The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Black Samson & White Women on the History Channel

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The History Channel’s miniseries on the Bible is a ratings blockbuster. The Bible is an incredibly important text in the history and culture of the United States and Western world, and has its roots in the Eastern world. One would think that the media outlet that entitled itself the “History Channel” would be concerned about those roots. One might even think that the History Channel would endeavor to expose and explore those roots. But last night on episode two, the ill-named History Channel offered us a modern day Mandingo fairy tale.

The choice to cast Nonso Anozie (a black man in a bad dreadlock wig) as Samson as is in no way an attempt to demonstrate the visual and ethnic diversity of the ancient Near East in which this story is set, specifically the West Asian, East and North African context of the scriptures. The absence of characters of African descent up to this point makes that clear. (Just as the use of Black and Asian actors for angels makes them wholly “other” in the cast and not legitimate human bodies.)

That Samson is a big black man with brutish strength and a predilection for white women is no accident in this casting or production. One of the hallmarks of Rona Downey’s and Mark Burnett’s vision of the Bible is the erasure of the Afro-Asiatic Israelite ethnic identity and its replacement with a white, American fundamentalist Christian identity. They do this in several ways.

1) Casting: they cast an abundance of white American and European actors and occasionally paint some dirt on their faces to make them look a little brown. Consider the creation of humanity, told in a flashback. Humanity was created from the humus, an earthling from the earth, in Hebrew an adam from the adamah. Instead of the rich brown-red soil native to Israel, Palestine and the Great Rift Valley which descends from the Holy Land down into Kenya and Tanzania, the producers use sandy white soil from which springs a sandy white man. However, Satan is played by a Middle Mastern man, Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni. While widely advertising a “Hispanic” Jesus, the producers actually cast a Portugese actor, Diogo Morgado, with white skin as Jesus. His skin has to be white since Roma Downey (of Touched By An Angel fame, part of the powerhouse team along with Mark Burnett behind this anachronistic whitewash of the bible) cast herself as the Blessed Virgin Mary – shades of Mel Gibson casting a white Jesus so he could insert his own feet into certain shots.

2) The second way the production replaces authentic Israelite identity with a white American fundamentalist and evangelical construction is in the use of quintessentially American race motifs like that of the big black buck or Mandingo, the brutishly strong, bestial black man and his preferential taste for white women. By transforming all of the Afro-Asiatic Israelites into white people, “simply” casting an Afro-British actor as Samson stages a lynching propaganda piece that the Klan would be proud of under the cover of the bible and “diversity.”

3) The third re-writing strategy of the team involves gender. The bible is an androcentric and patriarchal text. It is also a text that has many women’s narratives, including those of strong women wielding power and authority in spite of their patriarchal and androcentric context. There is no room in the Burnett-Downey recreation of the bible in their own image – right down to their own skin tones – for strong biblical women so they simply exclude them. A partial list of the women who have been cut from the narrative include: Yocheved, Moses’ mother and the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Zipporah, Moses’ wife and her sisters so that Moses is not the product of a strong community of women all of whom save his life in different episodes, but a lone ranger, a man who became a hero on his own. Hoglah, Milcah, Maacah, Noah and Tirtzah, the daughters of Zelophehad who are mentioned in more biblical books than there are Gospels, for whom God changed inheritance laws in the Torah that women might receive an inheritance – not worthy of attention. The great woman-warrior, Prophet and Judge (sharing those titles with Moses and Samuel and no one else, not even Joshua) Deborah, who ruled the nation – excised. Hannah, the theological revolutionary who taught the priesthood how to pray – unnecessary.

There is a final whitewashing, silencing strategy employed by these producers. That is sanitizing genocide, slavery – when the Israelites are the slavers, sexual violence and heterodox theologies. The bible is a wonderfully rich, complicated, challenging, illuminating, revelatory text. It is also horrifically violent and does not say what we want the way we want it to. We must take it in its entirety seriously as a cultural and historical artifact and as scripture – if that is our confession. But this series erases the texts in which Joshua and the Israelites slaughter babies, kill their mothers, fathers and brothers and take their sisters as war-brides as long as they haven’t had sex – prepubescent girl-children – on the orders of Moses and God. They ignore the texts in which God calls for the enslavement of non-Israelites and their children in perpetuity – the scriptural and theological basis for the Atlantic slave-trade and American slavocracy. They ignore the texts in which entire ethnic groups are exterminated by divine command. And they even ignore the horrific sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls within Israel: Lot’s offer of his daughters to be raped by a mob, Israelite fathers selling their daughters into sexual slavery with the permission of God and Moses, a Judge of Israel sacrificing his daughter like an animal and celebrated as a hero of faith in the New Testament, abduction, rape, forced pregnancy used repeatedly as tools of war. Bathsheba’s abduction and rape recast as consensual adultery.

