Why Arab states are banning Ridley Scott’s “Exodus”

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Moses at the burning bush, painting from Dura-Europos synagogue


Moses at the burning bush, painting from Dura-Europos synagogue

Moses at the burning bush, painting from Dura-Europos synagogue

Moses at the burning bush, painting from Dura-Europos synagogue

Over the weekend Egypt and Morocco banned Ridley Scott’s biblical epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings” for reasons that, on their own terms, are pretty weak. I saw the movie Saturday night, and here’s my assessment.

Naturalism. Mohammed Afifi, the head of Egypt’s supreme council for culture, attacked “Exodus” for showing the parting of the sea “as a tidal phenomenon” rather than a divine miracle. As tidal phenomena go, this one was tsunami scale, but yes, Scott does his best to portray the miraculous in naturalistic terms. No rods are turned into snakes, for example.

Representation of God. In Morocco, the film’s distributor said he’d been informed that “Exodus” couldn’t be shown because “it represented God” in the form of a “child who gives a revelation to the prophet Moses.” It’s true that a rather grim-looking boy appears to Moses at the burning bush and periodically thereafter, but as the Moroccan distributor, Mounia Layadi Benkirane, noted, “The child through whom Moses receives the revelation in the film at no time says he is God.”

Indeed, the child is at one point identified as a “messenger” — pointing directly at the “angel of the Lord” (malach Adonai) who appears to Moses in the burning bush in Exodus 3:2. Of course, traditional Islam is opposed to the representation not only of God (and Muhammad) but of all animate beings, lest that lead to idol-worship. As idols go, I found Christian Bale less compelling as the Jewish prophet in “Exodus” than as the Jewish grifter in “American Hustle,” but that’s neither here nor there.

Historical inaccuracy. The head of the Egyptian state censorship board, Abdul Sattar Fathi, offered this enumeration:

One of the key historical mistakes made by this film is that it claims the Jews were the ones who built the Pyramids. The film treats Moses as an army general, not as a prophet. Furthermore, it shows ancient Egyptians as a mob group persecuting peaceful Jews. Our board has refused this out of respect for Egyptians’ feelings.

In fact, the film portrays the Jews working to build the city of Pithom, as the Bible says in Exodus 1:11. And it’s not an Egyptian mob that’s shown as persecuting them, but the Egyptian security apparatus. I suspect that might actually enlist the feelings of a lot of today’s Egyptians on their behalf.

As for the Jews (or Hebrews, since they haven’t yet established residence in Judea), they are not exactly peaceful. Before God decides to unleash the plagues, Moses undertakes a guerrilla war to liberate his people. There’s no evidence for that in the Bible, nor is there evidence that Moses served as an Egyptian general — fighting the Hittites, according to the film. But as far as historicity is concerned, it’s worth noting that the entire account of the Exodus has been called into question by contemporary biblical scholarship.

Zionist propaganda. Egypt’s minister of culture Gaber Asfourat, a professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University whose books include Countering Fanaticism and In Defense of the Enlightenment, claimed that the film “gives a Zionist view of history.” If so, it’s no more Zionist than the Qu’an’s view:

And so We inflicted Our retribution on them, and caused them to drown in the sea, because they had been heedless of Our messages. By contrast, to the people who [in the past] had been deemed utterly low, We gave as their heritage the eastern and western parts of the land that We had blessed. And [thus] your Sustainer’s good promise to the children of Israel was fulfilled in response to their patience in adversity. And We utterly destroyed all that Pharaoh and his people had wrought, and all that they had built. And We brought the children of Israel across the sea. (Sura 7:136-8)

Could it be that, in attacking “Exodus: Gods and Kings” as Zionist, the pro-Enlightenment Egyptian minister of culture was subtly criticizing the Qu’ran itself?

  • Jon

    For many years it has been publicly unacceptable to mention – even in a hushed tone – the fact that the Jews were never captive in Egypt, that they had always simply been a Canaanite tribe who had always been there, and that the whole Exodus story was a political fabrication – as historians, biblical scholars, and archaeologists have long known.

