02 January 2015

Should I compare ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’
with the Bible or Cecil B De Mille’s movie?

Patrick Comerford

Last night I went to see Exodus: Gods and Kings in the IMC in the Square in Tallaght.

This is not a remake of the 1960 movie Exodus by Otto Preminger based on the book by Leon Uris. Nor is it a remake of the Cecil B DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments (1956), starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. This is a new big-budget Biblically-inspired but fictional epic directed by Ridley Scott. The cast includes Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver, and Ben Kingsley.

Many years ago, when I was editing pages in The Irish Times, I joked unfairly that any major news story could be summarised in two pithy lines that would make the headline. I was challenged to do this with a book of the Bible, and summarised Exodus: “God said, ‘Let my people go.’ And they went.”

But that cheap, glib quip missed all of the drama. This is a movie that is high on drama, but misses out on catchphrases such as “Let my people go.” There is no high drama where Moses throws down his rod which turns to a snake, for this Moses carries a sword rather than a staff. And we miss out on any discussion of who God is apart from being a rival deity to Pharaoh.

The movie begins in the year 1300 BCE when Moses (Christian Bale), a general and member of the Egyptian royal family, prepares to attack the Hittite army with Prince Rameses (Joel Edgerton).

The Pharaoh Seti I (John Turturro), father of Rameses, tells the two men of a recent prophecy that one of them will save the other and become a leader. In their attack on the Hittites, Moses saves Rameses, leaving both men troubled.

Later, Moses is sent to inspect the work of Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), the camp, cruel and corrupt overseer of the Hebrew slaves as they build the pyramids and a character who never appears in the Exodus story in the Bible. Moses meets the slave Joshua (Aaron Paul) and is appalled by the conditions the slave work and live in. He then meets Nun (Ben Kingsley), who tells him the truth of his background – he is a Hebrew child who was saved by his sister Miriam (Tara Fitzgerald) and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithian (Hiam Abbass).

Of course, the Bible never provides a specific moment when Moses’ true identity is uncovered. However, Moses now leaves in anger, and kills two Egyptian guards he finds mercilessly beating a Hebrew (see Exodus 2: 11-14). Two Hebrew slaves who have been listening and report what they have heard to Hegep.

When Rameses succeeds as the new Pharaoh, Rameses II, Hegep comes to Memphis to tell him about the true identity of Moses. When Miriam denies she is Moses’ sister, Rameses threatens to cut off her arm, but Moses comes to her defence and admits he is a Hebrew. Moses is sent into exile, but before leaving he meets his birth mother and Miriam, who refer to him by his birth name, Moishe. Knowing that his mother, Queen Tuya (Sigourney Weaver) wants Moses killed, Rameses hides a sword in the saddle on Moses’ horse to protect him in the wilderness from assassins.

After a dangerous trek through the wilderness, Moses arrives in Midian where he becomes a shepherd to Jethro (Kevork Malikyan), marries Jethro’s daughter Zipporah (MarĂ­a Valverde) and they have a son Gershom. And we have a hint of the discussion between Moses and Zipporah about whether to circumcise Gershom.

Against Zipporah’s advice, Moses climbs Mount Horeb and is injured in a rockslide. As he is drowning in mind, he sees a burning bush and comes face-to-face with Malak (Issac Andrews), a boy who speaks forcefully as the representative of God.

But we are never quite sure who this child is. He looks more like a shaven-headed child lama from Tibet than a prefiguration of the Christ Child, and speaks often with a voice of anger and vengeance. In Arabic, the name Malak is used for both boys and girls, but in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic it is linked to the root word for an angel, and has nothing in common with the name God uses for himself, “I AM.” For example, the Yazidis believe in God as creator of the world, which he has placed under the care of seven holy beings or angels, the chief of whom is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel.

The conversation between the articulate Moses and Malak is in contrast to the image of Moses in the Bible, who at first refuses the task because he stutters or stammers (see Exodus 3: 10, 11).

