Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

History Channel’s Satan and President Obama

Many viewers of the History Channel's Bible mini-series saw and see a resemblance between the character of Satan and President Barack Obama. Comparison photos such as the one above are circulating on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. The History Channel denies any resemblance and any attempt to pattern the character after the President.

Whether one sees a resemblance or not, the History Channel has produced a biblical epic with virtually no actors from contemporary corollaries of biblical lands, so the North African (Moroccan) actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouzaani is highly visible as Satan in a production where the Israelites are portrayed by white actors. I have previously addressed the use of race in the series here and here and here. The History Channel is responsible for what it broadcasts just as the producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, and their casting agents are responsible for the product they produce.

I can't say whether the resemblance between the Satan character is intentional or not, or present or not if it is not visible to some viewers. I can say that the casting of this actor for this role was an intentional one. He looked the part to someone. Whether that was because of a resemblance to the President of the United States in full makeup or because he is a North African is equally problematic. 

I say as a biblical scholar that the casting of this series is unhistorical as it pertains to the Afro-Asiatic world of the bible with one or two critical exceptions. At the same time, the treatment of race by these producers reproduces the racist history of Christianity in the West, particularly in the Americas where it supported and benefited from the Atlantic slavetrade.

The choice to make Samson a big black man with a sexual appetite for white women was an intentional one. The choice to erase Samson's father from the narrative so that his black mother was single mother was an intentional one. The choice to cast essentially every other biblical character from lands corresponding to those from Egypt to Iraq with white actors, including some with Scottish and British accents was intentional. The choice to portray the creation of the first human as a white man emerging from sandy white soil rather than a black or brown person arising from the red-brown soil of the region was an intentional one.

The History Channel's production is aimed at an American audience – in addition to a global one – at a time when the first African American President of the United States is subject to repeated insults and regular disrespect from public and political figures. This production with its whitewashing of the people of God on whom colonizing settlers modeled themselves as they exterminated Native Americans like Canaanites and enslaved Africans like Gibeonites is contributing to the racial discourse at the present moment. And what it is contributing is a distortion of beloved biblical history and fodder for white-supremacist ideologies based on racist interpretations of the bible. 

It might all be the working of a collective unconscious. Yet even on that level it is intentional, real, present and destructive.

14 Responses

  1. Candace

    I always enjoy reading your blogs. I find it troubling that soooooo many Christian pastors are touting this hollywood series as the only vehicle for God to be heard and seen. How about living the life we preach about. That will bring many people to Christ and also help heal those who’ve been damaged at the hand of church clergy and the irresponsible rhetoric, theology and sermons. I have read the tweets and postings of preachers glossing over the non-factual series as not a big deal. But it’s interesting that even Spielberg, Whitaker and Scorcezee (?spelling) will consult historians and professionals when producing a film.

    18 March 2013 at 3:52 pm

  2. Dr. Gafney I agree 100%. I talk about this series a lot and the mere fact that it is on TV appeases the “evangelistic” nuance that many churches have negated. Wrong information can do more damage than no information. I am reminded of the “serpent” in the garden. The truth was presented while the lie was the underlying presupposition that was filtered into the truth. It amazes me how easily people of “faith” are swayed by what appears to be a biblical truth when the underlying presupposition from the creators of this “Bible” series is filtering racism and sexism into a story that should liberate. The Satan resemblance issue is evidence that although we have come this far by faith, we must continue to speak up on behalf of the marginalized whether they know they are being marginalized or not.

    18 March 2013 at 4:00 pm

  3. What The History Channel has done in the series on the “Bible” is so very sickening, racist, disgusting and disturbing to me and many of my Anglican and Catholic friends. THC has sunk to a new low and poisoned the minds of countless people who will accept THC’s interpretation of portions of the Bible in an “acceptable” form. Thank God for the sound Doctrine and Teachings of The Episcopal Church!

    18 March 2013 at 4:17 pm

  4. I have a question… Did anyone notice where the serpent that became Satan come from? It actually slipped unto the scene from under the left side and over the arm of the Jesus character as he was lying almost passed out on the desert floor. I’m recording the series and hit the rewind several times to make sure.

    The serpent/devil did not come TO Jesus; it came FROM Jesus.

    So, are the writers/producers of this show merely using the obvious departures from accuracy as a smoke screen so they can surreptitiously send some type of sinister message?

    If the devil can make you think he does not exist that’s half his battle. Suppose this is the message that the production wants to send? That there is no devil; that the devil is only a figment of Jesus’ imagination that resulted from his delirious state.

    18 March 2013 at 7:53 pm

  5. Your posts are great. I tweeted yesterday about not watching this because the whole idea broke my heart and made me so sad. Got an email today from someone who said several ugly things, but mostly ranted about why I would be upset by the global spreading of God’s word.

    If that’s what this actually was, I’d have less of a problem with it. The deal is, however, this is the global spreading of evil manure and I don’t feel great about the harvest it will reap.

    Racist, misogynous lies and poison and many folks will swallow. They won’t bother to dig for the truth or have their prejudices bruised by facts. That’s my problem.

    18 March 2013 at 8:04 pm

  6. Helen DeLeon

    I chose not to watch this series, because I was pretty certain it would not present an accurate or unbiased view of the story of humankind working out its relationships with God and one another. It would appear that my concerns are well founded and understated. I am very sorry that yet another misrepresentation of the Bible has been given such a public viewing.

    19 March 2013 at 3:49 pm

  7. PhilR56

    Having missed the first few episodes, I anxiously used my TV subscription service to view them on my laptop. After a few scenes, it was glaringly obvious — another whitewashing of the greatest story every told. I was going to use this series in my children’s church classes, but I’m determined to find more historically, racially and culturally accurate material. Hence the challenge awaits. I’m open to suggested sources.

    20 March 2013 at 11:53 am

    • Wil

      I find the visuals from the Lumo Project an indigenous Palestinian film series stunning:

      20 March 2013 at 1:22 pm

      • Philip

        Thanks for the tip, Rev Wil. I downloaded the Gospel and Easter mini movie series. The content was as you described, however, I was extremely disappointed with the amount of content provided for the rather hefty price. I don’t recommend using them unless they are more forthcoming with better details about content for the price.

        20 March 2013 at 10:23 pm

        • Wil

          I was surprised by the prices too. The free demo clips, about a minute each are useful. I also think of the prices as donating to the enterprise. Peace.

          20 March 2013 at 10:41 pm

  8. Spot on. I wasn’t inclined to watch this anyway and now I’m glad I didn’t. What’s disturbing is how many people remain oblivious to the prevalent racism. The ongoing disrespect of the president is disturbing enough but when that same racism is all mixed up in religion it’s so much the worse. Impecibly written as always. Thanks. J.B.

    22 March 2013 at 11:02 pm

  9. Pingback: The Bible Miniseries: Some Thoughts on the Past Episode | The ReBoot

  10. Pingback: » Whitewashing Jesus’ Judaism The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

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