by Ted Giese
Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2013) was an opinionated film chock full of dark cryptic extra-biblical mysticism and environmentalist concerns often feeling like propaganda for something. Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, on the whole, is a much different film. His “sword and sandal” epic is surprisingly restrained, subdued, and filled with a genuine wrestling with the biblical story of Moses. It is Scott’s as a recovering atheist who is agnostically struggling with materialism and the possibility of the Divine.
At first blush the film seems to rest on the razor’s edge of mystery and coincidence. But in the end God wins. The key challenge presented by the film rests in the old adage, “He cannot see the forest for the trees.” In Scott’s case it appears he’s had a good glimpse of the “forest” but it’s often the Biblical details—the “trees” in the Exodus account—that suffer.
Exodus provides no prologue, opting instead to jump into the story of Moses as a grown man, already clearly instructed in the wisdom of the Egyptians, mighty in his words and deeds (cf Acts 7:22). He is a general beloved by the Pharaoh Seti and close confidant of the Pharaoh’s son Ramses. Even though Moses is not one of Pharaoh’s sons, Seti treats him like one and even privately favours Moses over Ramses.
Early in the film, before the Battle of Kadesh, Seti gives both men a sword with their names engraved on it—giving Moses’ sword to Ramses and Ramses’ sword to Moses, charging them to look after each other. The relationship between the two men becomes one of the major driving forces in the narrative, as the director tells his story of God rescuing the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. Scott’s foreshadowing in the first act of the film employs dramatic irony to great effect, thoughtfully setting up the future demise of the brotherly relationship between Moses and Ramses.
When screen writers sit down to pen a movie about Moses and the Exodus, this brotherly relationship is an oft-repeated Hollywood theme. While it’s found in popular adaptations like Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments and DreamWorks’ 1998 animated feature The Prince of Egypt, it’s really a speculative invention. Scripture doesn’t name Moses’ adoptive Egyptian mother, nor her father the Pharaoh, nor the Pharaoh to whom Moses eventually returns some forty years after his flight to Midian. In fact, Scripture is silent both as to Moses’ family situation while growing up in Egypt and to what impact, if any, it had on his return to Egypt. Scott, like others before him, includes this for dramatic purposes but Scripturally speaking it is a theme not explored in the Bible. That said, the idea of brotherly conflict is a recurring theme in Scripture; the Book of Genesis records, for example, the story of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers.
In other moments, Exodus imports biblical themes and character traits for dramatic effect. For example, Scott’s depiction of Moses contains echoes of Abraham and Jacob particularly in their personal wrestling with God in times of trial and danger. At one point a corrupt Egyptian official (Ben Mendelsohn) complains about the Hebrew slaves saying that even their name is combative. He notes that Israel means “he who fights with God,” to which Moses responds, “No, it means to wrestle with God.” This thread ties Scott’s Moses back to the patriarch Jacob whose name God changed to “Israel” after Jacob literally wrestled with Him (Genesis 32:22-32).
Details. Details. Details.
Moses, while instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, is shown to be a-religious—a man who knows about the religious beliefs of the Egyptians and the Hebrew slaves who he’s destined to save, but who doesn’t actually believe any of it. Instead, Moses values the modern virtue of “believing in yourself.” This changes after he suffers an accident on the side of a mountain while shepherding a flock of sheep. In the accident Moses acquires a head injury and from that point he sees a messenger of God in the form of a young shepherd boy. (It’s important to remember that Scripture doesn’t attribute Moses’ relationship with God to a head injury!)
Is there a burning bush in Scott’s film? Yes, but Scott’s Moses receives no staff from God with which to work wonders nor any clear direction of what he is expected to do upon returning to Egypt. This seminal scene in the story contains the largest number of departures from the biblical narrative. The burning bush encounter in The Prince of Egypt has a higher degree of Biblical fidelity while still allowing for some rather successful artistic interpretation of the text.
Some viewers may mistake the mysterious shepherd boy for God but Scott envisioned him as a messenger intended to be a sort of angel that God uses to speak directly to Moses (and whom Moses alone can see). Moses’ relationship with this messenger begins in fear, moves to antagonism, and eventually appears to be one of camaraderie. This eventually affable relationship may draw to mind Exodus 33:1, which says “The LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”
This approach to Moses’ relationship with God through a mediating angel may also explain some of Christian Bales’ comments about the character of Moses he plays. Prior to the film’s release Bale said, “I think [Moses] was likely schizophrenic.” While it certainly sounds as though Bale is speaking of his character’s motivations from a purely materialistic modern viewpoint, filmgoers will want to ask “What does the film on a whole end up saying?” Viewed as a whole it becomes apparent the events unfolding in the film cannot be explained by one man’s delusion. For example, Scott depicts the ninth plague (darkness) and the tenth plague (the death of the Egyptian first-born and the sparing the Israelite first-born) as events with no naturalistic explanation.
