Famed Hollywood director Ridley Scott has been under fire in recent days for casting a White actor, Christian Bale, as his Moses in his new epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, fire that the director responded to with the phrase "get a life."
But as troubling as the racial casting may be, there is an even more disturbing element in the movie trailers now running during the routine timeouts of NFL games. In the trailer, Moses is seen twice brandishing weapons - First swinging a large sword and then firing a bow and arrow. While depicting Moses as somewhat macho isn't anything new (back in 1956 Charlton Heston set the mold) this latest version of Moses looks more like character on HBO's Game of Thrones than a biblical prophet.
Why "weaponize" Moses now? And what's next? Jesus with a battle axe?
Before we answer that question, it is important to note that there is absolutely no mention of Moses carrying a weapon in any part of the Bible. A powerful staff? That he did have. But no weapons.
You might argue that Moses could have used a weapon when he murdered the Egyptian taskmaster. If he was royalty, he would certainly have had access to weapons. But did he use one?
The ancient rabbis, writing two thousand years ago, debated this very question. They asked, what does it mean in Exodus 2:12 when it says "And he slew the Egyptian"? The ancient collection of commentary, Midrash Rabbah, records the rabbis debate:
How did he slay him? Rabbi Abyatar said: With his fist. Others say that he took a clay shovel and cracked his skull. The Rabbis say that he pronounced G-d's name against him and thus slew him; thus [the Hebrew he saw fighting the next day] said to him, "Do you say to kill me?"
Taking a careful look at these three possibilities we see: Fist, shovel, and magic words. None of the ancient commentators claim that he used a traditional weapon.
So, why does Scott have Christian Bale as Moses brandishing both a sword and a bow and arrow? Why turn a prophet into a warrior?
In part, it is because weapons have become so commonplace in American life that it is difficult to imagine a brave man without a weapon. Illegal guns, most of them sold legally to straw buyers by a very small percentage of crooked gun dealers, have provided criminals with literally hundreds of thousands of high powered weapons. To counter this threat, police forces have acquired military grade arsenals of their own. Although we enjoy many freedoms and have the blessing of a relatively stable government, and genuinely care for each other in times of need, we are a nation armed as if we were all at war with each other.
What is lost when we envision Moses, the prophet and spiritual leader of the Hebrew people, as an armed man?
In my opinion, we lose a core truth of the story:
That Moses at age twelve (according to the ancient rabbis) is beginning to make sense of the world around him. As I've been researching material for a book about the young Moses, I learned that according to Midrash, his first reaction to seeing the bitter work of the slaves is to take stones upon his own back. He pleads on behalf of elderly slaves, Hebrews and others, who are given impossible loads to carry. He is depicted not as a young up-and-coming Egyptian warrior but as a compassionate soul in a society that has lost its way.
If he were a warrior, as Scott depicts him, he probably would have stabbed the taskmaster and organized the slaves in a violent revolt. But the Moses of the Torah is not a violent revolutionary - he is a slave-child who spurns the pampering of the palace, walks with the oppressed, runs away, opens himself up to a spiritual calling, and returns to the palace to speak truth to power.
I'm still looking forward to seeing Ridley Scott's film - and enjoying each one of the 1,200 special effects. (I hear the CGI locusts are amazing.) But I hope that the next director that takes on the story is brave enough to envision a Moses who doesn't need to prove himself with the weapons of Egypt.