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‘In the Beginning’


If I seem less coherent than usual in this review of NBC’s “In the Beginning,” it’s because I’ve spent the last two months trying to teach Genesis and Exodus to two theology classes of college freshmen.

It is a rich opportunity -- with students whose immediate families are from Latin America, India, the Philippines, and the best and worst of New Jersey public and Catholic high schools -- to explain how God’s relationship with a little warrior tribe with an extremely rich literature became the basis of a universal religion.

I didn’t expect them to absorb it without resistance; but I was not prepared for the enormous variety of responses.

Some had it all in high school, thought they knew it, and skipped the footnotes in the Oxford Annotated Bible text. Some saw the patriarchs and their families as shockingly immoral -- adultery, incest, prostitutes. And how should they react to apparently random killings decreed by God, and to the Jews, having escaped slavery in Egypt, who keep slaves of their own and decree the death penalty for a too-long list of comparatively trivial offenses. Some students simply don’t like religion. Period. For others, there’s the unanswerable whine -- “It’s boring.” One student commented at the end: “I’d heard of Adam and Eve, but none of those other people.”

But the major problem in teaching the scriptures is to distinguish between the various forms of literature -- mythic tales, like the Creation and the Flood; folk history, like Abraham and family; and Moses in Egypt, for which there is limited archeological evidence -- and the transcendent truth these stories mean to convey.

Maybe film helps. I used two episodes from Krzsztof Kieslowski’s 1989 masterpiece, “The Decalogue,” contemporary dramas for Polish TV on each of the commandments. Partly because the material was visual rather than print, in spite of the subtitles, these inspired some of the best class discussions. Nevertheless, I could not assign C.B. DeMille biblical epics, because I didn’t want the DeMille literalist imagination to come between the student and the word.

Now NBC, with admirable courage and imagination, offers us “In The Beginning,” a miniseries from Creation to Moses, to be broadcast Nov. 12 and 13. Maybe I should just tell my students to watch TV.

And maybe not.

Why is it that there has never been a really great movie about the Bible? Perhaps because the director must choose between trying to recreate, with special effects, the mythical elements of the story as if they literally happened and stripping away the “supernatural” elements to capture the human drama behind the smoke and fire.

True, critics have praised Pasolini’s stark “Gospel According to St. Matthew,” but today it is largely forgotten. The only two biblical films I could assign to a class are Scorcese’s controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which takes Jesus’ humanity seriously, and the lesser-known “Jesus of Montreal,” in which a group of Montreal actors put on a revamped Passion Play at the shrine of St. Joseph and end up, tragically, repeating the Passion in their own lives.

“In the Beginning,” directed by Kevin Connor and written by John Goldsmith, who also wrote NBC’s “Mary, the Mother of Jesus,” does its best to have it both ways. The production notes emphasize all the trouble they went to in order to bring us “the best loved stories from the largest selling book of all time.” Behold 100 speaking roles, 25,000 extras, 350 crewmembers, 40 specially trained camels, 600 goats, sheep, donkeys and mules. By the time they finished their 13-week shoot, which began in Morocco in April 2000, the animals had multiplied to 700.

Which is really what Genesis and Exodus are all about -- generativity, family, having children, multiplying in order to survive. They are also about God -- not the loving Father God we learn about from Jesus, but more like a tribal chief, a reflection of the primitive nomads he has sworn to protect.

For the most part, the story moves simply and slowly. It is, like its source, domestic drama. The childless Abraham (Martin Landau), at his wife Sarah’s (Jacqueline Bisset) insistence, sleeps with the slave girl to bring forth a son, Ishmael; then, thanks to an angel’s visit, they have a son of their own, Isaac. Isaac marries Rebecca (Diana Rigg) and they have Esau and Jacob. Jacob marries Rachel, and they have 11 sons, the youngest of whom, Joseph (Eddie Cibrian), is sold by his brothers into Egypt, and so on.

To their credit, the producers have stayed reasonably faithful to their material, resisting the temptation to capitalize on sensational sex stuff in the original -- from Noah’s daughters sleeping with their father to whatever happened at Sodom and Gomorrah. And when Joseph refuses to sleep with his boss’s wife, lest he offend his God, it must be the first time a handsome young man has passed up an opportunity to have sex on TV in the last 20 years.

The story’s highest point comes early. How, I asked myself, would they handle the creation story? Answer: brilliantly. Rather than sit through the “seven days,” as if the creationists had held a gun to the writer’s head, we see Abraham, marvelously portrayed by Landau, gather his tribe around the campfire and tell them the story, as they visualize his words in their imaginations -- which is probably just how all of these stories evolved.

But the producers shelve simplicity for the crossing of the Red Sea, determined as they are, with contemporary high-tech special effects, to outdo C.B. DeMille and Charlton Heston. They add a super-twister to part the waters; but, for the most part, they mimic rather than outdo DeMille. The Oxford footnotes explain the crossing as a natural phenomenon, a strong east wind blowing back the water, allowing the Israelites to cross, and the Egyptians’ chariots getting stuck in the mud. But how many viewers with remote controls in their hands are going to devote four hours over two nights waiting for that?

Genesis’ high point is Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers, when the cult of violence and retribution that has run through the book is reversed. That Cibrian, who comes to the role of Joseph by way of college football, soap operas, and “Baywatch,” cannot do justice to the occasion does not mean the scene doesn’t work.

To impose a little continuity that the script might otherwise lack, the writers improve on the Bible by adding a symbolic “staff of Abraham,” which each patriarch passes on, like Excalibur, to his successor. And when Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt they carry the coffin of Joseph with them to bury him in the Promised Land.

I’m sure this miniseries can be read in the context of today’s headlines as a reinforcement of Israel’s claims to the Holy Land. And we cannot watch the box bearing Joseph’s bones being dragged for 40 years across the desert without cringing at the Page One photo a few weeks ago of the angry Palestinian mob destroying the Jewish shrine revered as Joseph’s Tomb.

But the point of the Joseph story is not merely a validation of Israel but its universalism -- Joseph’s ability and willingness to use his God-given talents as an administrator for the good of both the Jewish and Arab people, to refuse to be a prisoner of the past.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit community professor of the humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is raymondschroth@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2000