HOLLYWOOD TREATMENT OF BIBLICAL SOURCE MATERIAL

Moses Moses Moses

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

Exodus 1:22. Pharoh orders that every male Israelite newborn be thrown into the Nile. The movie shows a soldier killing newborns with his sword. The movie also says Pharoh ordered the male infants killed because the astrologers saw signs in the stars that confirmed an Israelite prophecy concerning the birth of a man who would deliver them from bondage. According to the Bible, Pharoh hoped to reduce the number of Israelite men because the Israelites had become so numerous. The Bible says nothing about astrological signs or prophecy regarding Pharoh's decision.

The Bible story makes a point of mentioning that Moses was crying when he was found by Pharoh's daughter. In the movie he's laughing and cooing. In the movie Pharoh's daughter retrieves the basket herself. In the Bible, she sends a slave to get it out of the water. In the Bible, Pharoh's daughter herself realizes that the baby is one of the Israelite children ordered killed by Pharoh. In the movie it's her servant that makes the realization.

Some of these changes are made to accommodate the modern genre. Cecil B. DeMille was a Victorian man who grew up with the melodrama so popular in that day, and his editorial and directorial choices adhere to those conventions. Moses is a hero as an adult, therefore he can't be a crybaby as an infant; and even though the Bible states that he speaks "with a faltering tongue," there is no way Moses can stutter through a 3-1/2 hour Hollywood movie and still look heroic. Characters in this genre are painted in primary colors. A hero always behaves heroically, a villain always villainously. Never mind that Moses himself supposedly wrote the source material. Multidimensional characters might confuse the audience, so the divinely inspired word of God gets a rewrite.

This is probably the reason that Moses as a young adult in the movie is portrayed as not only a victorious general who deals humanely with the conquered Ethiopians, but also as a contender for the throne of Egypt. Nothing about any of that in the Bible, but the script doctors just will not stop padding the heroic resume. The Koran says that Moses was raised as a prince in the house of Pharoh, and DeMille uses that to fill in the missing years of Moses' youth.

One significant omission deals with Pharoh's edict, which was actually the second such edict issued against the male infants of Israel. The first one was thwarted by an association of Egyptian midwives, who simply don't carry out their orders to kill the male infants as they are born. There could be a lot of reasons for leaving that episode out. It could be a problem for a modern audience later on in the story when they see the harsh judgement of the Lord administered to those who help the Israelites exactly as to those who oppress them, so the movie makers simplify things for us. If you have good Egyptians as well as bad Egyptions, and the good ones all lose their firstborn at passover, that offends our modern sense of justice.

Then again, that first edict really is a narrative dead end. The Egyptian midwives don't figure into the story after that, except to mention that the Lord shows favor on them by giving them families. Ironically, one newborn son they saved would one day summon a plague that would take all their firstborn sons. That's grattitude for you.

After the birth and foundling story, the movie takes the form of a medieval romance with its customary elements of cliffhangging rescues, royal bloodlines, compounded coincidences, palace intrigue and love forbidden by social class as Moses true identity is revealed. All fabricated, but a modern audience enjoys these complications.

In the movie, Moses goes to live as a slave when he is told that he is descended from them. That's not in the Bible, but the Bible doesn't tell us how he found out he was actually a Hebrew. That would be a pivotal moment in Moses' biography, and a movie audience would feel cheated without it. There would seem to be something missing.

In the Bible, Moses kills an Egyptian who he saw beating a Hebrew. The movie magnifies the provocation by providing identities to the parties. The Egyptian is the chief architect of the city being built by the slaves. He's played by Vincent Price at his oiliest. He goes down to the mud pits to pick up slave girls and brings them back to his house for seduction. The screenwriters want there to be no doubt that the guy is a rat who is getting what he deserves. From the account in the Bible, it could be nothing more than a fistfight between a Hebrew and an Egyptian. The victim of the beating in the movie is none other than Joshua, who the audience presumably knows will be the hero of Jericho, and therefore Moses' intervention is a historical imperative designed by the screenwriters to diminish the seriousness of his crime.

