In her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, famed writer Madeleine L’Engle argues that “art that isn’t good is, by definition, not Christian art, while on the other hand art that’s good, true, and beautiful is Christian art, no matter what the artist believes.”*
By that definition, Ridley Scott’s 2014 Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings is not Christian. It is also not art.
As a Christian who loves movies, my relationship with “faith-based films” or movies based on Biblical stories is personal and sometimes more fraught. There is great variation in how Christians approach and view movies and culture, and lots of literature written on the subject of whether Biblical films should even be made. I’m not here to discuss those questions. Instead, I want to look at how definitely not to make a Biblical film, using this one as a case study.
Personally, I do not think that filmmakers who make movies based on the Bible are chained to the source material and must be completely faithful to it, nor do I think the filmmaker needs to be a Christian (see Darren Aronofsky’s excellent Noah). My only requirements are the following:
Madeleine’s Four Commandments for Biblical Movies
- Thou shalt have a basic respect for the material (this doesn’t mean you have to believe the Bible, but in the case of this movie about Moses, you do have to recognize the Torah – the Pentateuch/first five books of the Old Testament- is a foundational text for three major world religions, and is the most studied and influential document in history).
- Thou shalt make an effort to understand the context of the story, both historical and theological (again, you don’t have to ultimately stay faithful to it, but if you deviate, you need to have a purpose and reason).
- Thou shalt have something interesting to say (don’t waste 200 million dollars and two hours of my time!).
- Thou shalt make a good movie (be well-made on a technical level, a tight script, dynamic performances, a memorable score, CGI that has been fully rendered, etc…).
Exodus: Gods and Kings violates all of those commandments. Egregiously.
Exodus bombed at the box office and was critically panned, but its trouble began long before that, when its all-white main cast was introduced. Having more ethnically-appropriate actors wouldn’t have been able to salvage the script, but it certainly would have cut down on a lot of the *yikes* moments of racism. The casting choices become even more ridiculous once you see the film because none of these actors are 1) box office draws, which was the justification for casting them, and 2) good in these roles. Sigourney Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, and John Turturro barely register. Joel Edgerton as Ramses… tries, I’ll give him that. Aaron Paul also tries as Joshua in an absolutely thankless, mostly silent role, although the silence may be for the best, considering the British accent he attempts. I think the emphasis on Joshua means they genuinely thought they were going to get a sequel, which is actually a shame because I, for one, would have loved to see El Camino 2 Canaan.
Outside of the acting and racism, though, the movie’s biggest problems boil down to the characterization of Moses, which violates every single one of my commandments. Moses is one of the most complicated, fleshed-out characters of the Bible, and this movie is a blatant bastardization of him (and how do you make Chrisian Bale boring?!).
Who is Moses in the Bible? Moses is saved by his mother from the slaughtering of the Hebrew boys. He grows up in the Pharaoh’s household. He murders an Egyptian and flees to Midian. He encounters God in the form of the burning bush and is commanded by Him to go to the Pharaoh and bring the Isrealites out of Egypt. Moses has the gall to tell God that he can’t because people won’t believe him and because he’s a bad speaker, so God allows him to take his brother Aaron with him to do the speaking and give him the power to perform three miracles (Aaron and the miracles are not in the movie). Moses and Aaron go, Pharaoh says no, God sends the plagues, and that convinces Pharaoh. Moses leads the Isrealites out of Egypt, and he communes with God on Mount Sinai and delivers the moral law.
Moses is not a charismatic speaker; his anger causes him to murder people and later keeps him from getting into the promised land. He is the bringer of the law and a great prophet, yet he often acts cowardly and with a lack of zeal for God’s covenants, such as when he refuses to circumcise his own son (Exodus 4:24-26). In other words: Moses is full of messy contradictions! He’s weak! And that’s why God chose him, because God would be glorified through choosing someone so weak. That’s what God does in the Bible. He makes a group of slaves His chosen people. He chooses leaders who are wretched sinners and calls them men after his own heart. He redeems shameful bloodlines and incarnated as a poor man in a backwater town so that he could live a difficult life and then die like a criminal in a dump to save the lives of those who killed him. God loves failures and underdogs; that’s why he chose Moses.
Who is Moses in Exodus: Gods and King? A dope military leader. That’s his number one qualification according to this film. God/Malak calls him “General.” Our opening scene of Moses is him winning a battle. He trains the Israelites on how to build weapons and fight like he’s Harry Potter forming Dumbledore’s Army. Here, God chose Moses because Moses was a fighter, and Moses uses his tactical skills to free the Isrealites.
All of this can be encapsulated in a symbolic moment near the end of the film. The Isrealites arrive at the Red Sea. Moses hears that Ramses is pursuing them. He gets mad (something actually in-character!) and throws the sword his Egyptian dad, John Turturro, gave him into the sea. A few minutes later, the sword floats to the top. Moses goes out and grabs it like he’s King Arthur. Suddenly, he has the “faith” to part the Red Sea and defeat Ramses.
