Exodus's Moral Challenge for Jews

Despite its flaws, the film still manages to be provocative by questioning whether there should be a "chosen people."

Let's just get this out of the way: Moses was not a badass, at least not in the traditional sense of badassery. In the Bible, he spoke with a stammer, constantly doubted himself, and had a penchant for petulance. It is absurd for Christian Bale, with his perfect pectorals and haughty swagger and gentile face, to play the lead in Ridley Scott's new feature film, Exodus: God and Kings, a retelling of the Jews' liberation from slavery in Egypt.

The movie has many absurdities, as my colleague Chris Orr described in his review. Some characters speak with a British lilt, while others use vaguely Central European/Middle Eastern/stock Orientalist accents, seemingly at random. As many critics have pointed out, almost all of the movie's protagonists are white, even though the story takes place in the Middle East and North Africa (Scott attributes this to the financial pressure to cast big-name actors).

But in spite of itself, perhaps even unintentionally, Exodus manages to be provocative. Every year, Jews revisit the story of the exodus at Passover, remembering how the Hebrews were freed from slavery in Egypt. Throughout history, this narrative has been a foundational part of Jewish identity. But ever so slightly, Scott—who is an atheist—reframes this narrative, highlighting the morally troubling quality of any people being a "chosen people."

The first half of the movie follows the formula of a typical Hollywood blockbuster, with an impressive and basically pointless battle scene that sets up the main plot line. The year Moses was born, Egypt's pharaoh ordered the death of all Jewish baby boys, reacting to a seer's prediction that a new leader of the Hebrews would be born. Fearing for his life, Moses's parents stuck him in a basket and sent him down the Nile, where he was discovered by Bithia, one of the pharaoh's daughters. She raised him as a prince of Egypt alongside Ramses, the pharaoh's son and heir.

A couple decades later, the pharaoh's seer makes another prediction, that a new, great leader will be saved in battle. Shortly thereafter, Moses saves Ramses from death. Even though this bodes well for Ramses, he is suspicious of Moses's motives.

Soon, the pharaoh dies and Ramses takes the throne; Moses becomes his adviser. On a routine visit to one of Egypt's quarries—which are run on the labor of Jewish slaves—he meets the elders of the Hebrews, who eventually reveal his Jewish heritage. A pair of spies overhear this exchange and reveal it to one of the pharaoh's bureaucrats, who reveals it to Ramses. In what appears to be a rage, he banishes Moses to the desert. (This is not how this all went down in the Bible. In the book of Exodus, Moses killed an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave and buried the body. When his actions were discovered, "Moses became frightened and ... fled from before Pharaoh." See? Not a badass.)

This is a revealing moment in the movie's plot: Although he feels he has to punish Moses, Ramses hides a sword in Moses's pack before he's sent out into the desert so that he can defend himself. Throughout the movie, Ramses proves himself a less-than-perfect ruler for a number of reasons: He's incompetent, he's vain, he makes abominable chewing noises. But cruel, he is not. Evil, he is not. He's a petty failure, one who has the misfortune of helming an empire at the exact moment in history when God decides to issue a smackdown on the Egyptian people.

Ah, yes, God. In another of the movie's absurdities, God is played by an exceptionally creepy small child, one whose skin tone is disturbingly gray and who dresses like a Buddhist monk. He appears occasionally to encourage and taunt Moses, and, eventually, to bring down a series of plagues on the ancient city of Memphis. As the God of the Bible says in the book of Exodus, "I heard the moans of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians are holding in bondage, and I remembered my covenant."

Despite his slightly bizarre casting choice, Scott deserves credit for making God a serious character in his retelling of the book of Exodus. God is all-powerful, and vengeful, just as he is in the Bible. "For now, you can watch," child-God says to Moses in Exodus before the plagues begin. "Now, you will see what I will do to Pharaoh," God says to Moses in the Bible.

And what a thing to behold. In terms of cinematography, most of Exodus is generically impressive: panoramas of ancient Egypt, fast-paced scenes of battle violence, shots of the pharaoh standing regally on the steps of his giant palace. But the plagues—they are visually distinctive, and striking, and unsettling. We see terrifying crocodile-like creatures, devouring men in two or three bites; the water of the Nile, turning burgundy with blood; and thousands of locusts, swarming people's faces and hands and food and homes. Frogs jump into people's beds and boils cover their faces; cattle die en masse and hail rains down with fury. Darkness falls, and shortly after, the final plague arrives: the death of every Egyptian's firstborn son.

This is affecting. Whenever children are shown dying in movies, it's meant to be sad; when several dozen children are shown dying, it's devastating. The Egyptians were theoretically culpable for the lives they led at the cost of Hebrew slave labor, yes. But to slaughter innocents because of the actions of their leaders—and because their race was not chosen to be part of an ancient covenant—seems appallingly cruel.

