Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale of Batman fame as Moses, opened in theaters this week. Obviously, the movie is based on the well-known biblical account of Moses’ role in the exodus of the Hebrew slaves from the clutches of the Egyptian pharaoh and his powerful army, as recorded in the book of Exodus. The history in this movie departs from the biblical account on a number of points.
In order to explain where the history in the movie is flawed and how theological issues are dealt with and essential character development is accomplished in spite of these departures from the biblical facts, this review will contain even more spoilers. But that said, here goes . . . .
Not surprisingly, the writers of the film chose a view of biblical chronology espoused by liberal scholars, those of the “Late Exodus” camp. The movie opens in 1300 BC with Moses still living in Pharaoh’s court, several decades before the Hebrews’ departure. An analysis of Scripture, correlating the known dates for secular events recorded therein with all the internal biblical data regarding the passage of time (the “begats” and so forth), supports an earlier date for the Exodus, a couple of centuries earlier, around 1445 to 1491 BC.1
Most important, from a historical point of view, is the fact that by placing the Exodus in the 13th century BC at the time of Ramses the Great, archaeological evidence in support of the biblical event is completely missing. However, as the upcoming documentary Patterns of Evidence—a well-done documentary to be released in January—demonstrates, analysis of the archaeological and textual evidence in support of the earlier date in the 15th century BC affirms the historicity of the biblical account.
So who was the pharaoh of the Exodus? The Bible never says, and the film sticks with the common—though, in the opinion of many, erroneous—view that it was Ramses the Great. (You can read more about the Pharaohs of the Oppression and Rameses the Great on this website and in Unwrapping the Pharaohs by David Down and John Ashton.) Suffice to say for the purposes of this review that the movie did a grand job of using Ramses the Great’s actual history as a backdrop for the story. Ramses the Great, as in the film, was a great builder of monuments. And his participation in the Battle of Kadesh, which was quite well executed in the film, sets up the strained sibling relationship between Ramses and his putative cousin Moses.
The Ramses the Great of history chronicled the Battle of Kadesh as a clear win for Egypt, and his tales of his own prowess in extricating himself from peril during the battle would lead one to believe he almost single-handedly defeated the Hittites, though a more realistic view of events would suggest he narrowly escaped personal disaster, much as the movie suggests.
This historic battle for control over one of the most fought-over pieces of real estate in the world—the Middle East—was actually not such a clear-cut victory for Egypt. In fact, the Hittites also counted it a win. This part of the movie therefore gave me, at least, a bit of a chuckle as the Egyptians decided how they wanted their “after-action report” to read. And if the biblical Moses had actually lived in the time of Ramses the Great, the real story might have come off just like it was depicted.
Alas when we examine what the Bible tells us about Moses in the New Testament books of Acts and Hebrews alongside the facts in Exodus, we find some discrepancies with the movie’s account of how and when Moses learned of his true identity as a Hebrew, why he killed an Egyptian, and why he then fled Egypt. The Bible doesn’t share with us how Moses knew the Hebrews were “his brethren” but does tell us he killed an Egyptian to spare a Hebrew and then fled to the land of Midian when he learned the murder had been witnessed (Exodus 2:11–15). Cecil B. DeMille, in his highly acclaimed movie about the Exodus, The Ten Commandments, took his share of liberties with the story too, though he did have his Moses killing an Egyptian to defend a Hebrew as in the Bible. Christian Bale’s assault was more a matter of self-defense, but in both movies Moses is sent packing after his arrest.
We learn much about Moses’ motivations, misunderstanding, meekness, and faith in the New Testament books of Acts and Hebrews. How did Stephen, whose monologue is recorded in Acts 7, and the New Testament writers know Moses’ motivation a millennium and a half after the fact? Well, God transcends time and knows all, so He could have inspired Stephen with accurate knowledge of what Moses had in mind when he lifted his hand to do something for his Hebrew brethren, why he left Egypt, and the nature of his faith. And we know God certainly inspired the writing of His Word (2 Timothy 3:16).
From the lips of Stephen before his martyrdom we hear that Moses early on fancied himself the superhero savior of his people:
Now when he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck down the Egyptian. For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand.
And the next day he appeared to two of them as they were fighting, and tried to reconcile them, saying, “Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another?” But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?” Then, at this saying, Moses fled and became a dweller in the land of Midian, where he had two sons. (Acts 7:23–29)
The movie erroneously had Moses’ sister Miriam rather than his mother help raise him (Exodus 2:1–10), and, after his years in Midian (nine years in the film as opposed to 40 years described in Acts 7:30), it shorted Christian Bale a son. This was a convenient artistic convention, however, for he only had to interact with one, Gershom, who became a point for his confusion after God appeared to Moses in the form of a boy at the burning bush. Incidentally, such an Old Testament bodily manifestation of God is commonly called a theophany. Though the Old Testament confirms that God interacted with Moses in a unique, face-to-face way (Exodus 33:11) somewhat reflected in the friendship the movie eventually develops between Christian Bale and the boy portraying God, nothing in the Exodus account describes the manifestation of God to Moses as boy-like.