In the Bible, Pharoh finds out about the killing and tries to kill Moses, who flees to Midian to avoid punishment. In the movie, the killing leads to the discovery of Moses' true identity, which in turn results in Ramses marrying Moses' Egyptian princess and being named heir to the throne instead of Moses. Moses is imprisoned briefly and then abandoned in the desert. Again we see changes in the story following the needs of the heroic epic, a hero can be cast into the desert, but he can't run away to a new town. There are lots of changes in details like this in the movie, mostly serving to make the good guys look better than they did in the original source and the bad guys look worse. That's just the way melodrama works.

There are some details of the story in Midian that the movie garbles. There are seven daughters watering their flock by a well. In the movie their father is Jethro, the Sheik of Midian. In the Bible, their father is a priest, who offers one of his daughters to Moses as a wife.

This differs from the version in the Bible, but by raising the rank of the father, the writers can establish a recurring motif. This is the second time Moses has been abandoned, found by women, near water, and brought into a high-status gentile household. Recurring motif. It's just something writers like to do, so they take liberties.

Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush is severely edited. Truncated is the part where God outlines a passive-aggressive plan to make a demand that he knows Pharoh will reject, thus provoking plagues and wonders from the Lord. The last verse in chapter three contains instructions as to how the Israelites are to plunder their Egyptian neighbors as they leave the country. These are passages that might cause ambivalence about the protagonists, like watching the liberated Iraquis on a looting spree. On the one hand you're happy for them, on the other hand looting ain't nice. So it's in the Bible but not in the movie.

Then God teaches Moses some tricks to convince people that he has spoken with God. First comes the staff-into-serpent trick. Then comes a trick where Moses makes his hand leprous and then heals it. Then there's a water-into-blood trick. Then Moses begs God to send somebody else. God gets angry, but agrees to send Aaron along with Moses. None of that is in the movie.

Exodus 4:18-29 is left out, and it's easy to see why. It's one of those bizarre and hard-to-explain incidents that preachers never preach because it's just so darned odd. The Lord commands Moses to go to Egypt, but when Moses and his family stop for the night at a lodging place, the Lord tries to kill Moses. His wife wards off the attack by cutting her son's foreskin with a flint knife and smearing some of the blood on Moses' feet.

If you ever take on the project of reading the Bible for yourself, the first thing you'll realize is that every preacher you ever had has been skipping over a lot. Four fifths of the Bible never gets taught because it's stuff like this. If you don't look for yourself, you're going to miss it. No preacher is going to build a sermon around a text like that. It makes God look bad. In fairness to Hollywood, your local preacher does as much editing and for many of the same reasons.

The movie also omits the next two incidents from the Bible. In the first, God speaks to Aaron and tells him to go meet Moses in the desert and Moses explains to him about God's plan and the miraculous signs. In the second, Moses and Aaron gather the Elders together and show them the signs and convince them that they have been in contact with God. Those two incidents are not really necessary to drive the plot, especially since the screenwriter already omitted mention of the miraculous signs and the inclusion of Aaron and the instructions for the meeting with the elders in the burning bush scene.

DeMille goes straight from the burning bush to Pharoh's throne room, and there Moses delivers his message not quite as in the Bible. In the movie he says "Let my people go." It's a demand for liberation. In the Exodus chapter 5 Moses says, "Let my people go so that they may hold a festival to (the Lord) in the desert." That's very different, isn't it? Then in verse 3, he makes clear he's asking for three days so the People can make sacrifices to the Lord. They fear they may be stricken with plagues if they don't.

In the Bible, Moses says and Pharoh understands that Moses is asking for a three day weekend, not liberation. It's in the book as plain as day, but no preacher and no movie maker is going to tell you that. You have to read it for yourself. The people you depend on to inform you have been misinforming you, and it's been going on for a very long time.

Back in chapter 4 verse 23, God instructs Moses to say to say "Let (the Israelites) go so that they might worship me." But two verses earlier it says that the Lord is rigging the game. Apparently Jehova has an arsenal of psi-ops tools and he can cause fear and panic, as mentioned in Exodus 23:27, to become "favorably disposed" as in Exodus 3:21 and to "harden the heart" as as happens here. So Jehovah has rigged the game using whatever Jedi mind trick to make Pharoh refuse. Apparently he has a phaser in his pocket that can make an interview go badly.

