The problem isn’t the white actors portraying Egyptians and Hebrews. It isn’t the incorrect number of plagues, or even the alligators. It isn’t the impossible survival of one of the main villains (for the sequel?). It isn’t the bending and reinterpreting of historical accounts for effect. No, the problem with the latest blockbuster adaptation of a Bible story is God. It’s always God.
As in 2014’s Noah, God will always be the main subject of a Biblical movie. Noah’s Kaballah-inspired God was detached, distant and indifferent – glimpsed only in the terror he wreaked on planet earth from far, far away. What does Exodus: Gods and Kings have to say about the God behind one of the most famous events in history, the freeing of the Hebrew nation after 400 years of Egyptian slavery? The beginning is promising: Against a backdrop of Hebrew slaves suffering under intense labour, text on the screen claims that God never forgot them. By the time God arrives to reveal himself to Moses, though, he’s… not what you’d expect. Director Ridley Scott chooses to depict God as a small boy. This boy varies between petulant, irritated, menacing and vaguely creepy, haunting Moses more than actually building a relationship with him. Using a young boy is a strange way to depict a God who described Himself to Moses as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” as well as using the fatherly phrase “my people” when speaking about the Hebrews.
Moses is told to set his people free, but virtually left on his own. The result is that the Hebrews begin to wage violent guerilla warfare – something not found in the Biblical accounts. When the boy-God loses his patience, he darkly warns Moses of the coming havoc before raining down calamity in nine plagues (not ten), and forcing the Hebrews to suffer along with the Egyptians – something also not found in the Bible. He shows up sporadically and hardly explains what he’s doing. This, then, is the God of Exodus. It’s the kind of God envisaged by a director who has gone on record stating that religion is “the biggest source of evil”. Christian Bale, who plays Moses, referred to his character as “likely schizophrenic” and “one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.” Indeed, by the end of the 150-minute epic, Moses has the thousand-yard stare of a shell-shocked soldier.
Many will agree with these two men that religion and Biblical figures hardly deserve to be treated with respect, but their movie has provided them with a platform to convey their views through a story, which has always been one of the most effective ways of making a statement. Their movie is their statement, and it’s clear: God is not interested in loving people or having a relationship with them. He steps in when he has to, and his main skill set seems to be found in his ability to destroy things. Even Ramses, the wicked pharaoh who refused to let the Hebrews go, is cast in a more sympathetic light than God.
The Bible, though, disagrees. The movie’s source material, Exodus 1-15, paints a very different picture. Even thousands of years after the events, it’s clear to see a God who is concerned, involved and communicative. He’s constantly speaking to Moses, explaining what He’s doing and why. Moses is fearful and unwilling, even angering God in the beginning of their encounters, but his relationship with God develops as he gets to know Him. In Ridley Scott’s screen version, the Hebrews arrive at the Red Sea with an army chasing behind and an ocean ahead. Moses, inconsolable, throws his sword into the ocean, laments his decision to lead the people and lies down as if wanting to die. After a while he wakes up and sees the waters receding. Exodus 14:10-14, though, tells a completely different story: The Hebrews wail in terror when they see their predicament, but Moses is unmoved. “Do not be afraid,” he says. “Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring to you today.” These are not the words of a schizophrenic; they’re the words of a man who has met God and learned that He can be trusted.
Technical wizardry aside, Ridley Scott’s film is not a particularly compelling one. It’s hollow, because its view of God and the world is bleak. The historical facts of how a nation came to occupy their land are intact, but its depiction of God and of Moses, with whom God had a face-to-face friendship, is pure fantasy. It’s a film rich in the visual thrills that accompany plagues and parted oceans, but with a poor view of the God behind it all. The God they’ve created is the God they want – one who kicks up quite a fuss when he needs to, but is not worthy of worship or relationship. Meanwhile, the God of the Bible, the true God of history, awaits. The question is whether we’ll see through man’s opinions and find who He really is.