In the last blog post, I mentioned that I’d be showcasing some fabulous student essays from our Theology 101 Bible and Popular Culture course that ran this semester. Today’s offering is by Theology 101 student Bronwyn Prowse, who chose to write about that most fascinating biblical character, Moses, and his wonderfully complex afterlife in Ridley Scott’s 2014 movie, Exodus: God and Kings (see the official trailer here). Bronwyn is currently in her first year of a BA at the University of Auckland, majoring in psychology. Coming from a Christian background, she decided to try out a theology paper, and hopes to incorporate others into her BA, so that she can integrate her faith with her future career in psychology.
Sit back and enjoy!
From “Let my people go!” to “Let my name be known!”
Comparing Moses’ portrayal in the Bible and “Exodus; God and Kings”
by Bronwyn Prowse
Moses is arguably the most influential biblical character in the book of Exodus (Meyers, 2005), and notably one of the most interesting in world literature (Hays, 2014). However, although such titles have been placed upon his character, little is known about his personal early life and his upbringing (Britt, 2004). Because of this, there have been various portrayals and interpretations of his life in modern texts and popular culture. This is particularly apparent within Hollywood, where there have been films, plays and songs made around his story. Sections of Moses’ life have been portrayed in various lights; the most recent being through Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014), which focuses on the freeing of Moses’ people, the Israelites, from the hands of the Egyptians. Scott has taken Moses from the Bible and has constructed a warrior out of the gaps in the Biblical text. In this essay comparisons of Moses will be made, between his character in the film and in the Bible, to compare the similarities and differences in both his portrayal and personality.
Biblical accounts of Moses’ early life in Egypt are relatively scarce (Coomber, 2014). His birth and upbringing are only mentioned within Exodus 2 in the first ten verses (Ex 2:1-10)- where, after being found in a basket in the Nile, Moses is taken in and raised in Pharaoh’s household in Egypt. Furthermore, the Bible does not disclose any features of Moses’ life in Egypt within these ten verses, nor does it include any awareness of his past. The only evidence that supports Moses’ understanding of his Hebrew origins is when he kills an Egyptian guard for beating a Hebrew slave, described as “one of his kinsfolk” (Ex 2:11). Having found out about the murder, Pharaoh issues a death warrant on Moses, who flees from Egypt. It is evident that the verses have several gaps about Moses’ upbringing; it is not clear how he knew of his origins, there is no mention of his place in Pharaoh’s house, or his status within the household. Notably, scholars have reasoned that this could be due to the emphasis placed on God as a central figure throughout the Biblical story, rather than Moses himself (von Rad, 2012). This shift in attention from Moses to God as the dominant presence keeps focus on the God of the Hebrews rather than the person (Britt, 2004).
Where the Bible has lacked in detail of his life in Egypt, Scott has used these gaps to recreate Moses in “Exodus: God and Kings”. Although components of Moses’ story in the film follow with the Biblical account, the majority of the film’s portrayal of his character are constructed. Predominantly, he is portrayed to be a mighty warrior, who is familiar with combat and initially fights alongside his brother Ramses as a general for the Royal family (Hays, 2014). The film also adapts Moses’ personality to fit the mould of a warrior character. When compared to the relatively relatable Biblical Moses, who was frightened and somewhat insecure (Coomber, 2014), Scott’s warrior interpretation shows a bold, strong, hegemonic man (Murphy, 2015). In his review of the film, Matthew Coomber (2014) notes that this adaptation of Moses is to fit the demand modern day audiences desire for a “hero” figure. While it is admirable that the Moses of the Bible succeeded in liberating the Israelites, it hardly makes a Hollywood blockbuster if an action films key figure is more or less ordinary (Coomber, 2014). Because of this, Moses has been portrayed in a different light to meet modern demands, regardless of whether such a portrayal accurately depicts the Biblical Moses whom God selected (Hays, 2014).
Adding to the portrayal of a warrior figure is the use of a sword to replace Moses’ shepherd’s staff. The staff was a tool which a shepherd used to herd sheep – a humble object that was not a weapon (Hays, 2014). It was through Moses’ staff that God performed various miracles (e.g. Exod. 4.1-4; Num 20.11). This links back to the idea that Moses was merely a messenger through which God spoke – the events that followed (the plagues, the Passover, the exodus itself) were predominantly fought by God himself (Murphy, 2015). Scott’s use of the sword throughout the film further emphasises the warrior stance Moses is given. By replacing the staff with the sword, Scott takes a relatable object and person, and changes them to instead portray a warrior figure. This is reemphasised in Moses’ initial conversation with God at the burning bush. God makes it clear that he needs “a general” to fight for him, therefore a sword makes more logical sense for Moses to use than a staff.
However, this again draws Scott’s depiction of Moses further away from the Biblical Moses. It is also symbolic of the supposed bond between Moses and his brother Rameses. This links back to the construction of Moses as a modern film character where the Bible lacks in detail – it is not clear if the two men had such a bond. Through this uncertainty, Scott is again able to construct a desirable and relational portrayal of Moses to a modern audience (Hays, 2014).
