Black Samson and White Women on the History Channel

In portraying the biblical story of Samson, the History Channel offers viewers a modern day Mandingo fairy tale that reinforces racial stereotypes.

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, Western world and has its roots in the Eastern world. One would think that a media outlet which entitles 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.

Nonso Anozie portrays Samson in the History Channel miniseries on The Bible

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 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 Eastern 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 the 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.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on WilGafney.com

About the author, Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

Wil Gafney, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, and is an Episcopal Priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. She is also a member of the Dorshei Derekh Reconstructionist Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia, PA. She has co-taught courses with and for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary in Wyncote, PA. For more information, visit WilGafney.com or follow her on Twitter: @wilgafney.
  1. You’re own racism makes you see racism here. and it appears you hate the content of the Bible itself far more than the History Channel’s production of the stories. Your resume doesn’t make your foolish comments any less foolish. You should use your position and education to add value to society and spread a positive message instead of writing garbage like this to beg for hate and anger from your readers. With a little effort I’m sure you can find something else to be miserable about..

    • So you call Gafney a racist, but I see not a single example of what she got wrong. Is there even one description of the real Biblical text she gives that is inaccurate?

    • Perhaps research into the proper usage of “you’re” and “your” may be of interest to you, Lewis.

      • grow up Katie. This article is just more garbage to try to fuel unnecessary hatred. In the same article she complains about both 1) Lack of diversity and 2) diversity where she didn’t want diversity. If you enjoy reading stuff like this you probably seek drama in other areas of your life as well. My point is get your drama and hate elsewhere. Let people enjoy the Bible stories. I thought Nonso did a great job as Samson, and I only found this angry article looking for his IMDB page. Why don’t you whiners produce your own Bible series and make all the actors whatever skin-tone you find Biblically and politically appropriate. I enjoyed this show. I hope all your children watch it behind your backs and receive the intended message that the Bible is for all races of people. Sorry if you’re busy trying to teach your kids something different.

        • Lewis, if one of the primary rules of Christianity is “Thou Shalt Not Lie,” but one tries to revise the source material through inaccurate casting that willfully ignores historical and anthropological evidence, then yes, that is a lie. Fact of the matter is, there are no white people in the Bible, they’re all of East Asian/Middle Eastern/North African descent. However, the series uses, by far, mostly whites in heroic roles and people of color in villainous (the Pharoah, Satan) or non-human roles.

          • Samson was the hero and God’s instrument in this story. And Delilah, was the one who deceived him. So… in case you decided to ignore the obvious, you have a black hero, and a white villain, in the very episode you all are complaining about. The readers of this website have some of the worst logic I’ve ever run into. This is just racism shrouded in religion – the clan uses that same approach. Good work everyone. So-called Christians looking for an excuse to stay racist… Pathetic. I wish I’d never found this site. I’m done.

          • Praise the LORD.. There are two kinds
            of will of God that we should be mindful
            of – the directive and permissive will of
            the LORD.

            Directive will – God wants Jesus to suffer
            and for the sins of the world even though
            Christ did nothing wrong.

            Permissive will – God doesn’t want evil
            to destroy people, but he will allow folk
            to do wickedly and to be killed by others
            for a greater good.

            It was God’s will that the black Jews forget
            ( Jer 17:4 ) that they were his people b/c
            he was going to ( Psa 83:3 “hidden”) hide
            them among humans.. The real Jews have
            the spirits of angels as did Jacob… Most
            blacks are human, so all these “Israelites”
            on YouTube saying they are Jews or not..

        • Lewis, even when Jesus was walking the earth, the ancestors of white people as we know them in America today, were running around naked in northern Europe and did not even know how to make fire. Had Julius Ceaser not gone to Germany and other northern European regions and ask the white man to come out of the caves he was living in and teach him how to make fire and cook, Europeans will still be living in the caves. Casting Jesus Christ as white is an insult to Jesus himself and is equivalent to casting King Henry VIII of England as black.

        • @lewis
          I agree with you. I enjoyed the series, and I hope people who have never read the Bible got a chance to see it.
          On an interview, Roma and Downey said that the show might cause some “knots” but that is why the church is here, “to untie those knots” and bring clarity.

