Wednesday, January 7, 2015

An Old Testament Scholar reviews "Exodus: Gods and Kings"

Regarding the new Bible move, Exodus: Gods and Kings, all I can say is, Not only "no," but "hell no." Even as a generic fantasy movie (along the lines of Lord of the Rings) it is totally lame. As a retelling of the exodus story, it moves to horrid. As to what they got right: well there is a Pharaoh, and a Moses, and some slaves, and some plagues, and being caught between a sea and Pharaoh's army. But that's about it. It would be worth seeing only as an exercise in how to totally mangle a biblical story. It's not even their gap filling that I object to, though a lot of that was bad. It's what they left out. The aim seems to be to turn Moses into a fighting man. Here is my list of things that are wrong. It is by no means exhaustive.

The movie begins inexplicably with a battle between the Egyptians and the Hittites. Inexplicable because the major battle at Kadesh between those two armies took place during Ramesses II’s reign, not during his father’s. Plus there’s no mention of the eventual peace treaty signed between the two nations. The only point seems to be to establish both Moses and Ramesses fighting abilities and to round out one of the gap fills, an Egyptian prophecy that someone will save someone’s life, and then become king. During the battle Moses saves Ramesses. And that means what exactly?

Since the movie begins when Moses is already an adult, it entirely omits chs. 1-2. One of my objections to most movies about Exodus is that they fail to establish why Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews (keeping in mind that Pharaoh pretty much enslaved everyone so there were always plenty of other slaves in addition to the Hebrew ones). But at the end of Genesis, the Hebrews are coexisting quite peaceably with the Egyptians. How do they go from friend to enemy? In the text it is because a new Pharaoh comes along who doesn’t know about Joseph. He looks around a sees a bunch of them and perceives them to be a threat (Exo 1:8-10). Gosh, might there be similarities between that and today’s debates about the changing demographics in the US? But that key plot point only comes up for a few seconds and is raised by the overseer of Pithom, not Pharaoh.

Also by omitting chaps. 1-2 t there is no Shiphrah and Puah. That’s two Exodus movies that don’t mention Shiphrah and Puah. Neither does Prince of Egypt. The actions of Moses' mother and sister are recounted to Moses by Joshua's father, Nun. Apparently Moses didn't know he was Hebrew and his Egyptian mother didn't tell anyone. She gave some story about an Egyptian general. Though how she accounted for not being pregnant is left as a gap.

Moses doesn't have to flee because he killed an Egyptian, but because he was outed as a Hebrew to Ramesses by the overseer at Pithom (who apparently is also flamingly gay).

When Moses is expelled, his Egyptian mother and Miriam are sent away on a cart, never to be seen or heard from again. So there's no Song of the Sea and no Miriam leading the song. Like Lord of the Rings, women play no substantive role, which is ironic considering that only women are actors in the first two chapters and without them there would be no Moses. The end result is to suggest that until Moses came along no one had ever considered resisting Pharaoh’s tyranny.

Moses "call" comes about apparently through traumatic brain injury. The movie also omits most of Exo 3-4 so there is none of Moses arguing with God about why his going to Pharaoh is a bad idea.

I was not surprised that they omitted Exo 4:24-26, that bit about where God tries to kill Moses and Zipporah comes to the rescue. No one wants to touch that episode.

God is a bratty 10-year-old boy with a British accent. They couldn't at least make God a bratty 10-year-old girl?? The only good thing I can say theologically is that at least there was some questioning of God's genocidal tendencies.

Egyptians probably didn't have luxurious pillows or mattresses on their beds. Hadn't anyone in this movie seen the head rests from Egypt?? (

Aaron is a total non-character. He mostly stands around and says nothing. The plagues just happen. There is no back and forth between Moses/Aaron and the Egyptian priests, much less between Moses and Pharaoh.

After they cross the sea and Pharaoh's army gets drownded (as the song goes), there's about 5 minutes of movie left. First they have Moses going back to get Zipporah and Gershom because they're "in love." Which might actually be an improvement over the Bible where Moses seems to divorce Zipporah at some unknown point of time (Exo 18:1-7).

Then there is a scene with Moses going up a mountain. In the distant background you see people, and lights (it's night) and something that looks like a framework for the golden calf. But that's the only reference to Exo 32-34. There is no other mention of it and the God character certainly doesn't say anything about it. If you didn't know the story of the Golden Calf you might never know that's what the scene was about. The "calf" structure wasn't very obvious so it might just look like people celebrating. So what was the point of it?

Then there's Moses chiseling the commandments on a stone tablet - apparently from left to right. (A reminder that Hebrew is written right to left).

And then the people are on the move and Moses is in a cart with a box in it, presumably containing the tablets.  Fade to black.

OK. Yes the special effects were nice. But like Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars 1-3, there’s just way too much computer generated stuff that looks computer generated. Mostly you think that everything looks fake and unreal. Which is a pointed contrast to the movie Noah, which actually looked like it happened in a real place to real people.

There you have it. And that's not even considering the race issue that all the leads are white people. (And what was the point of Sigourney Weaver's role??) I don't know what Ridley Scott was thinking, but there was really no point, that I can discern, to making this movie. Both Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt do more justice to the biblical story than this does, and both of those have problems as well. One of my biblical studies colleagues posted the following on Facebook about the movie after she saw it. “Nice horses.” I think that’s all the good she found in the movie. Which is too bad because it’s not like there aren’t themes within the exodus story that are relevant to today.

So, if you see it, let me know what you think. Maybe you'll be more generous and charitable than I am. 

Nancy Bowen is Professor of Old Testament at Earlham School of Religion. 

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