Cecil B. de Mille would probably approve of Exodus: Gods and Kings, the lavish, epic 2014 version of the Exodus story, if only for its spectacular re-creation of ancient Egypt. As to the acting, it’s hard to be more over the top than the caste of de Mille’s 1956 Ten Commandments, which included Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Edward G. Robinson, and Vincent Price, all of them hamming it up to the max. Christian Bale, Ben Kingsley, and Sigourney Weaver are more subtle in Exodus. But de Mille didn’t do subtlety.
De Mille’s version of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egyptian captivity was more faithful than Exodus to the Scriptures. But no movie is ever a truly reliable resource for theology or history. Films are after all primarily entertainment. Some Christian critics have disparaged the new Moses movie with Christian Bale in the lead role, not altogether unfairly, for its fictional liberties. For example, Moses leads a military campaign against the Pharaoh on behalf of the Hebrews until God tells him to relent in favor of His own plan for plagues.
Southern Baptist writer Joe Carter correctly chastises the film for omitting the best line from the whole Exodus story, Moses telling the Pharaoh: “Let my people go.” More controversially Exodus has God speaking to Moses through a precocious little boy who initially appears by a burning bush. Christianity Today’s review defended the youthful divine instrument, understandably pointing out that de Mille’s booming voice from Heaven for God in 1956 probably wouldn’t work so well in 2014. The CT review implored Evangelical critics of Exodus not to be so “hard-hearted,” like the stubborn Pharaoh toward the Hebrews.
Largely omitted from the reviews of Exodus is mention of how politically incorrect it is. The movie is decidedly patriarchal. Women probably had more prominent roles in de Mille’s version, which portrayed, unlike the update, the story of Moses’ mother and sister saving the infant Moses’ life by sending him down the Nile River in a basket towards Pharaoh’s bathing sister. Consciously or not, a key Exodus villain is a heavily made up, effeminate Egyptian viceroy who seems like a gender bender. A repeatedly discredited Egyptian priestess whom Pharaoh hangs for failed prophecies and divinations seems to embody feminist theology.
Perhaps in a bid to attract the Sunday school crowd, Exodus is also virtually sex-free. Moses and the Pharaoh are faithful to their wives, with whom there’s never a bedroom scene. It must be hard for Hollywood to refrain from portraying ancient Egyptian eroticism.
As to the political vibe from Exodus, it’s decidedly non-pacifist. Moses is an Egyptian prince and successful general who carries throughout the film a sword, not a shepherd’s staff, like Charlton Heston. Moses begins the story as a virtual religious “none” with no interest in Egyptian cults or the Hebrew God. But he yields to Yahweh and serving Him.
And as to the Hebrew slaves who Moses eventually realizes are his own people, they are eerily reminiscent of WWII-era Jews under Nazi rule. Ben Kingsley as a wise, defiant Hebrew elder in the camp seems like a character out of the Warsaw ghetto. An Egyptian raid in search of Moses in the Hebrew camps seems like a Gestapo action. The Pharaoh runs a totalitarian police state and, as his resistance to Moses and Hebrew liberation solidifies, he becomes only slightly less sympathetic than the Führer. The God-ordained disasters that befall Egypt and the Pharaoh’s army echo the Third Reich’s catastrophic implosion.
So Exodus doesn’t quote the Scriptures as directly as de Mille did, but the message of divine transcendence resisting and prevailing against earthly tyranny is decidedly there. Unlikely the other recent epic Biblical film, Noah, this movie doesn’t reinterpret the Exodus as a morality tale about environmental destruction. God has designated Canaan as the Promised Land for the Hebrews, and He is sending them there, with nobody, not even the Pharaoh, blocking His will.
Showcasing the Hebrews as God’s special instrument in history, directed by exclusive revelation, is the ultimate political incorrectness, and Exodus doesn’t shy away from it. The film is superficially enjoyable for its wonderful reenactment of sprawling antiquity along the Nile, epic battle scenes, and a parting of the Red Sea that puts de Mille’s low-tech 1950s portrayal to shame.
But most enjoyable, and most timely, because it’s always timely, is the Exodus message that God, and not earthly princes, is the ultimate authority over human affairs, that injustice may have a long season but doesn’t endure, and that the Lord is not an impersonal force but a Personality who watches, loves, and judges individuals.
The Jews for thousands of years have been despised and tormented by tyrants and their hateful followers because the Jews are the ongoing, living rebuttal to earthly pretensions that arrogant humanity makes its own rules. In Exodus, Moses is shown carving out the Ten Commandments at God’s direction. That brief scene alone makes this film worthy, especially this Christmas season.
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