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Moses and Monotheism

Watching the early scenes of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, you may flashback to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). Both films begin with sibling rivalry and monument building. But whereas DeMille’s epic was an attempt to portray Moses as a holy figure, Scott sees the Deliverer as a worldly warrior.

Neither film is reliable history, so there’s no point in going on about incongruities of fact, whether archaeological or Biblical. For that, you can dream of a great documentary or a movie made by someone truly committed to accuracy and Truth. And a dream is all it’s likely to be. But neither science nor theology obstructs Exodus, the film.

My wife came with me to see what she jokingly referred to going in as Gods and Eyeliner, and Scott has certainly stuffed this Christmas stocking with plenty of kohl, but when the nearly three-hour epic ended, she and I were agreed that it was, as they say, a whole lot better than it had to be. And here’s why.

Before the film was released, Scott said he hoped to portray the plagues visited by God upon Egypt as arising entirely from natural causes, and Christian Bale, who plays Moses, quipped that “[Moses] was likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life,” which may say more about the limits of Mr. Bale’s reading than about the character of the son of Jochebed, the brother of Miriam and Aaron. Besides, you can drive yourself nuts and burst blood vessels over the accuracy of either movies or histories. As Benedict XVI wrote about apparent historical errors in Luke’s infancy narrative [1], the evangelist should be trusted, because he knew more about his world than any modern historian ever will.

In any case, the very structure of the final cut of Exodus: Gods and Kings quite intentionally demonstrates that it is God who leads the Hebrew people out of bondage. That’s the opposite of what I had expected

God gives the former prince of Egypt a shot at the job, but the Deliverer starts off being more Mao than Moses. Mr. Scott, famous for Alien, Gladiator, and Kingdom of Heaven, loves battle, and seeing the spectacle of Exodus you’ll be darn glad you weren’t born a Hittite.

And yet there is no gore here – not anyway by recent Hollywood standards. Still, after Moses has met God on the mountain, his idea of getting his people out of bondage is to engage in guerrilla warfare against everyday Egyptians so they will put pressure on Ramesses II (Joel Edgerton) to let the Hebrews return to Canaan. Odd that Moses would take such an approach, having grown up with the ruthless Ramesses.

Moses (Mr. Bale) and Ramesses (Mr. Edgerton) debate the matter of slavery

In a meeting subsequent to the one with the burning bush, God is angry, but so in Moses.

“Where have you been?!” the bloodstained Deliverer asks God, with all Thebes aflame in the background.

“Watching you fail,” God replies and says He’ll now take on the job Himself.

“What can I do?,” a shamefaced Moses asks.

You can watch.”

Thence cometh the plagues.

We saw the film in 3-D, and the plagues are pretty amazing, especially the blood and the frogs; the lice and the boils not so much. When we get to darkness, just before the Passover, God really closes the lid, and a wailing is heard in Egypt.

But about God. In Exodus 3:2-4, it is written that “the angel of the LORD appeared to him [Moses] as a fire flaming out of a bush . . .” It’s among Scott’s conceits that that angel is a cherub of sorts. His character in the film script is called “Messenger.” It’s through the Messenger that Moses gets his marching orders. And when the plagues come – every one of them – not once does Moses go to Ramesses to announce them. Still, there is no doubt in the pharaoh’s mind that the God of the Hebrews has sent these torments upon Egypt – or why.

As I say, it is the LORD who leads His people out of slavery.

Dialogue in the film – and this is true of the acting – is done in what you might call the “modern-naturalist” style. The American Bible Society’s Good News Bible was translated to provide “dynamic equivalency” with regard to its Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek antecedents, which is why it’s such a dull rendering. At one point in Exodus, the film, Moses and Ramasses are arguing about slavery, and you’d think you were listening to Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sparring in Love and Death. O, the jejunosity!

When the people leave Egypt in The Ten Commandments, they do so joyously, and I’ve always thought it the best scene in the movie, the shofar sounding. In Scott’s telling, the Hebrew people all but skulk out of Thebes. It’s like they’ve read ahead in the script and know Pharaoh will change his mind.

At the Red Sea, well, who can forget Charlton Heston raising his staff to part the waters and cry out: “Behold His mighty hand.” Mr. Bale throws a sword into the water, and the sea just seems to recede. By now, though, this Moses is a man of both faith and reason. He says to the people: “Follow me and you will be free. Stay and you will perish.” The Bale/Scott way is better filmmaking, because it’s more convincing.

Exodus is not a great film, and it’s far from being Ridley Scott’s best, but it is ever-so-much better than Darren Aronofsky’s antediluvian folly, Noah [2]. Here you see real spectacle. Indeed, you see every bit of Scott’s $140-million budget up on the screen.

Should you see it in 3-D? Yes, if you’ve never seen a 3-D film; no, if you have and are bored with it, as I am. Still, it was a kick when, during a cavalry charge, an Egyptian guidon passed between my wife and me. The film is rated PG-13. There is violence but no gore; love but no sex or nudity.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.