EDIT: You can read my review of Part II here.

I’d never watched the Ten Commandments before. I know, I know, it’s a classic and I really should have, but I somehow just missed it; just like my husband had never seen any of the Indiana Jones movies until we started dating. Life’s just crazy like that sometimes.

Well, now that I’m reading Exodus, I figured it’s about time I watch it.

The movie helpfully divides itself into two portions: Part I covers the events of Exodus 1-4, and Part II covers the rest. In the interests of not giving away too much of the story, I’ll only be reviewing Part I today, and I’ll review Part II once we’re finished with Exodus.

The movie opens with an announcer coming out on stage and giving a little speech. Here’s an excerpt:

The Holy Bible omits some 30 years of Moses’ life: from the time he was a three-month-old baby and was found in the bulrushes by Bithiah, the daughter of Pharaoh, and adopted into the court of Egypt, until he learned that he was a Hebrew and killed the Egyptian.

Right off the bat, the movie deviates quite markedly from the Bible’s account.

  • Moses was never adopted into the court of Egypt. Pharaoh’s daughter merely took pity on him and sent him away to be nursed by a Hebrew woman (who collected wages for the deed and, happily, happened to be Moses’ real mother).
  • Moses never had to find out that he was Hebrew because he was immediately identified as a Hebrew and this was never kept secret.

The speaker continues:

The theme of this picture is whether man ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God?

Theological clichés aside, it’s something of an oxymoron to be “free souls under God.” The speaker is merely contrasting two different rulers and declaring one beneficent and the other a dictator. He just happens to be on God’s side.

But if we want to talk about freedom, what freedom has God afforded the Hebrews? He wanted them in Egypt so he starved them out of Canaan. What did Rameses do? He put them to work in accordance with God’s wishes/plan. At no point is Rameses acting contrary to God’s intention for the Hebrews. Therefore, if men are subject to the whims of anyone it’s God.

Continue on, dear speaker:

The conquered were made to serve the conqueror.

This is said as though it were a bad thing, perhaps something against the natural/divine order. How terrible that the Egyptians enslaved the poor Hebrews! But do we forget that Joseph, a Hebrew, first made slaves of all the Egyptians (Genesis 47:21)? I hate to play the “Hebrews did it first” card, but the Hebrews totally did do it first!

charlton heston 060408In the opening scene, Moses’ mother sets the basket containing her baby adrift in the Nile. It’s a powerful scene in which she calls on God to safeguard her son as she entrusts him to the vicissitudes of the current, but it’s one that is entirely made up. In Exodus 2:3-4, we’re told that his mother placed him in the reeds, which would keep the basket in one place. Rather than follow the basket, Moses’ sister merely watched it until someone came by to find it.

We later see Rameses the soon-to-be-II (played by a very handsome Yule Brenner) and Moses, both sporting side locks. This hairstyle was, indeed, worn by Ancient Egyptian males, but only by pre-pubescent boys! It was hilarious watching these two muscular, manly men walking around with children’s hairstyles!

The Biblical account has the Hebrews making bricks. The movie seems to know this and often references bricks, mud, straw, etc. But it nevertheless shows the Hebrews trying to move large stones instead. I think it struck someone as more dramatic. Plus, an old woman screaming because she’s being crushed by a mud brick doesn’t really draw the same sympathy.

The young Moses, once charged with the construction of Seti I’s treasure city, decides that the people would work better if they were well-fed and rested. He therefore grants all the Hebrews a day of rest for every six of work. In the movie, this is called “Moses’ Day.” Is the movie really trying to credit Moses as the source of the Sabbath?

In the movie version, Moses is raised in court and is a competitor for the throne with his cousin, Rameses. This antagonism between the two makes a liar out of the Bible’s God when he later tells Moses to head back into Egypt “for all the men who were seeking your life are dead” (Exodus 4:19). But in the movie, Rameses is still very much alive and the dead Pharaoh, Seti I, dies declaring his love for Moses.

I found it interesting that in the movie version, Moses is exiled. In the biblical version, he’s afraid that Pharaoh will come after him so he flees the country. I guess someone figured that a manly hero like Hestmoses would never turn tail and run. Hollywood – improving the Bible since 1956!

When Moses finds out that he’s actually Hebrew, he seems to abandon worship of the Egyptian gods and take up God very easily. It’s like religion is nothing more than an ethnic trait, like dark skin or blue eyes… It makes it all the more interesting later on when Moses is talking to Zipporah about God. She points out a mountain where God lives and Moses responds:

If this god is God, he would live on every mountain, in every valley. He would not be the god of Israel or Ishmael alone, but of all men.

And yet, Moses already knows that this is the God of Israel, and we know he knows it because he dumped his old gods and took up this new one as soon as he found out that he was one of the Israelites. Beyond that, the statement itself is horrendously anachronistic. It reflects a decidedly Christian (and on) conception of God.

Another hilarious non-self-aware moment is when Zipporah is comparing her people to the Egyptians, moralizing about how the Egyptian women treat love as an “art” while her people see love as simply a way of life. Egyptian women wear beautiful clothes, but Zipporah’s people wear their honour. Yadda yadda. This is right after a scene where her twittering sisters, who can’t seem to think of anything to talk about other than how much they really really want some penis, perform an erotic dance in the hopes of enticing Moses into marrying them. Egyptian women paint their eyes, but Zipporah’s sisters paint their nails (as we find out in the first scene with the girls where one sister teases another about bothering to do it when there are no men about). I believe an expression about glass houses would be appropriate here.

One of the most striking things about movie was how hard they were trying to draw parallels between Moses and Jesus. This is especially funny because Matthew (as we’ll find out in a couple years when I actually get to the New Testament) puts a whole lot of effort into drawing parallels between Jesus and Moses!

So rather than Pharaoh simply killing baby boys in an effort to cull the Hebrews, he’s now doing it because of a prophecy about some sort of chosen one who would deliver the Hebrews from bondage (see Matthew 2:1-15). Later on, when Rameses is taking Moses into exile, he calls him “king” and hands him bogus royal accoutrements. This mocking parallels the soldiers who mock Jesus in Matthew 27:27-30.

I’m enjoying the movie so far. It’s long, but the pacing is good and there’s certainly quite a lot of drama. Some of the acting is horrendous, but most of it is pretty decent. It’s definitely a joy to see what they’re doing with the Exodus story and where they’ve deviated (and to speculate as to why).