“God is with us!”
Moses, portrayed by Christian Bale in the film Exodus: Gods and Kings, cries out these words to the Hebrew masses in a speech of inspiration and desperation as they are about to cross the Red Sea in flight from the Egyptian army. This moment in the story is the moment in which I became convinced that he really believed it, and was ready to let this God, whom he had very recently encountered, take control.
Let’s be clear: the purpose of this movie was not to create some idealistic puff piece for the Christian subculture to consume. It goes beyond the “Sunday school version” and digs into the very human story of Moses, the revolutionist. No matter the content of a movie that deals with a biblical narrative, there is value in it as a conversation starter for followers of Jesus. Here are some thoughts on the themes and extrapolations of Exodus: Gods and Kings.
We don’t often reflect on biblical characters in terms of the immensity and centrality of their human nature. The movie helps viewers to think about them in a way that, perhaps, they had not previously.
At the climactic point of the movie, we see Moses finally become convinced that God is with him, and that he really isn’t in control of the situation. It’s a moment of transformation, where Moses relinquishes his own skills, plans, and self-sufficiency to the God who’s led him this far.
At the same time, we get the privilege of looking in on the character of Pharaoh, who’s “hard heart” is mentioned in the Exodus text, but who we never really get to know as a person. In the film, he feels things like pain, fear, anger, confusion, resentment, and love. I felt something that I can’t say I’ve ever felt for him before: compassion. I think he deserves at least that, if we are to try and understand what God was up to in the midst of the ancient civilization.
The majority of the first half of the film portrays events and details that are not in Scripture. These details help “fill-in-the-details” of a time in history and a culture that most people know very little about. They did a fairly comprehensive job of providing context for the story at hand.
For dramatic effect, there are a few historical details that are assumed, though not verifiable. Most notably, the Pharaoh of the Exodus is set as Ramses II. This not mentioned in Scripture, though it is a probable/possible theory from the timeline.
It is of note that Exodus 4:19 implies that the elder Pharaoh was the one who drove Moses out of Egypt, and that he had died by the time he returned to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. However, the film has Ramses assume leadership before Moses leaves. The relationship between Moses and Ramses as brothers in the film is central to the story, which is probably the reason that this was done.
In the biblical narrative, we read of God’s intimate involvement in causing the plagues, and Moses’ intimate involvement in ushering them in. In between each plague, he goes to Pharaoh and declare that if he doesn’t repent, God will send another plague.
Departing from this, the film has Moses and Pharaoh interact at the beginning of the plagues, and then just before the last one. What follows are seemingly “natural” phenomena, initiated by a crocodile attack in the Nile, which bleed into one another to have a domino effect in creating all of the others.
Let’s ask this question: what is accomplished by portraying the plagues in this way?
First, we get the chance to see the miraculous/supernatural in a different light. The supernatural, by definition, must always involve natural natural elements, otherwise it’s not really grounded in reality. When God intervenes in human history, He always enlists the natural elements of creation in carrying out His plan.
Secondly, the removal of Moses from “in-between” all the plagues paints a picture that sometimes gets lost: Moses was not the one with the power! The Moses of the Bible isn’t someone with all his ducks in a row—he’s a sad character, with a disability, who is somewhat unwilling to follow through in obedience to what God wants of him.
In the film, he has to go through a transformation; while God is initiating the plagues, Moses is putting his effort towards training the Hebrew people for battle. He’s not interested in what God’s up to—he’s interested in doing things his own way, by force.
This is not only a commentary on Moses, it’s a commentary on each of us—even when God is displaying His power plainly and miraculously for all to see, we often choose to do things on our own, without His help.
God With Us
One of the more creative elements of the film is how God is portrayed. We are first introduced to Him at the burning bush (fitting). I absolutely love the character that shows up to represent Yahweh: a small boy, who speaks to Moses with authority and wit.
Starting from that moment, when Moses first meets the boy, their relationship evolves over time. There are moments of tenderness and understanding, but also moments of anger and frustration. We have here a depiction of the Christian life that is raw, observant, and quite sobering. We don’t like being told what to do!
The depiction of God as a boy who speaks, breathes, invites, and instructs in the film is an epic reminder of the God whom we serve: one who is not a distant, archetypal deity, but One who is an intimate, powerful friend.
As the movie closes, we see Moses glance into the crowd of Hebrew people marching into the desert, and catch a glimpse of the boy walking with them, fading into the midst of His people. A fitting conclusion to a thoughtful film.
This is a shortened version of a longer review posted on Pastor Sam’s personal blog. If you’d like to read the whole thing, please visit www.samgrottenberg.com/exodus-movie.