I know what you’re thinking. “Here comes another Christian complaining about the inaccuracies of a Bible movie and spoiling everybody’s fun.”
Well. Please don’t worry. This isn’t a negative film review, or a film review at all. If the Exodus movie isn’t Biblically accurate, that doesn’t make it a bad movie, or a movie people shouldn’t watch. This isn’t one of those articles.
What this is, is an appeal to watchers of the Exodus movie to be informed and educated. Everybody knows that this film is not entirely Biblically accurate, and that’s fine; it wasn’t trying to be. But what I know is going to happen for many people who watch this movie is that they will come away from it making certain conclusions about the Bible based on this movie, even though we all know that the movie doesn’t accurately represent the Bible.
No adaptation is 100% accurate. That’s impossible. But what people should be aware of with Ridley Scott’s Exodus adaptation is that it is different to the Biblical story in all the important ways, rather than being different in peripheral, secondary ways. Many people’s perceptions of God will be influenced by this film, when this film actually says some pretty different things about God to what the original Biblical story says about God.
So before you make conclusions about the God of the Bible, based on your viewing of Ridley Scott’s adaptation of this story in the Bible, be aware of the following differences between the stories:
1. In the book of Exodus, Moses is a spiritual leader; not a military one.
Ok. This isn’t a terribly important difference (not in my books anyway). But if you watched this film, thinking you were watching a faithful retelling of the Exodus story, then perhaps this fact will make you wary of assuming that what you watched is similar to what is written in the Bible.
This difference shows us that the filmmakers were not trying to simply put the same original story of Exodus onto the screen.
2. In the book of Exodus, Moses is a reluctant leader because of timidity, not because of arrogance. (Exodus 3:11, 4:10-13)
Ridley Scott’s film depicts Moses as a self-confident, at times hot-headed character, who is hesitant to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because, 1) he doesn’t yet fully self-identify with the Israelites and has residual allegiances to the Egyptians, and 2) he is unimpressed by the God of the Israelites, and tends to disagree with God’s way of doing things.
This is actually completely different to the character of Moses in the Biblical book of Exodus, who literally says to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Ex 3:11), then points out his oratorical inadequacy (Ex 4:10), and then asks God to just send someone else (Ex 4:13).
In the film, Moses’ primary character development is a process of gradual humbling before God and before Israel. But in the Bible Moses develops in the other direction; he needs to go through a process of emboldening and encouraging in order to do what God asks of him.
Now, again, this difference isn’t terribly important in the scheme of things, and I rather enjoyed it as a piece of characterisation. But it does show us further, that the makers of this film have changed deep and basic things about the central characters of this story.
In what ways do you think they might have changed the character of God?
3. In the book of Exodus, Moses approaches Pharaoh prior to each plague, pleading with him to let the Israelites go. (Exodus 7-10)
The Exodus film has the plagues all coming in very close succession without negotiation between them, giving the impression that Pharaoh is given no chance to respond. However, in the original story, the 10 plagues are not rushed into pre-emptively, but are each in response to Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to God’s clear requests to let the Israelites go.
If you think the God of the Bible is unfair to Pharaoh, your perception may be more informed by this movie than by the Bible itself.
4. In the book of Exodus, the death of every firstborn is God’s last resort. (Exodus 11:1-12:32)
This is related to the previous point, as, in the film, the haste with which God proceeds toward the execution of the plagues is part of a general portrayal of God as impatiently eager to get to his “final trick” of killing all the firstborn children in the land.
But the Biblical account is nothing like this. There is no indication in the original account that God in any way craves or enjoys the death of Egypt’s firstborn. Rather, it is portrayed as an extreme measure, reluctantly carried out to demonstrate God’s absolute seriousness in his demand that the Israelites be let go from slavery.
If you think the God of the Bible was hasty his killing of Egypt’s firstborn, your perception may be more informed by this movie than by the Bible itself.
5. In the book of Exodus, God is portrayed as wise, calm, measured, and old.
The filmmakers’ decision to depict the God of the universe as an 11-year-old child is one of the stranger creative decisions I’ve seen in film adaptations. For the life of me I can’t work out what this was intended to communicate.
I can’t help but notice, however, that this particular casting decision was one of several factors contributing to the portrayal of God as an ill-tempered, unlikeable, impatient, bloodthirsty, unreasonable, unpredictable, petty and, well, childish deity.
Half way through the movie, Moses and God have a conversation in which Moses is questioning the necessity of all the plagues. In response, the God-child erupts into a shouting episode, saying that he wants the Egyptians to fall on their knees and beg for it to stop before he will relent. He sounds like a troubled child with an extreme temper problem, who is more focused on watching his enemies writhe with pain than he is on actually rescuing his people. Throughout the film he always appears annoyed and irritable, almost as if he is a liability that Moses has to manage – an angry customer whom Moses is constantly trying to reason with. I found myself as a viewer fearful of every conversation Moses had with God, wondering what rash decision God might make next.
