Originally published at Let There Be Movies.
The late Roger Ebert once described Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ as a movie that “depends upon theological considerations.” In other words, the movie stands or falls on theological grounds. His astute observation is one I believe holds for all biblical stories interpreted for the silver screen. I think the importance of weighing these theological considerations can be shown by considering Gibson’s Passion as well as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. In both instances the directors (as do many) reinterpreted or embellished parts of the story to represent their take on biblical events; but one did so carefully and the other did not.
For example, in Passion Mary finds Jesus as he stumbles on His way to Golgotha and He turns and says to her, “See, Mother, I make all things new.” This phrase is actually taken from Revelation 21:5 as God sits on His throne above the new heavens and new earth. It’s not from the Gospels; and yet you see how this embellishment does not undermine the theological considerations of the film. On the other hand, Aronofsky’s Noah changes God’s original plan for the world into being some kind of humanity-free zoo, turns man’s greatest sin into hurting animals and nature, and transforms Noah into a homicidal maniac ready to kill his grandchildren. None of those embellishments serve the biblical story or its theological underpinnings at all. They only serve the Hollywood filmmaker and the story he wants to tell.
This weekend Ridley Scott offers his interpretation of the story of Moses and the Israelites in Exodus: Gods and Kings, and the same kind of silliness ensues. Princes Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are cousins but act more like competitive siblings handling the day to day duties of being Egyptian royalty. They sit under Seti (a surprisingly uncheeky John Turturro) and his advisers, they wage battle, they even share matching swords designed to represent their brotherhood. Of course, none of this is in the biblical record but I don’t think these particular kinds of embellishments take away from the overall narrative.
Moses is apparently the son Seti wished he had, and Ramses knows it. Once Seti dies and Ramses becomes Pharaoh, things change quickly. Ramses seems driven by power and esteem. All of a sudden he’s screaming at everybody to get things done (the true test of a movie tyrant). One of his major plans is to build a huge Nebuchadnezzar-style statue of himself for all to see. When a corrupt viceroy (Ben Mendelsohn) reveals Moses’ secret, that he is in fact Hebrew, Ramses immediately (and I do mean immediately) turns on Moses and banishes him from Memphis.
The difference between Egyptian royalty and Hebrew poverty is contrasted quite well in the scenes where Moses visits Nun (Joshua’s father) in Pithom. The claustrophobic back alleys and dank homes in the Hebrew ghettos stand out nicely against the spacious Egyptian palaces. Ridley Scott uses set pieces very well to reinforce this clash of royal and servant classes. Along the same vein, one of the best features of the movie is its attention to detail. Even from the birds-eye view that the camera’s POV often takes to sweep over the various Egyptian cities, we see a fantastically elaborate display of houses, monuments, and settlements. In this regard the filmmakers should be commended for using those details to establish an authenticity and visual realism to the movie.
The movie begins in what we’re told is 1300 B.C. The reader should know that, archaeologically speaking, there is an open question on when the historical Exodus took place. Based on biblical chronology and some archaeological evidences, a case can be made that the Exodus occurred in the mid-fifteenth century and that the Pharaoh of the time was Amenhotep II rather than Ramses II. I hold to this view and so does Dr. William Shea. The dating of the historical event, however, is far from being identified so I’m not going to take a huge issue with Scott’s dating decision.
The real problems with Exodus: Gods and Kings emerge when Moses heads up Mount Horeb and meets God. Sure there’s a bush on fire. But Moses gets knocked really hard on the head twice in a landslide and then sees God. He comes down the mountain rambling and feverish and his wife Zipporah, a believer we’re told, thinks he just got bashed on the head really hard. Now, what are we, the audience, supposed to infer here? Wait. Let’s come back to that in a second. After Moses returns to Egypt he looks and acts pretty crazy. His cheeks are sunken in, he has dark circles around his eyes, they even bulge out when he speaks. Later in the movie, when Moses is speaking to God, Joshua sneaks up behind him and witnesses the conversation. From Joshua’s perspective Moses isn’t speaking to anyone. He’s just talking (rather forcefully) to the air. So, again, what are we, the audience supposed to infer here?
In the historical account, Moses finds a burning bush that is not being consumed. Out of the midst of the burning bush, God identifies Himself and commands Moses to take off his shoes because the ground he is standing on is holy. And it says, “Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). In other words, Moses didn’t smash his head and go crazy. And when God speaks in Scripture, it is described as thunderous and like the sound of many waters (Job 37:5; Ezekiel 1:24; Revelation 1:15), not silently or questioningly.
Here is one of the more egregious embellishments in my opinion: In the movie God is an 11 year-old boy. Not a voice out of the midst of the burning bush (Exodus 3:4), not as an overwhelming glory that causes Moses’ face to shine (Exodus 34:29), as an 11 year-old boy. In the movie Moses has no idea who he’s talking to. He asks, “Who are you?” to which boy-God replies, “Who are you?” Throughout the film, Moses is not 100% certain that he has even talked (and is talking) to God. Later, when Nun asks Moses why they must kill a lamb and smear its blood on the door, Moses begins by saying, “If I’m wrong about this…” No, no, no. When God speaks it is loud, clear, and unmistakable. Moses became frightened by His theophany (Exodus 3:6).
Changing God into an 11 year-old boy strips all the power and authority from Yahweh. In one scene Moses argues with boy-God who starts screaming about the Egyptians’ oppression of His people; and it comes across like a squeaky tantrum. This was one of the worst decisions Ridley Scott made; and it underscores the ultimate problem with Exodus: Gods and Kings – that is, it was made in spite of, even avoiding (if I may), the theological considerations inherent in the biblical account. Sure, as I said, there’s a burning bush. Sure there’s lip service to God remembering His people. But where’s the Abrahamic covenant (which is the ultimate reason God remembers His people)? Where is the theological context for the plagues? From the water turning to blood to the frog infestation to the sky turning dark, all of these were aimed at Egyptian gods and their supposed power over those elements. The plagues just happen in the movie with no context. Moses doesn’t even go up against Pharaoh’s magicians, which is supposed to set the stage for the plagues in the first place. None of this happens in the movie.
Another egregious interpretive change in my opinion is the Passover. For us as Christians the Passover provides a theological basis for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It provides the significance behind Christ’s words during His last supper: “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:20). It even explains Paul when He calls Christ “our Passover” in 1 Corinthians 5:7. In the movie Moses tells Nun and family to kill a lamb and spread its blood over the door. Again, no context is provided, no explanation as to what the blood is doing exactly. They just need to do it. As I previously mentioned Nun asks why, to which Moses responds: “If I’m right about this we’ll bless the lambs forever.” Why will we bless the lambs Moses? What are they doing? What are they serving as?
Ultimately, Exodus: Gods and Kings is an experiment in making a movie about a biblical story stripped of its necessary theological import. It seems like Hollywood is riding that train lately. Now, I’ve been ranting about the movie for a bit but I will say this. For those of us interested in having a conversation with others about the movie in order to point to the real, historical event, we should go see this. It’s not near as bad as Noah was; and, ignoring the theological issues for a moment, the movie is good-looking and has an amazing “parting of the Red Sea” sequence. It’s awesome! But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that Hollywood is making biblical movies. They’re not. They are taking the Bible and treating it as myth to impart messages in line with their worldview. And that just means that we have some work to do to correct their error. That’s all.