A Review of ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

I recently saw Ridley Scott’s film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. If you’re expecting to see a movie version of the biblical narratives, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. But then, why would you expect Hollywood to produce that? If it’s the Exodus narrative you’re after, just open a Bible and read it. If you’re expecting something to rival Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, then you’ll also be disappointed. This film is far gritier, and lacks the melodrama of mid-twentieth century cinema. It also has some really good bits, too. In particular, its depiction of Egyptian palace life was, I thought, very nicely done. The human side of ancient life came through quite nicely, avoiding the stern caricatures that populate The Ten Commandments.

Exodus: Gods and Kings reinterprets the Exodus story in ways that depart distinctly from the biblical narratives. It takes up a series of themes that are very much at home in our post-9/11 world, seeing faith through a foggy postmodern lens.

Here are my brief impressions about the message of the film. I’ve kept the spoilers to an absolute minimum, so my comments here shouldn’t affect your viewing. In fact, I hope they might enhance your experience.

Having watched the film, I now understand Christian Bale’s comment that he thinks Moses was a very disturbed, possibly schizophrenic individual. His comments were evidently not based on the biblical narratives, but on the screenplay for the film. To appreciate Bale’s comments, look out for what happens when Moses chases three sheep up a mountain, and then the conversation he has with wife, Zipporah (Maria Valverde), just a few minutes later. These two ‘scenes’ bracket one of the most important scenes in the movie, but also demonstrate the cause of the change in Moses’ character.

The film continues the oft-worn path of seeing Moses and Ramesses as practically brothers. They are two people raised very closely with similar values, with circumstances eventually driving them apart and bringing them into conflict with each other. This means the movie also continues the Hollywood theme of Moses being unaware of his actual identity as a Hebrew. Nowhere does the biblical narrative of Exodus name the Egyptian Pharaoh, nor does it imply that Moses was unaware of his heritage. In fact, if anything, it implies he was aware, and that it plagued him (excuse the pun!). I was hoping that Moses would be portrayed with awareness of his heritage, but it seems the ‘unknown secret identity’ theme is too good to drop in a Hollywood production.

The film is clearly trying to say that religious faith is not neat. It has both good aspects and bad. In particular, it aims to say that there is a fine line between faith and fundamentalism, and adherents to a particular faith need to work hard at ensuring they do not slide into fanaticism. At the same time, it also shows that the circumstances people find themselves in sometimes call for desperate measures. This doesn’t excuse fundamentalism, but it helps to give it a context, and calls for reasoned development that tries to avoid it. Moses’ initial actions when he returns to Egypt clearly demonstrate all this. But in saying this, the film is not repudiating faith. On the contrary, the film is arguing for the validity of faith as a good thing, but it is not a pure good. It sees it as a messy good that is easily tainted. It therefore requires careful attention and development. The character of Moses in the early part of the film is rationalist—something that changes after his interaction with God. This change is demonstrating that reason alone is not enough to make sense of the world. Reason without faith is callous. But faith without reason is in danger of becoming fundamentalism.

The portrayal of God in the film is one of the most surprising aspects of it. It’s also the one that people of faith (Christian or Jewish) will likely find the most objectionable. The film is trying to say that biblical faith has come a long way since ancient times. Biblical faith is an advance on the superstition of ancient religions like that of the Egyptians. But in the days of Moses, biblical faith was still in its infancy. Faith needs time to settle and find a good balance, both for the humans who have faith, and for the God who sparks it. The film aims to say that Judeo-Christian belief has come a very long way from very messy, even childish beginnings. God himself has developed significantly as he has interacted with human beings. In portraying God this way, the film sees him as very much in the same mould as kings: powerful, but not omnipotent or omniscient; flawed, but perhaps trying to do his best. As such, the film creates God in human image. But this also explains the film’s subtitle: Gods and Kings.

A consequent notion of this portrayal is that other faiths might also have troubled beginnings, but given time and reason, they may contribute something valid to people’s lives. In a world that does not wish to denounce Islam while also wanting to condemn acts of terror committed in its name, the film treads a very politically correct middle path. In a postmodern way, it validates people’s chosen faith, while also encouraging critique and reform.

The film demythologises the miraculous, like the plagues and the Red Sea crossing, while trying not to undermine their impact as supernatural. This clearly demonstrates the film’s intent to show how faith and reason must go together, especially in considering natural disasters. The character of Moses also conveys this strongly. He is a man of reason who becomes driven also by religious conviction on the basis of his personal experience. The film does allow for special revelation to occur, but it also confines it to the personal realm. See, for example, the way the character of Joshua views Moses’ interactions with God from a distance. This is vastly different to the biblical narrative which portrays the revelation of Yahweh as publicly dynamic and ‘in your face’.

