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Stranger in a Strange Land: Peter T. Chattaway

A VERY Strange Land

Editor's Note: This is a guest column by Peter T. Chattaway, who has seen more "biblical films" than anyone I know—more, possibly, than anyone else on the planet.

Early on in Exodus: Gods and Kings, there's a scene in which Moses (Christian Bale), who is still an Egyptian prince oblivious to his Hebrew heritage, confronts an Egyptian viceroy named Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), who is supposed to be building a new city for the Pharaoh but seems to have diverted some of the funds to support his own luxurious lifestyle. Hegep tries to deflect Moses' attention by pointing to the troublesome Hebrew slaves, claiming that he needs more resources to deal with them. As proof of how rebellious these Hebrews are, Hegep says, "Do you know what 'Israelite' means in their own language? 'He who fights with God.' " An annoyed Moses replies, " 'He who wrestles with God.' There's a difference."

It's a key distinction, and one that applies just as much to Ridley Scott's film. Scott, whose self-identification over the years has wavered between "agnostic" and "atheist"—and whose dim view of religion in general has been made abundantly clear in the way he has promoted films like Prometheus and Kingdom of Heaven[1]—doesn't reject the concept or even goodness of God altogether, at least not within this particular story. But he's troubled by God. He's troubled by how God could let people like the Israelites suffer for centuries. And he's troubled by the violence that follows when God does decide to intervene on behalf of the oppressed. And so he wrestles with God, as does the Moses of his film.

That struggle makes Exodus: Gods and Kings interesting in ways that the viewer might not have expected. Indeed, the opening title cards—which past Scott-directed epics have used to establish that their stories take place in a pre-modern world clouded by superstition—are strikingly direct in their claim that "God has not forgotten" the Israelites. This is followed by a scene in which the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) consults a soothsayer (Indira Varma) before sending his army into battle—and while Moses and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) both scoff at her prophecy, it does come true in the end.[2] Later, Moses tells Seti that he respects the Pharaoh's faith even though he does not share it; and then, after he has gone into exile and married the shepherd girl Zipporah (Maria Valverde), Moses and his wife disagree about the proper beliefs with which to raise their son.

But the wrestling really begins in earnest when Moses meets God himself, or at least a boy named Malak (played by 11-year-old Isaac Andrews) who speaks as though he were God. Many critics of the film were offended by this unusual bit of casting, but it is actually one of the few ways in which this film sticks closer to the text than most other adaptations of Exodus. The Moses of the Bible witnessed not just a burning bush but an angel who spoke to him there,[3] and the biblical ambiguity surrounding the "Angel of the Lord"—who sometimes seems to be distinct from God but is also sometimes identified with God himself—is reflected in the film, where Malak uses the divine name "I Am" to describe himself in one scene and is then called a "messenger" by Moses in another.[4] What's more, the arguments between Moses and Malak—including Moses' pleas for mercy—are reminiscent of passages like Exodus 32:9-14 and Numbers 14:10-25, where God becomes so angry with the Israelites that he threatens to destroy them all, until Moses talks him out of it.

Sometimes, though, Scott allows the wrestling to get in the way of the story. Unlike the God of the Bible, who gave Moses a detailed set of instructions, Malak doesn't tell Moses just how to go about setting the Hebrews free, so Moses improvises and begins a guerrilla warfare campaign, which only invites reprisals from the Egyptians. Finally Malak shows up, makes a snarky comment about Moses' tactics "failing," and tells Moses to "watch" as the plagues unfold. At no point during the plagues does Moses act as God's representative—the one time he warns Ramses of a plague in person, he does so because he wants "no part" of the disaster that God has planned—and at one point Moses even shouts that God's terrifying displays of power will not "humble" him, which is an odd thing to hear from the person described in Numbers 12:3 as the most humble man on the face of the earth.

Beyond that, the script is peppered with lines that seem to reflect Scott's skepticism more than that of the characters: When Nun (Ben Kingsley), a Hebrew elder and the father of Joshua (Aaron Paul), tells Moses the story of how his birth-mother left him in a basket for the Pharaoh's daughter to find, Moses says dismissively that "it's not even that good a story." Later, when the plague of the firstborn takes Ramses' own son, the grieving Pharaoh asks Moses, "Is this your God? A killer of children? What kind of fanatics worship such a God?" This question is particularly remarkable because, just a few scenes earlier, Ramses had declared his own godhood, as well as his intention to drown all of the Hebrew children.

But then, these are not the only anachronisms in the film. One is struck by how unthinkingly, discordantly modern the dialogue is. Moses tells Zipporah he wants their son to grow up "believing in himself." Zipporah replies that their son can choose his own beliefs some day. Moses tells Ramses the Hebrews should have the same "rights" as Egyptians. Ramses replies that he cannot set the Hebrews free because it would be problematic "from an economic standpoint alone." And throughout the film, Moses refers to God simply as, well, "God," even when addressing the polytheistic Egyptians. Not "I Am That I Am," not "the God of the Hebrews," just plain "God."

These weaknesses in adaptation are compounded by weaknesses in the overall script—not least, the underdeveloped characters. Say what you will about The Ten Commandments, but for all its dated theatricality, it was full of commanding figures who articulated the film's themes in compelling ways. In Exodus, on the other hand, one is constantly distracted by the way significant supporting characters—some of them played by major actors—keep popping up for one or two scenes, only to vanish afterward.

The film isn't an entire loss, however, and what strengths it does have, artistically and theologically, come together at the climax. Moses, having taken the Israelites down an unfamiliar route to the Red Sea in the hope that it will slow Pharaoh's pursuing chariots, resigns himself and the Hebrews to their fate when he sees that the water is deeper than he expected, and he goes to sleep that night confessing to God that he has let everyone down. The next morning he wakes up to find that the water is receding, and he realizes that God is intervening on behalf of the Hebrews once again—and this time, God is intervening in a positive way that will allow the Hebrews to escape the Egyptians for good, rather than in a way that necessarily causes death and destruction (though the water will return in the form of a giant tsunami, and Pharaoh's chariots will be in the way of it when it does).

Moses, moved by this discovery, turns to the Israelites and professes his faith with a deeper conviction than we have seen from him before, and the music swells triumphantly as they follow him across the wet seabed. After two hours plus of wrestling with God, the film finally turns on a moment of answered prayer.You get the feeling that Scott, for all his professions of disbelief, can imagine what it would be like to find out, to his surprise, that God was looking out for him all along—and that is no small thing. Too bad this one scene can't compensate for all the poorly executed scenes that preceded it.

—Peter T. Chattaway

1. Indeed, Scott first revealed that he was making a movie about Moses mere seconds after he declared, in a June 2012 interview promoting Prometheus, that "the biggest source of evil is of course religion" (http://www.esquire.com/the-side/qa/spitznagel/ridley?-scott-prometheus-interview-9423167).

2. Some Christians might object to the film showing a glimmer of truth in the pagan Egyptian religion, but the book of Exodus does say that the Egyptian magicians were able to replicate some of the miracles performed by Moses.

3. Exodus 3:2; cf. Acts 7:30-37. "Malak" is a Semitic word that means both "messenger" and "angel."

4. See, e.g., Genesis 16:7-13, Judges 13:3-22, etc.

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