THE BLOG
01/16/2015 04:58 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

Exodus the Movie, God, and the Power of Stories

Let me say right off the top that this post isn't so much about the movie Exodus as it is about God... and story. Still, I should probably warn, "spoiler alert." But the two biggies below that might preempt one's enjoyment of the drama hardly qualify as spoilers, and they bear immediately on the whole point of this. One is that God is depicted in the movie as a little boy (a ragamuffin, frequently creepy boy, Stephen King by way of Dickens). The other is of course how the movie ends, but that's been common currency for centuries, based as it is on a pretty popular book, The Bible, and recalled every spring the world over in the festival of Passover. (Exodus Cliff notes: ten "plagues" and a miraculous sea-split later, God has liberated the Hebrews under the leadership of Moses from their slavery in Egypt in order to serve God. This last part, the serve God part, does sometimes get overlooked.)

First, God. I get the movie's appeal, the shocker of bringing God to the screen as a little boy -- prescient and confident -- but a boy nonetheless, not the sage old man, not even sparkly George Burns in his darling round spectacles. My question here: why not a girl? The Bible's first story (Genesis chapter one) depicts a God who is as much male and female as humans are, er, that humans are both male and female as God is. Sure the Bible uses masculine pronouns for God, but Hebrew has only the two (masculine and feminine, like English), and coming out of a strongly patriarchal cultural context, of course it would default to the masculine. In addition to the unapologetic female-as-much-as-male God in its opening story, the Bible is regularly quite clear about not limiting God. So in this creative reimagining of the exodus story, when the producers decided actually to show a God who in that biblical narrative does not take human form, why not a girl-God? We can handle it. We are ready. Or shoot, for the sake of argument, why not a God who takes the shape of some non-human nature?

That brings me to another thing, and maybe you'll say it's small, but here it is anyway: I wish the movie didn't skip over the "take off your shoes" bit. In the Bible's burning bush scene, God commands Moses to take off his shoes before approaching "because the ground on which you're standing is holy." I love that -- the bush, sure, but especially the command and its reasoning. It's so random, so intriguing, and (as in so much of the Bible) unexplained. How was "the ground" holy, and how does being barefoot honor and respect that holiness? Is there some super-natural quality to the land where (on which, through which, or by which) God has chosen to reveal Godself that requires bare naked contact? The skin of the soles of Moses' surely quite dirty feet was somehow to be preferred over his shoes? To my disappointment, the movie doesn't depict any of this. There, Moses isn't required to unshod himself before approaching. He can't. He is encased in some quicksand like goo, only his face exposed, like some supine, very dark Teletubbie. That's not biblical. It's just weird. Sure, the biblical account is weird, too; but at least it's usefully and intriguingly so.

Finally, in the movie leading to its climax, there's a tense argument between Moses and God. It's a good one in which Moses takes issue (and I'll just say it: rightly and admirably) with God's master plan here -- that what aids some people is devastating for a lot of other people including the ones ultimately freed (not to say all those animals). In the movie, the God-boy furiously defends his actions by appealing to the many years and exceptional suffering of God's people. I think that's supposed to come off as a righteous non sequitur. But for this viewer anyway, the problem remains. And I couldn't help watching the final big scene as the cameras pan between the Hebrews scrambling to safety and the waters crashing down over the Egyptians (and all those horses!) -- without thinking "my people, not my people, my people, not my people." This is very troubling.

And here's the thing: it's troubling in the biblical story, too. Actually, it's almost worse there. The ancient narrator repeatedly explains that God "hardened Pharaoh's heart" (as many English translations render). Hello, what happened to choice, free will, and all that? And even just for the sake of the story, wouldn't it be better if Pharaoh were swayed to let the Hebrews go -- something like Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel, acknowledging the God of gods, maybe "converting"? This is a problem.

Which brings me to the second subject here -- story, the narrative nature of it all. Stories invite us inside to identify with a character or characters, to feel the action for ourselves, wrestle with the problems presented, and maybe emerged changed. The best stories take us deep inside ourselves to confront and overcome our presumptions and limitations. They unsettle, comfort, or otherwise challenge us. Sure, historical veracity may be part of it; but that's not always what makes them true. When it comes to the Bible, we get hung up on that.

Too often we demand that the Bible conform to modern expectations of truth as scientifically verifiable, journalistic reporting of "real" events. One of the results is that when (not if) the Bible fails to meet such expectations, we toss it out as unreliable, antiquated myth and silliness at best. Another, perhaps worse result is that we cling to the Bible but only because we assume that buried within it, every story has a simple and single take-home moral message, like Aesop's fables. To find that nugget, we dig with single-minded attention (never mind that the ground we're casting aside may be holy ground and we should rather be busy taking off our shoes). We lose the literary nature of the thing in order to derive that pithy post-it-note lesson to slap onto the forehead of our lives.

In other words, we fail to do the very thing the story begs of us -- engage with it, argue with it, wrestle and debate it. In the case of this issue in the exodus story -- this bit about God's hardening Pharaoh's heart at the expense of a whole lot of people (and animals, too), this my-people/not-my-people dichotomy that if we're remotely compassionate should indeed strike us as "off" -- if we accept it as story, we can find different sense in and about it than a single, simplistic (and dangerously xenophobic) take-away.

Perhaps we reckon with the narrative's greater context, abutting the end of Genesis and prefacing the 40-year wilderness wandering, and ask how the exodus episodes work therein. Perhaps we ask about the context in which the story took final shape (likely not Rameses' Egypt) and appreciate how that nuances our reading. Perhaps we put the anti-Egyptian, the not-my-people nature of the story over against other biblical stories of Egypt as the international safe house and texts that declare all nations of the world to be God's people. Perhaps even as we celebrate the enormity of liberation, we gird up our loins and shake our fists at the God in this story to boldly reject the manipulation of power toward violent ends.

I said that this post wouldn't be about the movie Exodus, not much anyway. And I'll leave true criticism to the pros. In conclusion, though, let me say that I'm glad the producers and all the teams of people behind such endeavors took it on and did this in their way. The Bible is such a strange book, tantalizing in its silences, rich in its multiplicity of voices, perspectives, and possibilities for interpretation. The best thing we can do is keep telling and retelling in new and different ways what happens when we take the stories as the stories that they are -- begging for creative engagement.