A very significant feature of the film is the human face it gives to the Egyptians. The biblical narratives do not name any Egyptians (not even the Pharaoh), allowing the reader to keep them all at a safe arm’s length. But the film does not do this. The final plague in particular shows that the Egyptians—the ‘other’—have faces, names, and relatives. This had quite an impact, and helped the film further its agenda to show the thin line between faith and fundamentalism.

The last few segments of the film do well in showing that Israel was baptised into Moses, and that God went with them through the wilderness.

On a different note: The Battle of Qadesh at the opening of the film was not fought in a remote desert. Qadesh was a thriving city in a verdant Syrian valley.

Ridley Scott isn’t Cecil B. DeMille, and nor should he be. But there are some good moments in the film. I never thought I’d feel sorrow for Pharaoh, but after the last plague, I did. And I never saw Moses wearing a watch!

If you’re hoping to see the book of Exodus come alive on the screen, think again. Hollywood is not interested in portraying biblical truth. Besides, we have the Bible anyway, so why should anyone expect divine revelation to come from a film? Exodus: Gods and Kings does, however, make a postmodern comment on faith and its development.

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Review: Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics

My brief review of Brill’s monumental Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics has been published in the latest issue of Themelios (39.3). Click HERE to read it.

A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism (Book Review)

One way to view modern biblical scholarship is as a big set of conversations. People join the conversations, ask lots of questions, raise new ideas, and challenge old ones. It can be quite daunting keeping up with everything people are saying, but it is exciting trading and testing ideas.

These conversations have been going a long time now, so many conversation partners have come and gone. Some of these are the giants in the field of Biblical Studies. Students usually encounter the names of these giants early on in their studies as they are just trying to pick up what has been said in conversations past. At that stage students are usually unaware of the profound effect these scholars have had. Their influence goes beyond the conversations these scholars had in their own day. They have left an indelible mark on all the conversations after them.

I’m grateful, therefore, to have received from Zondervan a review copy of Mark Gignilliat’s book, A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism (Zondervan, 2012). One of the beauties of Gignilliat’s book is that it not only identifies and introduces some of these expert conservationalists in Biblical Studies; it also allows readers to begin detecting echoes of these scholars in subsequent scholarly conversations. Gignilliat works hard to frame an understanding of these seminal scholars within the social and philosophical currents of their own day. To this end, he supplies a brief biography of these scholars, concentrating on the influences that impacted them, and then sketches the particular contribution each person made to the conversation of Biblical Studies. The result is simple yet masterful! Gignilliat distils the essence of these innovative contributors for easy consumption, allowing us to hear their salient statements, understand how these fell on other ears of the day, and then perceive how theses statements still echo even in our day.

Gignilliat introduces us to seven master conversationalists in chronological order. They are:

  1. Benedict Spinoza
  2. W. M. L. de Wette
  3. Julius Wellhausen
  4. Herman Gunkel
  5. Gerhard von Rad
  6. William Foxwell Albright
  7. Brevard Childs

Of course this list raises questions as to why these seven were chosen over others. Gignilliat states three reasons for the shape of his list:

(1) I want the volume to remain small and accessible to students; (2) I believe the figures in this work represent the larger trends and tendencies of Old Testament criticism in the modern period; and (3) I wanted to finished. (loc 104)

Yet one thing these seven particular scholars have in common is they are no longer with us. Their respective legacies are, therefore, somewhat set. It would perhaps be preemptive to include on the list someone who is still contributing to current conversations in biblical studies. Thus, either Thomas L. Thompson or Philip R. Davies could feature on the list as critics of William Foxwell Albright. While this would provide good balance, both Tom and Philip are still with us actively contributing to ongoing conversations. Their inclusion would perhaps sell their contributions short before they were finished.

If, however, we are to apply departure from the conversation as a criterion for inclusion, then there are two particular names I am surprised are still not on the list. These are Martin Noth and James Barr. The contributions of Wellhausen and von Rad would surely have been enhanced if Noth’s contribution to tradition history in the Pentateuch and the ‘Deuteronomistic History’ had been included. James Barr’s work in comparative philology and his criticism of biblical theology were also highly influential. We could argue the toss on other names, but the legacy of these two scholars, I feel, has been overlooked and, by implication, unwittingly minimised.

