exodus: gods and kings

On my recent flight from San Francisco to Singapore I decided to create a conversation in my mind, by watching a movie and reading a book.

The movie was Exodus: Gods and Kings. With Batman (Christian Bale) as Moses, it tells the story of the Hebrew slaves gaining freedom from the Pharoah of Egypt. Even on a tiny screen with average sound, it was visually stunning. Generally speaking, I don't get too uptight with directors taking a little license to tell their version of epic biblical stories - as I enjoy watching how they interpret the story's features.

The other partner in the conversation was the book by Andrew Sach & Richard Alldritt: Dig Even Deeper: Unearthing Old Testament Treasure (IVP, 2010) - or DED, for short. It is a follow-up to an earlier book (Dig Deeper) in which is collected the 'toolkit' needed to interpret the Bible accurately. 16 tools. The two books make the subject of biblical interpretation as simple as it can possibly be made. What makes DED ideal as a conversation partner is that its subject matter is the book of Exodus. 'In DED the toolkit goes 'live' ... this is a book about what Exodus means for us today' (14). DED is developed around a 'fourteen-word summary' (17) of the story: beatings, bush, plagues, passover, water, whingeing, father-in-law, fear, case law, covenant, tabernacle, calf, cleft, tabernacle...

'So ... how did the conversation go between the movie and the book during the flight?'

For me, it was directed by the same three options which I face when I work with my automatic payments in an electronic banking service. Adding. Deleting. Altering.

The opening tension created by 'pharoah-preferring-general-over-son' was taken straight out of the script of Ridley Scott's earlier Gladiator film and so it felt a bit stale.

But I loved the way he created a character out of Joshua's father - Nun (as in 'Joshua, son of Nun') - played by Ben Kingsley. I don't think it is just his Gandhi-aura, but every time Nun/Kingsley was on the screen I leaned forward - particularly the scene when Nun tells Moses of his Hebrew origins.

In a story loaded with testosterone, I welcomed the development of characters like Miriam and Zipporah. Hollywood can't help itself when it comes to family troubles and romance. Two of the more compelling scenes are where Pharoah demands the truth about the family ties and then the subsequent one in the wilderness when Moses is exiled. More on the romance below.

A bit like with 2014's other biblical epic - Noah - it is interesting to watch Hollywood wrestle with how to portray the miraculous elements, like the plagues (or, 'catastrophes') and crossing the Red Sea. They seem to be caught between not giving God too much credit and explaining it simply as natural phenomena.

Whereas a faithful portrayal of the biblical story would have God be an easy winner of the Best Actor award, in this movie he does not even surface as a candidate for Best Supporting Actor. He is the subject of so much of the action in Exodus - but you'd never know it from the movie.

But more concerning than this is the fact that the bits of God being displayed on the screen bear so little resemblance to the God living in the pages of Exodus. So much is missing. Exodus 34.6-7 contains 'perhaps the fullest explanation of God's name in the whole of the Old Testament' (DED, 172).
Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgressions and sin...
And yet does this God make an appearance in the movie at all? I don't think so. Similar truths can be found in earlier passages, like Exodus 5.22-6.8 and Exodus 19.1-6. 'You've seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself'. This God is not in the movie. I find myself jealous for God and his name, as I watch. I feel grieved about the multitude who see the movie, but miss seeing God as he truly is.

Linked to this is the way the movie makes an effort to portray what happened and how it happened, but make so little effort to engage the question of why it happened. This can be typical of Hollywood where special effects often trump an absorbing storyline. One of the 'tools' in DED is the 'Author's Purpose tool: The biggest question we can ever ask of a passage in the Bible is simple, 'Why did the author write this?' (DED, 199). Nah. Here the Director/reader does what he likes with the storyline, with the author's purpose inconsequential.

The movie would have been so much deeper if he had played with the 'hardening of the heart' theme amidst the plagues. 'The Bible is clear: we are responsible for our actions and God is in control of them' (DED, 51). I missed the the poetry and music of Exodus 15. I missed the Jethro story in Exodus 18 and the way 'he acts like a giant hinge, holding the two halves of Exodus together. People rescued by God need to live God's way' (DED, 96). And I wish that the movie had extended beyond barely touching Exodus 20 and moved on to the wonder of the tabernacle and God's desire to come and live with His people. Even though the God-boy walks alongside the ark of the covenant at the end, we have no sense of 'the breathtaking truth that Yahweh intends to dwell with his people' (DED, 143).

I am still trying to figure out what I think about using a little boy to represent God - or, is he actually God himself because he does utter the phrase, 'I am'? I do not warm to the boy at all. He seems like a bit of a brat to me. He is cold and calculating, a bit petulant and disengaged. My hunch is that the director want us to see these qualities and to be a little confused and uncertain and then to allow all these qualities to drift across to God, altering the witness of the biblical story.

In the opening scenes, a high priestess sets the framework for the story: 'a leader will be saved and his saviour will some day lead'. From this point forward the story lives within the orbit of the Moses:Pharoah relationship. It is framed in the language of revolution and of slaves demanding their rights for freedom, with Moses as their leader. God needs a general with a special sword, rather than a shepherd with a special staff.

The profile which the nuclear family receives, rather than the more likely tribal/national identity, betrays a further Western/Hollywood tampering. I doubt whether Zipporah would ever ask, 'What kind of God tells a man to leave his family?' The most cringing moment in the movie comes when Zipporah challenges Moses about the way he is raising their son.
Z: 'Is it good for a boy to grow up believing in nothing?' 
M: 'Is it bad to grow up believing in yourself?'. 
I winced. Just because Hollywood preaches the gospel of self-belief, doesn't mean Exodus needs to do so as well. That was a terrible moment.

Linked to this is the development of the romantic storyline. I struggle to imagine the question, 'Would you trade your faith in order to keep me?', being a real issue. On two occasions the movie lingers with the promises, or covenant, made between Moses and Zipporah. It comes out like a short catechism of four questions with corresponding answers:
What makes you happy?  
You do.
What is the most important thing in your life?
You are.
Where would you rather be?
When will you leave me?

Interestingly, in this little covenant between Moses and Zipporah, we can almost overhear little echoes of of the covenant between Yahweh and his people which is so strikingly absent from the movie. 'Behind-the-scenes faithfulness is God's style' (DED, 29).

I know we can't expect a Hollywood film director to be accurate with this, but Christians watching the movie must not lose sight of how this story fits into a far wider and bigger story. 'As we read the big story from beginning to end, we discover, like Russian dolls, miniature versions of the story hidden inside.' (DED, 147). Exodus is one of those stories 'hidden inside', as so many of the details in its story point forward to the Jesus story and find fulfillment in the gospel.

Oh yes - and if I was still teaching movie courses, or even Gospel & Culture ones, I'd be making an assignment out of watching this movie alongside the Charlton Heston Ten Commandments one from 50+ years ago. Compare and contrast these two and allow this conversation to follow the trajectory of cultural change, particularly in matters of faith and religion, and you'll need an around-the-world flight to grasp all the implications

nice chatting



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