Exodus: Gods and Kings

Christian Movie Review

Writer Kevin Ott At Rocking Gods House

[Note: after you read my review for “Exodus” below, if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy or my podcast Aslan’s Paw. Both seek to crack open the surprising treasures of Christian belief — the things that Western society has forgotten, ignored, or never encountered — with the help of logic, literature, film, music, and one very unsafe Lion.]

In the Bible, when Moses encounters God for the first time, Moses removes his sandals before he dares tread on the ground where God has appeared. The Presence of God is depicted as something holy, worthy of the utmost respect, frightening, but also sublime. Moses senses the holiness and dares not make a wrong move; he removes his sandals.

In Ridley Scott’s film, when the script isn’t portraying God as quasi-villainous or throwing little darts of critical questions and subtext at Heaven, it has Moses lecturing God and talking down to Him — literally. God, portrayed as a boy, looks small, sneering, and conniving in Moses’ oft-critical presence. The boy has a British accent, he comes off as calloused, and he’s often shouting orders at Moses. The Great I Am sounds more like one of those angry British youths who sang in that Pink Floyd song, “Another Brick In The Wall.” I was expecting God to break out in song at any moment with his thick English accent: “We don’t need no education…”

Exodus Gods and Kings Christian Movie Review At Rocking Gods HouseNo one is taking off any sandals for God in this version of the Exodus, in other words.

Now, I have a confession to make. In July, I speculated with sunny optimism how, despite his atheistic (now agnostic) beliefs, Ridley Scott would make a film that would capture the hearts of people of faith. I was wrong, unfortunately, and this saddens me. I’m such a huge fan of Scott’s directing style and Bale’s acting that when I heard the two were collaborating on the Exodus story, I jumped for joy.

Not so much now. Not even close.

This is a very in-depth article about the film, but before I dive into everything, let’s cover any parental guidance issues.

And also, since people have been asking, here are the consummation vows (can’t find the wedding vows anywhere) that Moses and Zipporah recite in the film:

What makes you happy? You do. Whats the most important thing in your life? You are. Where would you rather be? No where. When will you leave me? Never. Proceed!

Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance

Sexual Content/Nudity: A newly married couple kiss in their private quarters. Nothing else happens (there’s a fade out before the couple goes any further). An Egyptian woman wears revealing clothing.

Violence/Gore: The film was (I’m fairly certain) downgraded from R to PG-13. I went in thinking it was R because I’m pretty sure that’s how it was first listed on IMDB months ago, and I was expecting some graphic violence like Ridley Scott has done in his previous films. But all of the action scenes cut away from gory wounds or only showed the general idea of how a soldier died without splattering the screen with detailed shots. The most violent scene was when crocodiles devour a boat of fishermen, and we see the crocs chomping down on their legs and pulling them in. All of the plagues are fairly gross (toads, flies, locust, etc.). We also see families — men, women, and children — getting hanged at the gallows, and their bodies flail and jerk (though from a distance). None of the violence is in detail, but it’s intense enough to warrant a PG-13.

Language: None.

Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: None, though I suppose the Pharaoh drinks wine in a few scenes.

Frightening/Intense/Emotionally Painful Content: The scene of the death angel drawing the life out of children — all the first born of Egypt — might be too emotionally intense for some people. It’s portrayed almost like Sudden Infant Death syndrome, so any parents sensitive to that will be strongly affected — though the film clearly depicts a supernatural force behind it. Also, the hanging of Hebrew families together — the husband, wife, and child side-by-side — was emotionally intense and very sad to watch.

(Review continues below)

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“The film feels bitter, resentful, gloomy, and sometimes critical of God. There’s no tenderness and rapturous joy in God’s relationship with, well, anybody. God’s a spiteful little boy. He’s not the Good Shepherd who leads the Hebrews by the hand as we see in the Biblical account, where He personally escorts them through the desert with his protective pillar of cloud by day and His comforting pillar of fire by night. In this film we meet a very different God.”