In the American context when rape is being redefined while male bible-thumping legislatures require physicians to forcibly insert instruments into women’s vaginas one day and deny them access to legal medical procedures the next, it matters that and how the bible is being distorted in primetime. Whereas evangelical leaders like Jim Wallis watched with “great delight,” I watched with horror.

In the American context the Israelite identity has been claimed by Christians and particularly by Western, European Christians who were also constructing the categories of white into which they placed themselves and the Afro-Asiatic Israelites. And, the United States was viewed, claimed and seized as a new Canaan for the new Israelites to conquer and subdue, hosting the reincarnation and reenactment of biblical slavery painted in black and white. This is why the whitewash of the bible on the History Channel is so pernicious. It is a continuation of slave-holding racist exegesis. And they ought to be ashamed.

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45 Responses

  1. Thank you for this! Needs to be said, for sure.

    11 March 2013 at 11:18 am

  2. So many things to say. I will focus on this: Roma Downey the BVM. At age 53. About 40 years older than the original. Okie dokey.

    11 March 2013 at 12:04 pm

    • avatar
      Wil

      Patricia, I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe she’s the older mother at the Crucifixion or something. IMDB doesn’t give specifics. But the racial implications still hold.

      11 March 2013 at 12:11 pm

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I have passed on your comments to many of my students.

    11 March 2013 at 12:26 pm

  4. This is a fascinating breakdown of the series. I’ve not watched it (I don’t have cable), but you hit the nail right on the head with your analysis. Perpetuating the commonly-held Biblical stereotypes is disappointing, if not entirely surprising.

    11 March 2013 at 1:09 pm

  5. avatar
    Daniel O

    We have no idea what Batsheva’s feelings were during that incident in second Samuel. While the common interpretation of consensual adultery has plenty of holes in it, there is just as little evidence for an interpretation of rape and abduction. Yes, it sounds like this series really does whitewash, but don’t be so presumptuous yourself to privilege your interpretations above others.

    11 March 2013 at 1:14 pm

    • avatar
      Wil

      Daniel O speak for yourself. Not we. But I. And I reading the text in Hebrew and English am clear that: וַיִּשְׁלַח דָּוִד מַלְאָכִים וַיִּקָּחֶהָ. There is no room for consent there. There are ambiguities in the next verb, וַתָּבוֹא, but they do not negate the previous phrase. She was abducted and walked as opposed to dragged or carried. That doesn’t indicate consent.

      11 March 2013 at 1:20 pm

    • I’m no Hebrew scholar but 2 Samuel 11:4 says that David sent messengers (deputies) and took (seized) her… David used his influence and authority as king to have his way with her so no matter how you interpret it, she was not given a choice.

      18 March 2013 at 8:51 am

  6. I hope more people read this to realize that what they’re watching isn’t the whole picture. We get enough of that view from so much of society, it would be nice if the media would contradict that society a little more often and show the truth.

    11 March 2013 at 1:24 pm

  7. Thanks for taking the time to watch the series and provide a comprehensive and credible critique! Wish there would be as many readers of your blog as watchers of the series!

    11 March 2013 at 2:48 pm

  8. avatar
    Mark Lackowski

    Fantastic article. Thank you for writing this. I look forward to sharing it with others.

    11 March 2013 at 3:05 pm

  9. avatar
    Rebekah

    In a radio interview with Downey and Burnett, prior to the airing of the first episode, they stated that Downey was playing an older Mary the Mother of Christ at the Crucifixion and that it only happened after the original woman they cast fell through, in the middle of the filming process.

    According to Downey’s account on K-Love radio, she had no original plans to appear as any character. She said it was an unexpected opportunity that she was a bit reluctant to take, but wound up finding great value in it after the fact.

    Again, it doesn’t excuse some of the other grievances listed here, but from what I could tell, it was more circumstantial than purposeful that Downey was cast in that role.

    11 March 2013 at 3:32 pm

  10. avatar
    Rebekah

    Downey’s character aside, I am glad to read some thoughtful, academic probing of the series. I’ve watched the last two weeks and was wondering if I was the only one who saw some serious holes in it as well. Thanks for sharing.

