Beliefs Culture

The long march from ‘Exodus’ to ‘Selma’ (COMMENTARY)

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma" from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films. RNS photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.
Christian Bale stars as Moses in "Exodus: Gods and Kings." RNS photo courtesy 20th Century Fox.

Christian Bale stars as Moses in “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” RNS photo courtesy 20th Century Fox.

(RNS) Here is one of 2014’s most enduring tips for budding filmmakers: Do not make films that are going to make developing countries angry.

First, North Korea went ballistic over “The Interview,” which contained a farcical plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un. And then, Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates decided to ban the new Ridley Scott biblical epic, “Exodus: Gods And Kings.”

Why? Egypt, in particular, is angry at the film’s historical inaccuracies. “Exodus” shows the ancient Egyptians hanging recalcitrant Hebrew slaves; hanging was never used as a punishment in ancient Egypt. Moreover, the Egyptians are upset because the film depicts the ancient Hebrews laboring on the Great Sphinx and the pyramids. They also object to the depiction of an armed Hebrew insurrection, which does not appear in the ancient biblical text.

The official statement claimed the film includes “intentional gross historical fallacies that offend Egypt and its pharaonic ancient history in yet another attempt to Judaize Egyptian civilization, which confirms the international Zionist fingerprints all over the film.”

Guess what? The Egyptians are right.

Here’s why. It is absolutely not the case that the Hebrews built the Sphinx and the pyramids. The pyramids date back to approximately 2700-2100 B.C. When you consider the fact that conventional dating locates Abraham at approximately 1800 B.C., and Moses at approximately 1300 B.C., you can understand the Egyptians’ consternation. The Book of Exodus states that the ancient Israelites were involved in massive building projects — the storage cities of Pithom and Ramses — but those weren’t the pyramids or the Sphinx. Point conceded.

What about the other historical inaccuracies? Are there, in fact, “international Zionist fingerprints” all over the film? If you define Zionist as “Jews taking charge of their own destiny and refusing to be passive,” then yes, guilty as charged.

Many critics have cringed at the notion of Moses as an armed military leader. The idea has some good Jewish lineage. The ancient Roman-Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, certainly believed that Moses had military credentials, leading an Egyptian army against neighboring Ethiopia. Those traditions can also be found in certain minor legends of the late rabbinic period.

Did Ridley Scott know about those sources? Probably not. But in choosing to portray Moses not as a meek, passive receptor of God’s words, but as a forceful military leaders, “Exodus” provides us with a Moses for our time.

It is hard to watch “Exodus” and not see subtle, even subconscious references, to the Holocaust. The public hangings, which contemporary Egyptians find so offensive, were straight out of the Nazi playbook, as was the burning of the Hebrew slaves’ bodies. When Moses leads the Israelites into open rebellion, it is as if he is pulling off an earlier version of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The Jews would not be passive. That was the attitude that bred Zionism.

So, if contemporary Egyptian critics choose to see “Zionist influences” in this film, then fine, yet another point conceded.

Some American viewers will object to the gravity and graphic nature of the plagues. Yet we needed to see those images. It was great to see how each plague led to the next, resulting in a massive ecological meltdown, which is by now a “standard” scientific explanation for the plagues. As for depicting God as a 12- year-old boy with an attitude? The great Jewish sage Maimonides, who abhorred any expression of God in physical terms, is probably rolling over in his grave.

But the most important thing about “Exodus” actually takes us beyond the movie itself — and points us in a direction that leads us to another epic film of the season.

When you strip away the costumes, mythology, and mascara-wearing Egyptian monarchs, what do you really have? “Exodus” is a film about the birth of freedom — a (yes, human-instigated and divinely sponsored) struggle for national liberation. A people demands its rights. A leader screams out for redemption. An uneasy walk into the wilderness, with no guarantees of what would lie ahead.

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma" from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films. RNS photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma” from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films. RNS photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.

Sound familiar? It’s also the story of the civil rights revolution, under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. — and the subject of the current film “Selma.”

The civil rights movement freely used the images of the Exodus from Egypt. It inherited old black spirituals — “When Israel was in Egypt land — let my people go.” The civil rights movement, under the leadership of religiously inspired individuals, saw the Exodus from Egypt as the template for the freedom of blacks in this country. That was what led so many American Jewish leaders to actively and passionately support the civil rights movement. When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched at Selma, he remarked that he felt “as if his feet were praying.”

After all — the “capital” of ancient Egypt was Memphis. Which was also the American city where King was killed.

So there you have it. Had there been no “Exodus,” there would have been no “Selma.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Salkin

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am of Bayonne, N.J., and the author of “Righteous Gentiles In The Hebrew Bible,” published by Jewish Lights.) 

KRE/AMB END SALKIN

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

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