With the release last week of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: God and Kings generating interest and discussion around one of the Bible’s most epic dramas, I thought I’d invite some qualified and insightful guests to weigh in— not so much on the movie, but on the story behind the movie. What is the meaning and purpose of the Exodus? What can learn from this ancient story? What should viewers look for and question as they see it depicted on the big screen? Bringing insight to those questions are Nyasha Junior, Peter Enns, Rabbi Evan Moffic, and Kelley Nikondeha (who kindly responded to my eleventh-hour invitation to participate by writing a response last night). Hope you learn as much from the conversation as I did….
The new Exodus: God and Kings film is coming to theaters soon, but I’m not going to see it. Since I am a biblical studies professor, you might think that I would see it and organize a class field trip to see it again, but I’m choosing not to support Hollywood whitewashing.
I have fond memories of our family’s annual viewing of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), a classic retelling of the Exodus story. Long ago before DVRs and VCRs, we could only watch the film when it aired which was usually around Easter. The images from the film are forever imprinted on my mind, and I still think of Moses as Charlton Heston and Pharaoh as Yul Brynner. We didn’t call it whitewashing when I was a kid. It was just standard practice for Hollywood. The latest Exodus film continues that tradition. In almost 50 years, little has changed.
Still, all the talk of the film has caused me to reflect on the historic importance of the Exodus story for African-American Christians. We appropriated the story and wove it into our stories, songs, and sermons. Bricks without straw. Burning bush. Cloud by day, fire by night. Drowning Egyptians. Freedom! We have seen ourselves as the ancient Israelites and called our leaders “Moses.” God delivered the Israelites from slavery after hearing their cry and seeing how the Egyptians oppressed them, and we claimed this God of liberation as our own.
As a kid, the Exodus story was a feel-good story of liberation that provided the backdrop for a riveting dramatic film and for my pastor’s equally captivating sermons. As an adult, I now interpret it as a story of oppressed becoming oppressors. God hears the cry of the Israelites but not the Canaanites and other peoples in the what the Israelites regard as their “Promised Land.” As well, I no longer understand the Exodus as a story of liberation for African-Americans. Emancipation did not bring about an end to lynchings, segregation, and racial discrimination. For African Americans, there was no deliverance from their oppressors, and there was no Promised Land. Despite significant gains, for African Americans in the 21st century, in some ways, little has changed.
"Battle of the Gods"
Those of us raised on Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments know all about the exodus story. A burning bush, “Let me people go,” Joshua has a girlfriend, Charlton Heston breaks up with Anne Baxter so he can marry Herman Munster’s wife (Yvonne De Carlo), slaves are delivered from Yul Brenner’s clutches, and Edward G. Robinson (“Where’s your Moses now?”) undermines the whole thing.
But when reading the biblical story of the exodus, it’s best to forget this classic. In fact, it might be best to forget VBS and a few sermons.
The story of the exodus is not about a bunch of random plagues to liberate slaves and then another random, but more awesome, trick about splitting the Red Sea. The story is about Israel’s God—the God who lives on a mountain down south somewhere, whose subject are an enslaved people—marching onto the home field of the superpower of the day and beating up their army and their gods.
Think of how the story begins. The Israelites increase in number, but Pharaoh enslaved them so they might serve him (1:13). Later Yahweh commands Moses to tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go so they might worship me” (7:16).
“Serve” and “worship” are the same word in Hebrew, `avad. THE question in exodus plays off of this double meaning: will Israel `avad (“serve”) Pharaoh and his gods as slaves or will Israel `avad (“worship”) Yahweh as his people on Mt. Sinai.
Exodus is about who will earn the right to lay claim to the people of Israel: Yahweh or Pharaoh and his gods. What follows is a no-holds-barred battle of the gods. Who will win? Whom will Israel “serve?”
Pharaoh responds to Moses’s first challenge: “I do not know Yahweh and I will not let my Israel go” (5:2). For the next few chapters, Yahweh will introduce himself to Pharaoh through plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, a cosmic battle where Yahweh takes to task the Egyptian pantheon one by one.
For example, the Nile—Egypt’s source of life and deified in the Nile god Hapi—is turned to blood. The plague of frogs is a slap in the face to Heqet, the goddess of fertility, who was depicted with the head of a frog. The plague of darkness is a kick in the midsection to the sun god Ra, who is also Pharaoh’s patron god. Exodus 12:12 sums it up nicely: “…on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am Yahweh.”
Then we have the parting of the Red Sea—hardly a random act, but a replay of Genesis 1 (Day 3): in both the waters of chaos are separated, revealing habitable dry ground beneath. Genesis 1 is itself an echo of older Mesopotamian and Canaanite creation stories, where chaos/water is tamed and split by the victor god.
The message of the exodus is: Yahweh and Yahweh alone lays claim to his people, and he alone is worthy of worship. He is the creator and the redeemer—and the defeated Egyptian army and Egypt’s subdued gods bear witness to it.
Rabbi Evan Moffic
"The Long Walk to Freedom"
The Exodus movie film premiers in mid-December, and with my new book What Every Christian Needs to know about Passover coming out shortly and describing how Jews and Christians can bring the Exodus story to life today, I have lucky timing.
