After Gods & Kings, 10 ways to get your Exodus on
You don’t have to wait until Passover to dig into Judaism’s founding liberation narrative
By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer
If Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings left you feeling stood up at the Tabernacle, you’re not alone. Rottentomatoes.com indicates that 72 percent of mainstream media critics have panned this CGI leviathan of a film.
Whether something seemed missing or you did feel a connection to this latest cinematic biblical epic, here are 10 ways to get your Exodus on — either as an antidote or for a better sense of what director Scott might have been after.
1. Maimonides on miracles
“From Moses to Moses, there has been no one like Moses,” we are told in Jewish tradition. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), the great medieval Jewish philosopher and physician, is the author of the Mishnah Torah, a key guide to Jewish law. In his Commentary to the Mishnah, Maimonides writes that the splitting of the sea was “programmed in” to nature. Exodus director Scott goes in this direction with his depiction of the opening of the sea as the result of a tsunami.
In Maimonides’ view, there is no contradiction between science and Jewish religious belief. An excellent starting point to learn more about Maimonides is the 2008 book Maimonides by Sherwin B. Nuland. For those up for a deeper exploration, read the 2013 Maimonides: Life and Thought by Moshe Halbertal.
2. Angels in our midst
One of the more startling aspects of Exodus: Gods and Kings isn’t the scope of the battle scenes or plagues, but a mouthy 11-year-old boy (Isaac Andrews) who shows up as God’s spokesman at the Burning Bush after Moses is clobbered over the head in a rock slide.
Together, they bicker, argue, talk strategy, and lose their patience with each other. The boy comes and goes with God’s messages throughout the movie.
It’s pretty clear that Scott doesn’t present the boy as God himself, since Moses refers to him as a messenger, and he’s listed in the credits as Malak.
In Hebrew, malak means angel or messenger. The Torah’s Exodus narrative at the Burning Bush begins when “an angel (malak) of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush.”
But the text indicates that when Moses turns aside to look, God himself then communicates directly with Moses. The Torah later describes God and Moses talking “face to face,” with no intermediaries.
Could it be that Scott, an atheist, uses an 11-year-old boy to express the immature nature of Israel’s still evolving God?
In any case, the presence of angels or messengers of God in human form are replete in the Bible: from the three visitors Abraham hosts to the being who wrestles with Jacob, and the angel who tells Samson’s parents of his coming birth.
Find out what Judaism says about angels in the 2000 book A Gathering of Angels: Angels in Jewish Life and Literature by Morris B. Margolies.
3. I want my mummy
Seeing Egyptian mummies viscerally shows ancient Egypt’s cultural and religious obsession with death and its priority of the afterlife over this life. The Torah of the Israelites places as its highest value a moral life of obedience to God’s Covenant, in this world.
Google “Mummy of Ramses II,” the pharaoh most commonly associated with the Exodus narrative, now part of the Cairo Museum collection, and look him in the eye.
4. Read Moses: A Life
In 1998, Jonathan Kirsch pulled together a kind of Reader’s Digest condensed version of the Moses narrative found in the Torah, Midrash (rabbinic commentaries and narratives about biblical personalities), and other faith traditions.
Midrash relates that before his calling to free the Israelites, Moses was a noted Egyptian general. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments draws on this backstory as does Scott’s new film.
In media interviews, Christian Bale, the Moses of Exodus: Gods and Kings, said Kirsch’s book was his go-to source for character development.
5. Michelangelo’s manly Moses
If Bale’s extreme self doubt and nervousness as Moses didn’t do it for you, Google “Michelangelo’s Moses” to see the self-assured, manly image of the lawgiver that shaped the Western concept of Moses’ appearance until Charlton Heston came along. Heston may have even gotten the part because of his resemblance to the 16th-century sculpture for the tomb of Pope Julius II.
Michelangelo’s Moses sports biceps that are well-defined even by today’s standards, no doubt from carrying the two stone tablets, tucked under one of Moses’ brawny arms in the sculpture.
Less inspiring are the horns atop this Moses’ head, the result of the mistranslation of the Hebrew word, karen — emitting rays of light — in the Latin translation the Catholic Church used in those days.
6. Handel’s Israel In Egypt
After the remarkable display of Ridley Scott’s Red Sea tsunami turning back on Pharaoh’s charioteers, we see the Israelites safe on the opposite shore, quietly sitting around like they’re at a turnpike rest stop. Where’s the celebration? The awe?
Be of good courage. When Prince George of Hanover, Germany was made king of England in 1710, he brought with him his court composer, George Frideric Handel, who would become Britain’s rock star in his day.
Handel presented the premiere of his oratorio Israel in Egypt in London at King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on April 4, 1739.
In this work for orchestra, chorus, and soloists, Handel sculpts in music the plagues and the crossing of the sea.
If you don’t have the patience to listen to a full baroque oratorio, take in the rousing final number, Miriam’s song at the sea — Sing ye to the Lord — with soprano soloist and chorus.
7. Watch the original
Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments is not the original; it was the director’s remake of his 1923 The Ten Commandments, the silent version that ushered in the genre of the biblical movie epic.
It’s hard to describe how wildly successful and celebrated this film was in its day.
DeMille made his 1923 version in two parts: a 40-minute prologue of the Exodus story culminating with the Golden Calf scene at Mt. Sinai, and a contemporary jazz-era morality tale of how a man who breaks The Ten Commandments is then broken.
It’s worth the 40 minutes to at least screen the Exodus prologue, parts of which were filmed in an early version of Technicolor.
For exterior shots of the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea, DeMille hired 250 Orthodox Jews from Los Angeles — mostly new immigrants from Eastern Europe who couldn’t speak English — along with 2,000-plus extras for three weeks of filming at the Nipomo Dunes at Guadalupe, Calif. At the location’s camp city, DeMille provided the Jewish extras with kosher meals, and even a synagogue.
In DeMille’s autobiography he wrote, “We believed rightly that, both in appearance and in their deep feeling of the significance of the Exodus, they would give the best possible performance as the Children of Israel.”
8. Dare to contemplate Schoenberg’s opera
Scaling the Mount Sinai of intellect in the arts, Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg first abandoned Judaism in 1898 at the age of 28 but returned to his faith with the rise of Nazism in 1933.
His challenging, never completed German opera, Moses und Aron, grew out of a play he wrote in 1926-27 about the spread of antisemitism. The focus of the opera is conflict between Moses and Aaron over how to worship God, who is without image and “unknowable.”
Moses rails against Aaron, who provides the Israelites with the Golden Calf, a concrete object for their worship. Schoenberg finished two of the opera’s planned three acts. The work, rarely performed, had its premiere in 1957, six years after the composer’s death.
9. Pick up Biblical Archaeology Review
To dig into findings from the ancient world as they relate to our knowledge of biblical text, start with Biblical Archaeology Review (biblicalarchaeology.org), the bi-monthly magazine of the Biblical Archaeology Society.
Its editor, Hershel Shanks, founded the society in 1973 as a nonprofit, nondenominational institution. The publication presents findings of major scholars in an accessible format for a general readership.
10. Read the original
As the Jewish world continues its annual cycle of reading the Torah in synagogue, Saturday, Jan. 10 marks the beginning of Shemot, The Book of Exodus.
This is the perfect opportunity to read the original text, a section at a time, follow the commentaries on the Torah text in the margins, and hear what local rabbis have to say about the narrative.
All movements of Judaism have eblasts with commentary on the Torah portion of the week as well. Sign up for one or many.