Spoiler alert: Morgan Freeman does not play God in Exodus: Gods and Kings. And this is only one of the many courageous risks that director Ridley Scott took in bringing the story of Moses to life in the just released movie. Instead of trying to depict the literal text of the Bible as we saw in the 10 Commandments with Charlton Heston, Ridley Scott does midrash - Hollywood style.
For those of you that have read the Bible and for those of you that have it in your ibooks queue, what you may not know is that it does not read like Gone Girl. There are a lot of gaps, duplications and conflicting stories in the ancient text. Since the 2nd century AD rabbis have added Midrash -commentaries, stories and interpretations- to try and fill in the gaps and make sense of these teachings. These midrashim have become essential to the body of work known as the Jewish tradition because they bring the stories to life and make them applicable to our modern lives.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is Midrash in the year 2014. The movie was clearly trying to answer some of the unanswered questions of the Moses story:
What was the relationship between the brothers in the palace growing up? Were they competitive or were they close?
How did Moses talk to God? Was he delusional? Did he have visions? Did he see angels?
How did the Red Sea part? Was it truly miraculous, or was it just low tide that day?
I am not a movie critic so I did not evaluate Exodus: Gods and Kings for its entertainment value. I haven’t devoted my life to studying Judaism to be entertained. Some of the teachings are very troubling, and at times have left me angry and confused. The reason I became a rabbi is that I believe if I am willing to wrestle with the texts even the problematic ones, the tradition will guide me to live a more moral and meaningful life.
There is a teaching in Judaism that when we pray, God speaks to us; but when we study, we speak to God. Last Thursday I ran to the first showing of Exodus at 8 pm* because I wanted to study the midrash of our time. I wasn’t looking to come out of the movie and say; “Those plagues were amazing” (even though they were!). Rather I wanted Exodus: Gods and Kings to challenge me, to force me to think, and to help me continue the ongoing conversation of my tradition with all people of all religions and backgrounds.
Ridley Scott, Steven Zaillian, Christian Bale and every single person (including all the extras) involved in the making of that movie and bringing it to the world stage – Yasher Koach which means “Kudos to you” for reminding us that the Bible is still the most compelling book of all time.
*IPIC Theaters releases movies the night before at 8 pm if you want to get a first glimpse.