I was initially taken aback by this choice of portrayal for our Lord. Indeed, the emotions exhibited by this character at times seem more petulant than God-like if only because they come from the mouth of a child. However, on further reflection I realized that Cecil B. DeMille’s voice actor speaking for our Lord from the burning bush always sounded rather bored and sleepy to me, somewhat reminiscent of the voice of the Face of Boe in Doctor Who. Frankly, anytime we try to portray our glorious God in the sights and sounds of art we inevitably take liberties and come up lacking, for only in the person of Jesus Christ can we ever really see His face, His grace, and His glory. So I think I at least can forgive the convention, though I’m sure it will bother some.
Much more bothersome than the sort of character cast as God’s messenger or bodily manifestation was the lack of any hint of holiness in this God’s character.2 The holiness of God is distinctly missing from the encounter at the burning bush onward. The real Moses saw no bodily manifestation of God here and later only had a limited glimpse of God’s glory (Exodus 33:15–23). The real Moses was commanded by God’s voice to remove his shoes because he stood on holy ground in God’s presence. Our Movie Moses, by contrast, was nearly submerged in mud with a broken leg after a rockslide when he met the boy “God.” In this and later conversations with Movie Moses, the God-character demands no respect or reverence, inspires no awe or fear, and often seems flippant and rude. This greatly diminishes the character of the God revealed to us in the Bible and presents a “god” that is too much like us, a “god” created in the image of man.
Moving on to the faith that motivated the biblical Moses, the writer of Hebrews sheds much light on his life:
By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden three months by his parents, because they saw he was a beautiful child; and they were not afraid of the king's command.
By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward.
By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, lest he who destroyed the firstborn should touch them.
By faith they passed through the Red Sea as by dry land, whereas the Egyptians, attempting to do so, were drowned. (Hebrews 11:23–29)
Thus while the Bible lets us know that Moses developed his superhero complex before he ever left Egypt, the movie has Christian Bale opt for the I-will-become-Batman approach to the abolition of slavery upon his return to Egypt, under the impression that—as the God-character had told him—he needed to be a general. We get the idea, ultimately, that the God-character let Moses think he was called to be a general for a time so that he could learn being a general wouldn’t be enough.
The Moses who initially sets out in the movie to free the Hebrews takes the approach modern terrorists—or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective—often take. Movie Moses trains a band of guerrillas and begins wreaking havoc on the populace so they will force the pharaoh to let the people go. Of course the pharaohs of Egypt fancied themselves to be gods, so such an approach was doomed to failure and sure to incite only vicious retribution. The proud would-be superhero Moses of the film—like the real Moses described in Acts 7:25—had to learn that it would require God’s power, not human power, to free the people.
From the Bible, we learn that the Passover of Hebrew firstborn whose doorposts were covered by the blood of sacrificial lambs is another instance in which God showed His power to save when man cannot. When Ramses, holding his dead child, challenges Moses about how he could worship a killer of children, Moses does not bother to point out that the pharaohs themselves had killed a great many children but rather cuts to the vital point that no Hebrew children had died. Indeed, because of man’s sin every one of us awaits death from the moment we are born, and only God’s grace through Jesus Christ can make a difference in what happens after that (Hebrews 9:27).
The Passover (Exodus 11–12) is depicted in the movie, at least the part with the blood, but sadly not explained nor followed according to the biblical prescription. The movie does not correctly portray how the blood was to be applied with hyssop (Exodus 12:22), for instance. Neither is there mention of how the lambs were to be roasted and eaten in preparation for the Hebrews’ imminent departure. Further, the Moses character announces the covering of the blood with an I-hope-it-works attitude rather than a sure promise of God's protection. The Moses of the Bible was a man of confident faith; the Movie Moses had only a wish and a prayer.
The people could not save themselves any more than Moses could save them. Only God ultimately could save them from the death of the firstborn and free them from the deadly bondage in which they lived.
