“Exodus – Gods and Kings”: a biblically based review

  Ten reasons to be hardhearted toward Ridley Scott’s biblical epic.
Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton as Moses and Ramses in Ridley Scott’s Exodus Gods and Kings

There is no question that Hollywood knows how to make big, beautiful, epic, blockbuster movies with wide appeal. In that regard they are second to none. With the release of the recent Biblical themed movies – the latest of which is Exodus – Gods and Kings by Ridley Scott, the question for Christians is has Hollywood learned, or more appropriately, recalled how to do Biblical themed movies that Christians will both enjoy and approve of? I say ‘recalled’ because of course Hollywood used to know how to make such movies. Anyone who has seen  Cecille B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments understands why it is regarded as the standard against which every other Biblical epic is judged.

To answer the question:  no, Hollywood has not learned or has chosen not to recall how to make movies Christians can both enjoy and approve of.  If Exodus – Gods and Kings is the gauge, then it’s clear Hollywood remains clueless in this regard – or perhaps more appropriately – remains willfully antagonistic toward the Christian messages inherent in Biblical themed movies.

This assessment stands in stark contrast to the article in Christianity Today
from which the caption (Ten reasons to be hardhearted toward Ridley Scott’s biblical epic.) is derived. In that article, Brett McCracken wants to give you “Ten reasons to not be hardhearted toward Ridley Scott’s biblical epic.”  Here’s my assessment in a nutshell:

For Ridley Scott, director of films such as Gladiator (2000),  Hannibal (2001) and American Gangster (2007) the account of the exodus is just another story. He could not possibly care less if it is a Biblical story that has theological meanings, symbolism and message. He doesn’t care if it is cherished by Jews and Christians the world over. He’s a story teller, and he’s going to do it his way. And do it his way he did.

After viewing the movie I sat down and wrote over 3 dozen inaccuracies and problems (from a Christian perspective) in the film without having to look hard or dig for them. What follows are what I consider to be 10 of the most egregious.  After that I’ve included commentary on the ten reasons that Brett McCracken thinks it’s okay to see the film.

Here are links to the two sections:
Spoiler Warning: – Many parts of the film are discussed – but if you’re familiar with the Exodus account, not much should be a surprise – other than the many changes Scott made.

 

Part I.  Ten Reasons to be Hardhearted toward Ridley Scott’s biblical epic

 

Part II.  Brett McCracken’s  “Ten reasons to not be hardhearted toward Ridley Scott’s biblical epic” – in italics, followed by my comments.



Part I:
Ten reasons to be hardhearted toward Ridley Scott’s biblical epic

1. No concern for Biblical authority
Right off the bat you know that there will be little regard for Biblical authority when the first thing you see is the time period: 1300 BCE. That date – known as the “late date” for the exodus is used because many scholars date the exodus to 1270 BC during the reign of Ramses II.  (In passing, BCE – Before the Common Era – is used by those who don’t want to acknowledge the Christ in BC – Before Christ.) Scholars who affirm the 13th century date do so disregarding recent archeological evidence1, and more importantly the testimony of scripture which says:

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, the second month, he began to build the temple of the LORD.
1 Ki 6.1

Solomon reigned from 970 – 930 BC. The fourth year would be 966. Go back 480 years, and you get 1446 BC – known as the “early date” of the exodus. Of course if you rely on the testimony of man over the testimony of scripture, you’ll go with the “late date.” So we know from the start that this production is not concerned with Biblical authority or Biblical accuracy.

2 No Concern for fidelity to the biblical account

This telling takes “artistic license” to a new level. DeMille’s production also took artistic license – but they were more innocuous, and didn’t affect theology. For instance DeMille did a conflation of the punishment for the golden calf (Ex 32) with Korah’s rebellion (Num 16). Scott however directly changes significant events -casting a whole new light on the event. For instance, having Moses, who should be confronting Pharaoh, hide while families are dying because of him instead of seeking Pharaoh out as God told him. In fact this version has Moses leaving his family behind instead of bringing them along, as the Bible says:

So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt. And he took the staff of God in his hand.
Ex 4.20

Not to mention Moses’ great line that even Sunday school children can tell you with great drama: “Let me people go!” (The bible – Exodus 5.1)  is notably absent in this version.

