The film Exodus: Gods And Kings, released this month (December 2014) in Australia and New Zealand, represents a revival of the Golden Age of Holly-wood when Cecil B Demille and others turned Bible stories into action thrillers for the masses. But viewers might want to ask themselves if director Ridley Scott has resurrected the same characters for a different story entirely.
Taking a leaf from Prince of Egypt, viewers discover Christian Bale as Moses, an adopted son revelling in his position as a member of the Pharaoh’s royal household. Joel Edgerton plays the heir to the throne, Ramses, Moses’ headstrong stepbrother and the eventual oppressor of 400,000 Hebrew slaves.
When Moses discovers that his adopted family are guilty of infanticide, he struggles to ease the suffering of his true people and in the process, becomes a willing tool for the hand of God who is preparing to wreak destruction on Egypt. But it will take a combination of divine power and the courage of this son of a slave if the Israelites are ever to go free.
Thrilling? Undoubtedly. However the problem that arises is one of chess games and life lessons. Let me explain.
As scriptwriters, I can assure you that my colleagues and I are some of the best recyclers in the business. Even the most inventive of Ridley Scott’s plots are based on archetypes that were already old when Homer was still wondering what Achilles would do next.
Broadly speaking there are only ever three stories in the world: the Quest, the Chess Game and the Life Lesson. In Quest stories, our ever-present hero is driven by one simple desire: to get something. It might be the hand of a pretty girl, like Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You, or the pretty boy in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Whatever the goal, the hero doesn’t have it and his quest involves doing everything he can to get it. But Exodus is much more concerned with the next two.
The second plot grand-daddy is the Chess Game, a story that organises itself around the battle between an evenly or overmatched hero and his nemesis. It’s a case of move and counter-move until a winner finally emerges. This is the dynamics of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, Batman and the Joker, Wile E Coyote and the Roadrunner. It’s also that of Scott’s Moses and Ramses.
The collision course this plot sets them on leads to a series of dramatic plays that pit armies against plagues and chariot charges against miracles. The Chess Game does more than measure the skill of each opponent; it demonstrates their characters and underlines their right to triumph.
In Exodus: Gods and Kings, there’s no doubt that God was right to choose Moses as His champion. And while there’s much to celebrate and much to forgive—this is Hollywood after all and scores of liberties are taken in the name of drama—has something far more fundamental been missed? Is Scott telling the wrong type of story with his focus on Moses and Ramses?
The Bible story
This is where the third story archetype comes in: the Life Lesson. For millennia, stories have been the favourite method for teaching moral truths, and nothing has changed when it comes to the movies. The Shawshank Redemption taught us to get busy living or get busy dying. The Lord of the Rings reminded us that enduring commitment can topple the darkest empire. The success of the Life Lesson story is measured by its ring of truth. And this is the category into which the Bible’s version of the Exodus falls.
The biblical account of the Exodus is about a promise: “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians” (Exodus 6:6, 7).
God instructs His people to tell and re-tell the story of their deliverance from Egypt. He even creates an annual festival for them to celebrate, so that they will remember the lesson behind the events: the Passover. “Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread; for seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt” (Exodus 23:15).
Not an adjunct
In Exodus: Gods And Kings, an ageing Hebrew called Nun tells Moses, “[In] the year of your birth there was a prophecy that a leader would be born to liberate us, and that leader is you!”
But the story of Exodus is no more about Moses than it is about Ramses. Both—a stuttering shepherd and a hard-hearted Pharaoh—were raised up by God so that His glory would be displayed. The story of the Exodus is not a Chess Game between two brothers inspired by different goals. It’s a Life Lesson about the faithfulness of God and His power to make all of His promises come true, no matter how impossible the situation.
God is not an adjunct to our own epics. Difficult times do not arise so that we can shine, but that the glory of God can shine all the brighter. The sooner we realise that the sooner we’ll come to Him for the redemption we really need.