Review of “Exodus:Gods and Kings”

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.

Omissions

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.

Conclusion

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.

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God Keeps His Promises

Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments...
Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, painting by Rembrandt (1659) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The death of Moses, recorded in Deuteronomy 34, must have been a life changing experience for the entire nation of Israel.  It is hard for us to grasp just how devastating the death of Moses must have felt to the Israelites, who had followed his leadership for the past forty years.  Few figures in history have left such a lasting legacy upon the world, therefore, we struggle to grasp the meaning of his death.  Some of you reading this may be old enough to remember the death of Franklin Roosevelt, others can remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy.   While too young to remember either of these events, I grew up hearing from my parents and older siblings the stories about the two days these great American presidents died.  The closest parallel that I can draw from me personally  is the day that Ronald Reagan was shot outside of the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C.  Events such as these send chills down our spines when we remember the fear, confusion, and despondency that occur when the leader of a nation is suddenly taken away.  These are the closest parallels that we can think of to try to imagine what the Israelites must have gone through, but even they do not come close to putting us in the mindset of what the Jewish people must have been experiencing.

Moses was more than just a political or military leader to the Israelites.  If it were not for his faithfulness and obedience to the call of God, Israel would still have been trapped in the bondage of slavery in Egypt.  Moses was more than a political leader, he was in a sense their savior, deliverer and rescuer.  His death marked the end of one of the most important phases of Israel’s history and the beginning of one of its most trying periods.  There are several book of the Old Testament that begin by recording the death of a leader for instance—Judges (Joshua’s death), 2 Samuel (Saul’s death), 2 Kings (Ahab’s death) — each of these mark an important transition in the history of the nation, but none of the others comes close to capturing the emotional sadness and crisis brought about by the death of Moses.

No one in Israel was positioned to experience the death of Moses more  personally than Joshua. For years, Joshua had been Moses’ faithful servant.  When Moses went up on the mountain to receive the law, Joshua was there with him (Ex 24:13; 32:17).  Whenever Moses went out to the tent of meeting to receive a word from God, Joshua was there with him (Ex. 33:11).  When Moses needed a trusted general to lead the army of Israel into battle with the Amalekites, he turned to Joshua (Ex 17:8-16).   When selecting members of from each tribe of Israel to go in a spy out the promised land, Moses chose Joshua to represent the tribe of Ephraim (Num 13:8).  For over 40 years, the lives of these two men had been inseparably linked together.  Now Moses was dead.  The people had lost leader but Joshua lost a friend and mentor.  The people had lost one of the founding figures in their nation’s history, but Joshua had lost a father figure who had invested his life in teaching Joshua how to serve God.  The people had lost one of the inspirational leaders of their past, but Joshua had lost a man that he didn’t think he could ever live without.

The author of Joshua begins by abruptly stating that,  “Moses my servant is dead.  Now therefore arise and go over this Jordan, you and all the people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel.”  Commenting on this verse, Warren Wiersbe cited the well-known modern proverb, “God buries His workmen, but His work goes on.” (Wiersbe)  I came across that statement about ten years ago, while I was preaching a series of messages through the book of Joshua.  That statement initially startled and even offended me because it seemed to make God callous and indifferent.  It seemed to me, at the time, to convey the idea that God was more concerned about His work than about His servants.  I was convinced then, and remain so today, that there is more going on here than God merely passing the mantle of leadership from Moses to Joshua.  Reading this passage merely as the historical record of the succession of one leader after the death of another misses the point the Biblical author is trying to make.  In order to properly understand the intent of this passage we must read Joshua 1:1-5 as more than mere history—  we must read it as theological history.  This is not meant to deny that the passage contains a record of real historical events, but to read it merely as history misses the point. The historical records contained within the Bible have a unique theological purpose, they are written with the intent of showing how God keeps His promises within the context of time and space.

In Joshua 1:1-9, God wanted to make it clear that the events going on around the nation, in no way changed or invalidated His promises.  The death of Moses brought out the worst fears that the people carried with them.  What will happen to us?  Who is going to lead us?  Is Joshua really up to the challenge of leading the nation?  Should we just give up and go back to Egypt?  All of these question and more would have run through the minds of the Israelites as they sat stunned and dismayed in the desert.  They needed hope.  They needed help.  They needed a Word from God and just as He had done 40 years earlier, God broke the silence and spoke to His servant, Joshua, and gave Him a set of promises.  “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given you…No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life…I will be with you…I will not leave you nor forsake you…you shall cause the people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.”  These words must have been like music in Joshua’s ears and they serve to remind us of some of the helpful applications of God’s eternal character.