 

3. No concern for biblical themes
Also Notably absent:

– God’s work through people
Moses tries to free the people by training them as warriors – but can’t do so in time so fails miserably.  God, as played by a child, just watches as Moses continues to fail until he tires of it and decides to do the work himself – independently of Moses. Scott misses the whole point of how God works through his people – both then, and now.

– God’s holiness (Ex 3.5)
…is notably absent from the first meeting at the burning bush

– In the Bible, God himself writes the first tablets with the 10 Commandments (Deut 5.22)
In this version, Scott has God watching as Moses carves them out.


4. Moses as a Military General Misses the point
Scott, perhaps taking cues from documentaries like “Bible Battles” that cast Moses as “a fine strategic and tactical commander”2 sees Moses primarily as a military leader, not a prophet of God. Scott has Moses planning to defeat Pharaoh and his army by raising up an army of Israelites to fight.  While training the people Moses must hide from Pharaoh who is looking for him – so Moses is hiding while Pharaoh is killing an innocent family a day until he finds Moses. So instead of the Biblical account where Moses goes to Pharaoh with the power of God, Pharaoh goes looking for Moses with the power of Egypt while Moses hides from Pharaoh as innocent families die protecting him.

5. The Plagues miss the point
The CGI for the plagues is up to snuff for a Hollywood film. But since Moses has never delivered the message, the point of the plagues, which is to glorify God by confounding and defeating Pharaoh, the magicians and their Egyptian gods – is vague. The message of the plagues was to have been delivered by Moses in a direct confrontation with Pharaoh. Yet in Scott’s version, the first meeting with Pharaoh (and the meetings are rare) – Moses sneaks in to see Pharaoh, and with Pharaoh at the point of a sword tells Pharaoh the Israelites should be paid for their work, if not you should set them free. A message geared no doubt to 21st century ears who will resonant with a message of equal pay for equal work, but far from the biblical message that the miracles are done  “that you might know there is no one like the LORD our God.” (Ex 8.10)

Also in what appears to be an attempt to make the plagues believable to 21st century science oriented viewers, Scott has Pharaoh’s magician explain – in a manner worthy of one of the many such attempts by science to identify natural causes for the miracles of the plagues3 – how each plague was a result of the first plague of the Nile turning to blood. In contrast, the Bible has the magicians trying to replicate the plagues, not explain them away.

6. The Distinction God Makes between His people the Israelites and the Egyptians is conspicuously missing
The Bible is careful to note that while the plagues will fall on the Egyptians, God’s power and control of the plagues will keep the plagues from falling on his people the Israelites. For example the Israelites were spared from the plague of flies:

But on that day I will deal differently with the land of Goshen, where my people live; no swarms of flies will be there, so that you will know that I, the LORD, am in this land.
Exodus 8.22

In Scott’s production, Moses asks God what he’s doing, the plagues are falling on Israelite and Egyptian alike.

7. Moses’ wife Zipporah was a heroine, not a distraction
In the Biblical account, Zipporah is not a reason to stay home in Midian with her, but agrees to go and actually saves Moses’ life on the way – rectifying his disobedience to God. (Ex 4.25-26) Scott has Zipporah not only not going back with Moses, but very disappointed that he is returning to Egypt, and thus a distraction from his mission.


Maria Valverde as Zipporah

8. No Recognition of the Devastation of the plagues
How does one get a pharaoh who considers himself a god to let his slave work force go? God knew only by showing Pharaoh that he was powerless and nearly penniless and could next be people-less,  would he convince Pharaoh to let His people go. Thus the Bible records the devastating effect of the plagues on Egypt:

Pharaoh’s officials said to him, “How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the LORD their God. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?”
Ex 10.7

In DeMille’s version that recognition is made by Pharaoh’s advisors telling him:

“O Great one let his people go, or all Egypt will be barren from the Cataracts to the sea.”

No such recognition of the power of God, and humbling of Egypt is made in Scott’s version.

