Image: Charlton Heston as Moses
Several days ago, I wrote a post in which I mentioned the trailer for the coming movie “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” staring Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Rameses, and John Turturro as Seti. Originally, the title of the movies was “Exodus,” but in March 2014, the title of the film was changed to “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”
After my post was published, a reader of my blog sent me the following tweet about the content of the movie.
Mr. Ibekwe is right. Most movies about the Bible rewrite the Bible in order to present the biblical story. I have already mentioned this problem in my post “Noah”: The Movie and the Book of Genesis. In that post I wrote: “The biggest problem I had with ‘Noah’ is where the movie departs from the biblical text. Granted, in any movie about the Bible, the writers and the director must use some creativity in order to develop the story and bring the characters to life.”
I expect the same thing to happen with “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” The reason is that the Bible does not say much about the life of Moses.
Moses died when he was one hundred twenty years old (Deuteronomy 34:7). Since he spent forty years in the wilderness, the first eighty years of his life are told in Exodus 1-20. This means that any movie that seeks to tell the story of Moses must use some creativity in describing what happened when Moses was growing up in Egypt and what happened during his years as a fugitive in Midian.
In order to show how movies depart from what the Bible says about Moses, I have reviewed four movies about Moses and selected a few scenes from each movie where the script departs from the narrative in the book of Exodus and, in a sense, rewrites the Bible. I did not review the movie “The Prince of Egypt” because it is an animated movie. I selected movies where real persons played the part of Moses.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
“The Ten Commandments” was a movie directed by Cecil B. DeMille, It stars Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner as Rameses, and Cedric Hardwicke as Seti. I believe that this is the best and the most elaborate movie about Moses. Cecil B. DeMille tried to recreate the glory of old Egypt and he did it magnificently. But even DeMille had to be creative about Moses.
In the movie Moses is presented as a great architect who builds a monumental city to honor Seti. The New Testament presents a midrashic view of Moses’s education: “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and deeds” (Acts 7:22). However, the book of Exodus never says that Moses was able to build cities and monuments.
In the movie Moses also discovered that he was a Hebrew because his Egyptian mother had kept the Levitic swaddling cloths that came with Moses. But, nowhere in the Bible it is said that the Levites had special clothes that identified them as Levites. These two items came, not from the Bible, but from the imagination of the writers.
Very few Americans have seen this movie. This was an Italian movie that was produced as a six-hours mini-series. The mini-series was edited into a movie. The movie stars Burt Lancaster as Moses and Laurent Terzieff as Pharaoh Merneptah.
One of the most amazing features of this movie is that the movie places the exodus during the reign of Merneptah rather than Rameses. Very few scholars today would place the exodus under Merneptah. The reason for this redating of the exodus is because of the reference to Israel in the Merneptah Stele.
There are many things I found interesting in this movie that are not in the Bible. In Exodus 2:11, Moses saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew so he killed the Egyptian. In the movie, it is that Hebrew who told the Egyptians that Moses was also a Hebrew.
In the movie, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law said that he used to be a priest, but that he got tired of worshiping idols. While Moses was with Jethro, Moses heard that Merneptah had given a decree forgiving Moses for his crime and authorizing him to return to Egypt.
The movie “Moses” was aired on the Turner Network as part of a series of movies on biblical personalities. The movie stars Ben Kingsley as Moses and Frank Langella as Rameses.
While Moses was in Pharaoh’s court, some people knew that he was a Hebrew while others did not know. Contrary to what the Bible says, in the movie Moses had no children. He lived with Jethro from where he departed to Egypt. Before he left, he said goodby to Jethro, to Zipporah, to her sisters, but nowhere in the movie was Moses’ son mentioned. Only six plagues are mentioned in the movie.
The Exodus (2013)
“The Exodus” is Chapter 2 of the miniseries presented on the History Channel in 2013. The movie was produced by Roma Downey and others. Downey is famous for appearing in the TV series “Touched by an Angel.” The goal of this miniseries was to give viewers a faithful presentation of the Bible. The chapter on Jesus was adapted as a movie released in theaters as “The Son of God.”
In the movie Will Houston played Moses and Aharon Ipalé played Rameses. Although this movie was an attempt to present a faithful account of the Bible, this movie gives the worst presentation of Moses and his life.