Entertainment Value and Film Craft

Exodus Gods and Kings Christian Movie Review At Rocking Gods HouseSure, the actors are all superb, the special effects are amazing, and the way the film brings ancient Egypt to life
on the big screen is breathtaking. But the film was oddly edited. It felt mashed up. I then find out that the film was originally four hours long! Well, no wonder. The studio made Scott bludgeon the thing to death to shrink it down to two-and-a-half hours. A reader named Dara made this comment on my previous Exodus article with some interesting points about the editing (and with an awesome suggestion for an alternative title):

I think they should change the name to Edit Us: Gods and Kings. Some of the scenes are not edited together well. I think they wanted to cram everything into two and a half hours, so they put a patchwork of scenes together, in parts of the film. In some instances it worked and others it didn’t. The film did suffer from a lack of character development, in places. I am hoping they put the the whole 4 hours on DVD.

Dara also wrote a great review of the film in an additional comment that covered more of the entertainment craft end of things.

God On Trial: A Look at the Film’s Portrait of God (Contains Major Spoilers)

This film took extensive license with the Biblical text — much more so than I had expected. Creative license doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers others. I understand why art sometimes colors outside the lines, and sometimes it can lead to a meaningful contemplation of the subject material. But in Biblical material, it‘s a problem for me when the God of the Bible is misrepresented. This film, at subtle moments that come and go quickly on-screen, criticizes the God of the Bible by the way it depicts Moses’ interactions with God. I’m not opposed to asking hard theological questions and exploring those with intellectual honesty, but in this case the film doesn’t give God a fair hearing, and it subverts the Biblical account to achieve certain dramatic effects. It feels, in a subtle way, more like a quiet character assassination. For example, Moses accuses God of being calloused and uncaring because he had to leave his family behind to go to Egypt. In the Bible, nothing of the sort ever happens: Moses brought his family with him to Egypt. Moses never left his family behind. In the film, Moses lectures God and says something along the lines of, “The Hebrews are suffering as much as the Egyptians from your plagues. How is it a punishment for the Egyptians if both are suffering?” But in the Bible, God supernaturally directed the impact of the plagues away from the land of Goshen, where all of the Hebrew slaves were kept, and He sheltered the Hebrews. Even when He cast the whole land into darkness, it states “but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings” (Ex 10:23, NKJV). In the film, Pharaoh criticizes God in front of Moses (who, tellingly, says nothing to defend God), and says, “What kind of fanatic serves a God who kills children” — referring to God’s killing of all of Egypt’s first born. Although that does certainly happen in the Biblical account, God declares it a just retribution for what the Egyptians did to the Hebrews decades earlier when the Pharaoh ordered all male Hebrew babies be drowned in the Nile.

Biblical Inaccuracies (Contains Major Spoilers)

