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Exodus - Gods and Kings: The Cinema and Bible Stories

Sunday, December 14, 2014

It wasn't quite as good as Noah - at least as movies go - but for those who are interested in the Bible both as Scripture and as literature (which is not, however, to suggest one can pull those two things apart) last Friday's release of Exodus: Gods and Kings was an enjoyable and thought-provoking cinematic retelling of what is probably the most significant single story in the TaNaK - what Christians call the Old Testament.

Bible Stories on the Big Screen

The making of the Noah movie, which I reviewed here, has occasioned a conversation about movies hemming tightly to the Bible's version of a story.  My pastor put the matter to rest among our congregation with a pithy observation.

"If I want to know what the Bible says, I read the Bible." he mentioned one Sunday after Noah was released. "I don't go to the movies."

When I go to the movies, the first thing I expect is to be able to relate - or try to relate - to the main character in some sense.  I especially appreciate what literary theorists call the "discovery plot."  This is not a plot surrounding the discovery of something like a hidden treasure, but rather the main character discovering something about him or herself.  Taking a biblical character like Moses and developing a discovery plot around a biblical event like the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt offers so many different opportunities to the director and screenwriters.  The important thing to remember is that none of these directions requires the story tightly follow the biblical version.

The Bible and God as the Main Character

In fact, in a significant sense it is important that the movie version of a Bible story not follow the Bible's version in a highly literal fashion.  The reason for this has to do with how the modern cinema and the Bible differ sharply in terms of character development.

In cinema, as with all storytelling, character development requires dialog.  It also requires empathy - meaning we have to be drawn to the character to empathize with him or her in some way.  Because God is, well... God, presenting dialog with Him on the big screen is problematic simply because it is highly unlikely anyone in the audience has had the kind of conversations with God which otherwise would be presented.

In Roma Downey and Mark Burnett's highly popular cable series "The Bible" Abraham is shown to be hearing a voice.  He spins around, looking to see who is talking to him.  Dialog with a disembodied voice is a problem simply because it is not something the audience can relate to.  It immediately separates the audience from the main character, making it harder to evoke empathy.

Noah was much better in this respect as it showed Noah discussing a dream with his wife.  It is in the dialog between him and his wife about the dream that he surmises what it is God would have him do.  In the Bible's version, God simply commands Noah to build the Ark.  Noah goes about doing exactly as God tells him.  Indeed, throughout the Bible's Flood story, Noah never speaks.  This does not make for good character development... unless the character the author is developing is the character of God.

And it is exactly here where biblical stories diverge starkly from what we would otherwise expect of stories.  In many biblical stories, God is the main character and others like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are supporting characters.  This is especially important in Genesis because it presents God in a light very different than how "gods" are otherwise presented in Ancient Near East literature.  And in the earliest of the stories in Genesis, literary forms like genealogies which would otherwise involve kings (e.g. the Sumerian royal genealogy) involve ordinary people who are born, have children, live x number of years, and die.  Stories which would otherwise involve demi-god superheroes (e.g. Epic of Gilgamesh) who tell their stories in the first person instead involve ordinary people who walk with God and otherwise do not speak in the story.  The choice not to develop these characters so as to provide the character of God "center stage" seems to be very deliberate on the part of the biblical author.

Cinema as an Invitation to Dialog

So in the cinema the screenwriters and director are left to take supporting characters from Bible stories and make them into the main character.  This is why diverging from the Bible's storyline is actually essential.  In Exodus: Gods and Kings the character of Moses is shown to be quite "modern" and metropolitan, at least as that might have been thought of among Egyptian royalty at the time.  He goes from this to a closer identification with his own people, and from that he struggles through to the place where he accepts the leadership God expects of him.  The Bible's story shows this struggle as well, but the movie fleshes it out as a struggle between Moses and God.  Moses struggles especially with the plagues, seeing in them an excessive brutality.

Without giving away too much for those who yet to see it, God appears in Exodus: Gods and Kings as a child, initially at the burning bush.  He appears at his own initiative, and sometimes does not appear when Moses would otherwise like to hear from him.  In this respect, God's "otherness" is maintained.  But precisely because God is embodied as a child (as opposed to merely a disembodied voice), we can be drawn into the dialog.  Some might object to what appears to be a capricious, violent and vindictive presentation of God by the child.  But it is this which creates a conflict between God and Moses, and that conflict shows Moses as having a strong sense of justice.  The viewer who is familiar with the Bible's version has to take care to remember here that it is the character of Moses, not God, that is the focus of the movie.

If those of us who consider ourselves believers and receive the Judeo-Christian Bible as Scripture can remember this, we can come away from Exodus: Gods and Kings with a lot of very profitable lines of discussion at church get togethers or just as we take the time to encourage each other over coffee. Again, trying as I am not to spoil the movie, I'll suggest this example:

There is a sense in which the movie suggests that the Ten Commandments should be enough to provide His people the guidance they need even after Moses is gone.  This might be the central question posed by the movie.  Are the Commandment enough?  Is the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) more broadly speaking enough?  How might today's Jewish viewer answer this question?  How might a Christian answer it?  If their answers would be different, why is that so?  Does this question even make any sense at all to those who were not raised in any faith?

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