Monday, 26 January 2015

Exodus - A critique of the latest Biblical epic

Exodus: Gods & Kings

Moses confront's Pharoah
Moses lays down his demands

Normally I probably wouldn't waste my time writing a post about this movie, namely because it was so boring, however I have felt inclined to make some comments on Hollywood's latest venture into the Biblical realm. Before I had even walked into the cinema I suspected that there were going to be some historical inaccuracies - that is always the case when it comes to Hollywood's journey into history - and I was also expecting them to use some creative license when it came to interpreting the source material, but in then end, what I got was this.

A question of brotherhood
There has been some debate amongst my friends as to whether Moses and Pharaoh grew up as brothers. When we were studying the source material (the Biblical book of Exodus) a few years ago we were under the impression that the idea of them being brothers was something that was added by Hollywood (and this goes back to Cecil B DeMille's Ten Commandments - a movie that I have yet to see). However, more recently, I got into a discussion with another group of Christians that I know and I have since changed my opinion. For instance, when Moses was rescued from the Nile by the princess he was brought into Pharaoh’s household, and his mother was given a wage to look after him (Exodus 2:1-10). Thus it is clear that from a young age Moses was living amongst the royal family of the Egyptian empire.
Now, the reason that I consider the brother theory to not only be important, but also to be worth seriously considering, is that Moses had access to Pharaoh, and not only did he have access, but he was able to make demands of him. If Pharaoh and Moses did not have a pre-existing relationship, then no doubt the first time Moses approach him and requested that the Hebrew be released from slavery he would have been executed. Plebians, and especially slaves, simply cannot walk into the throne room of a monarch, especially a monarch who believed that he was a god, and start making demands without finding themselves facing the pointy end of a spear. In fact, it is not until the ninth plague that Pharaoh tells Moses that if he comes before him again he will be executed.

Egyptian Chariot Drawing
According to the film, Moses rode one of these
Moses the Revolutionary
It is interesting that in this latest incarnation of the Exodus story Moses is painted as the leader of a band of rebels. This actually does not sit all that comfortably with me. They have suggested that Moses was a general, and that is probably not too far from the truth since the the ruling class did occupy the higher ranks of the military. However it may not have been the case that Moses was a warrior. It is also possible that he may have been a scribe or an administrator. However, considering that God gifts people for his purposes, and that Moses was put in charge of leading hundreds of thousands of refugees across some very hostile territory, having some military skill would have been helpful.
However the source material suggests otherwise. In Exodus 4, Moses argues with God that he is not a fit and proper person to take this role. He is not an elegant speaker, nor does he consider himself all that persuasive. This is not the confident Moses that we see in the film, but rather somebody who is forever trying to back out of the task that God has assigned him. In the film however we do not see that aspect of the debate. True, it is suggested that Moses and God have some disagreement, but there is not the debate and the discussion that we see in the source.
We also have Moses launching guerilla attacks against the Egyptians, and then God appearing suggesting that this way will take too long so instead God will do things his way. Once again this is drifting too far away from the source material. At no point are we told that Moses trained a band of Hebrews as guerillas (though just because we are not told that does not necessarily mean it did not happen, however I am more inclined to fall onto the 'did not happen' argument as opposed to the 'possibly did happen' argument).

