This Christmas season the Hollywood machine has released another retelling of a Biblical story, undoubtedly more with the hope of making money than of “spreading the faith” (whichever that may be). That being said, I found the movie to be quite an experience. The recreation of ancient Egypt was amazing – in particular if your an ancient world geek like me. I saw glimpses of what I had seen with my own eyes in modern Egypt, and imagined through my limited learning while wandering there.
The film is clearly not Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Rather its trying to represent all of these faith traditions, or at least appeal to a demographic that can include all of the religions that invoke the story of Moshe, or Moses. The plagues – magnificently depicted thanks to modern technology – are explained with vernacular that resonates with the modern scientific worldview, as well as being believable for that ancient time. In our season of social unrest in the light of the mantras that Black Lives Matter and I Can’t Breath, as well as the continuing instability created by ISIS, this cinematic telling of the Exodus story is one of deliverance from the evils and oppression of facism, fanaticism, slavery, economic oppression, terrorism, genocide and apartheid-like-racism.
Spoiler alert! You may know the story (it’s the same) and I am going to discuss a few artistic choices. Ramses and Moses, when both thinking they’re Egyptian, talk about the Israelite slaves. Ramses says that the word “Israelite” means one who fights with God. Moses corrects him with the more accurate translation of “one who wrestles with God.” That notion is developed – and wrestled with – throughout the entirety of the film. Rather than present Moses as a man of great, immutable steadfast faith, we see a kick-ass tough man who discovers, resists, questions, and grows into a faith. This process occurs through an emerging relationship with God who is portrayed as a young boy, who looks surprisingly similar to Gershom (Moses’ actual son). But this boy is wild, unexpected, has lip, compassion, empathy and speaks to Moses in a way that provokes, invites and demands a conversation, a dialogue and eventually a relationship. There is no justification or explanation of the plagues, the deaths, the seemingly unjust revenge of the death of the first born and the death of those in the Sea. This personification of God guards the discomfort of mystery, the shroud surrounding omnipotence. The God “I Am” is sharply contrasted to the Pharaoh Ramses who claims his own godship but has no mystery, or power in the saga.
I liked it. Well worth the cost and the time, it led me to dream and think about the Exodus story. Faithfully re-presenting the story, the film is far from a literalist reading of it. The dialog is not directly lifted from the pages of Exodus, rather they seemed to be a sort of amalgam of speeches of the Divine One throughout the books of the Bible. The story ends with a smiling Moses, in a realistic way after much death, loss, pain and fight. The feeling I had as the credits rolled was one of realism, the mixture of loss and gain, of pain and victory that is integral to any story of transformation, let alone this one which is so central to our common humanity. I would recommend sitting next to the two older guys I did, who in response to God saying unto Moses “Take courage! Do not be Afraid,” responded with a callback answer of “Amen. That’s right.”