Go Down, Moses! Exodus: Gods And Kings (PG-13)

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The oracles concerning the life of Moses are so perplexing and uncanny that even accomplished preachers bungle over them from time to time, and so someone at 20th Century Fox should have probably realized early on that handing them over to the director of G.I. Jane wasn’t the best move. Some might say Ridley Scott’s best work was his early work, though I think it better to say that his best work was his cheap work. His three best films (Thelma & Louise is the third) were all made for less than $30 million a piece. Consider this: with the Robin Hood budget, Scott could have made Alien fourteen times. The more he has to spend, the less he spends on the story.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is the second big Bible movie of the year, though Scott’s film and Aronofsky’s film are considerably different because the material they have to work with is so dissimilar. Granted, both concern towering figures from the Old Testament, though Moses’ record of Noah is a lean four chapters when compared with Moses’ rich account of his own life. When we first meet him in Scripture, Noah is five hundred years old, but Moses is a newborn baby. Suffice to say, Aronofsky had a host of gaps to fill in, though Scott had a deep narrative pool to draw from. Aronofsky left very little Scripture out, and sad to say, Scott puts very little Scripture in.

That’s not to say he was duty bound to do so, though.

I should probably state a few of my prejudices concerning Moses’ life up front. I find Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses an entirely convincing work of theology. St. Gregory treats the book of Exodus as a sacred, oracular text, and his exposition on the book delves below the bare history into the sacramental, spiritual realities beneath. On many occasions, Gregory is willing to say Exodus contains narrative which is not documentary fact, but mystical instruction in righteousness. As to the final plague, the death of the firstborn Egyptian children:

How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion. He does not know to distinguish between his right hand and his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother’s apple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one pays the penalty of his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries, “The man who has sinned is the man who must die” and “A son is not to suffer for the sins of his father”? How can the history so contradict reason?

Therefore, as we look for the true spiritual meaning, seeking to determine whether the events took place typologically, we should be prepared to believe that the lawgiver has taught through the things said. The teaching is this: when through virtue one comes to grips with any evil, he must completely destroy the first beginning of evil.

All this to say, I don’t believe Scott (or the softball team who wrote the film) was obligated to include the tenth plague, or the ninth or eighth or seventh, for that matter. Plenty of Christians will be in a tizzy over the liberties Scott takes with Exodus, but such hermeneutical liberties date back to the patristic age, so the argument isn’t so much with a rich Hollywood director, but with the long haul of Christian theology.

That said, the liberties Scott has taken with the Exodus story are not (simply) impious, they’re baffling. Say what you want about Aronofsky, he would have had the guts to include the story of Zipporah hastily circumcising Moses’ grown sons and throwing the bloody foreskins at her husband’s feet after God came to kill him. Scott’s film has Moses return to Egypt without his wife, which means that Moses (Christian Bale) rarely has to interact with women, nor do women feature prominently in the story. Had the script remained true to the text, Scott might have used Zipporah to investigate Moses’ thoughts during the days he politicked in Pharaoh’s court for the release of the Hebrews. Instead, Moses has only a troop of Hebrew elders and warriors he hardly knows to bark at.

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I should stop speaking as though Scott is responsible for the script. Four gentlemen have earned writing credits for Exodus: Gods and Kings, and two of those fellows cut their teeth writing an Olsen twins/Eugene Levy comedy for tweens.  Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball) is credited fourth of four, and I suspect he was brought in late to tighten up a few key scenes— very little of the dialog sounds like the work of an experienced writer.  Or an experienced reader. Or an experienced historian.

The film opens in the elder Pharoah’s court as he calls Moses and Ramses (Joel Edgerton), his son, to advise him on what to do about a Hittite encampment near Egypt’s border. After hearing their advice, he consults with a priestess who cuts open a bird and interprets the entrails. All the while, Moses looks smug and remarks that these superstitions are of little use and that they ought to use “reason” to determine a course of action. Granted, if Scott wanted to use the story of Moses to comment on modern prejudices, he was more than at leisure to do so, though making the young Moses into an Enlightenment skeptic was hardly the way to go about it. So much of the film’s budget is devoted to sets, costumes and graphics which aim to realistically recreate ancient Egypt, we must wonder why none of the script aimed to do the same. Moses speaks like a 5th century BC Greek philosopher at best, an uncritical disciple of Christopher Hitchens at worst. Either way, his character is wildly anachronistic.