Moses and the burning bush
One many depictions of Moses' encounter with God
A relationship with God
To be honest, it was quite difficult to work out whether Moses' encounter with God was a true spiritual experience, or simply an hallucination. The burning bush scene seems to suggest that it is an hallucination as Moses gets caught in a rockslide, is hit on the head by some rocks, and then has a vision of the burning bush. Throughout the movie, when God appears to Moses, he is the only one who sees him, and thus there is a suggestion that maybe he is imagining all of this. However (and I shall go into more detail below) the plagues that strike Egypt end up telling a different story.
The relationship didn't really come across as the relationship that is painted in the Bible. In many cases God seems to come across as some distant being who is working with Moses to free the Hebrews from slavery. Yet it is not a question of 'let my people go' but rather a question of dealing with Pharaoh's tyranny. The Biblical account does reflect both aspects of this, namely because Pharaoh is being punished for his tyrannical acts against the Israelite people, yet time and time again the Bible tells us that God hardens Pharaoh's heart. This is something that does not come out in the film because the suggestion is that Pharaoh is beyond God's control and acts out of his own free will. However, that debate goes into a completely different realm which I will not explore further here.
I'm not really sure why Scott decided to use the image of an Egyptian boy to represent God. Okay, the Bible warns us about creating images of God, however the reason that it does that is twofold:
  1. To create an image of God is pretty much impossible because by creating an image we end up emphasising some aspects of God's character while ignoring others;
  2. God exists as spirit beyond the physical realm. To create an image of God, and by saying that this is an image of God, you are actually creating a new god because God does not exist as an idol, but rather as a being much, much greater.
As such, I am having difficulties understanding what they were trying to achieve with this image. Were they using the image of a boy because a child is innocent? That simply cannot be because God simply does not come across as being innocent in the way that a child is innocent. In a way, the image comes across to me as a 'spoilt brat' - God's people are being oppressed by Pharaoh and Pharaoh is not letting his people go free, so by sending the plagues on Egypt, it comes across as God throwing a tantrum (as opposed to it being a demonstration of God's power).
This brings me to a further point, and that is the idea that Moses had no idea as to his heritage. This simply could not be the case because Moses was raised by his mother in Pharaoh's household. I find it difficult to believe that Moses' mother would have denied that knowledge to Moses. The fact that Pharaoh's daughter knew that he was a Hebrew as well does not necessarily mean that she would hide that fact from him - remember that Moses was under her protection. I guess the final point to make on this is that the Bible does actually tell us that Moses knew that he was a Hebrew (Exodus 2:11-15).

A scientific explanation
One of the things that I seem to have noticed is that Scott is trying to explain this part of history using a scientific rationalist approach, though as is clear from the books there are limitations. Before I look at the limitations, I will explore the rational explanation of the plagues of Egypt because, up to a point, these plagues can be explained scientifically (the plagues can be found in Exodus 7:14-12:13).
  1. Water turned to blood: there are a couple of explanations for this. The one the film uses has some crocodiles begining to maul some fishermen, and as the feeding frenzy continues, more and more crocodiles join the fray. This, to be honest with you, was pretty weak. The other (more credible explanation that does not involve 'God did it so don't ask') is that the blood was actually sediment that was stirred up from the river bed and made the water appear like blood. However, the catch is that the water was undrinkable. This was not a simple party trick (hey! look, I turned water into blood!), it was meant to attack the Empire at its heart.
  2. Frogs: since the water had become pretty much undrinkable, it was suggested that all of the fish in the river died (which would hurt the Egyptian economy to no end). However, because the frogs could leave the water they then left it enmass and swarmed over the Egyptians. Yet, as was explained, because frogs cannot remain out of water for too long, and because they did not want to return to a poisonous Nile, they all ended up dying.
  3. Flies & Gnats: So, we have all these dead fish and all these dead frogs, as well as an undrinkable Nile, so it is not surprising that the small insects form the next two plagues. Visiting the bush here in Australia (and I am sure elsewhere as well) whenever you see a corpse there are always flies buzzing around, so it is not surprising that the number of dead frogs and fish in Egypt at the time would herald swarms of flies and gnats.
  4. Livestock & Boils: All the source material tells us is that a plague came upon the livestock and killed them all, and then the people of Egypt broke out in boils. Once again the rationalistic explanation suggests that with the swarms of flies and gnats descending upon the empire, along with a huge amount of rotting frogs and fish (and not forgetting a poisonous Nile), that the next plague would be, well, a plague. Whatever this plague was it was very effective because it struck the livestock and caused the population to break out in warts. However this is where the rationalistic approach breaks down because the source tells us that the Hebrews were not affected.
  5. Hail, Darkness, and Locusts: By the time we arrive at these plagues the rational explanation completely breaks down. Granted we have hail storms all the time, as well as have locust plagues. However the problem that the rational approach has difficulty explaining is how these three plagues came in succession afterwards. No doubt the Egyptian magicians (if they were able to use a rational approach) would have been able to explain away the first lot of plagues, however to explain how the first group of plagues brought about these plagues is difficult, if not impossible. I guess, to a rationalist, this would simply be bad luck.
Plagues of Egypt
Apparently it was just smoke
You will note that I have not even touched about the final plague, being the death of the first born. Personally, I simply cannot provide a rational explanation as to how a plague would be so selective that only the first born of those whose doors did not have blood covering them could have been killed. Even if we look at the previous three plagues and say 'gee, what a lot of bad luck' we simply cannot explain away the death of the first born.
So, what was the purpose of the plagues. Quite clearly the heart of the Egyptian economy is being attacked. Some have suggested that each of the plagues are demonstrating how God is greater than the gods of the Egyptians because each of the plagues come and knock one of the god's off of their pedestal. That may be correct, and I am not going to go too deep into Ancient Egyptian theology to attempt to point to which god the plagues were attacking. However, from my view of the events from the 21st Century, with a 21st Century rationalist mindset, I can see that what the plagues were doing was bit by bit destroying the economy. Note that the first to go is the Nile, the lifeblood of the Egyptian Empire. The next plagues worked to destroy the livestock, and the next two acted to destroy their agricultural production. The final two plagues strike at the heart of the Egyptian religion (with darkness undermining the power of the sun god Ra).
Ozymandius the Great
Percey Shelly wrote a poem about this guy

