Emma Green has an engaging piece at The Atlantic on the film Exodus: God and Kings, a film that continues Hollywood’s long tradition of Exodus-themed movies and its short tradition of giving single movies titles with subtitles as if they are one part of a multi-volume set.
I haven’t seen the movie. I know that I probably should as a teacher of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and I probably will, but the inertia that sets in when I think about doing this is positively crippling. I think I know the cause of this inertia, but it is hard to put to words. I know it has something to do with Christian Bale as Moses. I have nothing against him, loved the Batman franchise, American Hustle, Empire of the Sun (!), but as Moses? (Apparently Ridley Scott has felt the need to explain this casting choice.)
The Blessing and the Curse
Anyhow, Green takes one for the team and records her experience and reflections and in doing so touches upon two points of interest for me.
1. What we consider obscene. The last bastion of any notion of the obscene really is the death of children, particularly babies. In our current cultural production, it is allowable to depict almost any gruesome act against humanity except for graphic violence against children. Think about it, other than a few outliers, the baby always makes it out alive, or if not the death happens off scene. We haven’t brought ourselves to that place where we can get past depicted violence against our own very young; it ruins our amusement in a way that shooting and blowing people up does not. (This might be for any number of reasons, but it does raise questions about certain cultural contradictions regarding respect for early human life.)
2. The idea of “chosenness.” Of course, in the exodus the death of the Egyptian firstborns lies at the center of the story, which raises another question about why it is good for Egyptians to die so that Israelites might be redeemed from slavery. Green writes,
This is affecting. Whenever children are shown dying in movies, it’s meant to be sad; when several dozen children are shown dying, it’s devastating. The Egyptians were theoretically culpable for the lives they led at the cost of Hebrew slave labor, yes. But to slaughter innocents because of the actions of their leaders—and because their race was not chosen to be part of an ancient covenant—seems appallingly cruel.
Then again, this idea, that whole peoples should be punished for their sins, comes up repeatedly in the Bible. Examples include Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that were destroyed by God, and Nineveh, which ultimately was not. The consequences of sin in ancient times were total and intense; God wiped out quite a few civilizations in the course of crafting early humanity.
It is this side of God—his cruelty, his capriciousness—that Scott emphasizes with his cinematographic choices. What’s interesting about Scott’s portrayal of the exodus is the grief he chooses to focus on. Toward the beginning of the film, there are a few shots of Jews toiling in slavery, building statues in honor of the pharaoh and getting beaten by their masters. But there aren’t many. Compared to the grief of the Egyptians—who are shown desperately trying to revive their dead livestock and weeping with the bodies of their sons in their hands—the hardship of the Hebrews seems generic, perfunctory, a necessary plot point without much poignance.
This sets up a difficult moral question: Is the freedom of the Hebrews worth more than the lives of Egyptians? God, after all, did not merely liberate the Jews in the spirit of freeing the oppressed; he wiped out Egyptians, per the Bible and per Exodus, because the nation they’d enslaved happened to be his anointed one. Is one people, even the people God has chosen, worth more than another?
This is an impossible question to answer. It depends upon a theory of justice that assigns blame for the system to the individuals that inhabit it. It depends upon the idea that, by designation of God, certain humans can be more holy, or historically worthy, than others; that the accident of birth is enough to determine which side of God’s wrath you deserve to be on. This, perhaps, is why “chosenness” is debated, even within the Jewish community; Reconstructionist Jews, for example, reject this idea.
Green, and Scott for that matter, rightly draw attention to the horror of the judgment that is present in the exodus story. Throughout the Bible, we find judgment at the heart of God’s plan to redeem the world. God is clear about his intentions when he first sets aside one group to be a special chosen people. He tells Abraham explicitly, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3).
Note that this arrangement of blessing and cursing is how God will bless the whole earth. He has identified with Abraham’s offspring, and that identification means that they will become the conduit through which the earth is blessed. It makes sense that the identification between God and his people would have effect on how others ought to treat his people. If a nation curses his people, it is as if they curse God. What happens to a creature who curses his Creator? Just what you might think.
Note also that the “chosenness” of God’s people is not a result of their own worthiness. The Hebrew Bible consistently teaches that Israel was chosen because of its unappealing nature, its smallness, weakness, and unwantedness. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, this theology is expressed:
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deut 7:7-8)
Likewise, Ezekiel 16 depicts Israel as an abandoned child, left for dead in a gutter, still wallowing in her afterbirth, when the Lord picks her up, washes her off, and offers her safety and dignity. The value of God’s people is not inherent to them, but rather it is bestowed upon them from his character, an “alien righteousness” some might say,
This also raises the question of judgment. Green refers to God’s “cruelty, his capriciousness” on display in the exodus plagues, but such an evaluation assumes the innocence of humanity. It assumes that humanity deserves prosperity and blessing from a God who cruelly, capriciously withholds it.
And she is right; the God of the Bible would be cruel and capricious if not for the fact of the Fall. There is a reason why the Bible starts with the story of creation followed by the garden and the serpent and the curse. This is the prologue to the work of redemption depicted in the following sixty-five books. Without that crucial opener, introducing God as Creator and humanity as a rebellious creature (nevertheless bestowed with the image of God), the rest of the Bible does not make a whole lot of sense.
What is truly remarkable is not that God metes out so much judgment but that he showers us with so much grace.
The story should be over at the Fall. The fact that human history happens at all is the true miracle: that Egypt exists, that Pharaoh reigns, that humanity thrives and flourishes, that civilizations rise and fall, that anyone survived the rebellion of Adam and Eve, that life happens at all is a testament to the grace of God, a God who graciously provides a way to be redeemed out of slavery. The fact that there is a story of redemption for Ridley Scott to weave into a blockbuster is by the grace of God.
In his grace, God identifies with a fallen people. In the exodus he buys them out of slavery through his mighty works. In Christ he buys them from death and destruction through the death of his son. The redemption of the exodus event points us to the redemption secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He suffers so that those who are in him might not. That seems neither cruel nor capricious but rather all grace.