    11 March 2013 at 3:39 pm

  11. avatar
    CS

    Thx for this critique. I’m still fuming after last night’s installment. In addition, had anyone noticed that the angel appearing to (Caucasian) Joshua was Afro-American, whereas the one appearing to Mrs. Manoah (Afro-American mom of Samson) was white? That seems a bit too deliberate to make any sense at all.

    11 March 2013 at 4:20 pm

  12. avatar
    j marie

    Amen! My sister, I thought for a minute I was the only one who caught this. What do they think they are saying with this dramazation of the Bible played out like this?

    11 March 2013 at 5:25 pm

  13. avatar
    Lee

    I was looking forward to this show. As a history buff I was hoping to get a true representation of the time, culture and people. Instead we got a super hero, anglo, psuedo history. One dimensional characters that bare little resemblance to the people in the bible. Women portrayed as sinvely, whiny, and weak. Instead of ordinary people called to do extra ordinary things we got men pretending to be superhero’s. All they needed was a cape. I’m sadden by the sexism, racism and abuse of such a rich text.

    11 March 2013 at 6:21 pm

  14. avatar
    Heath-El Cheek

    Queen Wil,
    You give a detailed, scholarly and genuine look into this production. Your critique of the ethnic, sexist and theological deletion of truths that are still under addressed is refreshing. My doctoral dissertation actually addresses the misuse of Biblical images and how if it is addressed scholarly and truthfully can refreshingly benefit the African-American community who has in my opinion suffered the most psychologically and spiritually from this blatant misuse. Thanks Queen, keep shining!

    11 March 2013 at 8:10 pm

    • avatar
      j marie

      Well said Heath-El Check, will your dissertation be available to read when you finish? I would like to read it, I have always thought that the Bible images have been presented to the African American community in such a way to continue to keep us in mental boundage.

      12 March 2013 at 10:02 am

  15. Amen. Ditto. Agree. And ~ coming from a life in theatre, they are not very good actors either. *sigh*

    11 March 2013 at 8:31 pm

  16. avatar
    Belle Burnett

    Well said!

    12 March 2013 at 2:03 am

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  18. I agree with your article for the most part. This series is very weak on the true Hebraic, Arabic, African and Asian biblical history. I do not believe anyone can do justice to the Bible as it was originally given to man. I think the series is a bad production and gives the world the wrong impression of the Bible. The Bible was G-ds message to man in which He wanted to reveal Him-self and He expected Israel to deliver the message to the world. It all went badly because of Israel’s failure to do the job and so, we are left with nothing but a big mess of confusion. This is not a good truthful biblical series!

    12 March 2013 at 2:47 pm

  19. avatar
    Chris g

    Why not show historical bible like the universe series does. You can expand on very interesting stories themes etc. this is not only not very good history it isn’t even good bible recounting.

    12 March 2013 at 4:12 pm

  20. avatar
    Rev. SP

    This is an excellent article and right on point! I teach a women’s Sunday school class and this series was the topic of discussion. I brought to the ladies attention were there no available actors of color who could realistically portray the people of the time? Secondly, how do you purposefully overlook the women who have played a very important role in the history of the Bible?

    12 March 2013 at 4:27 pm

  21. avatar
    KC

    Thank you for this well-written article on the inaccuracies in the The History Channel’s “The Bible” mini-series. I watched the first episode with expectations of something great…but was greatly disappointed instead. I turned the televsion off halfway through the second episode because I was so disgusted with the improper casting and the lack of depth to any of the stories displayed. I, too, wondered where Moses’ mother and sister were (they cared for him even after Pharoah’s daughter took him in), and noticed the big, black Samson and the petite, white Philistine women. I am a white woman in a long-term relationship with an African-American man, so the interracial pairing bothered only from an historical accuracy point of view. While not a scholar of the Bible, I have studied it on my own and taken classes at a Bible college. The show is shallow display of important cultural history, and I do not intend to watch the rest of the series.