Yet, the stories of the Bible are timeless, and Hollywood seems to recognize that people yearn to experience them. The Exodus story, in particular, has an extraordinary and often overlooked message.
Why We Usually Get the Story Wrong
Usually the story is told as a clash of wills and egos between God and Pharaoh. God, using Moses as His messenger, vanquishes Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. The Israelites go free. Everyone is happy.
Yet, if we read the Bible, we know it takes 40 years before the Israelites are truly free. They have to journey in the wilderness—confused, uncertain and angry—before they enter into the Promised Land.
Why? Simply looking at a map shows us the journey from the Egypt to Israel is not a long one. Scholars estimate it would take about 3 weeks or so to walk it. Why does it take the Jewish people 40 years?
The Real Lesson of the Exodus
Jewish folk wisdom gives us a memorable answer: “It took 4 days to take Israel out of Egypt. It took 40 years to take Egypt out of Israel.” The Israelites had been slaves for 400 years. They could not become a free people overnight.
History is littered with examples of people trying and failing to become free. Look at France after 1789 Revolution. After a few years of chaos, tyranny returned in the form of Napoleon. Look at Egypt after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarek. After some confusion and an election, the army reasserted control.
Freedom takes time. Before they had freedom, the Jewish people had to learn responsibility. They had to build community. They had to create new institutions. In other words, they had to undergo what Nelson Mandela would later call “The Long Walk to Freedom.”
Are We Free?
This lesson matters for each of us as well. True freedom is discovered not in the absence of responsibility. It is found when we embrace it. For Jews the symbol of embracing responsibility is accepting the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. That is the most important part of the Exodus: not the plagues, not the splitting of the red sea, not even Moses saying to Pharaoh “Let me people go.” Freedom begins in responsibility.
If this idea seems too abstract, consider a parent and a child. When a young child crosses a street, a parent needs to hold their hand. Over time, parents teach the child to look both ways, to follow the traffic signs, and to be careful. Once the child has internalized those rules--once it becomes part of their normal behavior—they do not need to hold a parent's hand. Through internalizing the rules—through having faith in them—they become able to do more on his own. They gain a measure of freedom.
Praying Our Way to Freedom
Freedom and responsibility truly go hand in hand in our spiritual lives. The greatest spiritual freedom as the capacity to grow and change. We are not stuck where we are. We can continue to grow closer to God throughout our lives. But it takes work. It takes responsibility.
For me the best indicator of this responsibility is prayer. When I am praying regularly—in the morning and the evening—I know I am nurturing my inner life. It does not always happen. Sometimes the day seems to fill with appointments and obligations. But if I go too long without regular prayer, my mind and soul wither. I seem to lack the freedom to grow.
The battle between God and Pharaoh was only the beginning. The challenge of the Exodus remains with each of us today. As individuals and as a community, we walk along the long road to freedom.
Where does freedom and responsibility meet for you? What practices for you ensure the Exodus remains relevant today?
Rabbi Evan is the spiritual leader of Congregation Solel in suburban Chicago. He blogs at www.Rabbi.me and the Huffington Post. Author of Wisdom for People of All Faiths, his next book What Every Christian Needs to Know about Passover, is available February 2015 from Abingdon Press.
Exodus is a liberation song that begins in the brickyards of Egypt where the Hebrews are enslaved to Pharaoh, cruel taskmasters and backbreaking quotas. But it’s a song sung by women and not only the man who seems central to the story.
The truth is that there would be no Moses, no crossing of the Red Sea and no grand tale of liberation if it weren’t for the women woven throughout Exodus. These women on both sides of the Nile River exhibited a subversive strength that pushed back against Pharaoh’s edict of death, saving one boy who went on to save an entire people.
The midwives were clever and courageous in the face of a tyrant. Jochabed, Moses’ mother, practiced wild hope as she placed her baby on a raft of reeds, sending him across the waters of the Nile. An adolescent Miriam showed bravery beyond her years, approaching an Egyptian elite on behalf of her brother. Bithiah, Pharaoh’s daughter, enacted a bit of restitution with the audacious adoption of a Hebrew boy she drew from the water. These women, separately and in solidarity with one another, made Moses possible.
A mother who nursed him on lullabies and stories of old, the plaintive laments of bereft mothers, the songs yearning for freedom rising from the brickyards – they all shaped him. Moses followed in the wake of these women as he went toe-to-toe with Pharaoh. Their example and even their songs raised a revolutionary liberator.
Exodus women took risks, harnessed their intelligence and gathered their resources to enact justice in many small ways that overturned an empire. Moses, in the company of such women, liberated and led the Hebrews. Miriam became a prophet and partner to her brother for years to come. They are the unsung heroes, Exodus strong, singing freedom.
Kelley Nikondeha is a lover of God's justice & jubilee. She is the co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is a practical theologian at heart, weaving story and Scripture together to create fresh insight and cultivate faithful practice among communities who follow Jesus. Find her blog here.
What would you add about the Exodus epic? Have you seen the movie? What did you think?