Exodus: Gods and Kings … and Dr. Dig
Dale W. Manor
Professor of Archaeology and Bible, Harding University
The Exodus event is one of the major events of all time. To one degree or another three major religious groups trace significant connections with it—certainly Judaism and Christianity. It heralded the Hebrews’ release from bondage to permit them finally to inherit the land that God had promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 17:6-8). For Christians, it is a vital type of liberation from sin through the sacrifice of Jesus who died in connection with a Passover (Luke 22:13-15) and which in a dualistic way is still celebrated with the Lord’s supper remembering Jesus as the lamb who has died in our stead to secure our liberation from sin (cf. John 1:29). It is small wonder that Hollywood feels compelled to try to bring to the screen visual renditions of the Exodus; the biblical Exodus easily lends itself to drama and special effects.
The latest permutation of this effort is Exodus: Gods and Kings,1 which was directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven). The director has produced an engaging 3-D version that visually dramatizes the event well-beyond earlier versions. Any time cinematographers attempt to produce a story of the Bible, conversations erupt—some applaud the commemoration of the topic, others decry the efforts. Peculiarly the positive and negative elements almost always mutually draw from believers as well as skeptics. The fact that the productions elicit conversation is potentially positive, if the biblical text and facts guide those conversations. Sadly, too many people base their understanding of the events solely on the film, either failing or refusing to go to the source—the Bible.
On a positive note, the visual effects of the movie are impressive. Too often we tend to flatten the drama to elementary Sunday School versions of the story. The 3-D component helps heighten the reality.
Manor at the Egyptian site of Tanis
In the newest movie, Moses’ introduction of the night of the death of the firstborn is interesting. Moses informs the Hebrews that they can escape the consequences of this event if they will kill a lamb and smear its blood on the doorposts and lintels; in the movie someone asks him in disbelief if that this event was really going to occur. Moses responds: “Pity the lambs if I am wrong; if I am right, we will bless them for eternity” (or an very close quotation since I was writing this down in the dark).
However, Hollywood’s difficulty to remain faithful to the Bible’s story line is a source of bewilderment. While some people think they can improve on God’s drama, they often change the storyline for absolutely no reason—there is no improvement of drama; in many ways the changes detract from the drama, especially for someone who is familiar with the biblical text.
From the standpoint of theology, when Moses finally encounters God on Mt. Sinai, the burning bush is so peripheral almost to be irrelevant—and God speaks to Moses through a child (about 10 years of age!).2 Moses apparently is the only one to see the messenger elsewhere in the movie, but when he talks to Moses, the child appears. Why portray God’s messenger as a child? Why not portray such a stupendous event with greater mystery as a voice that speaks with no earthly manifestation?3 There is no reference at all to the voice from the bush to tell Moses to remove his sandals because the ground was holy; instead, the ground was a mish-mash of a muddy landslide that had immobilized Moses almost fully engulfed in crud. (Sharon wondered if the mudslide sucked his sandals off!) It was while Moses was encased in this muddy imprisoned state that the child, “I AM,” commissioned Moses to go see his people’s condition. (Sharon also commented surprise that they had not portrayed the holy messenger as a woman!)
The movie rarely shows Moses in contest with Pharaoh, which was a frequent, and important component of the story.4 Instead, the movie portrays Yahweh’s disappointment with Moses’ efforts to train a guerilla army and directs him to abandon that effort and let him (Yahweh) take care of it all. The only meaningful encounter between Moses and Pharaoh in the movie is immediately prior to the last plague of the death of the firstborn. Moses went to the king to warn him that if he did not release the Israelites before nightfall, the firstborn in all the land would die. Pharaoh retaliates with a threat that all the Hebrew babies under two years old would be thrown into the Nile (I might have the sequence of this conversation reversed). Pharaoh affirmed that if God wanted a killing contest, he would show that the king was more adept at that task.