    12 March 2013 at 5:21 pm

  22. avatar
    Matthew Cothran

    This is all most likely correct information but that’s not the point of this series. After reading an interview with the producer Mark Burnett in the magazine, “Guidelines” I concluded that this series was not meant to be extremely accurate in the racial or geographical sense. It was meant to portray The Holy Bible in an accurate but easy to watch mini series. They have done a fantastic job including the facts in The Bible. The actors and actresses may not be completely accurate in their looks but the main point of this series is to introduce the Bible into a society that is slowly drifting from The Bible’s teachings. I pray that the viewers of this series will stop nitpicking for inconsistencies but focus on the story line and realize the there is a loving, all-powerfull God who will never turn His back on you. He will love you and grant everlasting life to all who accept Jesus as their Savior. Those who do this will see a dramatic change in their in life for the better! Hope everyone here has a great day!!! And Jesus loves you! :)

    12 March 2013 at 7:13 pm

  23. avatar
    jason c johnson

    well said

    13 March 2013 at 1:49 pm

  24. avatar
    Ray

    Good article, though there are a couple points I don’t agree with (particularly your interpretation of David and Bathsheba). This will help me to view the series critically.

    14 March 2013 at 4:47 am

  25. We r in the 21st century.. and yet we still portray black men as immature, overgrown, intimidating, and short tempered. All I saw in this show was …Samson lusting for white women, his mama was black, single, unwed (stereotypes are like blunt-in-your-face people ! ) and his white wife was killed for marrying him. This is all so silly on the part of the history channel. I am disappointed in the series and I have not seen all of the episodes yet. The stories of the Bible are told in “Fast Food Style”. And the whole truth from a biblical perspective is not given. First of all, the Holy Bible teaches us: Samson’s father’s name was Manoah, the mother was not single, and Samson’s wife was NOT killed. He gave his wife away to his best man because she told a riddle to the Philistines and they had to solve it. The Philistines talked Samson’s wife into giving them the answer to the Riddle. The History Channel is so racist! They could not tell the story of Samson without making it about Race because the actor in the role of Samson was black. This is 2013! They told that story like we were in the 1920′s or something. Just because The Bible has more ratings than American Idol..that does not mean the series is a success. I have seen better Bible Stories.

    16 March 2013 at 1:13 pm

  26. avatar
    olie brill

    I turned the channel off. Secerouly, it’s the same old same old, stir up racism, just when all of us were getting along and the power in charge is separating us. And these rich folks are picking up on it to get richer. Maaking a name for themselves or is it keeping themselves in the lime light.

    17 March 2013 at 3:12 pm

  27. avatar
    pralph

    I am do not believe that racism is what is happening here despite some creative (or Hollywood) liscense… It’s more believable that Samson was a man of color more than Joseph and Mary were portayed as white. The important thing is God’s redeemptive story that through the entire series God delivers people who, according to their sinful nature, keep rebelling against Him. Faithful men and women throughout Scriptural history are examples of those whose hope in the Lord is encouraging to people of our age. Let’s rejoice that this gives us opportunities to clarify where appropriate for the purose of sharing Jesus, the Savior, so that people everywhere repent of thier sins and find salvation in Him alone.

    17 March 2013 at 9:40 pm

  28. avatar
    Branna

    I’m not sure I agree with you. Men of God were mightily used by God in extraordinary ways. Samson was one of my FAV persons. All it does is point out our weaknesses as humans but even still God is there with us to the end. On another point, I liked that people from all walks were represented in the movie. We have to get use to seeing more than one type of people if we are to all be equals. That is so important in a time when many people are fictionalized. We need to come together & start seeing eachother without fear & suspicion toward eachother. Just sayin’….

    18 March 2013 at 8:39 am

    • avatar
      Branna

      I meant fractionalized… not fictionalized. Sorry.

      18 March 2013 at 8:40 am

  29. avatar
    Naomi

    I agree with the comments made about the series. I wondered how much inquiry they made about historical facts during this time. It’s inaccuracy of the ethnicity does not surprise me. Stereotyping of character is not new to the western world. Their mind set is still not global.
    What I did focus on was the sequence of events concerning the promise God had made to the Israelites. They knowingly and purposefully broke them.That is confusing. My husband looked at me and said, people were that evil back than. How is all that fighting and conquering part of God’s plan. Is it only for the Israelites?They were in constant war conquering land. It is this mentally that keeps us at war with each other. These Patriarchs sin. The rest of the world was pagan.They are the only ones protected by God.

    18 March 2013 at 1:54 pm

  30. avatar
    Raj Balasubramanian

    Whether intentional or not, the people behind The Bible have revealed some of their prejudices by casting a darker-skinned, Muslim Obama-look-a-like as Satan.

    18 March 2013 at 4:50 pm

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  33. avatar
    Carla

    Moses’ BLACK wife was left out of the story altogether! I gave up on this series last week. I’m finished!

    19 March 2013 at 11:27 am

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