As Moses recovers, he reveals his past to Zipporah and describes what God has asked him to do. Despite her pleas, he returns to Egypt, where he is reunited with Nun and Joshua, and for the first time meets his brother Aaron (Andrew Tarbet). In the Biblical narrative, Moses asks Jethro for permission to leave Midian with Zipporah and their sons. At the same time, God commands Aaron to join his bother on the journey so that he can speak for Moses, who is almost 80 years old at that point.

Back in Egypt, Moses trains a select group of Hebrew slaves in military skills, and they start attacking the Egyptians. In response, Ramesses carries out daily revenge execution of slave families, demanding Moses surrenders himself. Once again, the boy Malak appears to Moses and tells him that his military strategy is not part of God’s plans. Instead, Egypt is be struck by ten plagues.

After an attack by crocodiles on a group of fishermen in the Nile, all the water in Egypt turns to blood. This is followed by infestations of frogs, lice, and flies.

These plagues are explained away by the Egyptian priests in a logical way that sounds like a modern argument about climate change and the destruction of the environment. Moses now confronts Rameses, demanding freedom for his people. Although we are told that the burden is increased on the slaved by forcing them to make bricks with straw, we are never told that the first demand by Moses is that the slaves should be set free in order to worship God freely.

When Ramesses insists that this would be economically impossible in the present time, further plagues follow, with the death of cattle, boils, hail and thunder, locusts, and darkness.

The tenth final plague is the death of all firstborn children. The Hebrews protect themselves by sprinkling their doorposts with the blood of lamb. When his son dies, Rameses is devastated and relents, telling Moses and the Hebrews to leave.

The freed slaves follow Moses through the wilderness and on to the Red Sea. But after his son his buried, Rameses goes back on his word and sets out in pursuit of Moses and the Hebrews with his army.

When they arrive at the edge of the Red Sea, Moses is perplexed. He wonders whether he has arrived at the right crossing point does not know what to do. In despair flings his sword into the water. In a tsunami-style effect apparently created by comets, the waters begin to roll back, and the people begin to cross the sands to the Sinai side of the Red Sea.

In their pursuit, Rameses and his army suffer major casualties on the narrow rocky mountainside. A much reduced Egyptian force arrives as the people complete their crossing, and the water return in a tsunami to drown most of the Egyptians, apart from Rameses.

Moses survives and leads the Hebrews on to Midian, where he is reunited with Zipporah and Gershom.

On Mount Sinai, Moses chips away at two slabs of stone, carving out the Ten Commandments as they are dictated to him by the boy Malak. The boy asks Moses if he agrees with the commandments, to which Moses replies that he would not be carving the stones if he did not agree. In the Bible, however, it is God who carves the Ten Commandments into tablets of stone himself and gives them to Moses to present to the people (see Exodus 22: 27-29).

Nowhere do the people dance and sing to celebrate their release from cativity. There is no Golden Calf, there is no manna in the wilderness, there is no striking of the rock, and there is merely a hint of the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness at the end, when Moses is an old man, and Malak follows behind, still a lama-like child.

On the other hand, there are plenty of swords and sandals in the desert, and the impressive reconstructions of the sphinx and the pyramids dwarf what is supposed to be the mighty heights of Mount Sinai.

For a story set in ancient Egypt, there are plenty of English, Welsh, Irish Australian and American accents but few Middle Eastern or African faces, apart from Hiam Abbass, an Israeli Arab actress who was born in Nazareth and is of Palestinian descent. Yet, Egyptian art depicts Egyptians as red, Nubians as brown, and Semites or Jews as yellow.

Cecil B De Mille based his Ten Commandments on Dorothy Clarke Wilson’s novel, Prince of Egypt (1949), the novel Pillar of Fire by the Revd Joseph Holt Ingraham, and On Eagle’s Wings (1937) by the Revd Arthur Eustace Southon, using the, as primary and secondary sources, and the Bible came only third or fourth in providing his story line. But it was longer, and it was probably closer to the actual Biblical narrative.