9. Moses works at cross purposes to God
While prophets of God have been known to disobey him (notably Jonah), Moses seems to be working at cross purposes to God most of the time. Most notably when God reveals he will kill the first born as the final motivation to Pharaoh, Moses – appalled – instead of celebrating the Passover with the Israelites as he should be; this one time where the Bible doesn’t record Moses giving  warning to Pharaoh, Scott has Moses sneaking out to warn Pharaoh – as if Moses were somehow more compassionate than  God.

10. Scott Ruined the Red Sea Crossing
This is probably the biggest disappointment of the movie. The Bible depicts the scene of the Red Sea crossing as follows:

But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
Ex 14.29

In his 1956 production, DeMille used special effects that were amazing for the time, setting a high bar for the standard of depicting the wall of water on both sides with the Israelites crossing in the middle. Ever since then successive productions have played a game of one-upmanship trying to outdo DeMille’s wildly successive movie and depiction. So much so that this scene – until now – has been a highlight in every telling of the exodus.

The 1998 animated feature The Prince of Egypt outdid DeMille by showing a whale (or huge fish) in silhouette very close to the wall of water when lightning flashed.

The 2006 The Ten Commandments by Dornhelm outdid them both showing earthquakes, volcanoes, and schools of fish in a panic as the waters prepare to part. After they part you’re treated to a rich landscape with huge stone pillars reminiscent of the celestial Pillars of Creation – perhaps a reference to the same power God used during the creation week was now being used for this miracle.

The 2007 animated The Ten Commandments by Boyce and Stronach did not try to compete with that, but did outdo the 1998 Prince of Egypt by showing entire schools of fish just inside the wall of water, and having a child poke his head into the standing wall of water.

Against that backdrop of an exquisite history of presentations of the parting of the Red Sea I was expecting outstanding CGI representations of the wall of water for this presentation.  But alas, as noted since Scott feels no compulsion to be accurate to the Biblical account, and apparently a wall of water is too miraculous for him to stomach, there is no parting of the red sea, no wall of water on both sides while the Israelites pass in between in his account. Instead you get – a tidal wave. Perhaps you’re supposed to believe it’s supernatural because it’s accompanied by  numerous tornadoes.  The tornadoes made the depiction more evocative of the scene from the X Men movie where Storm evades pursuing fighter jets by creating multiple tornadoes than it was of the miraculous powers of God. In other words, the tornadoes and tidal wave just didn’t do it for me.

So there you have it.  Clearly to Scott, it’s just another story – and he can tell it any way he wants. For Christians, we know it is more than just a story. If you want a retelling closer to the Biblical account, you’ll need to find a producer more respectful to the scriptures. Next up,  McCracken’s reasons why “not to be hard hearted” with my interspersed comments regarding why his reasons are not sufficient enough for Christians who believe, as scripture says, that  it is important to  “Watch your life and doctrine closely.” 1 Tim 4.16

 

Part II:
Brett McCracken’s  Ten reasons to not be hardhearted toward Ridley Scott’s biblical epic– in italics, followed by my comments.

1. The film is beautiful.
Granted, but as Christians we’re not there just to see a beautiful film. We want the beauty to be expressed in a way that is harmonious with the Biblical message. Theologian and philosopher Francis Schaefer gave 4 criteria for judging art of all types including movies. Two criteria are worth mentioning here: Technique, that’s the beauty part – no complaints there. But the third item – world view – is problematic. Clearly this Exodus is not concerned with depicting the exodus as related in the Bible. And as Schaefer points out, “… if something untrue or immoral is stated in great art it can be far more destructive and devastating than if it is expressed in poor art or prosaic statement.”4  It’s possible for many this will form the basis of their theology about the exodus – and God. If so, how unfortunate since this move strays so far from Biblical truth.


2. Speaking of DeMille—whose The Ten Commandments (1956) is an arduous four hours long…
DeMille’s version also takes the Exodus account all the way through to the giving of the 10 commandments.  Ridley stops shortly after the the Red sea crossing. DeMille also takes the time to develop one of the main points of the Biblical exodus: God’s confrontation of Pharaoh through Moses, which Ridley never bothers with.