Pharoh gives his "bricks without straw" response. Then Moses takes another meeting with the Lord, at which point the Lord says this was his plan all along and we're busting the whole nation out for good, not just for spring break. That's in the Bible, not in the movie. I guess the screenwriter felt it was unnecessarily complicated to explain the changes in tactics and why the Lord told Moses some things and not others, and as long as God is controlling both ends of the conversation, and if he can make people "favorably disposed," why doesn't he just have Moses ask for liberation and then have Pharoh say yes?

The answer to that quesion is stated in Exodus 10:1. Jehovah wanted to make an impression, and this was his way of demonstrating his powers to the world, by showing he could dictate policy to Egypt, the most powerful nation in the Medeterranean world.

This is why the church resisted English translations of the Bible for hundreds of years. They were afraid that civilians like me would come up with uncomfortable questions like that. The movie dodges the question. Moses asks for liberation. Pharoh says no. Moses summons the plagues.

The first two and a half hours of the movie are based on very little Biblical material. Now we get to the plagues, the special effects part of the show, and the Bible gives us loads of colorful, dramatic descriptive detail of the plagues. Here the movie makers get economical on us. There are ten plagues, and we see two--hail and the firstborn. The rest are packaged into a half-minute discussion between Pharoh and his advisers in which Pharoh explains them away as natural occurrences.

I have to think DeMille did us a favor by consolidating the first five plagues into a brief conversation and letting Moses combine hail, darkness and locusts into one big serial plague. The audience would get restless seeing basically the same action repeated ten times with only minimal variation. It'd be like watching Teletubbies. Moses confronts Pharoh. Pharoh says no. Moses brings a plague. Pharoh says yes. Moses lifts the plague. Pharoh renegs. Moses confronts Pharoh. Ten times.

So the director did the right thing from a movie point of view, but what we miss are the tiny variations in the points where Pharoh says he will allow Moses to go and make sacrifices to his God. It's a real boardroom headgame. He's testing Moses' resolve and probing to find the limits of whatever magic Moses controls. At one point he offers to let Moses and a group of elders go into the desert and make sacrifices to the Lord on behalf of the people. During another plague, Pharoh says only the men can go out into the desert to make sacrifices to God. The women and children and flocks have to stay in Egypt. During another plague he says he will allow them to make sacrifices in Egypt, but he won't allow them to go to the desert. They can have freedom of religion, but they can't secede, which is a pretty modern approach for a bronze age despot.

The movie shows us the plague of hail falling from a clear blue sky and burning like fire on the ground. The NIV Bible describes a standard, if severe, hailstorm with lightning and thunder.

In the plague of the firstborn, there are some points where the movie and the Bible differ. Exodus 11:5 specifies every firstborn son of Egypt, but in the movie that becomes firstborn child, so females are subject to the curse.

Way back in the Bible, before the very first meeting between Moses and Pharoh, in Exodus 4:22-23, God makes clear that his ultimate goal is to kill Pharoh's firstborn son. All the stuff in between, all the miracles and confrontations and plagues are escalations protracted toward that end. Apparently that meaning expands to Jehovah killing all the firstborn sons of Egypt because that's what eventually happens.

It's kind of like the musical Oklahoma!, which can be interpreted as a passive-aggressive plot by Curly to provoke Judd Fry so that he can be killed in self defense. Did you ever think you'd hear anybody compare The Ten Commandments to Oklahoma!

Hollywood is not going to let us leave the theatre thinking that this whole preventable mess is a nasty plot by God to create misery and horror for the purpose of demonstrating shock and awe to the Medeterranean powers. So what they do is they make up a scene where Moses says, "If there is one more plague on Egypt, it is by your word that God will bring it." In anger, Pharoh, makes plans to kill the firstborn sons of Israel, just as his grandfather did at the beginning of the movie. That gets turned against the Egyptians due to the "I'm rubber, you're glue" principle of theatrical irony. The adjustment keeps God and Moses from looking bad and it shifts the blame to Pharoh, but it's not in the Bible. It's part of the big Biblical McDLT where the good side stays good and the bad side stays bad.

