Beasts of the Bible

Producer by Simcha Jacobovici, Associated Producers, Ltd. (2010)

DVD, 90 minutes
Reviewed by Leonard J. Greenspoon

List your favorite Biblical beasts. Surely, you’ll include the serpent of the Garden of Eden, Jonah’s whale/large fish, Behemoth, and Leviathan. Predictably, and often frighteningly, these beings make an appearance in Simcha Jacobovici’s DVD, Beasts of the Bible, along with the crocodile into which Aaron’s rod turns, the Philistine deity Dagon (half human/half fish?), six of the ten plagues, and cherubim. All of this—and more—is packaged in a way that will inform and entertain some viewers, while frustrating and perhaps even infuriating others. Or, as was the case with this reviewer, there was much to like and to dislike in the film’s almost 90 minutes.

This project has the sponsorship of a number of well-thought-of Canadian institutions, as well as Jacobovici, the Naked Archaeologist. About Jacobovici, scholarly opinion is decidedly mixed, as is also the case with cryptozoology, whose adherents figure rather prominently among the DVD’s “experts.” At the same time, I hasten to point out, the leading spokesperson throughout Beasts of the Bible is Timothy Beal, a Case Western Reserve professor whose judgment strikes me as sober and sound. (He is also very photogenic, which is not alas a sure criterion for authority, as witnessed by the snippet from a professional mermaid, who avows, not unsurprisingly, that real merpeople probably do exist.)

The producers and writers of this DVD tend to take a literal approach to the Biblical text: If Genesis 3 mentions a serpent that walks, then we should seek such a creature either in evidence of fossils or in animals still roaming the earth. Thus, the serpent may well have been some form of salamander, and the ten plagues involving beasts reflect attacks by mosquitoes, but also by anthrax and other bacteria. Those who read such Biblical accounts in non-literal ways are not likely to be moved by the material amassed in these sections of the video.

However, Beasts of the Bible allows for nonliteral readings as well. Thus Jonah’s whale/big fish is not taken as a real animal, but rather as a manifestation of Jonah’s fear and sense of alienation while afloat during a long winter’s night, with the constellation nicknamed the Whale’s Belly showing prominently in the skies. Should we doubt, we are shown a re-creation of the very sky Jonah would have seen at 8:30 p.m. on December 21, 760 B.C.E.

Literal candidates for Behemoth and Leviathan are sought and then dismissed. The view propagated by the narrator (one with which I agree) is that these animals are intentionally unknown and mysterious.

The film’s creators take special satisfaction in correcting what they see as common translation mistakes involving beasts. Thus the animal into which Aaron’s rod turned was not a snake, but a crocodile. This interpretation allows for some gruesome fighting between Aaron’s humongous crocodile and the rather puny exemplars conjured up by Pharaoh’s magicians. The “eagle” that is generally understood to be one of the four faces of the cherubim in Ezekiel 1 is reclassified as a type of vulture, whose flying and eating habits are determined to meet best the Biblical descriptions.

Throughout the film, we are introduced to later Jewish and Christian interpretations; in fact, such material takes up at least as much time (and probably more effort) than the strictly Biblical analysis. The relevance of these excursuses is not always clear, as when medieval descriptions of Dagon as half fish/half human are dismissed as, well, nonbiblical. Fair-minded viewers cannot, however, dismiss all of this extrabiblical speculation, some of which is just plain fascinating as well as bizarre.

Although I am ambiguous about this product, it certainly succeeds in opening up a vast storehouse of information and speculation about Biblical beasts. At the same time, it does not always seem to know what to do with such a treasure trove. Beasts of the Bible, it seems to me, can be viewed most profitably and most effectively in combination with other materials (printed and electronic) and as part of group study and discussion. In this way, some of what I view as the film’s excesses can be tamed, even if all of its beasts cannot.

Leonard J. Greenspoon holds the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and he writes BAR’s “The Bible in the News.”

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