Was the Pharoah Rameses?
This leads me to my final point, and that is, whether Rameses is actually the Pharaoh of the oppression (or even the Exodus). It has been suggested by a number of sources that he is the traditional Pharaoh of the Oppression (yes, I know I have sourced Wikipedia). However I have a few problems with that:
  1. As indicated above, the ten plagues, and then the crossing of the Red Sea which resulted in Pharaoh's army being obliterated when the waves came crashing back down, would not have left the empire standing. It had pretty much been destroyed economically and militarily, and it would take an empire a miracle for it to recover from such a disaster.
  2. The source indicates that Moses went into a self imposed exile for forty years and only returned when he had heard that the former Pharaoh had died. What we have here is a very long living Pharaoh. This would suggest that even if Pharaoh of the Oppression is Rameses, then the Pharaoh of the Exodus would no doubt be his son. However there is a problem with that because during his reign we have the Israel Stele, which tells us that Israel has been laid waste which creates a huge contradiction because if the Exodus had occurred during the period of Rameses or his son, how were they able to then travel to Caanan and then get wiped out.
My thoughts is that the exodus occurred near the end of the Middle Kingdom, with the Pharaoh Amenenhat III being the Pharaoh of the oppression, and his son, Amenenhat IV, during whose reign we begin to see a decline in the power of the empire, leading to the Second Intermediate Period. Of course this is only speculation on my part, and there are much more detailed and better researched theses on this subject.

Historical Innacuracies
I might finish off with the historical inaccuracies that I noted in the movie. To be honest, you are always going to find what a friend of mine calls 'clangers' in any historical period piece (some being less subtle than others, such as the cuckoo clock in Shakespeare's Julius Ceaser). I guess the two big 'clangers' that stood out to me were:
  1. Pharaoh hung Hebrews from gallows as a form of collective punishment: Seriously, that is something that did not happen in Ancient Egypt. In fact, according to Wikipedia, hanging as a form of execution did not begin until the middle ages. Okay, crucifixion is a form of hanging, but the Egyptians did not do that either. They would execute people by either cutting their heads off, or tying them up in a bag and throwing them into the Nile.
  2. Rationalistic explanation of the plagues: Okay, maybe the Egyptian priests and magicians were quite smart (they could read and write) yet I found it quite anachronistic to have them give a scientific explanation of the plagues. These guys were not scientists and they did not have the scientific method. The saw everything as being the actions of the gods, and while they had knowledge of construction, architecture, mathematics, and pharmacology, they were not scientists in the vein of the Newtons and the Gallileos. Having them sprout such rationalistic explanations just doesn't wash with me.
Sometimes I wonder what Hollywood's purpose is in releasing such movies. Some have suggested that they are trying to attract the Christian audience, but the problem is that Christian critics seemed to have reacted negatively to these films. Okay, I have spent this entire post tearing apart Exodus: Gods & Kings, but that is because I am a purist (but then again so are many of these other Christians). Mind you, Passion of the Christ was very popular among Christians, but that was because it was quite faithful to the original story (ignoring that stupid scene where he builds a 20th century table, or when he chats to Pilate in perfect Latin). The problem with Christians is that if you drift just a little bit, or add supposition or speculation, you will turn them off the movie, and once one group is turned off, you know what happens - it spreads throughout the internet with titles such as 'it is not Biblical'.
I guess my experience within the church has created such perceptions in me as well, with a desire to see a movie which uses the Bible as its source to try to be as close to the story as possible. However, for me, I simply found this movie really boring, so in the end, it didn't matter whether it followed the Bible story or not because, well, it had already flopped.

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