The story of the Exodus, like all stories of salvation history, is about relationships – particularly the relationships between God and Moses, between Moses and the Israelites, and between God and the Israelites. It’s the story of covenant – a covenant that was revealed on a mountain with a burning bush and later, on that same mountain, in the giving of the Law and in a direct encounter of Moses and the elders of the people with God. Along the way, this covenant is tested by a Pharaoh whose heart is hardened, by a people who don’t completely understand what is going on, by a leader who likewise is sometimes confused by what God is asking, and by a series of direct interventions by God himself. The Exodus is the central experience of the people of Israel, sung about in the Psalms and recounted in their most important annual feast – Passover. And for us as Christians, the Exodus is a prefigurement of Jesus, the new Moses, who gives us the new Manna from Heaven – the Eucharist – teaches us the law of the New Covenant, and frees us not just from slavery to the Egyptians but from slavery to sin and death.
Some of that you could get from the latest biblical epic – Exodus: Gods and Men. The movie follows the general story line in all its major points, including dramatic depictions of the ten plagues and the flight from Egypt. It introduces us to the major characters in the story: Moses, Joshua, Aaron, Pharaoh. There’s a burning bush and the parting of the Red Sea (although without “the water as a wall to their right and to their left”). Lambs are slaughtered and the blood placed on the lintels of the Israelites’ homes. We even meet some minor characters, like Moses’ wife and son, Zipporah and Gershom, and Joshua’s father, Nun.
On a certain level, I enjoyed the movie – it condenses a lot of material into 2 1/2 hours and uses the best of modern movie-making technology to make the visual parts of the story come alive. There is some great acting – Joel Edgerton makes a perfect Rameses, and Ben Kingsley’s Nun is a thought-provoking commentary of a person we only know by name in the Bible (and the fact that he is Joshua’s father). I enjoyed seeing Moses with his family – it’s a side of him that we don’t often think about.
But where the movie falls short, for me, is in what it chooses to emphasize. The first 45 minutes of the film have absolutely no scriptural basis – they follow the relationship between Moses and Rameses, who have grown up as brothers, and are now generals in Pharaoh’s army. In fact, the primary relationship in the movie is between Moses and Rameses – the details of which are all conjecture. Further, the primary image of Moses that we see in the film is as a general – once again, complete conjecture. Even after he has returned from exile to try to free the Israelites, he operates in the only way this movie-character knows: as a military leader. The picture of Moses we have in the Bible is quite different – he is a reluctant mediator and leader, not even confident in speaking in public, to Pharaoh or anyone else – that’s certainly not a characteristic of an accomplished military general who is best friends with Rameses, as depicted in the movie. And, unfortunately, the role of Aaron as Moses’ spokesperson is completely absent from the movie.
When we read the Book of Exodus from the Bible, the text emphasizes certain things particularly through the amount of time it gives to explaining them. The text spends considerable time talking about three things: 1) the encounter between Moses and God at the burning bush; 2) the plagues; and 3) the institution of the Passover. Of these three, only the plagues are given such attention in the latest movie version of the story. The institution of the Passover is there only in marking the blood on the doorposts – there is no Passover meal, and no indication that this ritual will become an annual remembrance of the events of the Exodus, both of which are critical to a complete understanding of Scripture and Jewish life.
Then there is the encounter between Moses and God. Yes, there is a burning bush in the film. But as depicted in the movie, Moses sees the bush after hitting his head on a rock in an avalanche – so the whole experience might just be a hallucination. And the conversation – as brief as it is – is with a young boy who speaks for God; the boy is called Malak in the credits, the Hebrew word for messenger or angel (this word is actually used later in the Book of Exodus to describe the angel of God who leads the Israelites through the desert as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day, neither of which are present in the movie). I don’t take as much issue with using a child to give voice to God as I do to a general downplaying of this encounter – it’s one of the most important and lengthy portions of the biblical text and it is very much deemphasized in the movie. Which makes sense when you hear the director, Ridley Scott, talk about how he tried to make things as real as possible, taking out anything miraculous or divine that could not be explained by science or reality. The end result is that the movie is much more about Moses than it is about God, which is a shame, because it was not Moses who set the people free, but God – Moses was his instrument.
All in all, Exodus: Gods and Kings was, to me, a disappointing interpretation of the central event of the Old Testament, albeit it with some redeeming qualities that make a viewing and conversation worthwhile for people of faith, after reading for themselves the account of these events in the Book of Exodus. Like all good religiously themed movies, it can provoke conversation and help us better understand our faith. But there is a lot missing and changed in the movie that we can find only in the biblical text – which in itself is a wonderfully engaging and visual story of covenant relationships between God and Moses, Moses and Israelites, and God and the people of Israel.