In contrast, while the film constructs a warrior out of Moses, there are elements of his portrayal that lead us to believe he is not as much of a warrior figure as first thought. As the film progresses, Moses moves from being a general to a shepherd, and then ultimately the leader of a nation. With these transitions, Scott is able to show Moses’ human side alongside his warrior status. This can be seen when God comes to Moses at the burning bush, during the period of his life as a shepherd. Moses is submerged in mud after being caught in a landslide, while herding some sheep during a storm. This is his first encounter with the Hebrew God in the film, who comes to him in the form of a young boy. Moses is vulnerable – he is trapped with mud covering his entire body apart from his face. All warrior elements of his character are stripped away to show an intimate moment. However, upon questioning, God, as I mentoned above, expresses his need for a “general” to fight for him (Scott, 2014). The topic of conversation stays fixed on Moses’ role as a general, regardless of his position at the time as a shepherd. Scott thus maintains the prevailing warrior theme through this vulnerable portrayal of Moses.
Moses can also be seen as a more relatable human figure through his complex and at times stormy relationship with God. This is apparent in scenes where he and God are arguing about the plagues that are hitting Egypt. Moses makes it clear that he is not comfortable with the suffering both the Hebrews and the Egyptians are going through (Hays, 2014). At one point he states to God that ‘it’s not easy to see the people I grew up with suffering this much’ (Scott, 2014). Furthermore, he flatly refuses to partake in God’s final plague, which involves the slaughter of first born Egyptian boys. He says that he wants no part in the act, and that God ‘cannot do this’ (Scott, 2014). Hays (2014) suggests that this is again to relate to a modern day audience, who would feel uncomfortable with a deity that conjures up mass killings of children. During these scenes, another Hebrew character, Joshua, is shown spying on Moses while he is in heated discussion with God. To Joshua, it looks as though Moses is having an argument with himself. He is unable to see who Moses is talking to – he is only able to see the man before him. There have been suggestions that the biblical and filmic Moses was hallucinating his encounters with God, however these encounters can also be interpreted as God’s power (Von Tunzelman, 2015). He chooses who he shows himself to – an ability that clearly displays the difference between God and humanity. God in the film, regardless of his child-like portrayal, is still ultimately in control and is powerful. By keeping the portrayal of a powerful God, Scott draws attention to the fact that Moses is, ultimately, still a man, regardless of his warrior stance.
Interestingly, while Moses in the movie is clearly in a state of unease about the events taking place in Egypt, there is no indication of such feelings for Moses in the Bible (Hays, 2014). In the Biblical text, Moses is continuously obedient to God with the passing of each plague, and does not question his authority or judgements (Ex 7:20 ; 8:6 ; 8:17 ; 9:10 ; 9:23 ; 10:3 ; 10:22 ; 12:21). It is clear that Moses in the Bible is aware that, in order for his people to be freed, he would require help from a higher source that was not restricted to earthly abilities (Hays, 2014). Further to this, the initiation of several of the plagues involved Moses’ staff (Ex 7:20; 8:6; 8:17; 10:22), using God’s abilities. The staff, as I mentioned above, is a key element that Scott changes to a sword in the film (Hays, 2014). This is another indication of a Moses that audiences want, rather than an accurate portrayal of the biblical Moses whom God selected (Hays, 2014) – it is far more difficult to sympathise with a figure who condones the murderous deeds of a vengeaful God. It is clear, therefore, that Moses in the movie was ultimately intended to be a dominant warrior figure who stood up to God and fought against injustice rather than a passive servant who obediently stood by while God wreaked havoc upon the Egyptians.
In summary, Moses is a character who is continuing to influence and intrigue audiences today (Hays, 2014). The portrayal of his life in the Bible is epic, and shows a man who with God’s help has extraordinary capability; nevertheless, Moses himself remains fundamentally ordinary (von Rad, 2012). Due to a greater focus on God in the Bible, little is known about Moses’ early life in Egypt. Because of these blanks in the story, modern day filmmakers such as Ridley Scott have been able to shape and recreate Moses into a warrior, and ultimately a desirable movie character. Certain elements of the Moses in the film are stripped back to portray him in a more human light, especially during his encounters with God, but ultimately, “Exodus: God and Kings” portrays Moses as a bold, fierce warrior in order to fit a Hollywood mould and to cater to modern audiences (Hays, 2014).
All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV
Britt, B. (2004). Rewriting Moses: The Narrative Eclipse of the Text. London, GBR: T & T Clark International.
Coomber, Matthew J.M. (2014). Dis-Disabling Moses. Noah’s Flood, 1(1), 1-4. Retrieved from http://www.floodofnoah.com/#!academic-responses-to-exodus-movie/ctnz
Hays, Christopher B. (2014). Live By the Sword, Die By the Sword: The Reinvention of the Reluctant Prophet as MovieMosesTM. Noah’s Flood, 1(1), 1-3. Retrieved from http://www.floodofnoah.com/#!academic-responses-to-exodus-movie/ctnz
Meyers, C. (2005). Exodus. Cambridge, GBR: Cambridge University Press.
Murphy, Kelly J. (2015). Moses the Man, Miriam… The Missing?. Noah’s Flood, 1(1), 1-5. Retrieved from http://www.floodofnoah.com/#!academic-responses-to-exodus-movie/ctnz
Scott, R. (2014). Exodus: God and Kings [Motion picture]. United States of America: Twentieth Century Fox.
von, R. G. (2012). Moses. Cambridge, GBR: James Clarke & Co.