Exodus: Gods and Kings

I must admit that the trailer was a lot better than the actual film. As the entire school is learning Sefer Shemot this year I was hoping that Ridley Scott’s film about Exodus could be used as an effective educational tool. I went to see the film the night it came out, and was disappointed in the film. I’d give it two stars. But I still thought that there would be serious educational merit in seeing the film. We took the whole school to the see the movie on Chanukah and the reviews of kids and staff were mixed. I’ll explain why I thought it was a good idea to bring the school to the movie and then I’ll address the issues raised by those who questioned the decision.

Reasons in Favor of Bringing the School to the Movie

  • Modeling the act of conveying Torah to the broad public through art. I’d be really happy if a student in school who wants to be involved in the creative arts decided to engage parts of Torah seriously through his or her art form.  If a student will become an author, I’d love for him or her to write on a Jewish theme. An artist, a musician, a filmmaker. I hope that they can be inspired to change the world and teach the world about Torah through their creative work. Admittedly, I thought that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah was a much richer, more complex and more genuine form of parshanut on the Chumash than Scott’s Exodus was. But I think that the message can be conveyed through this film. Eliyahu Fink recently posted a compelling piece about the need for modern midrash.
  • Developing an Appreciation for the Horror of the Makot. I thought that the chaos in Mitzrayim that Scott conveyed through the makot was palpable. The swarming locusts, the hordes of frogs, the ugly and painful boils were all presented not as some sort of magic spell but as genuine terror. Seeing these scenes helped me better visualize what the experience in Mitzrayim may have been like.
  • Considering the Development of Moshe.  In the Torah, there is only one pasuk between the episode of Moshe being nursed by a Jewish woman at the request of Paroh’s daughter and his being a grown man וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא, בְּסִבְלֹתָם; וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי, מַכֶּה אִישׁ-עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו.  The Torah leaves us wondering about Moshe’s life in Paroh’s palace as his “grandson.” When did Moshe realize that he was Jewish? The film presents Moshe as a regular Egyptian prince, as a general in Paroh’s army who learned about his true identity when touring Goshen on official business. This type of “filling in the blanks” in Moshe’s life was thought provoking and I think should spur some good inquiry in classes about why the Torah doesn’t give us any details of Moshe’s life in the palace of Paroh. How does the film’s version of Moshe’s life in Paroh’s palace fit in or differ from other details we learn of Moshe in the chumash or in midrashim?
  • Noticing textual and midrashic references. Instead of focusing on the pesukim that the filmmaker did not include in the film, I think it’s helpful to look for not-obvious references that he did include. For example there’s no mention in the pesukim, but there is mention in the midrash, of a prophecy saying that a leader of the Jews would be born and take them out of Mitzrayim. That midrash was central to the film. Similarly, there’s no mention in the pesukim of Paroh surviving keriat yam suf, but the midrash makes that point and so does the film. Another small detail which caught my eye, as the Jews were about to leave Egypt, the camera swept across a number of fields in the nighttime. One of those fields was a watermelon patch. I assume the director chose that to refer to the pasuk in Bemidbar in which Bnei Yisrael say:  זָכַרְנוּ, אֶת-הַדָּגָה, אֲשֶׁר-נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם, חִנָּם; אֵת הַקִּשֻּׁאִים, וְאֵת הָאֲבַטִּחִים, וְאֶת-הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת-הַבְּצָלִים, וְאֶת-הַשּׁוּמִים.
  • Appreciating and Understanding the Topography and Geography.  Scott did a great job with the aerial shots of the sprawl of Mitzrayim. The vastness of the empire was conveyed effectively. Those types of visuals, I find, are often difficult to imagine when reading the pesukim. Also, Moshe’s journey through the midbar when exiled to Midian was powerful. Often we think of the “midbar” as desert even though we know that it’s more accurately a “wilderness.” I thought the movie gave you a good sense of that wilderness.  By watching Moshe travel from Mitzrayim to Midian, you develop an appreciation for how precarious his situation was and you also see that journey as a foreshadowing of Bnei Yisrael’s journey. I hadn’t really considered the possibility that Moshe’s experience traveling to and from Midian would make him better equipped to lead the Jews through the midbar. I think that seeing this type of wilderness helps students understand the chumash in a more real way as opposed to thinking of it as something more mythical.
  • It was fun. It was a lot of fun to go to the movies with school. If we can add fun and exciting learning opportunities to our students’ educational experience, this helps create a spirit of enthusiasm and engagement with learning.