After the Pharaoh dies and Ramses ascends to the throne, the whole court learns that the Hebrews believe Moses has a secret identity and that he will someday deliver them from bondage. These scenes are among the only compelling ones in the film. Scott establishes a genuine friendship between Moses and Ramses early on, so Ramses decision to abandon Moses to the desert is politically expedient, but personally vexing. The Scriptural story flattens out the dynamics of a lifelong friendship into brief, summary paragraphs, and Scott pries up the floor boards to look around at the political dimensions of Moses’ expulsion from the upper echelon of Egyptian society. However, after the first act, no significant investigation of the political dimensions of Moses’ life are touched on again.

Moses wonders the desert, ends up at Jethro’s house and marries Zipporah shortly thereafter. Their wedding vows are sentimental, simple, and devoid of religious conviction—the kind of thing Richard Curtis might have written while blisteringly sober. In the bride’s chamber, Moses tells his new wife how important she is to him, how he loves her, and how he will never leave her, then she gives him permission to take off her dress. I should interject here that I lived for six years in the deep south and encountered a host of well-meaning Christians there who insisted that the 1611 King James Bible (less the apocryphal books) was the only translation of Scripture which should be taken seriously. While I think there less than zero evidence in favor of this idea, I am nonetheless sympathetic towards it. No other translation of Scripture in English employs language in a more cunning, rich, sublime or uncanny manner. If you can enjoy and respect no other sense of Scripture than the literal, then by God, it ought to be a King James literal. No translation of Scripture but the King James can come near the incense, sound and architecture of the Chartres Cathedral, so if you can’t have Chartres, then insist on King James. All that to say, Exodus: Gods and Kings bears no impress of King James. It seems more like an adaptation of Stephen Lawhead’s juvenilia. Nothing in the film darkens around a complex image or a counterintuitive metaphor. The score is nothing out of the ordinary, neither is the color palette or the costuming. The audience never feels as though they are witnessing the moving icon of a great mystery. That might seem like a high standard, though nothing which Kubrick, Mallick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan or even Darren Aronofsky haven’t tried. No one in this film seems particularly religious and fidelity to the gods (or God Himself) rides low on everyone’s priorities. The characters half-heartedly lug their gods around much like the screenwriters, who, from time to time, may have flipped open a Bible and scanned a few lines to see if anything caught their interest.

The music over the opening scene is that kind of dirge-like, lachrymose, Middle Eastern wailing song which signifies absolutely nothing anymore. You’re apt to hear it in movies set in modern day Iraq or Turkey, but it also passes for Arthurian, Medieval, first century Palestinian or ancient Roman. Scott uses the same manner of song over and again in Gladiator, but it also pops up in Michael Mann movies and those leftist Matt Damon-George Clooney political intrigue movies that were popular eight years ago. Honestly, any qualm I have with the movie is an extension of the ennui and critical incredulity I feel upon hearing this song. It lets me know that what’s coming is not going to be unusual. It’s going to be “ethnic,” and exotic in a bland, non-committal Romantic sort of way. This song lets me know I am watching a card-carrying post-modern film, wherein “old narratives” and “power structures” are going to be questioned, virtue is going to be swept under the rug, truth is going to get squishy and “issues” are going to be raised. Yahweh shows up a few times in the guise of a churlish, Dickensian street urchin with a shaved head. Moses doesn’t part the Red Sea, he crosses at low tide. These maneuvers in the adaptation of the Scriptural account don’t seem consistent with the themes at work elsewhere in the movie. They seem to exist merely to rile up conversation among people who aren’t familiar with the Bible or good hermeneutics. I get the feeling there was a vote among the writers and producers as to whether God was going to be a young boy, an old woman or a talking goat and the latter two lost by narrow margins. The imagery, the sound, the words of the characters… it all lacks a sense of purpose.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

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