Here’s a breakdown of some of those most notable departures from the Biblical account (10 points in all): 1. The Bible’s version: Nothing about Moses’ upbringing is mentioned, other than him being adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. There is no mention of him having any brotherly bond with any of the other members of Pharaoh’s family. Nor does it mention Moses having any special position in the government. For all we know, the royal family disliked him or persecuted him because he was not blood related. None of the Pharaohs are named. The film’s version: Moses grows up as a close friend of his half-brother Ramses who is next in line to Pharaoh. Moses also has an affectionate bond with the Pharaoh. Moses has a high military ranking, and he even advises the Pharaoh. In true “Gladiator” style, the Pharaoh wishes that Moses would be the next Pharaoh and not his son Ramses. This obvious preference makes Ramses insecure. 2. When Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, Moses kills the Egyptian. The Pharaoh finds out and tries to kill Moses immediately. The film’s version: Moses is mistaken for a Hebrew slave by an Egyptian guard. The guard attacks Moses, and Moses angrily kills the guard in response. When Ramses finds out, he tries to defend Moses and do what he can to keep Moses in Egypt. But then Ramses finds out that Moses is a Hebrew. Moses is banished, though Ramses doesn’t try to kill him (at least at that point in the story) because of the bond they share. 3. Moses flees into the desert, meets Zipporah after saving her from bullying shepherds, marries her, has sons, and becomes a shepherd himself. The film’s version: They actually portray this exactly as the Bible describes — though he only has one son in the film. 4. After living as a shepherd for 40 years, Moses encounters God at the burning bush and removes his sandals in great reverence. God tells Moses to go to Egypt and enter Pharaoh’s court to speak with him and demand he let the Hebrews go free. God turns Moses’ staff into a snake and turns his hand leprous (temporarily) to prove to Moses that He has the power to help Moses succeed. The film’s version: Moses never physically encounters God. He has a fever dream after getting injured in a rock slide. In the hallucinatory vision, he sees a burning bush, and then speaks with God who appears in the form of a boy. God never shows Moses any signs such as the changing of the staff to a snake. He simply tells Moses that He needs “a general” to go and free the Hebrews. 5. After the burning bush encounter, Moses takes his wife and sons and travels to Egypt to obey God’s directions. The film’s version: Moses never takes his family with him, and this causes him great pain. He thinks he has to go alone, and he later accuses God of being calloused and cruel because of this, and God says in his annoyed British boy accent, “I never told you to leave your family behind.” Moses looks at God with contempt, as if thinking, “Well, why didn’t you SAY something when you saw me leaving without my family!” 6. Moses arrives in Egypt with his family and meets with the Hebrews and convinces them that God has sent him. Moses convinces them by showing them the miraculous sign of his staff turning into a snake and the leprous hand. The Hebrew people are amazed, and they believe Moses that God really did send him. The film’s version: Moses goes to Egypt alone, meets secretly with the Hebrew elders, brings them weapons, starts training them in war, and begins to plan a military strategy. It’s like Braveheart or Ben Hur. He then sneaks into Pharaoh’s palace, threatens Ramses with a sword to let the Hebrews go. Ramses refuses. 7. After meeting with Hebrew elders, Moses and his brother Aaron go to Pharaoh’s palace openly. It is not the same Pharaoh as before. While Moses spent 40 years as a shepherd, all of the people in power who knew Moses personally had died. No one recognizes Moses when he returns. Moses never organizes any kind of Hebrew army nor does he do anything other than speak to Pharaoh and show the Pharaoh miraculous signs. The plagues begin almost right away when Moses arrives in Egypt, and in between each plague Moses and Aaron go and explain to Pharaoh what is happening and give him a chance to repent before the next plague comes. The film’s v
ersion: Ramses is ruling Egypt when Moses arrives, and he is beginning to execute Hebrew slaves. Moses, in response, mobilizes the army of slaves he has trained and even does acts of “terrorism” by setting on fire various civilian structures in Egypt.
All of this takes up much of the film’s first half. God shows up and lectures Moses for not achieving results “fast enough,” and then that’s when God decides to start sending the plagues. They come in rapid succession, and Ridley Scott uses natural explanations to show that each plague (except for the last couple plagues) could have happened without any supernatural cause. Moses only goes to speak with Pharaoh once more, just before the final plague of the death angel.
8. After the plagues, when the Hebrews finally leave Egypt, God travels with them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead them and protect them so that they don’t get lost or hurt. The Hebrews never get lost, and this is portrayed as if God is shepherding His people with great care and attention and providing a personal escort. The film’s version: There is no pillar of cloud by day or fire by night that leads the Hebrews. It’s just Moses walking in front of them deciding where to go. At one point, Moses gets lost in the mountains as he leads his people out of Egypt, and he basically leads them onto rocky crags on accident. He kneels and begs God to appear and tell him where to go, but God ignores Moses. Moses is left to deal with it alone, and he eventually leads them down the other side of the mountain to the Red Sea. 9. God parts the Red Sea using a supernatural manipulation of wind after He commands Moses to stretch his staff over the sea, and He essentially cuts a path through it. The text says that the Hebrews walked through the middle of the Red Sea, with walls of water on either side of them. The film Prince of Egypt depicted this with astonishing beauty and artfulness — particularly when the Hebrews walking by the walls of water see marine life still swimming in the water as if they were walking by a giant aquarium. By comparison, the Red Sea parting in Exodus is lifeless and grim — though the “wave” that finally comes is impressive. The film’s version: A tsunami in the Red Sea — apparently caused by a meteor or an earthquake of some kind — causes the water to recede just long enough for the Hebrews to walk across the Red Sea. There are no walls of water on either side — just open, wet ground. 10. After the Red Sea miracle, Israel camps at the base of a mountain as Moses ascends the mountain. God supernaturally writes the Law using “the finger of God” onto stone tablets. The film’s version. Moses sits in a cave and chisels the Laws into the tablets himself. God — i.e. the little English boy who seems more like a schizophrenic delusion in Moses’ mind — has apparently told Moses what to write on the tablets, but Moses creates the tablets himself. The film ends by fast-forwarding to when Moses is an old man. This scene exposes some serious lack of research on the filmmakers’ part. The film shows the Hebrews hauling the Ark of the Covenant across the desert in a wagon on wheels. By this time, the Hebrews had built their elaborate tabernacle system according to God’s detailed instructions, and the Ark was always carried on poles that rested on the shoulders of consecrated priests. It was forbidden for them to carry the Ark in any other way — certainly not in the back of a wagon. This wasn’t some small, easily overlooked detail either. It becomes a central issue in the Old Testament, and it carries some significant symbolism that I won’t get into in this review.