In the Bible, Moses carries not a sword, but a staff, a symbol of a shepherd (foreshadowing of Jesus!) that turns into a snake (symbolism!). The staff represents everything a sword does not. The staff is a sign of gentle leadership, the nurturing care of a lowly shepherd. It is God that can change the staff into a snake, a reminder of Moses and the Isrealite’s dependency on him (and later, the snake becomes a symbol of their sin). Meanwhile, a sword is a symbol of destructive power, of self-sufficiency and independence, and of macho-leadership. It is a symbol of individualism, which pairs well with what the film offers as the thesis statement when Moses tells his wife that, instead of God, “isn’t it enough that we believe in ourselves?” Sorry, I didn’t realize that in Exodus 20:2 God actually says “Moses is the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because I was too busy or something.” (Oh, wait, that’s not what it says….)
Thanks, I hate it!
Centering Moses as the “chosen one” hero means that there is suspiciously little God in a story about God. When God does appear in Exodus though, he appears in the form of an eleven-year-old-British boy, said to be a “messenger,” formally credited as Malak (Isaac Andrews). The idea here is that God acts like an emotional, entitled child who plays with people’s lives on a whim. The decision to portray God this way is the most forthcoming choice the film makes, and if it were executed correctly, is one I could begrudgingly respect, because it fulfills my commandment #3. But it isn’t executed correctly, and instead reveals the poor quality of the screenplay.
Near the end of the film, Moses has a conversation with “God”/Malak** where Moses is etching the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets and they say this:
Malak: What do you think of this [the commandments]?
Moses: I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t agree.
Malak: That’s true. I’ve noticed that about you. You don’t always agree with me… Yet here we are, still speaking.
This scene is the primary problem with the film’s depiction of God. One of the most compelling aspects of the Moses story is the relationship between God and Moses. Moses argues with God. He negotiates with him, gets angry, tries to give up, and is constantly challenging God. Ridley Scott seems to understand this, so there are aspects of that relationship here. In the film, Moses quarrels with God/Malak. But why does Moses fight with God? Because Moses knows God is God, the ultimate, all-powerful authority in the situation. Moses negotiates with God because he knows God is the deciding vote, the one who will make things happen. Moses knows he himself is powerless, that’s why he makes appeals to God. His relationship to God is based on God’s mercy and sovereignty.
Moses wouldn’t be negotiating and arguing and wrestling and having a relationship with God if he didn’t believe God was who He says He is, the omnipotent, omniscient, all-powerful I Am. If Moses thought he himself was the savior of the Israelites, and God was either not critical or a lesser-power, then Moses wouldn’t have to engage God at all.
But this line- “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t agree” portrays Moses as having some kind of equal say in God’s plans, in his moral law, as if God asked Moses, “Hey, do you think the world would work best if people didn’t commit adultery? I know that I’m the one who created the entire universe and formed every single person in their mother’s womb, but I figured you might have some insight that I just don’t have, bro.” It goes back to the rugged individualism the sword symbolizes, and how the film subscribes to the Great Man Theory of history, with Moses being the “chosen one” leader.
But you can’t have it both ways! Either God is the Great Man of History, the hero of the story, and Moses engages him because Moses is simply a part of God’s plan, or Moses is the Great Man of History, who doesn’t have to. Either Moses wrestles with God because he knows God is God, or he doesn’t, because God isn’t who He says He is. Exodus: Gods and Kings wants it both ways. One minute Moses is coming fearfully before God to plead on his people’s behalf, and recognizing that it is God who is in control here, and the next minute, Moses is being portrayed as the real power behind the plagues and the leader of the Isrealites, and God is some kind of annoying-but-supportive background character.
This flimsy marriage of the two positions- most likely in an attempt not to offend anyone too much- makes the film’s portrayal of God and Moses uneven and muddled, making it impossible for Scott to present any original ideas on the story. If Scott wanted to make a movie where Moses is the hero and God is some back-up hype man, fine, he should have done it with hubris and gusto. But instead he falters, and paired with a boring reinterpretation of Moses as every-action-movie-hero-ever, Exodus ends up a dull, uninspired film that is a waste of time for those who want to gain a new perspective on Exodus or those who want to enjoy two and a half hours.
If you want to learn about the Moses story, watch this short musical recap that is more entertaining than the entire film. And if you want to watch a good Bible movie that is also just a good movie, watch Prince of Egypt instead.
* (From Adorning the Dark, by Andrew Peterson, page 84)
**If you watch the scene on Youtube through the link, you’ll see that near the end of the clip, Moses touches the Ark of the Covenant. Not to get too nitpicky, but “don’t touch the ark” is Old Testament 101. This film is very, very concerned with giving scientific explanations for the plagues and for the parting of the Red Sea (which I actually thought were interesting, I don’t see any reason that God wouldn’t use the natural laws he established) but apparently Scott and Co. didn’t put as much research into these other parts of the movie. Uzzah is rolling in his grave.