Problems Raised with Bringing the School to the Movie

  • The Depiction of Moshe is unflattering. This critique didn’t resonate much with me (although I see that it did with a lot of other people- and it was fueled by the unwise comments of Christian Bale) I kind of liked seeing Moshe’s development as a  believer in God. I actually thought that that interpretation was loyal to the pesukim. I had never considered Moshe as a warrior so I found that off-putting. But as I thought about it a bit more, I wondered whether it really should be off-putting. We don’t know anything about Moshe’s youth, adolescence and young adulthood. He lived in the palace of Paroh as his grandson. Maybe he was a warrior. After all, Aharon is the one who is אוהב שלום ורודף שלום. Perhaps Moshe had experience as a fighter. Moshe is presented in the film as being aloof, and unconnected to the people. I’m not so sure that this is a bad read of the pesukim. Of course, Moshe is dedicated to Bnei Yisrael and argues with God when God wants to destroy Bnei Yisrael, but there are episodes in the chumash in which Moshe is presented as being different than anyone else. He is closer to God than he is to the people. He is criticized by Korach and his group. he is criticized by Aharon and Miriam. In short, I didn’t find the film’s depiction of Moshe to be problematic.
  • Bnei Yisrael tried to defeat the Egyptians militarily before God resorted to the makot??  This seemed much more like a Hollywood invention than pshat in pesukim. Scott presented Moshe as first trying to rebel against the Egyptians. Only after that was taking too long, did God start the plagues. This seemed like an unnecessary embellishment. However, it is interesting to note that many mefarshim understand Beni Yisrael’s departure from Egypt not as slaves leaving downtrodden, but as soldiers leaving with their heads held high. This is based on the pasuk וחמושים עלו בני ישראל מארץ מצרים- Bnei Yisrael left Egypt armed. I found the comments of רבינו בחיי particularly thought provoking on this matter:

על דרך הפשט: יצאו ישראל ממצרים חלוצים כאנשי צבא היוצאים למלחמה, ואף על פי שאין ישראל כשאר העמים שיהיו צריכים להזדיין כנגד האויבים, דרך התורה לצוות שיתנהג אדם במקצת בדרך הטבע והמקרה, ואחרי כן יפעל הנס, וכן מצינו שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא ליהושע (יהושע ח, ב): שים לך אורב לעיר מאחריה, ועַם מלומדי הנסים והנפלאות למה יצטרכו לאורב? אלא שרצון התורה בכך שיעשה אדם בדרך הטבע כל מה שבידו לעשות והשאר יניח בידי שמים, וכן אמר שלמה המלך ע”ה (משלי כא, לא): סוס מוכן ליום מלחמה ולה’ התשועה, כלומר חייבים בני אדם להישמר בנפשותיהם ולהכין סוסים וכלי מלחמה והקב”ה יושיע, כי התשועה לו לבדו יתברך ויש שפירשו וחמושים – שיצאו ישראל כל אחד מהם בחמישה כלי זיין.

A colleague pointed out Rav Hirsch’s comments on Shemot 6:1 which actually fit nicely with this part of the film. In the pasuk, Hashem says: עתה תראה אשר תעשה לפרעה…Rav Hirsch writes: עתה- This is just the moment I have been waiting for. First, let the helplessness and despair become fully evident; let it be clear that, by ordinary human means, nothing can be accomplished, and that appealing to Pharoah is of no avail…. (It’s worth reading Rav Hirsch’s comments in full inside..)

  • Kriat Yam Suf didn’t seem all that miraculous nor did some of the makkot. I have no problem with this theologically. The Rambam interprets miracles as being natural as much as possible. Even though the miracles were presented in the film as occurring through nature, they were all done as a direct result of God’s will. Many adults and students I spoke with were upset about this point. I think that it’s important to use this as an opportunity to show that many rishonim understand miracles in this sort of way. The Ramban says so explicitly about keriat yam suf:  “ויט משה את ידו על הים ויולך ה’ את הים ברוח קדים וגו’” – היה הרצון לפניו יתברך לבקע הים ברוח קדים מיבשת שיראה כאלו הרוח היא המחרבת ים כענין שכתוב (הושע יג טו) יבא קדים רוח ה’ ויבוש מקורו וייחרב מעיינו השגיא למצרים ויאבדם (ע”פ איוב י”ב כ”ג) כי בעבור זה חשבו אולי הרוח שם הים לחרבה ולא יד ה’ עשתה זאת בעבור ישראל אע”פ שאין הרוח בוקעת הים לגזרים לא שמו לבם גם לזאת ובאו אחריהם מרוב תאותם להרע להם וזה טעם וחזקתי את לב פרעה ויבאו אחריהם שחזק לבם לאמר ארדוף אויבי ואשיגם בים ואין מידי מציל ולא זכרו עתה כי ה’ נלחם להם במצרים
  • Moshe was not involved in the plagues. I suppose that in the interest of time, Scott did not want to go into the drama between Moshe and Paroh between each plague.  I would have liked to see more of that. On the other hand, it is clear from the pesukim that the plagues were done by God, not Moshe.
  • The Depiction of God was kefira. I felt that the depiction of God as a young boy was the most troubling and bizarre aspect of the film. This has been the most controversial point picked up by media in general.  Ridley Scott explained his choice of a child to portray God, ” One gets the sense that he comes from a very clean place. He only speaks logic and truth.” In other words as Moshe’s judgment was clouded by pangs of sympathy for the Egyptians, God’s command cut through the confusion and presented matters as simply right and wrong. I did not like that depiction; what may have been interpreted as childlike or clear-sighted, I thought seemed childish and petulant.  Whether or net imagining God as young boy is kefira may depend on whether you think the Rambam or the Raavad is right in Hilchot Teshuva Perek 3. One student told me after seeing the movie that he would have preferred that God had been depicted as a cloud and that He communicated in Morgan Freeman’s voice. My response to him was that it’s probably theologically preferable to depict God as a petulant child than as a cloud with a deep voice, since no one actually thinks that the child IS God, whereas they might think that the cloud with a deep voice IS.  Although I didn’t like the film’s depiction of God, I do think that it provides us with the opportunity to think more seriously and with greater sophistication about what we really mean when we talk about God.
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