What Star Wars Stole from the Bible
In the middle of the seventies, George Lucas was collaborating with screenwriter Phillip Kaufman on the early stages of a project. Their character would be a hero archaeologist but the trick was figuring out what exactly he would be searching for. At one point Kaufman referenced something called The Ark of the Covenant. Despite his Methodist upbringing, Lucas had never heard of the Biblical item that contained within it the Ten Commandments written down by Moses.
Phillip Kaufman and Lucas soon parted ways as collaborators. However, The Ark obviously had a lasting impact on Lucas as it reappeared as a plot device (a kind of theological MacGuffin) for his movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Most audiences don’t know that “Raiders” was not the first movie of Lucas’ to borrow from the Bible. A 1977 science fiction film directed by Lucas, titled “Star Wars,” borrowed more than the Ark of the Covenant for its story. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bible’s depiction of men dying for having glimpsed inside the Ark is found in the same book of the Bible (The Book of Samuel) that George Lucas would take the story of Star Wars from.
We think we already knew the influences behind “Star Wars.” There’s Jack Kirby’s “New Gods” series (itself heavily indebted to the Old Testament), Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey, 1950's Sci-Fi, John Carter from Mars, Flash Gordon, Kurosawa’s “Hidden Fortress,” “The Searchers,” Robin Hood, “The Wizard of Oz,” Frank Herbert’s “Dune” et al.
What the evidence points towards is the biggest inspiration being hidden in plain sight. It is contained in the most popular book of all-time. George Lucas took a Bible story and set it in a futuristic past — a past with aliens.
The idea that aliens existed in the ancient world was trendy in the early seventies. Books such as Erich von Däniken’s “Chariot of the Gods” (1968) and Louis Pauwels & Jacques Bergier’s “Morning of the Magicians” (1960) were either best-sellers or underground classics. Lucas plucked this idea from the zeitgeist and added to it a twist: what if the stories of the ancient Israelites could be made into a space epic? A kind of Old Testament spacepunk tale. From this he added all the other previously mentioned influences and made something that, at the time, felt both strikingly familiar and profoundly original.
Before he settled on “A Long Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far Far Away” the original opening to Star Wars was explicitly Biblical:
“… And in the time of greatest despair there shall come a savior,
and he shall be known as: THE SON OF THE SUNS.
— Journal of the Whills, 3:127"
The ‘Journal of the Whills’ was a kind of intergalactic holy book. The idea was that the Star Wars saga was just one story among many stories that took place in this universe and had been written down in the ‘Journal of the Whills.’ The Son of the Suns is a play on various names for Jesus Christ (Revelation 19:16. “And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.”)
Lucas used the Bible heavily for research. Denise Worrell described Lucas’ room at the time of writing “Return of the Jedi” as containing a Harper’s Bible Dictionary among just a few books on his desk. And as Martin Scorsese, obviously no fan of comic book films, recalls:
“I remember George was writing Star Wars at the time. He had all these books with him, like Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible and he was envisioning this fantasy epic.”
It also doesn’t take much imagination to see the Skywalkers as messianic figures. In “Phantom Menace,” Anakin Skywalker’s mother explains that he the result of a virgin birth. “There was no father. I carried him, I gave birth, I raised him. I can’t explain what happened.” Sounds familiar.
To understand the overarching plot of Star Wars, we’ll have to go into the Old Testament and into the life of King David. You might remember him from Sunday school. It’s the story of the farmboy that famously refused his shield and took a one-in-a-million shot to bring down a giant. That story.
The basic plot of Star Wars (1977) as well as the story of Saul & David:
A long, long time ago, in a desert far, far away, a young man living the simple life is anointed future-leader by a wise, cloak-wearing sage. This king-to-be undergoes training but soon shows a willful disobedience. A “dark side” if you will. The wise prophet comes to regret crowning this young man. Really regret it. The prophet later finds a suitable replacement for The Chosen One.
This second farmboy the prophet discovers is said to be the true heir. The only problem is that the first anointed king would like to see the second anointed king dead.
Luke Skywalker’s character arc in “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” thematically covers the first half of David’s life. It covers the story of the House of David (Luke) v.s. the House of Saul (Darth Vader) battling for kingship and supremacy. The analogy isn’t always precise (Saul and Vader both die near a place called Endor, but only the Star Wars Endor has Ewok wildlife), and as the series has continued they’ve moved away from the initial Biblical structure. It picks back up in the new sequels from this decade, with Kylo Ren in the long-haired Absalom role. Absalom, a prince, starts a rebellion that sends King David and his men into exile. He later suffers defeat in a forest battle.
There are dozens of similarities and lifts for Star Wars from the Bible but to name a few.
- The name Anakin comes from the race of giants called the Anakim (Deuteronomy 2:21, Joshua 15:14). It’s fitting that Goliath, whom David kills, is thought to be descended from the Anakim.
- David sparing the life of Saul in the cave of Abdullah is mirrored with Luke hypothetically killing Vader (Luke fails a test by killing him) in the cave of Dagobah.
- Saul’s massacre of the priests is mirrored by Anakin killing the Jedi.
- Luke’s destruction of the Death Star mirrors David’s taking out Goliath with a well-aimed slingshot. The hero in both stories turns down the use of conventional weapons to rely on spiritual intuition to slay a giant. It is accomplished using a well-placed shot to its one weak point.
- Both Saul and Vader die close to a location known as Endor. There is a Witch of Endor in the Bible and in the Star Wars universe.
- The Emperor’s design is seemingly based on classic art’s rendering of the prophet Samuel here (the ghostly apparition of Samuel, conjured up by the Witch of Endor, is a kind of B.C. version of the hologram tech that is frequently used in Star Wars).
- Princess Leia is possibly taken from Saul’s daughter Mychal. Like Leia, Mychal sides with the usurper farmboy against the ruling king, and although it may not have been planned at the time of the writing of the first Star Wars, Leia, like Princess Mychal, is the daughter of the First (Bad) King.
- Yoda is Hebrew for wisdom and “Yoda speaks the way Hebrew would sound if translated word for word. For Hebrew, particularly in the Bible, is often written verb first, then either the direct object followed by the subject, or vice versa. Case in point, in Luke’s Jedi training, Yoda says to him: “Judge (verb) me (object) by my size, do you (subject)? Hmmm?”
- Vader has lines of Hebrew written on his breastplate.
- Many of the names and cities in the original Star Wars sound Biblical. This isn’t the case for many of the names in the newest trilogy, which sound vaguely Irish (Poe, Rey, Finn).
This Bible inspiration doesn’t account for all the characters. Who is Han Solo? The closest thing might be one of David’s mighty warriors, but there really isn’t anyone like him. Does this theory make Rey a kind of Solomon? Well, he was the true heir to David, and things did come easy for him, too. And I guess this would make Emperor Palpatine … Satan? The analogy and the inspiration isn’t complete — it almost never is.
There are only so many stories in the world. In the 18th century, many years before the website “TV Tropes” existed, the great English writer Samuel Johnson wanted to pen an entire book to “Show how small a quantity of REAL FICTION there is in the world; and that the same images, with very little variation, have served all the authors who have ever written.” The Bible itself has repeating motifs and there is an entire field of theology, called typology, devoted to studying the symbols and archetypal characters related between the Old and New Testament. A story inspiring a story is as old as any story.
So as millions go to see the concluding chapter of “Star Wars,” they will be seeing a story whose first page was written a long, long time ago, in a galaxy . . . not that far away.