When Kings are Gods: A Hebrew Professor’s take on Ridley Scott’s “Exodus” by Chip Hardy

Last Friday, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings was released. We asked Chip Hardy (Ph.D., University of Chicago), Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Southeastern, to review the movie for us. Here’s what he thought. What do you think? 

First, a note about story content: The basic framework of the biblical Exodus narrative is depicted or implied in the movie. Even though a number of minor deviations will be evident to those familiar with the account, these creative choices matter little to the overarching narrative. As such, I am less interested in discussing the minutia of counting the Anglo actors or the psychological analysis of Christian Bale, the underlying de-mythologizing of the miraculous elements, or the pubescent depiction of the messenger of God. Little of this hairsplitting seems to be helpful. Such endeavors make the movie something—a documentary—it never was intended to be, rather than seeing it on its own terms as an earnest retelling, or filmic interpretation, that millions of people will see and possibly prompt an interest in the true story’s transformative redemptive qualities.

Now, let us discuss constructively, deliberately, and biblically two notable features of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: (1) the fundamental idea of the conflict amongst the “Gods and Kings” and (2) the character of Moses as lost seeker.

With all the discussion around what Exodus gets wrong, most have missed a central theme this movie gets right that is, at best, down-played or even ignored by DeMille’s epic 10 Commandments and is altogether absent from the animated film Prince of Egypt. The crucial Leitmotif of the story is not the struggle of Moses and Pharaoh but the gods of Egypt pitted against I AM (that is, Yahweh, often read the Lord). The quandary, then, is what will happen to the kings caught in the resulting barrage of divine cataclysm (Exod 7:3-5).

The movie subtitle betrays this focus as do numerous scenes throughout. The biblical account likewise presses this fundamental conflict between, on the one hand, Pharaoh and the Egyptian deities and, on the other, Yahweh the God of the Hebrews. In the first direct encounter concerning the emancipation of the Hebrew slaves, Ramses responds to Moses’s claim that God demands the freedom of the Hebrew people by querying, Which god? This is reminiscent of Pharaoh’s question in Exodus 5:2, Who is Yahweh? At another point, Pharaoh angrily challenges his own mortal status and exclaims: I am a god! This Edenic-like insurgency is countered in the final plague (Exod 12:29-30) in the vivid, disquieting realism of the death of the usurper’s own progeny of which he’d been forewarned (Exod 4:22-23). Elsewhere, the Egyptian high priestess is seen trying without success to turn the bloody Nile back into unpolluted water conjuring the biblical account of Pharaoh’s sorcerers failing to replicate and remedy the wondrous marvels of Aaron and Moses (Exod 8:18-19). The renowned Egyptian sorcerers cannot compete with Yahweh’s reluctant servants.

Each plague challenges the pantheon of Egypt collectively and the deities individually. Many biblical commentators have described the connection between the domains of the Egyptian gods and the ten plagues. So, for instance, Yahweh’s slaying of the Nile-god, Hapi, demonstrates the authority of the Hebrews’ God as compared to the impotence of the fertility deity. Heket the amphibian-deity loses control over all frogs. The gods of medicine could not provide treatment or prevent severe boils. Yahweh—and not the Egyptian god Ra—controls the light of the sun. Finally, Horus and the other gods are not even able to protect the future ruler of Egypt, the first-born son of Pharaoh (see Exod 12:12, “on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments”; also Num 33:4). Ultimately, even the strong arm of Pharaoh is feeble and cannot protect his own son’s life in a bout with the outstretched hand of the God of foreign slaves (Exod 6:6).

Second, in Exodus the character of Moses is troubled by his experiences, becomes an Incipient leader, and finds redemption in his family. In a classic fall-from-privilege scenario, the rationalist Moses stumbles down the path of faith in God with the help of his god-fearing wife. Through an Emmaus road encounter with the burning bush and the messenger of I AM, Moses acknowledges Yahweh, but his journey is one of angst and anger over what God is doing (and not doing) in Egypt. After an unsuccessful attempt at liberating his people, Moses becomes a passive agent in the deliverance from Egypt. Even his best laid plan to guide the people to cross to safety at the shallow straights of the Red Sea is frustrated. Yet deliverance is accomplished in spite of his efforts to achieve it.

The biblical account likewise presents a complicated individual who has a profound awareness of his own mission but is woefully unqualified and reticent. Moses invites the ire of God on account of his fivefold dismissal of his calling (Exod 3:7-4:17). And his own exodus from a watery death as a child (2:1-10), burdens him with the responsibility of an entire nation yet to experience deliverance. The violent reaction to the oppression of his people and the ominous question from the rescued, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us?” (Exod 2:14), provide for a foreshadowing of Moses’s future dual role as leader and magistrate. Yet this youthful exuberance and zeal for the deliverance of his people was thwarted by the realities of his own fear. Many years later liberation does come via the very hand of Moses that had revolted viciously against Egyptian subjugation, but only the direct action of Yahweh on behalf of the Hebrews eventually frees the oppressed.

What we find in the person of Moses is an individual who himself needs to be saved. Amazingly he is not the hero of his own story or even a lovably flawed character who wins the audience’s praise. His is not a redeemable life. Rather, Moses is a troubled vagrant that God uses to declare his primacy over the heavenly gods and supremacy over earthly kings, to rescue a people from slavery, to provide a source of hope for future afflicted groups, and to transform the world by the memory of his gracious deliverance.

I am not a film critic, so I hesitate to evaluate the film on its enduring quality or overarching aesthetics. The Ancient Near Eastern world represented in the film, excluding minor issues of the anachronism of the Hebrew writing system, was executed surprisingly well. Although the setting, cinematography, and special effects were visually stunning, the dialogue and character development, outside of Moses, leaves the audience with the impression that the battle scenes drive the plot more than the actors’ interactions. (I’m afraid that on this point the audience has been given exactly what we asked for.) In total, the movie is enjoyable, if not a little long, and offers a thought- and conversation-provoking interpretation of this grand, eternal redemptive story.

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  1. Nate Fleming   •  

    Excellent observations. I finally watched Exodus last night, and when it was over, all I could ask myself was – why wasn’t this film a hit among Christian audiences?

    I understand that Noah (which I also enjoyed) left a bad taste in the mouth of the standard Evangelical Christian movie-goer, but Exodus – as the writer of the article says – has so much going for it. I especially appreciate the writer’s comment that the movie was a movie, not a documentary, and it needs to be watched as a movie.

    One slight correction – I thought that the Prince of Egypt did show the struggle between God and the Egyptian gods, through the two priests voiced by Steve Martin and Martin Short, and their attempts to replicate the miracles.

    Thanks again!

  2. Pingback: Day 20 • The 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge | Thimblerig's Ark

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