“The book was better.” Isn’t that what they always say?
Exodus: Gods and Kings is a dramatic retelling of the Biblical story. It doesn’t claim to be theologically or historically accurate; it simply aims to entertain. This site isn’t concerned with reviewing the film, or highlighting its faults. But it’s useful to know where it has departed from, or significantly added to the story as told in Exodus, the second book of the Bible.
The Moses of Ridley Scott is very different from the Moses of the Bible, at least initially. The film shows a renegade general, leading his guerrilla fighters to pillage and kill their Egyptian overlords; it shows him rousing the nation with his eloquence. Yes, the Bible tells of Moses killing an Egyptian, but by the time he is called to lead his people, he is an old man, living in exile, “slow of speech and of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). While Moses announces the plagues to Egypt, it’s God who brings them about. Some years later, Moses is described as being “very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). Not quite your typical freedom-fighter.
2. The boy-angel
In the film, the words of God are spoken by a 10 year old boy – not with the booming Brian Blessed voice you might expect – who starts appearing to Moses after he gets hit by a rock. Some reviewers have noted that it’s not clear whether the boy is meant to represent God himself, or simply an angel. As it happens, the Biblical account has the same ambiguity. In the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3), it’s “the angel of the LORD” who appears to Moses, but the rest of the incident involves a conversation between Moses and God. All is made clear later on when God announces he is sending his angel with the Israelites. God says of this angel that “my name is in him” and warns them to “carefully obey his voice and do all that I say.” The angel speaks on God’s behalf, and so speaks as if he is God. But you won’t find the angel described as a ten year old. Nor does it take a nasty knock on the head to make Moses hear God.
3. Downplaying God
Unsurprisingly, God plays the lead role in the Biblical story. It is God who calls Moses, empowers him to do signs, and sends him to Pharaoh. It is God who brings the plagues, orders the Passover festival, and directs the departure from Egypt. It is God who is the focus of the Israelites’ praise in victory, and groaning in despair. The Biblical Exodus is a story of God revealing himself as the true God in opposition to the false gods of Egypt. In the film, God’s instigation of Moses’ return to Egypt is more of a suggestion than a command; the plagues on Egypt come not through Moses, but after he has apparently failed to rescue his people by military means. There is also some ambiguity as to God’s involvement in the plagues, but the Bible also recognises the potential uncertainty that can surround God’s work in the world (see, e.g., John 12:28-29, 37). Rarely are miracles so plain that they force belief.
4. The plagues
The Bible has ten plagues, not all of which appear in the film. The first miracle – the Nile turned to blood – is attributed to a crocodile frenzy. The Bible describes things somewhat differently (Exodus 7:14-25). The plagues in the book of Exodus are part of an ongoing appeal to Pharaoh, and for seven of them, warning is given before the plagues come. The film reduces these warnings to two.
5. Hard hearts
Overall in both the film and the book Pharaoh is callous towards the plight of the Israelites despite the onslaught of the plagues. The book has an extra twist in its tale, however. From the first miracles Pharaoh is said to “harden his heart” (Exodus 7:13) towards the Israelites, and at other times (towards the end of the narrative) God is said to be the one who makes Pharaoh callous. By the time God is involved with Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh has calloused himself so frequently he’s become some kind of caricature of evil. And so God takes charge and leads Pharaoh to his dramatic destruction.
6. Names real and imagined
The Pharaoh of the Exodus is not named in the Bible. The film reflects the opinion of many scholars and names him Ramesses, one of the greatest kings of ancient Egyptian history. Moses is presented as Pharaoh’s adopted brother – again not in the Bible, but possible. The Biblical story tells us only that Moses was adopted by the daughter of (an earlier) Pharaoh. Some of the other names are taken from the Bible, but do not feature in the Exodus story. Nun, for example, is the father of Joshua, Moses’s successor; Bithiah is the name given to Pharaoh’s daughter later in the Bible (1 Chronicles 4:17), but it’s not clear it’s talking about the same person.