 

The Promises of God Rest on His Eternal Nature

Many Biblical scholars have noted that the thrust of this passage is developed around the threefold repetition of the phrase “Be strong and courageous” in verses 5,6, and 7.  While I agree that this threefold command forms the crux of God’s message to Joshua I want to point out that the command to “be strong and courageous” rest on the eternal nature and promises of God.  The author of Joshua points us in that direction when invokes the name Yahweh at the beginning and end of this passage (v.1, 9).  The divine name Yahweh is a declaration of His self-existence and eternal nature, therefore, I want to suggest that the author had three primary rhetorical purposes for invoking this particular name for God in this passage.

First, he used the repetition of the divine name (YHWH) to form an inclusio, which marks the beginning and ending of the first rhetorical section of the book.  At first glance this may seem like nothing more than a literary device, however, closer inspection shows that it is part of the author’s larger literary goal.  To see what I mean we need to compare how this book opens with the way it closes.  Notice that the book begins and ends by recording the death of a leader.  It opens with the death of Moses and concludes with the death of Joshua.  In the opening scene, the author shows how the Lord appeared to Joshua after the death of Moses and commanded him to be “strong and courageous.”  At the end of the book, Joshua speaks to the people just before his own death and raises the question of whether they will remain faithful.  We will return in a moment to this observation, but for right now let it suffice to say that the opening section of Joshua is marked by the presence of an inclusion formed by the repetition of the name Yahweh and that the book as a whole is marked at both the beginning and end by the death of Israel’s leader.

Second, the author used the divine name to show the continuity between the life of Joshua and Moses.  Just as Yahweh appeared to Moses at the burning bush, so now He was appearing to Joshua to call and commission him to continue the mission that was begun through Moses.  As we discussed in the previous chapters, the name Yahweh was given to Moses at the burning bush and was used as the special covenant name for God.  It came to symbolize not only the eternal and self-existent nature of God but also His fidelity to His covenant. Now that Moses was dead, the people in general and Joshua in particular needed to be reassured of God’s continued presence and provision.  D.R. Davis notes, “Yahweh’s fidelity does not hinge on the achievement of men, however, gifted they may be, nor does it evaporate in the face of funerals or rivers.” (Davis, 18)  Moses may have been dead and gone but Yahweh was still alive and ready to carry out His promises.

Finally, and most importantly, He used this name as the basis for Israel’s faith.  At several strategic locations in the Pentateuch Moses used the name Yahweh to set Israel’s God apart from the gods of the pagans. By drawing upon this name in the opening statements of the Joshua, the author shows that the commands given to Joshua were grounded in the very nature of God. (Howard, 73)  This brings me back to the point that I was making above concerning the rhetorical strategy employed by the author of Joshua.  As I noted above, the entire book is rhetorically formulated around the death of two leaders— Moses and Joshua. The deaths of these two leaders establish not only the historical setting in which this book was written but also form an important part of the author’s rhetorical strategy.   What this shows us is that the author of Joshua wants to show how God was faithful to His promises after the death of Moses and the actions that Israel will have to take if they want to continue to experience Yahweh’s blessings.  At the end of the book, just before his death,  Joshua calls the people together and asks them to “choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.” (24:15)  The use of the name Yahweh throughout this book serves as a constant reminder that the promises of God rest in His eternal nature.

Since the promises of God rest upon His unchanging nature the death of a leader, even one as important as Moses, cannot not fundamentally change the relationship between God and His people.  The saying that “God buries the workman, but His work goes one,” therefore is not a cold or callous statement about the indifference of God towards his servants, but rather a confession of His timeless, unchanging character.  Rather than recording the mere transition of power from one leader to the next, the opening chapter  of Joshua records for us the historical/theological account of how the God remains faithful to His promises from one generation to the next.” (Boice, 13-14) Every generation needs to be reminded of this truth.