(Warning: Spoilers ahead)
Last night I had the opportunity to see director Ridley Scott’s take on the story of Moses and the Israelites titled, Exodus: Gods and Kings. The film follows two main characters: Moses, and his “cousin” Ramses. It also follows the story of the “Gods” or in this case, the story of the one true God (“I AM” or “God” in the movie) and the gods of the Egyptians (who thankfully don’t say a word! They don’t exist after all).
Instead of starting with Moses’ birth leading up to his time in Pharaoh’s household, the story begins when Moses is well grown and the chief advisor to Ramses, who is also Pharaoh’s son. The timeline is tweaked quite a bit in the film: while originally Moses fled from Egypt when he was forty, after the Pharaoh sought to kill him (for killing an Egyptian harming an Israelite slave, which he found out was known by some Israelites), and encountered the burning bush when he was eighty, the film depicts only a nine year gap between the two events, and changes the circumstances surrounding Moses fleeing Egypt. They also implied that Moses didn’t know he was a Hebrew, when in the book of Exodus we see that he did know (Exodus 2-3). In the Biblical narrative, Moses flees because he was going to be killed; in the film, Moses is exiled because his identity as a Hebrew is revealed.
Similar to the press behind Noah featuring Russel Crowe in the titular role, Exodus was expected to take liberties with the Biblical narrative, and it did just that. The problems I encountered with Noah are the same in Exodus,though not nearly as severe as the former was. While Noah added mystical/eastern spirituality and highly spiritualized and twisted much of the story, Exodus downplays the supernatural and opts for a mix of natural coincidences and some spiritual involvement. Important also to note how it’s unclear what exactly God’s (“I AM”) intentions are in the film or why the Hebrews are God’s people.
In an interview before the film’s release, Christian Bale made a statement that Moses was a “schizophrenic” who was very troubled. You can see his interpretation of Moses portrayed clearly in this film, as Moses is often seen with bags under his eyes, frantic, and apparently having visions of God or His “messenger” in the form of a temperamental young boy. Having read the writings of Moses myself, I cannot see a reason to claim Moses had hallucinations and was mentally disturbed, unless you assumed that all the supernatural events he writes about didn’t happen. Moses himself even appears to be an atheist for the first third of the film!
The film does an excellent job of creating a landscape of Egyptian and Hebrew culture, which helps the viewer become engaged quite easily with the material. Seeing the Hebrew slaves being worked to death, or the Egyptians worshiping their false gods, really helped me get a better vision for what it might have been like for Moses growing up in Pharaohs household. But, that’s almost as far as I’m willing to go in giving positive comments.
But, before I fully list my concerns, let me make something clear:
Hollywood is not a community of Bible-believing Christians, so we shouldn’t expect the products they produce to be Biblically faithful.
“We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” writes the Apostle John (1 John 5:19, ESV).
If the entire world is under the power of Satan, and follows his lead (Eph. 2:1-4), then should we expect the filmmakers to have an accurate vision of what a God-honoring movie should look like? The movie business is a mixture of art and business. The greater the interest in a subject, the more likely people are to spend money if it were made into a film. But, since these are films, they require artists, including graphic designers, set designer’s, screenplay writer’s, a director, etc. The director’s vision (and the studios) in depicting the people’s interest doesn’t always guarantee that what the people are interested in, and what they will see, will be the same thing. That being said, it doesn’t make the inaccuracies any less painful to watch as a Christian, even if it is artistic.
Therefore, here are three problems I have noticed in both Noah and Exodus that we need to watch out for:
1) The visual effects are better represented than the people.
Both Noah and Moses have been depicted on screen as (sorta) crazy men who hear visions or voices from a god that may only exist in their imagination. Instead of being men of faith in the one true God, these men are depicted as men of uncertainty and torment.
At one point in Exodus, Moses affirms to his wife that faith is to take a leap, to believe in what you both can’t understand or see. But, there’s a difference: Biblically, faith is not to believe what you don’t understand, but to believe in what you do not see. There is a difference (cf. 1 Peter 1:5-6, Jn. 20, Heb. 11:3). We know Who we believe in (Jn. 17:3). Instead of being men who have a clear vision from God, with faith that He will do what He has promised and will remain faithful (Heb. 11), they are tormented, conflicted, uncertain, and left in the dark. All the while having their own dark, twisted flaws.
Though these men struggled with sin, the Bible elevates them as examples of faith, and mentions they had victory in the end because of Jesus (Heb. 11). What these movies show us is more of the human condition of sin and not nearly enough of the reconciliation we have through faith in God’s promises.
2) God doesn’t reveal Himself clearly, but ambiguously
In Noah, God revealed himself through dreams and visions with not a single word spoken in the movie. It’s no wonder Noah went insane! In Exodus, God reveals himself in the form of a little boy alongside a burning bush. In this version of the story, Moses encounters a mudslide and gets stuck. The boy visits him and gives very vague instructions.
According to the Bible, God has made Himself known through what He created (Rom. 1:18-31; Psalm 19:1-2). When He spoke to Noah, He used intelligible words in Noah’s own language. God told Noah that man’s sin was severe and needed to be punished. In faith, Noah built the ark and rescued his family. In the biblical account of the Exodus, Moses ends up on Mount Horeb, in a cave with a burning bush from which God speaks. He is told to take off his sandals in God’s presence because, “the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” God vividly explains the situation to Moses and that God has appointed Him for the task, but Moses tries to maneuver his way out by saying he wasn’t an eloquent speaker (Exodus 3-4).
As you can see, God in Scripture speaks clearly and articulately…in the movies, he either says nothing or at all or is very dark and strange. Which transitions into my last point…
3) God is not depicted as just, loving, and wise, but as temperamental, tyrannical, and even selfish.
In the film Exodus, the boy (God or His messenger) has a nasty temper and the kind of vibe that fits Satan more than Yahweh. He mentions nothing about the sin of the Egyptians, about being just and dealing with sin because He is righteous and good, or being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He says nothing about being faithful and remembering the promise He made to Abraham. He simply wants the Israelites out of there…now! He wants to have them out when He wants them out. Like an angry toddler who doesn’t get the toy in the happy meal, God in Exodus wants his Israelites.
There is a scene in the middle of the film where God tells Moses that He will strike down the firstborn children in Egypt because pharaoh didn’t listen. Moses accuses God of being a tyrant and wants no part of it. When Joshua takes a look to see Moses talking to God, you simply see Moses talking to himself.
In fact, Moses appears far more like a man of illness than a man of faith in the film.
Instead of showing how God loves His people and hates sin, the film doesn’t show love at all, but a god who is a decision maker and needs people to get things done. Who has a chessboard with all the pieces but refuses to explain any of it. Who doesn’t speak clearly but speaks ambiguously, and who is not the God who seeks sinners and saves them, but a god who smashes sinners like they are playdough.
In the end, the movie is visually spectacular and can even be insightful for informed Christians who watch it. For everyone else, the film does not have the gospel and can even turn off people even more to the Bible. The film agrees with modern secular thought that the God of the Bible is a tyrant and might not even exist, and the people who followed Him might be mentally ill themselves.
The question we are left with as Christians is this: Are these movies good evangelism tools, or are their differences from the Bible too drastic to make them useful? Exodus fits into neither category, but, in my honest opinion, should be considered a useful conversation starter. But, only if you are well-versed in the story of the Exodus.
According to first Peter chapter three, we are called to give an answer for the hope that lies within us: I recommend you start studying now, because most likely your friends will see it, and they will have questions.