Keeper of the Book: A Review of “The Book of Eli”

by Derrick G. Jeter

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord God,

“When I will send a famine on the land,

Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water,

But rather for hearing the words of the Lord.

And people will stagger from sea to sea,

And from north even to the east;

They will go to and fro to seek the word of the Lord,

But they will not find it” (Amos 8:11–12).

In a lawless land, at a lawless time where everyone did what was right in their own eyes, a man came, carrying on his back the last Bible on the face of the earth. Years before, all Bibles had been burned because the people who had survived the war and the subsequent world-wide ecological fallout believed the Book was the cause of human hatred and warfare. How wrong they were. Without the truth of God’s Word the survivors became no better than animals—feasting (figuratively and literarily) on their fellow man in an evolutionary-like struggle: simple survival of the fittest. The keeper of the Book, Eli his name, is on a quest to the west, to a place where the Bible can be protected and its truths disseminated to a starving humanity.

This is the basic premise of The Book of Eli, the post-apocalyptic movie starring and produced by Denzel Washington. Many reviews have called this a Christian movie—the most Christian film to come out of Hollywood since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Don’t be fooled however, if you see the movie, it is not a Christian movie; not because it is filled with violence (which it is) or with offensive language (which it is), but because there is no expression of faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. Though the image of the cross appears briefly, its significance is never explained. But this doesn’t diminish the message of the movie. While Eli’s faith is not specifically Christian, it is biblical. And coming from the generally faithless factories of Hollywood there is much to admire in that.

Eli is a believer in the Book, reading it at night and protecting it during the day, from evil men like Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman, who would use the Bible for his own evil ends. As we journey with Eli throughout the film, those who have some knowledge of the Bible will recognize key biblical allusions. Eli is from the east and traveling to a land in the west under the direction of a voice that came from within him, to a place he doesn’t know but will know when he arrives. This is the story of Abraham leaving the land of Ur in response to God’s call. “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, / And from your relatives / And from your father’s house, / To a land which I will show you’” (Genesis 12:1). Along the way, Eli’s Abraham-like travels quickly reveal that he is also on an Exodus or Moses-like journey. Eli has been walking for thirty-one years in a wilderness wasteland, hoping to make it to the promised land (see Numbers 14:32–34).

Other allusions, perhaps not as well known, are also visible in the movie. Though the movie never says, I suspect that Eli is short for Elijah. Like that prophet of old, this Eli metes out justice and believes that he alone is the possessor of God’s Word (see 1 Kings 18:20–40; 19:10, 14). At the end of the film, Eli’s protégé, Solara (Sun), takes on Eli’s responsibilities as Elisha did after Elijah was taken up into heaven (see 2 Kings 2:9–14). When asked how he came to be the keeper of the Book, Eli explained that a voice—the one that came from within—directed him to a pile of rubble, where he discovered the Bible buried, to keep it from falling into the hands of the the Bible-burners. This is an allusion of the Old Testament priest, Hilkiah who uncovered the Torah (the Law of God), which had been hidden away years before to preserve it from wicked king Manasseh’s perversion of Jewish worship (2 Kings 22:8–13; 2 Chronicles 34:14–21).

The Bible is the central theme in the movie, and while it isn’t held up as the inspired Word of God, the respect it receives from both Eli and Carnegie (though for different reasons) is a refreshing breeze being blown from Hollywood. The movie makes clear the importance of the Bible as a builder of civilized societies—and the tragic personal and societal repercussions if its truths were lost. Of course it is more than just the book itself that is respected in the film. Any book that sits on a shelf and is never read, studied, understood, and applied is useless. The same is true of the Bible in a person’s life. Eli reads, studies, and memorizes the Bible, and struggles to live the truths he’s discovered there. This message is an important one for Christians, many of whom have become so familiar with the Scriptures that it has lost all allure intellectually and spiritually. But this is a radical message for non-Christians, who see little to no value in spending time in the pages of the Bible, which begs the question: “What would be lost if the Bible were lost?” The Book of Eli paints a grim picture in answer to that question.

Not only does The Book of Eli honor the Scriptures, the movie also honors faith. During one scene when Eli and Solara are walking, he tells her that “we walk by faith, not by sight.” This simple idea, from the pen of Paul to the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 5:7) is weighed down with profound meaning, both for the movie and for life. In a world devoid of faith—the world in which Eli and Solara must navigate—Eli’s unshakable faith in the truths of the Bible and in his calling offer the audience a glimpse that biblical faith is not something to fear or scorn. Biblical faith becomes, for Eli (and possibly for Solara), a cornerstone upon which one can build a truly meaningful life—even in a wilderness where everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes. And Eli’s last words, a confession every faithful person would wish to utter, proves that thirty-one years spent alone in a wasteland with nothing but his Bible (and an iPod) in answer to a call believed in faith can be a significant life indeed: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

Though it is too much to ask for a Hollywood movie to begin a revival of Bible reading and memorization, perhaps The Book of Eli will at least persuade some to peruse through that old and ever relevant book and discover what so many of us already know, that the Bible is “profitable” for life and society (see 2 Timothy 3:16). And if that were to happen then maybe the famine could be forestalled a little while longer.