10 Things I Liked About the Movie

1. The relationship between Moses and his wife Zipporah is genuinely moving and perhaps the most affecting relationship in the film. Their wedding vows were tear-inducing, as were the consummation vows, which were the following words:

What makes you happy? You do. Whats the most important thing in your life? You are. Where would you rather be? No where. When will you leave me? Never. Proceed!

2. The film does, in a few scenes, capture the stormy relationship that Moses had with God at times, which was certainly in the Biblical text — though Moses in the Bible was far more respectful and fearful of God. 3. Ben Kingsley is wonderful in this movie as Nun. He only has a few scenes, but in every one he lifts the entire atmosphere of the film to something more affecting and real. 4. The sets and details given to ancient Egypt are breathtaking to behold. It really gives the mind a larger-than-life, vivid experience of what the ancient world — from a visual standpoint — was like. 5. Ridley Scott provides the imagination with stunning visuals of what these Biblical plagues could have looked like. 6. Some of the warfare scenes were jaw-dropping — especially when the Egyptian armies did their battle charges combined with their archer attacks. Wow! 7. Some of the desert panorama shots were absolutely stunning and beautiful to behold. 8. The depiction of the Pharaoh’s pride really matches the Bible. We see a wildly hypocritical ruler: one moment he is a doting father who checks on his baby son at night to make sure he’s still breathing well, and the next moment he’s ordering his soldiers to murder all the Hebrew babies in the land. He worships himself as God and refuses to acknowledge any higher authority, and his stubborn pride drives him to a form of madness. But in the end God forcibly humbles the unrepentant Pharaoh and exposes the fallacy of his pride. The movie got that mindset of Pharaoh spot-on. 9. Despite the things I mentioned above, there are some cool moments in the parting of the Red Sea. I especially liked how Moses, out of despair, throws his Egyptian sword into the Red Sea when he realizes he has accidentally led the people into a trap. The tossing of the sword from his princely life is symbolic of him shedding some of his baggage, self-reliance, and pride. 10. The film does look at the tendencies of stubbornness and self-reliance in Moses in a way that matches the tone of some of the issues that Moses had in the Bible. When the Red Sea recedes during the night, Moses wakes up and sees his sword, now visible on the sea floor. It’s a poetic, powerful moment as he realizes that he has not failed and God has not abandoned them as he thought the night before when he tossed the sword into the sea. The reappearance of the sword symbolizes the rebirth of his hope and faith in God. This was a powerful moment, and it will linger in my memory as a highlight from the film.

