By Perry Fein
The second of the Five Books of Moses sets the scene for the outlandish 3D Biblical epic, Exodus: of Gods and Kings, by Ridley Scott. The movie – touting big names including Christian Bale, Sigourney Weaver, and Ben Kingsley – runs a haughty two-and-a-half-hours. It includes all the high points of the ancient story (the plagues, the parting of the red sea, etc.) but the writers also did a fair amount of “reading in between the lines” of the original text.
The movie begins with a battle sequence featuring Moses and his brother – soon to be Pharaoh, Ramses – as generals fighting side-by-side and commanding soldiers. In all the revivals of the scripture that I’m familiar with, from The Prince of Egypt to Moses the Lawgiver to The Ten Commandments, none has presented the sibling dynamic in quite this way. (Although, admittedly, The Prince of Egypt did feature Moses and Ramses as adolescents competing with each other and vying for the approval of Ramses’s father, the Pharaoh.)
The Bible is extremely lacking in details and it should come as no surprise that where the writers of the Bible were vague or ambiguous, Scott chose to beef up the action. This is to be expected since box-office successes tend to lean toward the big-budget, action blockbusters. This trend also explains the movie’s unfounded subplot in which Ramses’s mother (Sigourney Weaver) attempts to have Moses executed, and, failing this, assassinated.
At this point in the story, it seems, Ridley Scott and the writers promptly threw their copy of the King James Bible out the window. In another departure from the text, the movie portrays Moses rallying the Hebrew slaves to attack Egyptian soldiers and raid stockpiles.
This slave revolt presents a narrative of violent resistance that is not present in the Bible or in most interpretations. Moses and the Hebrews are not classically depicted as guerilla warriors or rebels. In fact, the Moses of the Bible commits only one murder:
One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11-12)
This event is strangely omitted from the motion picture. The heat-of-passion murder would have made for great drama and better explained Moses’s transition from “Prince of Egypt” to living in exile.
The movie also strays from the text when Moses bargains with Pharaoh in the classic “let my people go” scene. Pharaoh gives Moses a number of excuses as to why the emancipation of the Hebrews is impossible, but Moses counters each one.
Pharaoh goes as far as justifying the enslaved condition of the Hebrews by claiming that their own homeland (Israel) is dangerous and occupied by hostile “tribes fiercer than Egypt’s military”. This argument frames the Egyptians not as taskmasters over the Hebrews, but as benevolent caretakers. It brings to mind the absurd arguments that were used to justify slavery in the Southern United States before the Civil War.
One of the most egregious divergences from the Biblical story is the movie’s representation of God as a boy. The traditional depiction of “the Almighty” at this point in the story is of a burning bush–specifically, a plant that is on fire yet is not consumed. Although this anomaly is present at God’s revelation to Moses, it is through the boy that God speaks, not the bush.
For reasons such as these, the movie provoked outrage in various countries. This should come as no surprise, however, considering the movie Noah was banned in most Muslim countries.If the portrayal of lesser prophets like Noah provoked such indignation, then the depiction of Moses — arguably the most important of God’s prophets in the Old Testament — would be considered utterly depraved.
The movie’s sacrilegious representation of God and his prophet were reason enough for the film to be banned in Malaysia, Indonesia, Morocco, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Egypt, on the other hand, banned the movie for “historical inaccuracies”. Among other misconceptions, the movie perpetuates the common fallacy that Hebrew slaves built the Egyptian pyramids.
The movie provoked controversy in the United States as well but for entirely different reasons. The initial announcement that the major roles of the movie would be played by White actors inspired criticism from historical experts and the masses. Ridley Scott himself spoke to Hollywood’s race problem when he defended the movie’s casting in an interview with Variety: “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”
This questionable excuse points to a larger problem in the industry. Hollywood — despite its reputation for being a liberal and progressive bastion — has a race issue that is not limited to big-budget spectacles like Exodus: This year’s Academy Awards astoundingly lacked nominations for people of color.
In the wake of Darren Aronosfky’s Noah, Scott indubitably saw dollar signs in the big-budget renditions of Biblical sagas. The monetary success of Exodus, despite its cultural insensitivities and lukewarm reviews, has encouraged Scott to turn his attention toward his next scriptural subject. His next project, David, will tell the story of the reign of King David — though I’ll probably pass on that one.