The book was better
Last night, I saw Ridley Scott’s new Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale as Moses. It is inevitable that when a person of faith sees a biblically-based movie made by non-believers that there are going to be critiques. Here are mine. Needless to say, there are ample spoilers throughout this post, so you have been warned.
Since most of what I’m going to say is critical, let me begin with a couple caveats. First, I am not saying this was a bad movie. I was very engaged, the spectacle of the plague narrative was phenomenal, and I found the loving dialogue between Moses and his wife Zipporah (sadly never mentioned by name) to be beautiful. If I have any problem with it simply as a movie, it is that it was about a half hour too long; some of the material in the beginning of the movie could have been compressed or omitted with little effect.
Second, I am a theologian, not a Talmudic scholar. The filmmakers claimed that they researched Midrashic sources while making the film, so some of the material may have some basis in sources unfamiliar to me. I’m going to be commenting on the film solely from the perspective of the Biblical text of Exodus.
The film spends far too much time getting through the first two and half chapters, which one must admit is a lot less exciting than what happens later. This film follows the tradition of both Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt in establishing Moses and Ramses (who is never identified as Ramses in the Biblical text) as step-brothers with a close relationship as Egyptian royalty, despite nothing of the sort found in the text.
Some early characterizations are important. Moses is portrayed as a militaristic war hero and Ramses is portrayed as weak and ineffectual. But it is the portrayal of the Hebrews that is especially important. The Hebrews are seen as seditious and on the verge of rebellion. This is an important change. In the text, the Hebrews don’t like being slaves and cry out to God, but they have also become far too comfortable with it. When Moses first attempts to liberate them, they don’t want it, and when they finally do get liberated, they complain about the hardships of actually being free. For the direction of the whole Bible, it is important to realize the lesson that Exodus teaches us: human beings will tolerate slavery when it appears easier than the burden of actual responsibility. In Scott’s film, the Hebrews just need someone to organize them more effectively.
Moses is a man who does not know his past. This is fine, as it is unclear in the text exactly how Moses understood himself, though it becomes clear that he eventually understood that he was a Hebrew. What is more ridiculous in the film (in fact, perhaps its biggest failure) is the characterization of Moses as a skeptic, not just about Yahweh, but about the idea of faith in the supernatural in general. Such a modern approach to our place in the universe is untenable for a film set in ancient Egypt.
This leads to the important burning bush scene, which is handled well enough. The portrayal of God’s messenger (and according to an interview with Scott, it is supposed to be an angel, not God Himself) as an 11-year old boy is fine, though I’m not sure why the filmmaker went this route. I loved hearing the name “I AM.”
Moses leaves his wife and son behind in Midian in order to highlight the radicalness of his new call. By contrast, in the book of Exodus, Moses’ family goes with him on his return to Egypt (and he’s also, according to the text, 80 years old at this point, by the way). When he arrives back in Egypt, he mobilizes a Hebrew resistance and teaches them to fight. This is time wasted in the film, as it ultimately fails and adds little to the story. Its sole purpose seems to be to set up Moses’ conversation with the angel, in which the angel says that armed rebellion isn’t working fast enough. Moses rightfully questions why God has waited 400 years if he wanted “fast.” In the film, this is a fair question, and one that is never adequately answered. But in the text, God never explicitly explains why he waits 400 years to liberate them; God simply acts in the “kairos” for their liberation – the proper time – not because of some implied time table. In any case, this conversation is the set-up for the plague narrative, which is the angel’s answer to Moses’ question about what he intends to do to speed things up.
The plagues are wondrous and horrifying to behold on screen. This is when the film really came alive for me. Little is spared in showing how terrible these plagues were in affecting the people, and they are unambiguously miraculous. I have an issue with the rather gory first plague, the water turned to blood, which the film instead attributes to a massive crocodile invasion. I think if God actually sent an army of bloodthirsty crocodiles, the first plague would have been recorded in the tradition as “giant crocodile invasion,” not “the water will be changed into blood.” But the rest of them are all accurately and gruesomely portrayed in accordance with the text.
One detail is missing here and one detail is inadequately developed. In the text, there is a constant dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh during the plagues: “Let my people go!” This serves to establish the tension between God and Pharaoh, it serves to show God’s restraint in not wanting to ravage the Egyptians by giving the Pharaoh a chance to relent, and it shows the Pharaoh’s stubbornness in letting his own people suffer for his pride. None of that is present in the film. Instead, God just unrelentingly beats on the Egyptians while they (somewhat humorously) try to explain away what is happening to them.
The plague narrative is also to be understood as a battle sequence between Yahweh and Pharaoh because Pharaoh imagines himself an equal to the God of the Hebrews. In the film, Ramses does proclaim that he is God, but he says it out of frustration and desperation, and only once. It is fine that he shows anxiety, given what is happening to him, but the declaration seems made out of confusion rather than out of pride.
Now we arrive at the preparations for Passover, which are described much more briefly than the Biblical text, omitting even the Passover meal itself, the detail that the lamb to be sacrificed must be unblemished, or that the Hebrews need to be ready for flight on this night. Instead, we just get “paint the doors with lamb’s blood.”
The Passover itself is tense and horrifying and any parent watching it will feel the horror of the scene profoundly. This is especially so with Ramses’ own son, who is the recipient of one of the most affecting lines in the film. The movie shows well the dramatic effect of every first born son dying in one night. But rather than seeing this as the inevitable consequence of Pharaoh’s failure to relent after prolonged forceful negotiations between God and Pharaoh, God just looks like a bully. This is unfortunate.
The flight to the Red Sea is portrayed well as a journey of a few days, rather than the few hours it reads like in the Biblical text. The parting of the Red Sea is less dramatic than I would have liked, but the return of the waters after the Hebrews cross over totally make up for it.
Throughout the film, Moses is portrayed as a war hero, and there is much emphasis on a sword given to him by his step-father. It is instrumental in the parting of the Red Sea. But there is no sword in the Biblical text – rather, there is a staff that is wholly absent from the film. I think the change is significant. The film shows Moses as a warrior: at war with Ramses and the Egyptians, the Egyptians’ enemies, and even with God Himself. As such, he wields a sword. But in the text, he leads God’s people with the staff of a shepherd, caring for his sheep. I think the difference is important.
The film concludes with an adequate if undramatic scene of the Ten Commandments (blink and you’ll miss the golden calf) and elderly Moses on his way to Canaan with an equally undramatic ark of the covenant by his side. The end of the film is appropriately hopeful.
As I said at the beginning, it might seem that I am being overly critical of the film, but given the importance of the source material, a film like this deserves special fidelity that it doesn’t always receive. It is not a bad film. For people unfamiliar with the text and disinclined to read it, see the film, enjoy the spectacle – but then go read the original to see what this is really all about. God and Moses both deserve it.