Biblical blockbusters are a thing now. Last spring’s Noah was followed by Exodus: Gods and Kings. Spectacular computer-rendered miracles have helped a supposedly godless Hollywood to cautiously embrace scripture. But the latest shiny apocalypse has preserved little of the Bible’s warnings against wealth and power.
Yes, flogging and starving slaves to build monuments is wrong. But our modern Empire does not feature pyramids built by slaves with flayed skin. Still the great towers of our world rest on the backs of exploited workers; despite significant but superficial improvements, we are still in Egypt. Exodus director Ridley Scott missed his source text’s moral about how not to be like those awful Egyptians.
The film pays no attention paid to how the Israelites attempted to free themselves from the oppressive ways of Egypt, which is a major theme of the Book of Exodus. Evil is found not just in the horrific labor practices that made the Egyptian monuments. The problem is the very existence of grand platforms for worship by and of elites.
It’s hardly surprising that Hollywood ignores the material’s deeper treatment of elites – our culture portrays revolutionary leaders as merely another type of elite. Even relatively subversive works like The Hunger Games default to a messianic hero(ine). We can’t wrap our head around effective collective action, even when the Exodus story teaches just that.
Perhaps elitism is an essential part of filmmaking – a mass of characters certainly can’t be developed in a couple of hours. But as Rebecca Solnit points out in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, disaster films are also propaganda. Catastrophes (including biblical plagues) have their own mythology rooted in our cultural default of hero worship. Elites depend on order and know that disruptive moments can bring it all crashing down – so they preemptively teach us to submit in the moments when their control has collapsed.
But what actually tends to save people after a real disaster is quite anarchic. Solnit notes that it was in the aftermath of San Francisco’s great 1906 earthquake that Dorothy Day first glimpsed the Kingdom of God – which inspired and informed her later work including the Catholic Worker movement.
Unfortunately, Scott followed the rules by ignoring the important post-disaster dynamics within the Exodus community –first a band of guerillas and then a horde of refugees under the firm control of Commandante Moses. While the biblical Aaron played a key role as a conduit for God’s communication through his speech-impaired brother, the film reduces him to looking baffled while his brother talks to a rock.
And once he saved the day, Hollywood Moses enjoyed quality time with his wife – that old “hero gets the girl” trope. Then he enjoyed a nice chat with God over a cup of tea, while chipping away at the stone tablets. Finally, Moses rode off to the Promised Land in the back of an enclosed wagon, alone with the Ark of the Covenant, alone with God.
The Moses of scripture was overwhelmed – struggling with his impossible task of guiding a displaced urban community through hostile wilderness. His dependence on others is introduced symbolically during the battle with Amalek:
Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set. (Exod 17:11-12)
Still, Moses micromanaged by judging all disputes until his father-in-law intervenes:
“You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Exod 18:18)
Only after releasing control could Moses hear God’s commandments – including an essential warning against monuments like those the Israelites were forced to build for Egypt:
“If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it.” (Exod 20:25)
Of course, this commandment against elitism has long since slipped beneath the waves of Temple worship and the revisionism that comes whenever a revolutionary movement hardens into the new establishment.
The Israelites held off the insidious return of Empire for generations, governing through a series of judges. Political power did not harden into dynastic – or even consecutive – rulers until Samuel’s corrupt sons pushed the people to request a king despite God’s clear warning of catastrophic consequences:
“Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. (1 Sam 8:8)
Kings brought a disastrous descent into oppression and infighting, starting with Saul’s homicidal paranoia against his successor David, followed by Solomon’s use of forced labor to build his palace and the Temple. Finally the kingdom split after God triggered a slave revolt against Solomon’s cruel son – only the fourth king. (1 Kgs 12:1-24)
Grand building projects are what took town Israel: Generations of war and oppression followed, leading to the eventual collapse of both kingdoms into the Babylonian imperium. That was pretty much the end of Hebrew autonomy, except for the grassroots rebuilding led by Nehemiah. Hanukah commemorates another attempt to throw off imperial chains, but the Maccabees only replaced external oppression with internal dynastic power.
And we have still not learned the lesson. We are shown Moses as just another authoritarian militarist, and we don’t bat an eye. This hero leader is familiar, but he has not taken us very far.
Not only have we not reached the Promised Land. We haven’t yet entered the desert.