In the Bible, Moses’ mother, Jochebed, is employed as a wet nurse for Moses, but the movie does not refer to this aspect, and she only appears (Anna Savva) when he is being banished from Egypt.

Moses relationship with Rameses is confused in the movie, where he appears to become his adopted brother rather than his adopted cousin. The Bible never says Moses was a general in Pharaoh’s army, trained as a warrior, or carried a sword. Instead, he became a shepherd and delivered his people from bondage with a staff and not with his gold and gilded Egyptian sword.

The Biblical Moses never questions his role in God’s plans, but this Moses has many questions about events in which he is willing participant. At one point in the movie, Moses shouts at God: “If you meant to humble me, it will not work!” This in contrast to the Biblical account that “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (see Numbers 12: 3).

While Pharaoh in the Bible turns on Moses after he kills an Egyptian soldier, in the movie he continues to show paternal affection for the adopted member of his family, and on his deathbed wishes Moses could succeed him instead of his own son.

Rameses is portrayed as a modern-day Thatcherite politician, mainly worried about fiscal constraints and the economic consequences of feeding his starving people, freeing the slaves and the cost to Egypt of losing its main workforce.

This descends to a mythological cash of the Titans, the Egyptian gods fail to respond to the prayers of the Egyptian priests while the Hebrew God terrorises the Egyptian people with one deadly plague after another.

The freed slaves in the movie make their way speedily and with haste to the Red Sea, while the Bible tells us they first plundered the Egyptians, who gave up their possessions in fear of further retribution from God before travelling on into the wilderness.

God’s role in Exodus in the movie varies greatly from God’s role in the Bible. In this movie, God often leaves Moses in the dark, and the God of the movie does not lead the Hebrew people to the Red Sea.

In the Bible, God guides Moses and his people with a pillar of smoke and fire, shepherding them through the wilderness to the crossing point, while angels warned of the Pharaoh’s pursuit. Moses stretches out his arm and parts the waters of the Red Sea until the Hebrews pass through to the other shore, with walls of water on each side, and then releases the walls of water that drown the Egyptian army (see Exodus 4: 21-22). In the movie, however, Moses is the main decision-maker on the journey, there is no pillar of smoke to follow, and when Moses asks for God’s help there is no answer.

Throughout this movie, there are glaring historical anachronisms, including the use of explosives long before the invention or discovery of dynamite.

This movie is not a blasphemous film, and there is no profanity. It may be closer to the Bible story than Noah was earlier in the year. But it tells me nothing of God, and little about the story of Exodus. Perhaps it has more in common with other movies by Ridley Scott, including Gladiator and Alien than with the Biblical narrative.

I once met someone who seemed to have a wealth of Biblical knowledge, but when our conversation developed I realised how shallow this was. He told me he gained most his Biblical knowledge from Biblical movies, and he then went to list The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ben Hur, The Robe … and Spartacus. He is probably adding to the depth of his knowledge today with Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

On the other hand, this is an entertaining film with grand sets and beautifully-made. I watched it last night in effective 3D and it certainly was an entertaining though not educational evening, and the ticket was a pleasant and welcome present.

Carols and Hymns for Christmas (9):
‘What child is this, who, laid to rest’ (No 202)

‘What child is this, who, laid to rest, / on Mary’s lap is sleeping’ … the Holy Family by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, the Altar Piece in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for this Christmas season, I am thinking about an appropriate carol or hymn each morning. This morning (2 January 2015), I am reflecting on ‘What child is this, who, laid to rest,’ written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898).

This hymn appears in both the Irish Church Hymnal (No 202) and the New English Hymnal (No 40), and its popularity has been helped by its setting to the traditional English folk melody, ‘Greensleeves,’ for which the hymn was written.