    Today that is starting to slowly change. Here we have a post where the writer is brave enough to write “has been called into question”. That’s an improvement, even if it is still as silly as if similar blog written for adults stated that “Santa Claus, flying onto all rooftops, has been called into question.”.

    I saw that my kid’s Jr high history textbook still includes Moses as a real person and fails to point out the Exodus is a myth, and I still see TV and radio afraid to state the increasingly obvious reality that the Exodus is a myth. We still have a ways to go.

    Perhaps the discussion caused by the Exodus movie is helping us as a society realize that the Exodus is a myth, just like that child who first voiced that previously unspeakable fact that the emperor wore no clothes.

  • keyser

    The film is an example of the updating of ancient myth in a somewhat rational and plausible context. The fuss over “historical accuracy” and accusations of racism have been fairly amusing to follow. The film itself is a good (if somewhat humourless) recreation of ancient times and the final red sea set piece is amazing in 3D.

  • Susan

    The Hebrew Bible does not say the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. In Hebrew, it literally says the Sea of Reeds. The reeds that the Egyptians used to create papyrus grow in fresh water not in salty water.

  • Chaplain Martin

    Mark Silk,
    Just what is the job description for a “Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life”? I can only venture a thought that study of religion in public life would partly be similar to a graduate seminar I took part in many years ago entitled; “Beliefs in a Parish”. This was sponsored by an Atlanta Consortium of Seminaries (Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc). We would travel to a Methodist church in a rural area outside of Atlanta, with a lay person of our choosing. The goal, in part, was to find what the laity believed that may differ from what the ministers and pastors believed they believed. I learned that the culture and social influences of each congregation had a lot to do with their beliefs and what informed every day living. Needless to say, we barely scratched the surface.

    When I read your articles, I realize they are written to gather responses but are very broad. Does study of religion in public life only take the broad view? Would not the study of such involve much more? I’m just asking.

    Any poll taken consist of no more than a snap shot of any subject. It’s sort of like the old saying: “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

    The Apostle Paul quoted a Greek philosopher to the Athens court concerning that statues to the unknown god; “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28). An affective study in, say, Christianity and public life would look at how each believer sees themselves in that context.

  • Chaplain,
    The simple answer is that I was hired to establish a center for the study of religion in public life, and the center had, and has, a goal of enhancing the public’s understanding of that subject. My qualifications for the job were (in addition to a Ph.D. in history) two books, one on the role of religion in America since World War II and one on how the American news media cover religion. No doubt, how people believe and practice their faith privately can affect the way they behave as citizens. However, the issues that have concerned me in my professional life have had to do with the ways religion (understood broadly) affects and is affected by society at large.

  • Eric Lindblade

    Just for the record… when the Jewish people settled in Egypt, the pyramids were almost a thousand years old.

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  • Chaplain Martin

    Thank you for your response. While I have a degree in history and have made a continuing study of early development of religion in America and roots of separation of Church and State, my Th.M is more of theology and my D.Min more of actual ministry and pastoral counseling. So I guess you could say my view is inform by looking from the inside out as well as looking at a more general view.

    To the general polls and political views of Christians are surveyed, from my position I have experience more of how those stated views are played out. What people state in polls and their individual action seems to undermined the value of the polls. In my view their is a element in polls that merely scratch the surface.

  • Laurence Charles Ringo

    So…That Jesus guy was plainly lying, huh, Jon?

  • Laurence Charles Ringo

    Are you high, Mr.Lewis?

  • Laurence Charles Ringo

    Sorry, “Steven the Revealer”(Seriously, sir?), I’m really not interested in engaging in”dialogue”with someone who lives too much inside their own heads and idolizes their own opinions.The only thing that you’re”revealing”is your eagerness to join the ranks of god-haters proliferating like foul, noxious weeds of late . God bless you.