Exodus and the Strangeness of God

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I did not want to complain about the pyramids. I knew as I walked into the theater that, somewhere in the first few moments of the film, we would see Hebrew slaves building pyramids. I had prepared myself. Never mind that the pyramids were constructed millennia before the Israelites found themselves in Egypt. Never mind that the Jews had as much to do with building the pyramids as the army corps of engineers had to do with building the Cathedral of Notre Dame. There would be Hebrew slaves building pyramids. And I was not going to complain.

Much has been made of the historical anachronisms that plague Exodus: Gods and Kings, which go beyond pyramids. The dialogue is bad for any century, but it is entirely out of place for a movie set before the time of Plato. The film also depicts Israelites as modern guerilla warriors and is replete with, yes, explosions. But the bigger problem with Exodus: Gods and Kings goes far beyond these poor choices. The film portrays Moses, played by Christian Bale, as a cross between a well-bred Englishman, a hipster skeptic, and a hero of comic book proportions. It presents God as an eleven-year-old with temper tantrums, who enlists Moses for reasons unknown, and then proceeds to ignore Moses while solving the situation entirely on his own. In filling his movie with distinctly modern sensibilities, Ridley Scott, a once great director, managed to lose the thing that gives the story of Exodus its power: its challenges to modern sensibilities.

This is not in fact inevitable in a movie about the Bible. As Charlie Clark pointed out in Fare Forward last year, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah managed a compelling portrayal of what the Flood must have been like to those experiencing it:

My take on Aronofsky’s approach is that—in contrast to the omniscient and retrospective perspective of Scripture—he wants us to see the Flood from an “on the ground” perspective. This necessarily involves taking the story “out of context” and stripping away our familiar glosses and interpretations. In this way, we enter the experience of characters from a time very different, but also very similar, to our own. In the Christian tradition, the Flood is one, early chapter in the vast revelation of a loving God’s will for humanity. But for Noah, the Flood is sudden catastrophe wrought by a long silent and little understood Creator.

Take away the benefit of hindsight, and the darkness in the Noah story becomes clear. We are dealing with people whose theology is limited to just two doctrines: the Creation and the Fall. God made the world, Humanity broke it, and no one knows what comes next [….]

Too often biblical fiction devolves into a kind of pageantry, playing to the audience’s expectations and endowing the characters with a confidence totally out of place from their own perspective. Aronofsky’s Noah and his righteous confusion before a God beyond reckoning are a welcome alternative.

Exodus: Gods and Kings fails where Clark argues Noah succeeded. Consider Moses. In the Old Testament, he is a poor speaker, unable to lead his people without the help of Aaron. That could be an occasion to upset contemporary prejudices: the great leader might not be a great politician, and the leader God chooses might not be the smartest or most eloquent of men. This has resonances with First Corinthians. But Christian Bale is a hero, so he must apparently be a well-educated Englishman who speaks grandiloquently, plots military tactics, and singlehandedly slays the numerous assassins sent to kill him. Depicting Israelites as guerilla warriors is another fault of this kind. The Jews of the Old Testament did not fight their way out of Egypt.

When a story is adapted to a new medium, things will change; few books can be translated into films without any substantive alterations. Ridley Scott, of all directors, should know how to make those changes well. Scott directed Blade Runner, the film adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. That film changed almost everything about that novel, but the story was altered so that the film could maintain the novel’s themes of dehumanization and dystopia. The purpose was not to eviscerate the novel. Exodus: Gods and Kings, on the other hand, wants to tell a different story than Exodus: “Hero gives great speeches and leads people to freedom with some quasi-supernatural help.” But this headline could describe Braveheart. Or The Lego Movie.

The stories found in the Old Testament are stranger than that. One of the provocative elements of Exodus is the notion that God, the God, the only God, has left His Chosen People in captivity for 400 years. If God is great, where are His armies? Why are His people the doormats of a great empire, instead of the jewels? Here is a God who lets His people suffer for centuries, and then casts such violent destruction on Egypt that the Hebrews escape almost immediately. Here are a people who toil away in slavery for centuries, with no army and no dignity, yet hold onto the idea that their God is the true God. Then, after being rescued from that slavery in the most spectacular way imaginable, this same people of enduring faith begin almost immediately to worship idols. What kind of God does these things? What kind of people do these things? There are countless books, articles, movies, plays and otherwise that attempt to shed light on these questions. Exodus: Gods and Kings is not among them. There are pyramids to be built, after all.

Stephen Petrany

Stephen Petrany is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Yale Law School. He is currently working as a clerk to Judge William H. Pryor on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.