Film in review – “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (Spoiler alert!)

Exodus2014PosterAs a lifelong believer, it’s hard not to view this epic film in terms of how it diverges from the biblical account or takes artistic liberties with it. And there are two big ones. First, the portrayal of Moses as an Egyptian general and completely non-spiritual fierce warrior in his growing-up years. The second is portraying God as a little boy – about 10 years old and looking like a Bedouin shepherd.

They show Moses (Christian Bale) as someone who knew he was adopted, certainly, but they concoct a story that the sister of Pharaoh’s wife, who was otherwise childless, was the one who claimed him as her own, saying the father was one of the Egyptian generals, but failing to name which one. So yes, Moses’ lineage is still in doubt (as was the lineage of that other Savior), and yes, his sister Miriam briefly appears, as does Aaron, but this isn’t their story. More prominent is the role of the chief elder of the slaves, Nun (Ben Kingsley), who would be, of course, Joshua’s father. He was the one who not only informed Moses about his true origins, but challenged him about the prophecy regarding his destiny. (OK, you biblical scholars, don’t ask for a scripture reference here; there isn’t one.) They even have a pagan Egyptian priestess prophesying to the older Pharaoh, the religious one, using animal entrails no less, about a new leader; but when he dies, any modicum of spirituality on the Egyptian throne dies with him. His son, Ramses (Joel Edgerton), is a cruel and arrogant despot who views and treats the slaves as subhuman. Oh, and he bans Moses into exile because of questions about his origins (as opposed to Moses running away on his own accord, frightened of the potential consequences of his own impetuosity).

But now it’s the fierce warrior with the sharp sword who clears the well for Zipporah, and before we know it, Moses is indeed raising sheep and a new family, but he doesn’t age quite as much as the Bible says. He’s still in his strong middle years when he sees the burning bush and the Bedouin shepherd boy tells him his name: I AM. Moses couldn’t take off his sandals at the time because he happened to be stuck up to his neck in the muck, which may have been the only way he’d listen.

Having heard the call to return to Egypt, he goes alone (no whining about needing his brother to be the spokesman) and threatens Pharaoh with a sword to the neck in the royal stables: still the fierce and fearless warrior. The plagues come, but Moses doesn’t order them or wave his staff dramatically, which theologically, at least, puts the emphasis much more on God’s intentions rather than on Moses’ authority over the elements. The final plague has even Pharaoh asking what kind of God would do this, but Ramses has already claimed his own divinity and he’s slain plenty of innocents himself (and not for any grand religious purpose).

Of course the whole point was the exodus: to get the slaves out of their 400-year-old bondage in Egypt and into the Land of Canaan. Director Ridley Scott understandably doesn’t detail the long wanderings in the wilderness, but instead concentrates on the dramatic events of the exodus itself: the Nile River covered in blood, the plagues of locusts and flies and disease, the skin boils, and of course the death of the firstborn, with the Hebrews swathing their doorposts in lamb’s blood so the angel of Death would pass over (Scott shows a darkness passing over the land, surely a suitable metaphor). Yes, he’s already being pursued by the dogged hounds of political correctness for using all-white actors for the primary Hebrew and Egyptian roles, but overall, it’s a grand epic on a 3-D scale that deserves its own hearing. Though it is an interpretation, it clearly relies on faith in God. And in Hollywood today, that’s still rare enough to be embraced with enthusiasm.


RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.