  2. I agree that the black Samson was completely inappropriate and was an in our face forced acceptance of diversity, where there was no diversity. When I saw the black Samson laying next to Delilah, my TV was turned off. Fortunately, my daughter is only 21 months and does not know any better but I feel sorry for all of the fathers whose daughters may have witnessed such an abomination. History Channel had to get PC on us…

  3. I am a bit confused as to why it is an issue. I think it is excellent for our children to finally see African representation in Biblical productions. This makes a difference in getting children to relate to the Bible. Moreover, none of us were alive then, so all we can do is speculate about the race of biblical figures. Let us not dig too deeply into this. Step one is there is a major character who is portrayed as an African. The next step is to make our productions..

    • Because it is historic revisionism and it is not true!

      • Okay, so when African-American actors played Gambians in Roots is that revisionism? It was still one of the greatest American miniseries of all time and stimulated real discussion about slavery and race relations. Over analysis of who plays what role can kill the general message. One has to be careful about that.

        • Technically yes. Even an English woman playing the role of the NCIS agent in NCIS Los Angeles yesterday is not only revisionism but outright lie. How many English accented agent, let alone a female agent do you see in the real NCIS locaed in DC or LA? None. Long time ago my ex-boss told an audience that speaking Queen’s english does not a royalty make. Speaking with a sexy English or Aussie accent does not a real life NCIS make.

        • your response was plain stupid, especially as you used the word African-american, and then have a problem with this person playing a gambian. where exactly is Gambia again? what does African american mean again? exactly. now sit down.

  4. I will not watch another moment of this politically correct, factually inaccurate series. Is there no end to the white woman with a black man politically correctness in our society? More white apologists at work on the History Channel. I am very thankful my daughter has no interest in this show and did not see that disgusting display.

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  6. Fantastic, insightful writing! As a former Christian, I can appreciate a believer that so boldly confronts the shortcomings of the Bible. Very thought-provoking. It’s a shame these other comments are so lame

  7. I watched about an hour of the first of the series and saw that the whole presentation was a sham. When I tuned in and saw a Black Samson with Dreadlocks. I was astonished. Not angry nor upset just astonished. It’s fine with me but I never ever heard this as being a truth.

    My Bible is accepted as TRUTH of God’s word. Oh well. I didn’t get much from, “The Passion of the Christ”, either.

    I don’t care if the Nordic past of Santa nor the Easter Bunny is Black as well.

    So every Generation has its own phobias of how characters are supposed to appear. Now it’s the Black man. Soon enough it will be the Hispanic man. Which I believe will be closer to the truth.

    • I am so surprised that alleged religious people are so caught up in the race of who is playing what role. What if your child is barred from playing a particular part in a biblical based school play because of race? Will you be happy with that.? Face it. There are plenty of African actors and actresses who are going to get roles in biblical movies because it is a good fit. I was proud to see Sampson and his mother played by Africans. Africa is on the rise. Whether it is Barack Obama, Akon, Farai Chedeya, Idris Elba, Djimon Honsou the many African background athletes at the college and professional level, etc…Africans are having a strong impact on American society. Those who are scared of the competition should simply pray and try to get better. Africans will no longer sit back and be portrayed they way the rest of the world wants it. Thank you for your time.

      • People are not getting a role because of their race, already. Have you ever watched CSI…all white cast in a heavily Hispanic city. NCIS LA does not have any Hispanic actor based in Los Angeles let alone an Asian. Hawaill Five 0 has been trying to get rid of its Asian actos for a while now and almost succeeded last year.

        • Correct..they did not get the role because of race. They got the role because they were good. In this case, Africans got the role of Sampson and his mother. Some people are jealous. Too bad. By the way Obama is the president of the USA and Akon is one of the leading R&B artist on the planet. Sorry that they are not in villages starving. People have trouble accepting change.

  8. While on this subject. Has, “Snow White” and the seven Dwarfs been corrupted yet?

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  10. Funny how the people screaming that Samson is a black man (!) don’t say a word about Jesus being portrayed as a white man in most American pictures and series, despite being born in Jerusalem! Hypocrites,

    • Jesus being portrayed as white is the biggest abomination to his name because when Jesus was living white people were savages practising cannibalism and human sacrifice in northern Europe.

  11. It is important that series like this one be Biblically and historically accurate. I believe that it is meant to entertain more than to inform. I perceived all of Dr. Gafney’s points upon seeing the Samson story on first sight. I was also disappointed that many, many stories were excluded regardless of what subliminal message might be inherent in their exclusions. It is important that everyone one have the right to critique and voice their critiques. Whatever our beliefs, we should be respectful and kind to one another in discourse. I try to be as Christ, respectful and kind. Isn’t that part of the message?

