I watched Ridley Scott’s 2014 movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, a few nights ago. Here are some thoughts:
- The movie was controversial among many conservative Christians because it implied that the plagues on Egypt could have been explained naturally, without recourse to the supernatural (see, for example, Al Mohler’s critique here). Or at least there is ambiguity about whether the God of Israel is the one causing the plagues, or the plagues are just nature taking its course. The exception to this would be the final plague, the death of the firstborn: I can think of no natural explanation for the Egyptian firstborn dying in a single night, while the Israelite firstborn who had blood on their doors lived. Overall, though, one could look at the plagues and conclude that they had a natural explanation, as one of the Pharaoh’s advisers did. For one, as more than one critic has pointed out, we do not know if Moses in the movie was truly interacting with God, or if he was simply hallucinating after being hit in the head. Second, the plagues start with crocodiles attacking one another, which leads to blood in the Nile, which leads to frogs coming ashore. The frogs die, and flies come. Flies spread disease. Right when Egypt conceivably cannot get any lower, a hailstorm and locusts come. These are natural events. Third, the crossing of the Red Sea is not like it is in most Moses movies, with one wall of water on one side, another wall of water on the other side, and a path of dry ground in the middle. Rather, what happens is that the water gets lower, and that allows the Israelites to cross.
- What do I, as a believer in God, think about this? I like it. Don’t get me wrong. I also like Moses movies in which God kicks Egypt’s ass, and makes it obvious to arrogant Egypt that the God of Israel is the one kicking Egypt’s ass (I will discuss this further below). But I personally identified with Ridley Scott’s take on the story: that the God of Israel may be acting, yet there are other ways to explain or interpret what is going on. That is the situation in which I often find myself: I believe that God is at work in my life, but I can still look at my life and account for events without appealing to God as an explanation. I still prefer to have faith, though. I was particularly moved by the scene in which the Israelites were standing on the shores of the Red Sea, wondering what to do next, and Moses was encouraging them to have faith and cross. What is faith without there being at least some doubt?
- There is a question that occurs in my mind, though: Would the Egyptians historically have been open to a naturalistic explanation for the plagues? Even Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments portrayed Raamses as a bit of a naturalist, at least in one scene: Yul Brynner’s Raamses was saying that the bloody water was caused by clay from the mountains, that Moses and the Egyptian priest fashioned gods to prey on the fears of men, and that the plagues were events that happened of themselves. Maybe there were occasions when the Egyptians could have had naturalistic thoughts, but they did, overall, have a supernaturalist worldview. They believed that Egypt had gods, and that even the Pharaoh was a god, or a manifestation of a god. I can even picture them believing that other people-groups had gods, for nations in the ancient Near East generally did acknowledge the existence of other nations’ gods. If the Exodus had occurred, how would the Egyptians have accounted for the plagues? It would be a theological problem for them, I’m sure, for the Pharaoh, a god, was not successfully upholding the natural order and prosperity of his kingdom, and the gods of Egypt were not any help, either. Maybe the Egyptians could conclude that their gods were mad at them, for some reason—-even though, here, this view could conceivably collapse when all of their attempts to appease their gods were not working. Or perhaps the Egyptians could have concluded that the god of the Israelites was responsible for the damage—-but the theological problem for the Egyptians here would be that this would arguably make the god of the Israelites more powerful than their own gods.
- A provocative scene is when Moses is talking with God (or God’s messenger), a little boy), and Moses expresses sadness over the plagues, since Moses grew up with the Egyptians. God asks Moses to consider the Israelites, who were oppressed by the Egyptians for hundreds of years, and God expresses disappointment that Moses does not yet consider the Israelites to be his people. Moses asks God if the plagues are a matter of revenge, and God responds that the Pharaohs in Egypt think that they are gods, when they are merely flesh and blood. God wants them to bow down to him in pain, begging for it to stop! This was the first time that God raised his voice or appeared angry, for, throughout the movie, God was mostly calm and level-headed.
- What do I think about that? The Exodus story gives a lot of people problems. This is understandable, for innocent Egyptians died as a result of the plagues. Many non-believers put the Exodus story in the same category as God’s command to slaughter the Canaanite children, thinking that God appears barbaric, bloodthirsty, and unjust. They may look at my remark above about enjoying Moses movies in which God kicks Egypt’s ass and think that I am psychotic. I can understand their perspective, but allow me to offer a rationale for my own. Egypt was arrogant. Its government believed that it had the authority over people’s life and death. In the movie, the Pharaoh publicly put one Israelite family to death each day until the Israelites turned Moses in, and the Pharaoh later planned to slaughter every Israelite firstborn. And this Pharaoh had the audacity in the movie to accuse Moses’ God of being cruel and unjust! I do enjoy seeing the arrogant humbled, the oppressors put in their place, the cruel punished. What about the innocent Egyptians? Were there truly innocent Egyptians? Perhaps even ordinary Egyptians carried with them that attitude of arrogance and contempt for the oppressed. I know that I have a certain arrogance about being an American, a citizen of the most powerful country on the face of the earth! I do not like that arrogance, but it is there. There is more that I can say about this issue: about how private Egyptian citizens may have participated in killing Israelite newborns (Exodus 1:22—-I attribute this observation to Rashi), and how one can even make the case that God loved the Egyptians (see Exodus 9:18-21—-I attribute this observation to Tim Keller; see also this post).
- Christian Bale, who played Moses in the movie, reportedly called Moses barbaric. I admired Moses in Ridley Scott’s movie, though. Moses as part of the court in Egypt discouraged the Pharaoh from killing Israelites, saying that this would make the Israelites hate the Egyptians and want to rebel against them. Moses was curious about what the Israelites believed. Moses was a humble man: when he offered Raamses strategic battle advice and Raamses rebuffed him, Moses respected and deferred to Raamses’ authority. When Dathan was challenging Moses’ authority at the Red Sea, Moses did not get defensive, but Moses responded humbly and reasonably. Moses was humble, but humble in a strong sort of way.
- During the scene about the final plague, people with Israelite names are dying, even though Moses would later tell Pharaoh that not a single Israelite firstborn died. How do I know that those people who died had Israelite names? Because “Yah”—-the name of the God of Israel—-was in those names. Of course, more than one Moses movie has made this mistake. The name “Bithia,” the name of Moses’ Egyptian adoptive mother, is Hebrew, for it has “Yah” in it, yet more than one Moses movie depicts the Egyptians calling her “Bithiah” without batting an eye. This problem should be redressed in future Moses movies, for it does make the movies appear less authentic.