Details. Details. Details. Details.
When Moses returns to Egypt, and Pharaoh refuses to let the Hebrew slaves go, all ten plagues are shown in vivid detail. While Scott wrestles with how to depict these, he often provides an initial materialist explanation: the blood in the Nile begins with an onslaught of crocodiles, which the Egyptians blame for setting off a chain reaction of terrible plagues. But it becomes clear that the Nile river—which the Egyptians worship as a source of life—has become, by the hand of the Hebrew God, a fountain of death to the embarrassment of Pharaoh, his advisors, and the “gods” they serve. In the Scriptures, the Egyptian magicians recognize “the finger of God” at work (Exodus 8:18-19); in the film, they and the rest of Pharaoh’s advisors remain in denial.
In the Scriptures, the Egyptian magicians recognize “the finger of God” at work (Exodus 8:18-19); in the film, they and the rest of Pharaoh’s advisors remain in denial.
Looking carefully at this part of the film provides this insight: Scott has made the plagues into a series of events in which God works through means. There is real blood in the water, real flies, frogs and boils. None of it is “spiritualized,” and by the end of the plagues it’s clear God is in command of it all. In fact, when Moses first returns, Scott has him trying to rescue the people by guerrilla warfare echoing the sentiments of Acts 7 where Scripture says, “[Moses] supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25). In Scott’s film, Moses learns this lesson alongside the people: their rescue would come from the hand of God—not human ingenuity, persuasion, or unguided-random-naturalistic-coincidence.
If viewers are looking for discrepancies with Scripture, the list goes on and on. For instance, Moses doesn’t spend forty years away from Egypt. And Moses’ wife Zipporah and their son Gershom don’t accompany him back to Egypt. As a result, Moses doesn’t appear to be eighty years old when he returns. To identify the Pharaoh as Ramses II, Scott places the narrative on the backdrop of 13th century BC which conflicts with the traditional date of the 15th century BC, a later date arrived at by internal biblical evidence. And on it goes.
What are Christians to make of this film?
The film is essentially Ridley Scott’s character study of Moses: a man moving reluctantly from being a-religious to becoming a man of faith. In the film’s first act Joshua’s father, Nun, asks Moses, “Do you believe in coincidence?” to which Moses answers, “As much as I believe in anything else.” Nun replies, “I don’t believe in coincidence.”
God in Scott’s film is initially rationalized away as a powerful and compelling delusion. But by the film’s apex, the death of the Egyptian first-born, God is presented as truly divine and truly beyond Moses—He isn’t something Moses could just conjure up in his mind as the result of a head injury.
In one of the film’s most powerful moments both Ramses and Moses recognize there was no coincidence in the fact that none of the Israelite children died in the last plague—that God was diligently rescuing Israel, His “first-born son,” out of slavery (Exodus 4:21-23). In spite of all the film’s tweaks to the biblical story, here Scott powerfully and faithfully depicts this crucial part of the Exodus narrative. And for that he can be applauded. Perhaps that creative decision reflects his own move from outspoken atheism to open agnosticism.
To put the best construction on the film and its production, Scott seems to be “a bruised reed” by the banks of the Nile river; and while the film doesn’t burn with the light of a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21), the “faintly burning wick” (Isaiah 42:3) of hope Scott presents requires thoughtful consideration by Christian viewers. They may want to consider the people in their own lives who are precariously beginning to seek God where He may be found. In making Exodus, Scott grasped hold of the Lord and wrestled with Him. Pray this wrestling match will be as successful for Scott as it was for the Old Testament patriarch Jacob.
In making Exodus, Scott grasped hold of the Lord and wrestled with Him. Pray this wrestling match will be as successful for Scott as it was for the Old Testament patriarch Jacob.
In an interview with Variety, Scott said, “I always try to place myself in the position of the central character, and try to come at it from my own logic.” Moses, like Jacob, “wrestled” with God. It appears that Scott, in making this film, has made a genuine attempt to “walk a mile” in their sandals.
In the end, with its many deviations from Scripture, Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings can’t be recommended as a “devotional” film. It is however a superior film to Aronofsky’s Noah and may serve as fertile ground for conversation about the nature of faith, God, and redemption.
If you plan to sit down together as a family to watch a movie about the Exodus, your best bets may still be Dreamwork’s The Prince of Egypt or DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. But be warned: these films also take liberty with the Scriptural text and likewise indulge in creative licence. For a true encounter with Moses and God’s liberation of the Children of Israel from their slavery in Egypt, read the book of Exodus, the Acts chapter 7, and Hebrews chapter 11.
When watching any film based on the Bible, it is recommended to go back to read again what Scripture teaches and not take what the film presents as “gospel” truth, regardless how beloved the film may be personally or by the culture-at-large.