    • Look at King Jame bible 1611 family tree of Jesus and see who his 1st Cousin was “Simeon the Canaanite” A black man, I’m not making it up, just check the facts “Hair like wool and Feet like brass”. I was like you christain save by grace, until I did detailed study.. King Solomon “My skin is black” Bathsheba was from the tribe of Judah, see Genesis 38 …Judah married a Canaanite woman

  12. I think the bigger problem is the intentional elimination of Black women, as always. I personally trust noone in Hollywood to teach me about anything, especially osmething as polarizing as religion. Their point is the promotion of the elimination of Black women and the further weakening of any positive images of black togetherness and discouragement of Black family. It’s the new method to wreck Black relations and destroy Black families, similar to the tearing apart of families during slavery. New method, same old same ol’,The black man/white woman stuff is used for that only.

  13. Thank you so much for this article. I enjoy all the comments they illustrate the current state of our democracy. I wish people were as passionate about what’s currently happing to the planet that sustains us. I wonder how many people that comment negatively have actually read the bible because there are no specific rebuttals to your points.

  14. I agree entirely. Watching “the Bible” out of some nostalgia for the scriptures as religiously taught to me as a small child by my Grandmother. I know intimately every part of the story as it goes through Old Testament and eventually into New, although over the years I questioned many aspects of this depiction and did much research into different areas of different religious teachings. On this particular TV depiction I am questioning, however, if we should bother to tell this “story” as it is written, and as true Christians the entire world over profess to believe it, if we insist on portraying lies. Yes, we have come a long way from the complete absence of people of color in these onscreen portrayals (their roles are now are questionably selectively chosen), but there is yet to be shown a portrayal of “God” or “Jesus” as it is written in the Bible. Why is it so difficult, if one truly believes, to accept as truth, what is written, what is read, what is taught AS it is written, read and taught? Why must there be the need for distortion time and time again? Why is the answer to this question so many times a dismissive “it is not important what color God/Jesus was just his good works.” If it is not important, why then time and time again, must the depiction be of a blond haired blue eyed white skinned man, although logic and commonsense prevailing, we all know it would be an impossibility to maintain such characteristics in that region of the world? What does this say about the hatred and rejection of dark skinned peoples of the world? How can those who promote these depictions profess to be true believers of the Scripture as it is written? And why are white people so angry in their responses to this question? Is it because coming close to the truth makes them feel insecure and exposed for believing this make believe depiction? Because to point out this fallacy is not racism, it is common sense. Look at the region, the geography. Even white people on vacation for a week taking in the sun get a little reddish brown. How could someone BORN in that region who walked in the sun and lived in that region look like the portrayal of Jesus on “The Bible.” Stop lying to yourselves. Arrogance is sin and these portrayals all add up to the need for “white supremacy.” It is pathetic in this day and age for us to be so uneducated and afraid of truth. No one is fooled. Those who defend this portrayal are not fooled either, just protecting a lie that if exposed might make them feel like the outsider. God was not a white man with blonde hair and blue eyes. But if you believe that God loved all people, that means you too. Open your minds and free your soul and if you believe in the word of the scripture as it is written behold the words:

    Revelations 1:12-20

    12 And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;
    13 And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
    14 His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;
    15 And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
    16 And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.
    17 And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:
    18 I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
    19 Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;
    20 The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.

  15. Watch this 13 part series first aired on PBS to see that we all come from one region and are all one people just with physical different appearances over time. But learn how we started….

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  18. I agree with this.Let me first say i do not watch this series because like most movies or shows based on books they leave things out or change it all together.Ask yourself why is it that adam and eve are played by whites but this samson character by a black man.science has proven blacks were the first on earth so common sense would lead me to believe adam and eve were black.Adam and eve represent pure,innocence,and naivety.Samson represents a strong man with a weakness for a woman[lust] a white woman at that.The stereotype is that black men lust after white women and are strong mindless men with insatiable lust.
    The messages i get from this are: 1. blacks are not good enough to play pure,sweet,and innocent characters only whites are. 2. blacks can only play the strong characters that are bad,greedy,and full of sin.And 3, we are not good enough to represent ourselves,but whites are,we are not good enough to tell our own story,but whites are.
    Most of the people in the bible were black or of color.Including moses and maybe jesus.Let these bafoons ruin the lords word they will get theirs.

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  20. Thank you for reminding us of the whitewashing and woman-erasing revisions of the bible that most of us encounter on a regular basis. We have been taught to accept everything as “working for good,” even when it includes genocide, rape, and murder, just because it’s in the bible. Your research and critique are on point and –judging by most of the responses before mine–very necessary.