3. The film is committed to realism, except for the casting of white people in all the major roles – which is  indeed problematic.
We’re supposed to be happy Ridley chose to be pennywise (fidelity to time, region and culture)  and pound foolish (all white people in major roles) when it came to making an impression with his realism?


4. The controversial choice to depict God’s mouthpiece as a young boy called Malak (11-year- old British actor Isaac Andrews), who is only visible to Moses, actually works.
Only if you’re content with losing the majesty and power of God (or never had it to begin with) does it work. At one point in the movie Moses, speaking to the boy says words to the effect “I’m tired of dealing with messengers.”  Since the word Malak in Hebrew means ‘messenger’ or ‘angel’, it appears the movie is trying to pick up the theme that it was the Angel of the Lord who appeared at the burning bush (Ex 3.2). If that’s the case, since they wanted to anthropomorphize God, why not depict him as the pre-incarnate Christ? Jesus did after all, claim to be the one at the burning bush (John 8.58), a claim the Jews recognized as a claim to deity and picked up stones to stone him. (John 8.59)  This powerful claim of Jesus is probably a bit too Christian for this production – and something Hollywood would rather not promote.

5. Fear not: God’s presence is also depicted as a burning bush.
The burning bush scene borders on sacrilege. The Bible tells us the ground around the burning bush (where God’s presence resides) is holy ground. (Ex 3.5) Ridley’s depiction is a literal mud slide which results in Moses breaking his leg. God’s holy ground being a place of muck that is responsible for accidental(?) harm to his chosen messenger is a disgrace. 

6. The attention to period detail and the level of artisan craftsmanship in the film is exquisite
This appears to be a restatement of reason 1. See my comments there. .


7. The “plagues” sequence is everything you’d hope it would be.
If great CGI is all you want then yes, the graphics of the plagues is fine. That’s why I go to see the Transformer movies – not for plot, but for the fantastic, imaginative graphics. But I expect more from a biblical epic. If you want the story behind the plagues, the confrontation between God and Pharaoh;  God and the false Egyptian deities you’ll be disappointed because you will  find only scant evidence of it in this version of the Exodus

8. Though it would have benefited from a bit more quiet reflection and character development amidst the big-budget battles and CGI spectacle, on the whole Exodus has compelling characters and good acting.
Since I am primarily critiquing story line and doctrine, I will again refer to Schaefer’s comments on judging art – see item one.

9. Plot deviations and minutiae aside, key themes of the Exodus story are there
“Plot deviations and minutiae aside?”  The deviations are so grand the key Biblical themes – aside from the freeing of the Israelites – are hard to find.  The deviations are sort of like planning a trip from New York to Chicago and  your “deviation” is a small detour to London, England. As that detour takes you in the opposite direction and might leave you forgetting your original destination, this film takes you in the wrong direction – and might leave you with the wrong impression – that it is Moses who should be praised instead of God.

10. The film is personal to Ridley Scott
I’m sorry for the suicide of his brother. I wish it had motivated him to make a more God honoring film – with God’s version of events, not his.

 

Duane Caldwell | posted 12/17/2014 |  printer friendly format


Notes

1 New Evidence Supporting the Early (Biblical) Date of the Exodus and Conquest http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2011/11/11/New-Evidence-Supporting-the-Early-(Biblical)-Date-of-the-Exodus-and-Conquest.aspx
2 Richard A. Gabriel, PhD Bible Battles, Documentary, 2005

 

3 There are numerous attempts to explain the miracles of the plagues of Exodus, such as Biblical Mysteries Explained episode Exodus (2008) which posits “Each Plague began a cascade effect” and tries to explain most of the plagues away as a result of the first.

 

4 Schaefer, Francis Art and the Bible InterVarsity Press, 1973 p. 44 

 

Images: 20th Century Fox

 

2 thoughts on ““Exodus – Gods and Kings”: a biblically based review

  1. The key fatal flaws of Exodus is the lack of any emotional focal point and a lack of any real urgency to the proceedings.

  2. I agree with you 100 percent, in fact I am making a video on some of the same points that you have elaborated on. I think that as a whole the biblical movies of the past had so much more soul and spiritual substance to them, however, the so called bible based movies of today have miserably failed at depicting what supposed to be stories taken from the pages of the bible.