This important message—the fact that only God can save—has been memorialized in the ritual of Passover among Jews to this day but is only fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We cannot save ourselves from the guilt and eternal damnation we deserve for our sins, but grace for salvation is freely available to us through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, for the Bible says “
Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
Moses—the Christian Bale version, that is—had to learn the lesson alluded to in Zechariah 4:6’s words to Zerubabbel centuries later: “
‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts.” First he found that what neither intimidation of his erstwhile-adopted brother Ramses nor terrorist attacks could accomplish, God could pull off with a series of terrible plagues. Our Movie Moses did not head off to Egypt armed with a staff and a dose of holy humility as the Bible’s Moses but made a point of leaving his shepherd’s staff behind in Midian and bringing along his sword. While this did not really happen, the point works visually in the movie as we see Moses initially depending on his own might to free the people and gradually learn he must depend on God. Of course, without the staff, the historical duel of miracles between Egypt’s magicians and Moses (and Aaron) never made it into the movie. Ramses did know that the plagues were from a supernatural source even without any explanations from Moses, another missing part of the story. Most of the miracles were unfortunately depicted as natural in origin but supernatural in timing and scope. However, the skepticism on Ramses’ face as his court priests offered all the usual naturalistic explanations for the plagues that we commonly hear from liberal theologians today spoke volumes. He wasn’t buying the naturalistic explanations, but he nevertheless—as the Bible describes—hardened his heart against the God with whom he was engaged in battle.
How an artist or theologian handles the parting of the Red Sea is a litmus test for just how literally they take the history in the Bible. Those who take God at His word typically acknowledge that the events transpired as described in Exodus 13–14. In order that the Egyptians (Exodus 14:4) and the Hebrews (Exodus 14:13) would know that God is truly God, God parted the Red Sea with a strong wind that blew all night and dried the sea bottom such that the people walked through on dry land (Exodus 14:21–22).
Liberal theologians and others who doubt God’s Word typically propose the Israelites escaped by fording a shallow ankle-deep area, leading inevitably to the query from Bible-believers about how Egypt’s army drowned in six inches of water. While this movie did not exactly give the Israelites dry ground for the entire trek, no one seemed to be sinking in the mud. Moreover, the Movie Moses originally planned to take them across just such a shallow area he had previously scoped out. When the situation required a change of plans, our Movie Moses once again discovered that he was powerless to save the people and had to call on God, for he indeed was trapped with 400,000 people between the sea and a deadly army. (The number mentioned in the movie was much lower than the population described in the Bible; Numbers 2:32 mentions over 600,000 people in the Israelite army a year after leaving Egypt, not to mention their families) As Movie Moses flings his sword into the sea in a scene Arthurian fans will savor, he sheds the last vestiges of his dependence on himself and finally exhibits the humble faith in God that would allow the Bible to refer to Moses as “
very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).
The movie’s Egyptian chariots had a bit of cinematic assistance from the terrain to achieve removal of their wheels (Exodus 14:25) and to fling a substantial portion of the horses and riders to their deaths. Nevertheless, the walls of the Red Sea did close over the pursuing army of death in biblical fashion such that “
the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea” (Exodus 14:27).
Ever hesitant to give God too much credit for providing and preserving His own words, while the golden calf debacle brews below in the camp, we see the God-character directing Movie Moses in a Mount Sinai cave to chisel the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone. The dialogue does point out that the Law comes from God, not man. Scripture is clear, however, that God Himself not only inspired (2 Timothy 3:16) the Ten Commandments but actually wrote them on both sets of tablets—the first set that He presented to Moses on the mountain (Exodus 24:12, 32:16) and the second set that Moses cut out (Exodus 34:1) after he broke the first ones upon seeing the golden calf being worshipped in the camp (Exodus 32:8, 19).
The scene does make the point that God’s written Word is the foundation on which we base our faith, not the vicissitudes of fallible human leaders. The God-character in the movie tells Moses that the written word—the Law—would endure and guide the people in his (Moses’) stead. Thus, whether the writers of the movie intended to or not, they have here declared the importance of standing on the authority of God’s written Word, the Bible. The fact that we can trust the Bible from the very first verse is indeed the message of this ministry, as we recall the importance Jesus Christ placed on all the words God recorded through Moses:
Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you—Moses, in whom you trust. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words? (John 5:45–47)
There is excellent biblical support for an Exodus date of 1445 to 1491 BC. Read more in “Doesn’t Egyptian Chronology Prove That the Bible Is Unreliable?” and in Unwrapping the Pharaohs.
The film also adopts the commonly accepted view that the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, based on one understanding of Genesis 15:13. However, other conservative Bible scholars believe that the text indicates that Abraham’s Hebrew descendants were persecuted in various ways over the course of four centuries but were actually only in Egypt for 215 years and were enslaved for only part of that time. (You can read more about that in “How Long Were the Israelites in Egypt?” and in Floyd Nolen Jones’s book Chronology of the Old Testament.)