In the movie everyone in Pharaoh’s court knew that Moses was a Hebrew, except Moses. When Moses fled from Egypt, he did not go to Midian. His tent was on Mount Sinai and he was all alone there. When God revealed himself to Moses, Moses asked: “Are you real?” And God said: “I am.” When God sent Moses to Egypt, there was no objection; Moses was willing to go.
When Moses turned the water of the Nile into blood, Moses did not come before Pharaoh. Rather, he and Aaron were hiding behind some trees on the margins of the Nile. Pharaoh never saw Moses, there was no notice that Moses would change the water into blood, but when it changed, Pharaoh knew that Moses had done it.
All of the four movies do not follow the biblical text in every detail. The writers had to be creative in order to develop dialogue between the characters, the kind of dialogue that does not appear in the Bible . They had to develop details about the life of Moses which are not given in the Bible. They had to be creative, otherwise, the movies would be very short, and even boring. Of the four movies on the life of Moses, the best two are the one with Charlton Heston and Burt Lancaster. The worst was the movie presented on the History Chanel.
It is sad that people who do not know the Bible believe these invented things about characters in the Bible are true, even though they are not in the Bible. The experience I narrated in my review of the movie about Noah is very common (read my review).
The truth is this: if anyone wants to learn what the Bible says about Moses, they should read the Bible. If people want to see a good (or a bad) interpretation of the Bible, they should go see a movie about the Bible, but they should not expect everything in the movie to be biblical.
There is a scene in the movie with Burt Lancaster that was very moving, even though it is not in the Bible. At the end of Moses’ life, when he ascends Mount Pisgah to see the Promised Land from afar, there is an interesting dialogue between God and Moses:
God: “You shall not go over into the land.”
Moses: “You are a hard, unforgiving God.”
God: Unforgiving? I have sworn and made a covenant with man, I shall never again destroy him for his sin, yet I shall torment him with dissatisfaction for only in me will he be satisfied.”
It was a very moving scene. Although the dialogue in not in the Bible, these words placed in the mouth of God reflect a great truth: human beings find satisfaction only in God.
For previous posts on the Old Testament and Hollywood, see my post, “The Old Testament Goes Hollywood.”
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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The “Ten Commandments” appears to use some material from Josephus. Another issue is that the age of Moses at the time of the Exodus and his final time at Pisgah according to Hollywood is between 40-80 (?) of age. Of course, an attempt to portray Moses as older is fraught with problems, but….. Finally, I still do not like the idea of Rameses II as Pharaoh of the Exodus. I am an Early Date of the Exodus 1445-1446 BC (Thutmosis III as Pharaoh), but that is another issue at another time.
What you said is true about the dialogue. There is much dialogue that is not found in the Biblical movies. In a lot of ways that is understandable. The historical fiction authors do much the same when writing the words of characters in their books. They have to think “outside the box.” This is a double-edge sword. Sometimes it works, but other times not even close.
What you said about Moses’ age is a problem that I found in all the four movies. In all the movies, Moses is portrayed as a young man at the time of the exodus. But this is Hollywood. They have to make the movie interesting to people, thus, as you said, they have to think outside the box.
I believe that archaeological evidence supports Rameses as the Pharaoh of the exodus. Maybe in the fall I will write a post on the date of the exodus and present the different views for the date of the exodus and let readers decide.
Thank you for your comment.
Dear Dr Mariottini,
I really enjoyed this article. I wish you’d write one on the animated film “The Prince of Egypt.” Lessons learned in childhood often remain with a person for life. Some children who watch the film discuss it with their parents who can’t detect departures from scripture.
I think the problem is less that Biblical movies depart from the Bible and more that people are Biblically illiterate. When movies that are derivative from popular culture deviate from their sources and from their canons, large sections of the public recognize what’s happening. Even with the Bible, departures from the text in adaptations aren’t necessarily harmful, if the audience knows the source. I think ignorance of scripture is the underlying problem.
Does “Moses (1995)” say Moses had no children?
You are correct about “The Prince of Egypt.” Many children will remember what they saw in the movie and think those things to be true. I am not sure I will be able to address the animated movie any time soon. You are also correct about the problem of biblical illiteracy. Biblical illiteracy complicates the problem because many people cannot distinguish fiction from fact. Those of us who are in the ministry have a challenge in our hands. We have to deal with the reality of biblical illiteracy in our congregations.
Thank you for your comment.