The Bible, however, indicates that Moses’ audience with the king was a contest between Moses representing Yahweh and Pharaoh representing the gods of Egypt (Exod. 7:1; cf. Exod. 12:12-13). Furthermore, the Bible reveals that Moses’ staff (Heb. matteh) was to serve as a sign of Yahweh’s presence with Moses. After God demonstrated his presence with Moses with the staff changing into a serpent (Exodus 4:2-4), God directed him to use the staff as the instrument of means for the signs (Exod. 4:17; note the subsequent references in the Bible: Exod. 4:20; 7:9-12 serpents; 7:17-20 water to blood; 8:5 frogs; 8:16-17 gnats; 9:23 thunder, hail, fire; 10:13 locusts; 14:16 division of the Red Sea). In the movie, before returning to Egypt, Moses delivered custody of his staff into the care of Gershom, his son; instead, Moses’ Egyptian sword was his means of support.
Some other basic storyline changes that are inexplicable are the inaccuracies of the killing of the Egyptian that precipitated Moses’ departure from Egypt (cf. Exod. 2:11-14); Moses’ departure was an official exile by Pharaoh rather than Moses’ fear of retaliation (cf. Exod. 2:15); bricks without straw only become an issue after the plague of boils (contra Exod. 5:7-18); no pillar of cloud and fire to separate Israel from the Egyptians at the edge of the Red Sea (cf. Exod. 14:19-20); and the crossing of the Red Sea did not portray the sea as a wall on their left and right (cf. Exod. 14:22), but instead returning as a cascading tidal wave/tsunami.
Historiographically, some inaccuracies portray Israel as workers to build the pyramids (the so-called Pyramid Age had ended about a millennium before Israel’s Exodus); Memphis was the scene of the palace, which according to our histories during the time of Ramses it would have been at Ramses in the eastern Delta of Egypt.5 The swords of Ramses and Moses seem to be steel, which did not exist at this point in time. Even iron was only coming on the scene although if iron was meaningfully worked at this time, it would be reasonable that Pharaoh and the generals of the Egyptian army might have had such iron weapons. Much of the movie portrays the events as having occurred at Pithom, but the geographic topography of the movie is grossly inaccurate;6 the Delta region of Egypt is very flat. On the other hand, the portrayals of Sinai are very reasonable.
In spite of these criticisms, I enjoyed the movie. Such movies drive me back to the text. Since it is usually necessary to make transitions from one episode to another, it would be difficult to make a movie based purely on the biblical text. The transitions, if done properly, can serve to tie episodes together and within this arena artistic license should occur, but it should be based on accurate portrayals of the culture, geography, and customs of the time. One of the best productions to do this was the movie entitled Abraham released by the Turner Broadcast Network.
All in all, I would argue, that even with its glitches, Cecil B. DeMille’s production of the Ten Commandments remains a better representation of the biblical storyline (and who can argue that anyone could portray Pharaoh better than Yul Brynner!).
1The movie was released to the public on 12 December 2014 and Sharon and I went to see it on 15 December.
2The Bible reads (Exod. 3:2, 4-5): “And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.’ … When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’” (ESV).
3Even the Father’s voice in the New Testament is asomatic (cf. Matthew 3:17; John 12:27-29). The only rationale that I can imagine to justify portraying God’s messenger through a child is a retrojection from Isaiah 11:6 which affirms that a “child shall lead them,” but the context of that discussion is so remotely removed from the Exodus event that it is irrelevant. Jesus, of course, came as a human to convey God’s message, but that portrayal is explicit in the New Testament text.
4Note the sequence of occasions that Moses has an audience before Pharaoh: Exodus 5:1; 7:10; 7:20; 8:1; 8:8; 8:20; 8:29-31; 9:1; 9:8-10; 9:13; 9:27-33; 10:1-3; 10:8; 10:16; and 10:24.
5The date of the Exodus is a hotly debated topic, at least among those who believe there was an Exodus. The dates usually divide into the 15th century BC or the 13th century BC. The movie has opted for the later date and hence the Pharaoh under consideration was Ramses II.
6While we are not certain of the location of Pithom, it would have been in the Delta region not far distant from Pi-Ramesse (i.e. Ramses).
— 18 December 2014 —
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