Then again, this idea, that whole peoples should be punished for their sins, comes up repeatedly in the Bible. Examples include Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that were destroyed by God, and Nineveh, which ultimately was not. The consequences of sin in ancient times were total and intense; God wiped out quite a few civilizations in the course of crafting early humanity.

It is this side of God—his cruelty, his capriciousness—that Scott emphasizes with his cinematographic choices. What's interesting about Scott’s portrayal of the exodus is the grief he chooses to focus on. Toward the beginning of the film, there are a few shots of Jews toiling in slavery, building statues in honor of the pharaoh and getting beaten by their masters. But there aren't many. Compared to the grief of the Egyptians—who are shown desperately trying to revive their dead livestock and weeping with the bodies of their sons in their hands—the hardship of the Hebrews seems generic, perfunctory, a necessary plot point without much poignance.

This sets up a difficult moral question: Is the freedom of the Hebrews worth more than the lives of Egyptians? God, after all, did not merely liberate the Jews in the spirit of freeing the oppressed; he wiped out Egyptians, per the Bible and per Exodus, because the nation they’d enslaved happened to be his anointed one. Is one people, even the people God has chosen, worth more than another?

This is an impossible question to answer. It depends upon a theory of justice that assigns blame for the system to the individuals that inhabit it. It depends upon the idea that, by designation of God, certain humans can be more holy, or historically worthy, than others; that the accident of birth is enough to determine which side of God's wrath you deserve to be on. This, perhaps, is why "chosenness" is debated, even within the Jewish community; Reconstructionist Jews, for example, reject this idea.

What's interesting about Scott's portrayal of the exodus is the grief he chooses to focus on.

The story of the exodus happened in a different period of human history, when God supposedly walked the earth and vast seas parted and plagues swept the land upon divine command. Even in this context, God's genocidal favoritism is disturbing, which the movie highlights

Today, it seems inexcusable. Not everyone in the world believes all individuals are equal, that all peoples deserve basic human rights, but to a certain extent, the global community has claimed these as its fundamental values. It's no coincidence that the United Nations wrote its Universal Declaration of Human Rights directly following the Holocaust, history's greatest massacre of Jews and other ethnic groups who were deemed genetically inferior by the Nazis.

And yet, most Jews remember the exodus, this story of being championed as God's chosen people, as an essential part of their identity. We were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. This narrative structure has been reinforced over and over again throughout the history of Judaism, from the Inquisition to Europe's pogroms to the founding of Israel. The exodus is part of how we Jews make sense of our tragic history. At Passover, we dip our pinky fingers into a glass of wine to symbolize each of the 10 plagues, a brief moment in the seder which symbolizes the price of freedom; the rest is mostly focused on the generosity of God, and celebration. We eat matzo to remember how quickly our people fled from their homes. We sing "Dayenu," meaning "enough"—a song full of lines like: It would have been enough "if God had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against our oppressors."

We go through the motions of these rituals, sometimes with boredom, sometimes in earnest, but always in gratitude to a just God. We do not usually mourn the dead sons of ancient Egyptians, because they do not fit cleanly into a narrative of justice.

This is where Exodus succeeds as a piece of art: Although God's chosen people are saved, viewers are forced to confront the loss left behind them. It's a subtle reworking of the narrative, a shift in emphasis that challenges a deep part of Jewish identity. It would be wrong to call this anti-Semitic; Scott clearly has empathy for the Jews, and for Moses. But as Mel Gibson made choices in The Passion of the Christ that challenged the framing of the death of Jesus, so Scott takes up a central aspect of Jewish identity—one that undoubtedly shapes the community's politics and religious practice today. When one people are chosen, others must suffer.

For some Jews, this may just be part of the truth they embrace as believers—that the world we live in is unfair, and unjust, and unequal, but by birthright, the Jewish people have a covenant with God. For me, at least, it’s unsettling—and an undeniably relevant moral challenge. Must the freedom of the Jews come at the price of others’ lives?

At the end of the movie, Moses sits with his brother, Aaron, on the shores of the Red Sea. He looks out at the many thousands of slaves who just escaped from Egypt, who are about to begin 40 years of wandering in the desert.

"What happens when we start running?" Moses asks Aaron. It's a confusing line, one that seems to imply meaning more than communicate it. But given the history of the Jews, a people pursued, cursed, oppressed, and set apart from others everywhere they've gone, it's a heady implication. Even in ancient Egypt, Scott seems to say, Moses understood that the Jews would be a people who flee—and that this pursuit of freedom sometimes comes with moral complications.