Last night, I had the opportunity to see the new movie “Exodus: Gods and Kings” starring Christian Bale as Moses and want to share some initial thoughts about the movie. I will address the Biblical problems that I have with the movie in a moment, but let me begin by saying that overall I found this movie to be disappointing. While the cinematography is good and the scenery in the movie is spectacular the acting left a lot to be desired. Christian Bale is one of my favorite actors but how can you mess up a British accent when you were born in Wales? The only conclusion I can come up with is that Kevin Costner coached him on his accent. But even as atrocious Bale’s performance is, he is still the best actor in the movie. The movies greatest problems, however, lie in how it handles the Biblical story of Moses.
Modifications of Josephus’s Account?
The movie seems to draw heavily, although with some modification, on the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. One of the underlying themes in the early portion of the movie is a prophecy that Moses would save Ramses’ life and would become a great leader. This appears to be a modification of Josephus’s statement that an Egyptian sage had foretold the decline of Egypt and the birth of a child who would raise the Israelites. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, 10.1) Josephus goes on to connect this prophecy to the slaughter of the Hebrew children, recorded in Exodus 1:5-22. The Bible tells us nothing of an Egyptian prophecy concerning Moses but instead grounds the mistreatment of the Hebrews on their growing population and strength. (Ex 1:8-10)
Scott also seems to draw from Josephus is in his portrayal of Moses as an Egyptian general. Josephus says that Moses was appointed general of the Egyptian army during a war with the Ethiopian army. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, 10:2) In the early portion of the movie Scott depicts Moses and Ramses’ leading the Egyptian armies out into battle. Scott does not explore it but Josephus goes on to say that while in Ethiopia, Moses married Tharbis, the daughter of the Ethiopian King. Some have connected this account to the statement in Numbers 12:1 but Biblical scholars are divided over whether this is a reference to Zipporah or whether this unnamed Cushite woman may be the one whom Josephus identifies as Tharbis. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, 10.2)
Did God Appear to Moses or Was He Dreaming?
Scott’s depiction of the burning bush is confusing and incomplete. The movie accurately depicts Moses tending his father-in-law’s flocks on Mt. Horeb, which corresponds with Exodus 3:1, but then he becomes stuck in a mudslide. What happens next is unclear because the viewer is not sure whether Moses is dreaming or whether he has had a true experience. Nevertheless, God appears to Moses in the form of a burning young boy beside a burning bush. Obviously, the appearance of God as a small child is an addition to the Biblical narrative. What bothers me about this scene, more so than the depiction of God, is that there is no mention of the reverence shown by Moses in taking off his shoes (Ex 3.5) or the revelation of God as the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Furthermore, in the Bible God is clearly aware of the condition of His people and is resolved to do something about it, but the boy depicted in the movie seems unsure. His instructions to Moses in the movie are vague and even confusing as opposed to the clarity recorded in Ex 3:7-12.
Another glaring omission in the movie is the way God meets the initial reluctance of Moses to obey. In the Bible, Moses raises a series of concerns about his ability to carry out the command of God. (Ex 4:1-17) At first, Moses objects by saying that the Egyptians will not believe or listen to him. (4:1) So God gave him a series of signs to show the Egyptians. (v.2-9) In Exodus 7:1-13, Moses has his initial encounter with Pharaoh a scene that is completely absent in Scott’s movie. Next Moses raises the objection that he is not eloquent but slow of speech and tongue, which is sometimes interpreted to mean that he had a speech impediment. God responds by essentially saying he made Moses’ tongue and will be with him. (v.10-12) Finally, Moses simply refuses to go by saying, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.”(v.13) With this God finally gets angry and tells Moses to take Aaron with him as his spokesman. None of this is depicted in the movie, which is too bad because it would have helped to explain the plagues and put them into context.
The plague scenes in the movie are graphic and give the viewer a feel for the horror that must have been experienced by the Egyptians. But glaringly the movie completely ignores the ongoing dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh during the plague cycles. In Exodus 7:17 and 8:1, for instance, Moses speaks directly to Pharaoh saying, “Thus says the Lord…” In the movie, however, there is no such dialogue and Pharaoh seems to be confused about the source and purpose of the plagues. Watching the movie gives the impression that the plagues are the work of petulant child god, rather than as the direct confrontation between the Lord and Pharaoh depicted in the Bible.
The final crucial plague, the slaying of the firstborn, sets up the connection between the Exodus and the Passover meal. In the Bible, this is one of the most important events in the entire Old Testament. The Passover is central to Jewish life and religion, yet in the movie it is pictured as more of hunch acted upon by Moses than as the gracious, initiative of God. In fact, if you didn’t know the Bible story you would walk out confused as to why the Jews were marking their doorposts with the blood of the lamb and what connection this could possibly have to their deliverance.
The big scene in the movie, of course, is the crossing of the Red Sea. Once again, the cinematography in this scene is magnificent, but the movie makes an unneeded departure from the Biblical account. In the Bible, Moses is depicted as being frightened by the pursuit of the Egyptians and even questioning God (14:10-14) but in response he receives direct and decisive instructions from the Lord. In the movie, however, I was never sure whether God was directing Moses actions or not. In the movie, Moses never seems to be completely sure about what God is telling him to do, which is counter to what the Scripture indicates.
Perhaps most perplexing is the scene in the movie where Moses throws his sword into the sea, apparently expecting God to part the waters, but then collapses in frustration and despair. The next morning some type of Tsunami like event has drawn the water in the Red Sea away to allow the people to cross. While I have no problem believing that God used a natural phenomenon to part the Red Sea, I am perplexed as to why Scott felt it necessary to remove Moses so far out of the picture. In Exodus 14:21 the Bible says, “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the saw back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” But in the movie he is pictured as a passive observer to the parting of the sea.
While I understand that a movie director’s primary interest is not Biblical accuracy, I still have trouble understanding some of the choices that Ridley Scott made in this movie. Most Christian who sees this movie will not be surprised that it takes liberties with the Biblical account but I think most will be shocked by just how different this portrayal of Moses is from the Biblical picture. Tomorrow, I will deal with some of the theological concerns that I have with the movie.