  21. Judaizing liberal Protestant negress impotently whining about racism and sexism. The most played out story in America. Boring.

  22. 1. people tend to create in their own image and likeness
    2. kinda hard to cover *everything* in a short series on the Bible
    3. make your own movie

  23. WOW. Just wow. I am always surprised when I log onto Urbanfaith.com and read site-licensed articles that run contrary to the materials we enjoy regularly in our Sunday school. I hope Rev. Gafney is not a contributor to the teaching materials.

    I always appreciate diverse points of view, especially when it comes to religion. It’s interesting to see how people’s own experiences and training inform their belief system. And Rev. Gafney really led with a strong opening about the liberties taken with the History Channel’s production of “The Bible” and the reinforcement of centuries-old stereotypes.

    However, the article ended with a rant that I recognize all too well from the Feminist Agenda and “misogynist Bible” teachings. While Rev. Gafney’s point of view and modern interpretation of the female experience in ancient Israel is a familiar one, it eclipses the thesis point of the article. It overshadows the premise of the racial agenda of “The Bible” (the production) and leaves the reader wondering if the author’s contemporary views have simply left her angry about anything associated with THE Bible (the Word of God).

  24. This article is slightly off the mark. The History channel is infact correct in depicting Samson as a black man. Afterall, no other race on the planet can aquire locks in their hair by not cutting it. All afro hair potentially ‘locks’ if not combed, brushed, or cut.
    The history channel is a wish wash of eurocentrism. The real truth here is that most of the Biblical characters, from Adam, to Eve, to Job, to Moses, to Abraham, to Isaac to Jacob to King solomon, to Nimrod, to David, to Jesus, were all BLack. The Ancient Hebrew israelites were black. This depiction is accurate,. but i bet the same history channel will show Moses, abraham, and Jesus to be white. That is Eurocentrism at its best, they pick and choose hostorical facts and fill in the gaps with their own faces as and when it suits them and because it falls in line with their evil foreign and internal policies on race. So i dont see why the writer of this article is kicking against this factual depiction. It probably means the writer need to study more of her own history and the influence of black/dark skinned people (note i did not say African, because black people have started empires and settled in countries as the first set of peoples far outside of africa). This is one race card that doesnt hold any weight im afraid.

  25. I see you delete my earlier links because people here are racist so I am put this right here

    Ashkenazi Jews Trace Ancestry To Europe Not The Near East, Ancient Jewish Men ‘Married European Women’

    http://www.ibtimes.com/ashkenazi-jews-trace-ancestry-europe-not-near-east-ancient-jewish-men-married-european-women-1417850

  26. “Tacitus, the Roman historian of 90 A.D., says that the Romans of his day popularly believed that the Jews, which then abounded in Europe, came from Ethiopia, the land of the Blacks

  27. Ethiopian (Black) Hebrew Images of JESUS CHRIST from Roman Crypts

  28. WHO CREATED JESUS CHRIST ?

  29. BIBLICAL ISRAELITES WERE BLACK, And Still Are Today!

  30. Origin of the ancient Egyptians

  31. The Jewish Kingdom of Kush (Ancient Ethiopia)- Documentary

  32. Boney M. – Rivers Of Babylon

  33. The Jews are Black pt 5 ISRAELITES CONQUERED BY ASSYRIANS

  34. THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS & NUBIANS WERE THE SAME RACE (AFRICAN PEOPLE)

  35. Absolute Scientific Evidence for BLACK EGYPT: Totally Refutes ANY idea that they were White

  36. JESUS IS BLACK!!!!!!!! undenialble proof Roman Catacombs 100 600 AD

  37. Israelites Fleeing Into Africa

  38. Are “Dreadlocks” Unlawful?…Did Isarelites Wear Them?

  39. Was Jesus Christ Black or White?

  40. Breaking News : Jesus is a black man, just accept it.

  41. Flo Rida — The Black Jesus Debate!

  42. I just want to add this right here

    Boy dressed up like Jesus Christ temporarily kicked out of school

    Marshon Sanders was booted from class for dressing up like Jesus Christ on Halloween. Highland Park High School eventually let him wear his costume, but Sanders’ mom wonders whether seeing a ‘black Jesus’ was the problem.

    http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/illinois-teen-temporarily-booted-class-jesus-costume-article-1.1504137

  43. Adam&Eve Africa and the Real Greeks

  44. THE AFRICAN PHOENICIANS/CANAANITES