Should Christians Really Be So Insistent About the Biblical Accuracy of Films? (And the Real Reason Why We Should)

This section is in response to many people I’ve met — both Christians and non-Christians alike — who attack people of faith for being concerned about a film’s Biblical accuracy. I realize that sometimes we Christians go about it in a less-than-graceful way or in a way that lacks nuanced analysis, but there is an element to the whole thing that so many people miss. Consider the following: if someone took your favorite biography in the world about your favorite person and adapted it into a film, but then:

1. subverted the intent of the biography

2. changed some of the significant facts about that person and their life

3. used the biography to advance a worldview that would be a slap in the face to the person in the biography

Wouldn’t that bother you? In a worst-case scenario, that’s what films that butcher the Bible do when they change the content and subvert it to communicate a different intent that exists in the text. I’m not saying that Exodus: Gods and Kings falls into this worst-case scen
ario category, but its portrayal of God’s relationship with Moses was deeply disappointing to me. Of course, there’s no law that says artists can’t do that. Artists can say whatever they want in our country; we’re blessed with free speech. But if a major film studio is going to invest hundreds of millions of dollars, and then market it to the faith-based crowd, they should understand the value of Biblical accuracy. But it’s far more personal than that for a Christian. It’s not about going down a long list of check marks, with the cold, lifeless spirit of austere legalism, and looking for anything in a film that — SHOCK, is not exactly matching the text! Ask any passionate Christian, and they will tell you that the most important treasure in their life is their relationship with God. And they don’t mean that in some figurative, abstract way. They mean it literally:

1. The God of the Bible not only exists, He is intimately aware of us as individuals and wants to interact with us on a personal level. (And many people of faith, including myself, can tell you stories of this interaction — some of which even involves miracles and hard-to-explain events — that they have witnessed.)

2. He has paid the price Himself on the Cross to heal the divorce that humanity initiated when we broke covenant with Him in the beginning.

3. However, He respects our free will and will not force Himself into our lives if we want nothing to do with Him.

In other words, the God of the Bible — the One you find when you the entire Bible, not just the bits and pieces that people pull out of context — has done something shocking. He has initiated a personal relationship with humanity that He pursues with zeal. Not only that, but He, through the redeeming power of Jesus’ sacrifice, wants to extend that relationship beyond this temporary, fallen world and continue it into eternity with anyone who believes these things and who freely chooses them (He will not force anyone into an eternal relationship with Him against their free will). The account of Exodus is one of the major moments in the Bible where God initiates a relationship with people — a whole nation, in fact — on earth. In addition, Exodus has overwhelming symbolism in it. For example, there’s the lamb’s blood on the door posts that saved the Hebrews from God’s judgment during the last plague against Egypt. That points to Jesus, the Lamb of God, whose blood He shed to save us from the judgment of God and to tear away the veil of separation between us and God. In other words, the Exodus is about the thing most precious to a person of faith: their personal relationship with God. So when a filmmaker comes along — someone who doesn’t identify with or relate to the experiences above — and just casually subverts, changes, or even slanders the Bible and its biography about God, it’s a little like watching someone make a movie about a member of your family or your best friend that insults and disrespects that person. In that situation, we would feel a strong urge to stick up for our family member or friend and say, “No, that person is not like that at all. This movie is misrepresenting that person.” I mention all this in hopes that readers would have more empathy and less derision when they see Christians rush to examine the Biblical accuracy of a film.

Conclusion: The Good Shepherd Has Gone Missing

Moses’ attitude toward God borders on contempt in some scenes. In the first half of the movie, he doesn’t believe in omens or the Egyptian gods or the Hebrew god or any god — he’s essentially an atheist. And throughout the entire film, he throws out random criticisms that sound like things I’ve heard from angry atheistic professors at my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. But in the end, God and Moses reconcile and come to terms with each other — and, don’t get me wrong, the Bible does show a stormy relationship between God and Moses — but this film goes about all of it with an angry tone and an attitude that eyes God with resentment. And that really sums up the general atmosphere of the film. Although, to be fair, there were definitely things I loved about the movie — and it was certainly an entertaining, powerful film — but its general atmosphere feels bitter, resentful, gloomy, and sometimes critical of God. There’s no tenderness and rapturous joy in God’s relationship with, well, anybody. God’s a spiteful little boy. He’s not the Good Shepherd who leads the Hebrews by the hand as we see in the Biblical account, where He personally escorts them through the desert with his protective pillar of cloud by day and comforting pillar of fire by night. No, in this film we meet a very different God, and this greatly disappointed me. The film felt like a missed opportunity.

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