But the God of the book of Exodus is not portrayed in this way. The Biblical account doesn’t tell us about God throwing any tantrums (the above-mentioned shouting conversation, or anything like it, simply doesn’t take place in the Biblical story), and it doesn’t tell us about God taking any pleasure in the effecting of the plagues. Everything about the language God uses (see Ex 3:7-10) to talk about the slavery situation depicts him as deeply, compassionately concerned with the oppression of the Israelites, much more focused on remedying that than than he is about punishing Egypt. A reading of the Exodus story presents the plagues as a regrettable necessity in God’s mind; the only way to persuade the callous heart of Pharaoh to give up his slaves. God’s continuous sending of Moses and Aaron to repeatedly ask Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go is clear enough evidence that God wasn’t mucking around: in this story, God wants his people let go, and if Pharaoh had let them go after the first plague, the other nine would never have happened.
If you think that the God of the Bible is a childish, trigger-happy, petty, volatile time bomb, your perception may be more informed by this movie than by the Bible itself.
6. In the book of Exodus, God reveals himself in decisive, unambiguous ways that leave no room or need for doubt. (Exodus 4:1-9, 4:29-31, 8:1-2, 13:21-22)
I have read about Ridley Scott’s statements on his approach to the supernatural aspects of the Exodus story. Scott, in several ways, understated the miraculous aspects of the story because he wanted to make it more “believable”.
The strange thing about the film is that this was done in very half-hearted way, to the point where, still, no atheist could watch the film and “believe” the events being proposed. Why? Because, while many of the miracles are understated, at the end of the day, God’s existence and involvement is still completely implied within the narrative. While God’s reality appears questionable earlier in the movie, it becomes impossible for the viewer to deny that it is God who is behind this series of events.
Where this differs to the Biblical Exodus account, however, is that the film portrays God as half-hearted and ambiguous in his communication and revelation to his people. The viewer is left at many points to feel that God is a bit distant and inconsistent in his availability for conversation; he doesn’t seem that interested in giving the characters proof of his existence, as his ambiguous methods of communication leave the characters with room for quite reasonable doubt. But a reading of the Biblical Exodus account leaves the reader with no such impression. In the story of Exodus we find a God who is very clear, decisive and intentional in his desire to persuade people that he is real – a God who gives people every rational reason to believe in him.
In the film, Moses’s “burning bush” experience – his first meeting with God – takes place after he has been knocked unconscious by a serious head injury from a falling rock on a mountain. The encounter appears much like a dream, and Moses subsequently wakes up in his bed, his wife attending to his injuries and then questioning the validity of Moses claims on account of the fact that his experience immediately followed a head injury. Later in Egypt, Moses has several conversations with the God-child. But whenever someone spectates these conversations from the outside, they see Moses alone, talking to thin air. Of course, the viewer eventually must admit Moses really was conversing with God in the narrative, but the viewer also wonders how clearly God wants to reveal himself to the people. Moses is given no particular way of proving to the Israelites or the Egyptians that he has really met with God.
But the Bible tells a different story. No such head injury takes place in the Bible’s account of the burning bush conversation (read Ex 3:1-2). The Biblical story gives no indication that Moses is in any altered state of consciousness during that encounter. Further, in Exodus 4:1-9, Moses actually asks God how he is going to convince the Israelites that God has appeared to him, to which God gives him three miraculous signs that he is to perform to them. In Exodus 4:29-31, Moses and Aaron perform these signs, and all the Israelites believe. God is not leaving the Israelites to their own devices to wonder whether Moses has met with God.
When it comes to the plagues, in the film, the plagues come with no specific warning. Moses is always left in the dark wondering what will happen next until it happens. It is after each plague that Moses concludes that God has been at work. However, in the Biblical account, God informs Moses specifically about each impending plague, and has Moses warn Pharaoh of the specific way in which he will plague Egypt if Pharaoh doesn’t release the Israelites (e.g. Ex 8:1-2). Within the book of Exodus, no character is in a position to reasonably doubt Yahweh’s involvement in the events.
Towards the end of the film, after the Israelites have left Egypt and are on their way to the Red Sea, Moses goes off alone to speak to God and ask what to do next, but God doesn’t appear; he is silent. Moses frustratedly and disappointedly says, “You’re not gonna help me or these people?” (paraphrased from memory). Here God appears unreliable, distant, inconsistently interested in his people, unclear, leaving Moses to work things out for himself.
But again the Bible tells a different story. Not only is God continually in conversation with Moses throughout their journey out of Egypt, but he even directs and guides the entire people of Israel with a physical manifestation of his own presence: a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (Ex 13:21-22). The Israelites are given this miraculous, unambiguously supernatural moving pillar as a guide so that they know exactly where God wants them to go at every point.
There is simply no ambiguity or obscurity about God’s communication with humanity in the Biblical story of Exodus. The reason I think this is important to point out is that the actual Biblical story challenges what many secularists assume about the God of the Bible – that he is uninterested in evidence and reason, and requires people to believe in him on “faith”. Well, not according to the book of Exodus. In the book of Exodus, both God and Moses are explicitly interested in reason and evidence, and God gives people clear empirical signs to demonstrate his existence and his power.
If you think that the God of the Bible was ambiguous and distant in the way he led the Israelites out of captivity, your perception may be more informed by this movie than by the Bible itself.