Exodus: Gods and Kings
Reviewed by John David Ebert
Ridley Scott’s new film is the most recent in a long series of Hollywood Biblical epics that stretches from Cecil B. Demille to Darren Aronofsky’s recent debacle, Noah. It is a much better film than Noah, and makes for better watching than most of the previous epics, which have a tendency to come across as stilted and artificial. Scott opts for a largely realistic tone and keeps the supernatural phenomena to a minimum, even reinterpreting the parting of the Red Sea–which forms the film’s climax–as a giant tsunami event. Thus, the arc of the story’s narrative stretches from the exile of Moses from Egypt to the deserts of Midian and ends with the actual Exodus event itself at the Red Sea. The prior and post narrative structures–the drawing forth of the infant from the river and the coming down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments–are, refreshingly, dropped from the narrative altogether. This gives the film a certain concision and watchability that many of the previous epics do not have.
Myth has a way of compressing the complicated and messy events of history into single iconic images: this makes them easier to store in the memory, for one thing–which, for societies based on oral storytelling is essential–but it also extracts their main Ideas. The point of the Exodus myth is the obstetric birth of the Hebrew people as an Egyptian internal proletariat which secedes from the body social of Egyptian society in order to become a nomadic war machine–a stateless social formation, in other words–that functions as the proto-body of an entirely new society. The Hebrews, wandering in the deserts of Sinai, find themselves in the mode of a Volkerwanderung that is analogous to that of the wanderings of the Germanic tribes during the Dark Ages, or the Sea Peoples of about the same time as the Exodus event–assuming that this event took place around 1300 BC.
But the likelihood is that there was actually a long series of migrations, off and on, over the centuries between Egypt and Palestine from about the time of the expulsion of the Hyksos from northern Egypt in around 1570 BC, down to the chaos of the migrations of the Sea Peoples around 1200 BC. The stele of Merneptah, the son of Ramesses II–in whose time the Exodus is traditionally situated–contains the first mention of “Israel” in the year 1207 BC, so this would be the latest boundary by which time the event would have occurred.
There is also the issue regarding the conquest of the land of Canaan which seems to have taken place in at least two waves: an earlier wave, dating from around 1400 BC, in which references in the Tell el-Amarna letters refer both to a people known as the “Habiru” as well as to a man going by the name of “Yahuya” (i.e. Joshua), already causing chaos in northern Palestine in and around the city of Shechem.
The Moses Event, on the other hand, might indeed have transpired under the reign of Ramesses II around 1250 BC or so, in which the Habiru would have migrated from Egypt to Palestine from the south. Moses and Joshua, therefore, could not have known one another, since they would have lived about a century or so apart. Each would have been associated with conquests forming what later became the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah: Joshua establishing the Israelite basis in the north around Shechem, with Moses and the Levites establishing an Egyptian-inspired kingdom in the Judaean south. (The names of the Levites, the tribe which Moses led, are the only ones that contain Egyptian references).
The name “Moses” itself, furthermore, is Egyptian: it means “child of,” and normally functions as an appropriative suffix in conjunction with the name of a deity. Ramesses, for instance, is actually “Ra-moses,” or the “child of Ra.” But there is also a Hebrew folk etymology which connects the name to “Moshe,” derived from “mashah,” meaning “to draw forth,” which gives it an interesting obstetric connotation in light of the fact that the god of the Burning Bush tells Moses to go back and draw forth his people from the Underworld of Egypt.
Moses thus finds himself in the role of the fisherman of souls who must draw forth those souls from the underworld and make off with them to a place of salvation. Ridley Scott plugs him clearly into this role, so that by the end of the film, with all the bodies of the dead Egyptians that turn up after the recession of the flood waters, it looks very much as though the Hebrews have emerged from the depths of the sea, where they can now begin to transform their lobed fins into legs and begin the arduous process of migrating toward building an Ark for their historical innovation of an invisible god.
Scott’s epic keeps things simple and uncomplicated (one can forgive him for such “deliberate” mistakes as depicting pyramids all over the place in the middle of cities like modern skyscrapers). His narrative version of the life of Moses is streamlined to the basics, and leaves the complicated bits for scholars and cultural critics such as myself to haggle over.
But it is yet another commemoration of one of the Founding Myths of Western Civilization: the birth of a portable god, who can be carried from one social formation to the next, from nomadic war machine to tented encampments and onward to building cathedrals and skyscrapers.
It is important that the myth of the birth of one’s god not be forgotten, even if only in the reduced form of a Hollywood epic that functions as a kind of terrarium inside of a museum where one stops and gawks at the wax figures looking back at one from behind the glass. The facts on the display placard might not be right; and the figures themselves, under the conditions of poor lighting, may seem vulgar and garish.
But hey: it’s better than Nothing.
For those interested in more of my writings on the Exodus Event, I have a new book out about Gilgamesh, Akhenaten and Moses, which can be ordered from Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Rage-Word-Gilgamesh-Akhenaten-Metaphysical-ebook/dp/B00Q3848H4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418517073&sr=8-1&keywords=rage+and+the+word
The historical oversight I can’t stand is when pyramids are depicted as being built in deserts just because those formerly lush places have been desertified in modern times. Did this movie make that mistake?
John David Ebert says
Well, nobody was building pyramids in the New Kingdom anymore and the movie depicts them springing up all over the place like mushrooms. Also, in the Old and Middle Kingdoms, they were normally built in separate necropolises on the West Bank of the Nile and usually well away from cities. The movie has them as part of city architecture, like ziguratts, which they were not.
Nick Sambrook says
I really need to send you a couple of books that I am happy to pay for you to read, and for your time. Was going to have hardback copies sent to your Waterside plaza address but not sure if this is still valid. I have been reading your articles and books for a while, and you may be one of a small number of people who would be able to get what I am saying/writing and doing.
You are absolutely correct on a lot of your assumptions and views and your objective analyses are very intelligent and enlightened. You seem to have a many synchronistical links to me too (as you will see from the Cinema and Laptop chapters in the shorter latest book). (eg Monkey as in this article – which you wrote a few weeks after the book).
I should warn you though there is a big difference between observing/commenting and influencing. But I need your objective views.
Mr Ebert, I’m interested in your opinion on American Sniper. Are movies like this a sign of farther shift towards Caesarism or just a continuation of the Western myth of the lone warrior?