William Chatterton Dix was born in Bristol on 14 June 1837, the son of John Dix, a surgeon and writer. His middle name came from the poet Thomas Chatterton, of whom his father was the biographer.

Dix was educated at Bristol Grammar School and spent most of his working life in Glasgow, where he was the manager of an insurance company. But at the age of 29 he was struck with a near fatal illness and spent many months confined to his bed. During that time he was severely depressed, but wrote several hymn and carols, including ‘To you, O Lord, our hearts we raise,’ and ‘Alleluia! Sing to Jesus,’ and this morning’s hymn, ‘What child is this?’ Another Epiphany hymn, ‘As with Gladness Men of Old,’ is my choice for reflection next Sunday morning.

Throughout his life, Dix was a pious and devout Anglican who was deeply influenced by the Tractarian movement. His hymns are found in many collections, including Hymns Ancient and Modern, Saint Raphael’s Hymnbook (1861), Lyra Eucharidica (1863), Lyra Messianica (1864), Lyra Mystica (1865), The People’s Hymns (1867), The Hymnary (1872), and Church Hymns (1871).

Many of his contributions are renderings in metrical form of translation from the Greek by the Revd Dr Richard Frederick Littledale (1833–1890) in his Offices … of the Holy Eastern Church (1863). Littledale, who was born in Dublin and educated at Trinity College Dublin, was a leading writer in the Oxford Movement, and worked closely with the hymn-writer John Mason Neale.

Dix died at Cheddar in Somerset on 9 September 1898 and was buried at the local parish church.

This hymn is generally linked with the tune of the traditional English folk song, Greensleeves. There is a persistent myth that Greensleeves was composed by Henry VIII for his lover and future queen consort Anne Boleyn. She allegedly rejected the king’s attempts to seduce her and this rejection may be referred to in the song when the writer’s love “cast me off discourteously.”

However, the piece is based on an Italian style of composition that did not reach England until after Henry’s death, making it more likely to be Elizabethan in origin.

From as early as 1642, the tune was associated with Christmas and New Year texts. By the 19th century, almost every printed collection of Christmas carols included some version of words and music together, most of them ending with the refrain "On Christmas Day in the morning." One of the most popular of these is this morning’s hymn,‘What child is this?’

Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his Fantasia on Greensleeves in 1934, basing it on the ‘Greensleeves’ melody. Initially it was used in the third act of his opera Sir John in Love, inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives of Windsor.’

Vaughan Williams once commented: “The art of music above all arts is the expression of the soul of the nation.” In this piece, he skilfully captures the very essence of England in music. The serene, pastoral sounds evoke images of bucolic bliss, with lyrical string writing and particularly descriptive flute passages. However, the title of his Fantasia is in some ways misleading: the work is neither long enough nor complex enough to deserve the description; instead, it is a rather faithful setting of the original.

The Fantasia on Greensleeves uses not only the traditional tune but also the melody ‘Lovely Joan,’ which Vaughan Williams came across in Suffolk. In 1934, under the watchful eye of the composer, Ralph Greaves arranged Vaughan Williams’s music into the version we most commonly hear today.

Leonard Cohen released an interpretation of the song with altered lyrics and an additional verse titled ‘Leaving Greensleeves’ on his 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony.

What child is this, who, laid to rest, by William Chatterton Dix

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
on Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
while shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
haste, haste to bring him laud,
the babe, the son of Mary.

Why lies he in such mean estate,
where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear; for sinners here
the silent Word is pleading:
nails, spear, shall pierce him through,
the cross be borne, for me, for you:
hail, hail, the Word made flesh,
the babe, the son of Mary.

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
come, peasant, king, to own him.
the King of kings salvation brings:
let loving hearts enthrone him.
Raise, raise the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby:
joy, joy, for Christ is born,
the babe, the son of Mary.

Tomorrow:As Joseph was a-walking