Exodus: Gods and Kings is the latest ‘biblical epic’ movie to be released. The emphasis is on the ‘epic’ rather than the ‘biblical’. Director Ridley Scott only broadly follows the Bible story. He is willing to depart from the biblical text to tell the story he wishes to tell. The focus is on spectacle: the magnitude and brutality of the slavery building Egyptian cities; the stunning visuals of the ten plagues and their impact; the vastness of the exodus and the tsunami-like waves of the Red Sea crossing. It has received mixed reviews.
There is much we could profitably discuss about the film’s depiction of the characters of both Moses and Pharaoh, whose relationship is at the heart of the film. But the element most Christians are likely to question is the movie’s portrayal of God (or rather the Angel of the Lord) in a most unexpected way — he appears to Moses as a 12-year-old boy. What can we learn from the way the film depicts God and how can we use even this in gospel conversations with our non-Christian friends?
Exodus acknowledges the historicity of these events, but also the reality and activity of God right from the opening credits. The miracles are not filmed as fantasy or fairytale, but realistically. They are not explained away by mere naturalistic phenomena, rather they are the supernatural acts of God. God is contrasted with the gods of Egypt, who are shown to be idols and superstitions. God is also contrasted with Pharaoh, who sees himself as a god (hence the subtitle of the film). When he is confronted with the power and judgements of the true God he is left utterly powerless, humbled and devastated. Not only is he impotent against the effects of the first nine plagues, but it is particularly felt in the final plague as Pharaoh is unable to prevent the death of his son despite sitting watch with sword in hand. Finally, God is contrasted with ‘scientific’ naturalistic explanations of the events, which are mocked as inadequate and foolish. It is rare for Hollywood movies to mention God at all other than in blasphemy. Exodus shows the awesome reality of his existence, his terrible judgement on sin and his mighty power to save his needy people.
The emotional core of the movie is the final plague, the death of the firstborn sons. The Hebrews put the blood of the passover lambs on their doorposts and are spared destruction. In household after household, right into Pharoah’s palace, the Egyptian children expire. These scenes are emotionally devastating as mothers wail all over the city. The next day Pharaoh sets the Hebrews free from their slavery.
Behind the portrayal of these events lies the question of how God could do such a thing. How is it that the redemption of his people would come at such a cost? I think this explains the most controversial decision of the movie — seeming to portray God as a rather temperamental, capricious and petulant child. How could they come up with such a view of God from reading Exodus? I think seeing God in terms of the impatience and anger of a 12-year-old was how they made sense of this ‘innocent suffering’ of the death of these firstborn sons. In doing so the movie articulates vividly the view of many modern sceptics and the arguments of the New Atheists about the God of the Bible: as Pharaoh cries in the movie while holding his child’s body ‘Is this your God? Killer of children?’ This is increasingly the argument brought against the Bible these days, not so much trying to disprove God’s existence but portraying God as a distant, cruel dictator unworthy of worship. The film vividly confronts us with this objection and answers it with this faulty depiction of God.
It challenges us, how would we answer such a question? The Bible gives us quite a different picture of the events than the film does. God tells us that all his ways are just. He shows Pharaoh great patience. He sends Moses repeatedly to him to warn and plead about God’s coming judgement against their sin. Who better to send than one so close, who Pharaoh knew so well and who grew up in his household? God takes no pleasure even in the death of the wicked, but would rather they would turn from their way and live.
The Bible also gives us a very different picture of God, who is revealed fully to us in Jesus Christ. When we look at Jesus we see that God is not a distant, cruel and arbitrary dictator, but rather in his great love for us he did come to us in a most unexpected way, as a child (as we’ve just celebrated at Christmas), one so close, who grew up as one of us. He is the ultimate ‘innocent sufferer’ yet he did so to carry our griefs and sorrows. He is God’s only Son, the ultimate firstborn, who the Father gave to die in our place to set us free from slavery to sin and death. God in his love willingly paid such a cost for our redemption.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is rated 12A for moderate violence, threat and bloody moments.