In the movie, as the Israelites are packin' up to leave, here comes a treasure wagon loaded up with gold and silver and cloth. In the last meeting with Moses, Pharoh said, "...Go..., and take whatever spoils from Egypt you will."

In the Bible, the source of that gold and silver is explained in Exodus 12:35/37. "The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. the Lord had made the Egyptials favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians." This was the day after God had killed all their firstborn. This also was part of the original plan outlined by God at the burning bush in Exodus 3:21-22.

This is the kind of thing that bothers a modern churchgoing audience in a lawful democracy, so it gets a spackling and a coat of paint. In modern terms, the incident is spun.

Ramses masses his army and pins the Israelites against the Red Sea. In the movie, the Israelites are depicted as helpless, peaceful and unarmed. The Bible tells a different story. Exodus 13:18 says, "...The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle." And Exodus 12:37 states, "...There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children." In Exodus 14:7, Pharoh pursues with "...six hundred of his best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt." Egyptian horsemen and troops are also mentioned. Surely a formidable force, but against six hundred thousand men armed for battle, hardly the mismatch depicted in the movie.

In Exodus chapter 18, Jethro comes to Moses and advises him to codify a set of laws so the Israelites won't be pestering him over every little internal conflict and decision. The movie totally omits this. The party line is that the law comes from God through Moses. They don't want you thinking the Jewish law was Jethro's idea. Not only is Jethro not God, he's not even Jewish. The incident implies that the law is written by Moses, who then gives the credit to the Lord as a way of appropriating divine authority. DeMille doesn't want us drawing that conclusion, so he skips chapter 18.

In the Bible, while Moses is on the mountain top getting the law it is his brother Aaron who gathers gold and has the golden calf made. In the movie, that's turned on it's head. Aaron argues against the move, and the golden calf is commissioned by an invented character, Dathan, played by Edward G. Robinson. The movie makers engage in a little revisionist history, protecting the reputations of the historical players.

In the movie, Moses comes down from the mountain top with the law to find that the people have turned away from God and are worshipping the golden calf. He calls for those who are for God to come to him. The good Hebrews rush to him, and the bad ones are left by the idol. Moses hurls the tablets down the hillside, striking the calf in an impressive pyrotechic display. Then the earth splits open and swallows the bad, idol-worshipping people.

The actual Bible tells a different story in Exodus 32:27-28. Moses calls for everybody who is for God to come to his side. The Levites, his own tribe, rush to his side. He instructs them to put on swords and go out among the Hebrews and kill a bunch of them. They kill three thousand.

The Bible version shows Moses enforcing loyalty like a South American drug lord. It's very hard for a modern audience to accept, so not only is the punishment attributed to an act of God, but the behavior of the idolators is greatly exaggerated so you'll think they deserve harsh punishment. The Bible says they engage in eating, drinking, singing, dancing and revelry. The movie throws in violence, lust, debauchery, human sacrifice, all manner of wantonness and the kitchen sink. The Bible describes it as a company picnic. The movie describes it as an orgy. So the moviemakers greatly exaggerate the sin and modify the mode of punishment. As if the massacre ordered by Moses weren't enough, in Exodus 32:35 God hits them with a plague as punishment for the incident. It's no wonder that at several points the people complain that they were better off under Pharoh.

There's more, but surely I've made my point by now. Director DeMille had his reasons for making those changes. He had to keep you cheering the hero and hissing the villain. He put that agenda above the material. If you want to see what happens when a director does the opposite, check out the Turner version of Gettysburg.

Hollywood doesn't feel obligated to present material accurately. That's not their job, and they'll tell you that. They use material to tell the story they want told, even if that means misrepresenting the source material. So enjoy the movies and the TV shows, but remember they're deciding what you are seeing and what you're not seeing.

RTJ-1/26/2008

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