nehemiah is that it literally is a story about a building project to redevelop a city. Certainly by the point in the film by which the building work is completed it's not unreasonable for buildings to be looking pristine. 

    That said, I'm just as bothered by the 'before' scenes (see enlarged version of the above photo). The filmmakers have attempted to make Jerusalem's walls seem damaged by a siege and 70 years of ageing, but the city still seems sterile and fake. I'm reminded of DeMille's hurriedly instructing his team on The Ten Commandments (1923) to grab bits of seaweed at the last minute so that the sea bed would look genuine when the waters parted. Struggling to put my finger on what exactly was wrong in this respect I asked Twitter and I'd like to thank the people who were kind enough to reply.2 They confirmed that the lighting was the biggest problem as well as pointing out a few other issues (such as CGI integration, post-production work and the costumes). 

    Given this is a relatively low budget film it is perhaps unfair of my to hone in on this, but it does take me right out of the film: I'm never able to buy into the world that is portrayed as being real rather than a bunch of actors on a set. Instead I find myself asking question that would never normally occur to me.3 As I prefer to keep my focus on the positive aspect of a film and the points of interest it raises, I'll refrain going into the film's various other problems such as the acting and the dialogue.

    While the film is wary of wandering away from the biblical text too much it does include a number of invented figures so the audience can experience the events from there perspective. Peleth and Imma  are a Jewish couple who originally came to Jerusalem with Ezra along with another man Raham to whom they are now in debt. (The names Peleth and Raham both feature much earlier in the Biblical chronology, but not in Ezra-Nehemiah).4 Imma and Peleth follow Nehemiah (and, by implication, God) faithfully while Raham grows to question Nehamiah's plans as well as trying to convince Peleth to sell his daughter into slavery to pay off the debt Peleth owes him. Peleth later divorces his Jewish wife to marry a Moabite.

    These fictional episodes run alongside the biblical episodes which did highlight to me various incidents that I otherwise didn't recall. The celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (Neh 8:13-18) towards the start of part 2 is portrayed in a fairly vivid fashion which makes it stand out more compared to the six verses in the text. Though perhaps it won't be quite as memorable to those who have not seen Ushpizin (2004).
    Similarly the incident where, Tobiah, one of Nehemiah's main opponents talks his way into getting a room in the temple (Neh 13:4-9).

    While the film is artistically and dramatically weak and is very selective in its presentation of the original book's most problematic area, it is the only significant attempt to adapt the book of Nehemiah - at least that I know - and so will doubtless be of interest to many seeking a dramatised version of these stories. I may post a scene guide, but for now you can view or download the two parts of this film here:

    1 - This is usually that the first Jews return in 537BC; the restoration of the temple is completed in 515 BC; Ezra returns in 458BC and Nehemiah leaving for Jerusalem around 445BC. However the film does not give a date for Ezra and moves Nehemiah up to 455BC. The JW's New World Translation agrees with most other translations that Nehemiah 2 starts in the 20th year of Artaxerxes (465-424BC).
    3 - Why has no-one taken the rubble for their own building projects as was common? Is that how we would expect walls to fall in this circumstance? Why have the fallen stones weathered so much more than the stones? These are pedantic questions, I know, but the come from pulling at the thread of "why does this world not seem genuine?". 
    4 - Peleth is named as the father of one of those who complain in Num 16:1 alongside Dathan who alone tends to be the token dissenter in Moses adaptations, Presumably he is also father of the Pelethites mention in various lists in Samuel Kings and Chronicles. Raham just gets a single mention in 1 Chron 2:44. Interestingly the filmmakers do not use the names of those listed as returning with Ezra in Ezra 8 as they are only the heads of clans and, I imagine, they wanted to show the experience of ordinary people like the Witnesses for whom the film was intended.

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