Mark Gignilliat (Beeson Divinity School)

Nonetheless, the discussion of these seven scholars is very well presented. It gives students a useful orientation to how these men were shaped by the conversations of their day, thus uncovering their assumptions, and their ideological and rational framework. It also equips the student to see how these men, in turn, shaped conversation after them. For example, we see how Descartes’ radical rationalism and deism influenced Spinoza’s separation of ‘theology’ and ‘morality’ from ‘philosophy’ and ‘truth’. We observe how Romanticism stood behind de Wette’s emphasis on mythicism over historicism. A similar observation is made for Gunkel in his analysis of the Psalms. We come to understand von Rad’s distinction between ancient Israel’s actual history and their account of it in their kerygmatic documents about their God. This notion stands behind many current conversation in biblical studies today, and has led many to abandon conversing about the Bible as ‘scripture’. Thus, we are helped to understand the response of Brevard Childs’ ‘canonical criticism’ as a critical confessional contribution.

Students wishing to understand why current conversations in Biblical Studies sound the way they do will find Gignilliat’s book an excellent tool. It gives some good ‘sound bites’ that will help train the ear. It also just might help students begin to understand how they themselves converse in Biblical Studies. It’s not until we hear someone else speak that we realise we have the same or different accent (i.e. assumptions and framework). Gignilliat’s clever book may guide students to discover from whom it was that they inherited their ‘accent’. Understanding the greats, therefore, is an important step in self-awareness.

 

Those who made the list:

Benedict Spinoza

W. M. L. de Wette

Julius Wellhausen

Herman Gunkel

Gerhard von Rad

William F. Albright

Brevard Childs

 

Those I think should have made the list:

Martin Noth

James Barr

 

DISCLAIMER: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher (Zondervan)

Buy it on Amazon: http://amzn.to/18Ux67r
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By it at Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/175aSO4

Book Review: A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew

I recently reviewed a new introductory Hebrew grammar by Prof. Jo Ann Hackett of the University of Texas at Austin. Prof. Hackett is perhaps best known for her work on the Balaam texts from Deir Alla. My review of her grammar book, A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (Hendrickson, 2010) is now up at Review of Biblical Literature, along with reviews by two others (Bernard Levinson and James Robson).

In short, I think this new grammar is a marked improvement on other older texts, especially in its attempt to be a true introductory grammar, rather than an undercover reference grammar. However, Prof. Hackett does make some choices that I do question.

Just after it became publicly available, Prof. Hackett contacted me about the review. With her permission, I’ve made some of her comments available here. As far as I know, no journal actually publishes an author’s response to reviews, so I’m glad to provide her with a public right of reply here. It’s best to read the review first, and then her comments below.

Jo Ann Hackett: I have just read your review of my textbook, and I must say that most of your negative reactions have been mirrored by others.  And I remain unconvinced, of course!  I do want to question, however, your suggestion that I treat what you call the “vav consecutive” as if it simply reverses the tense of the verb, because that is something I most certainly do not do, and I’m not quite sure how you could assume that I do.  I would suggest you read 15.3, where I specifically reject that point of view, and 15.4, which I hope shows that I think the historical explanation is correct.

In 16.8, where I say that some people believe that the vav of the ve-qatal form exists as an imitation of the wayyiqtol vav, I suppose you might read it the way you did, but even there, the explanation depends to a certain extent on the historical explanation of the wayyiqtol form.  So I don’t understand that part of the review, and to be honest, I really hate it that such a thing is out there about me, being read by people who don’t know any better.

Let me add a less serious aside.  The objections I’ve gotten to the fact that we call the verb by the 3ms SC form, even though I don’t start there, have all come from teachers.  I’ve taught this to all sorts of students, and I’ve yet to have a single one confused by it.  The same goes for the 1st-person first decision.  Teachers often hate it because we all learned it the other way.  Students, who don’t know any better, never even notice.  I have to admit that it’s hard for me, too, because I have them recite the paradigms and have to remember that they’re doing it in the way I taught them, not the way I learned it.

As you will see in her first paragraph, Prof. Hackett takes me to task for misrepresenting her on the ‘vav consecutive’. Having had my own arguments misrepresented in reviews, I can understand the frustration this can cause an author. However, in this case, I think there is some ambiguity inherent in the wording used within the grammar book that explains why I received the apparently wrong impression. In the review I state that it is unfortunate that Hackett opts for viewing the waw (or ‘vav‘) prefix of the wayyiqtol as a ‘waw conversive’—that is, an element that somehow converts or reverses tense. I quote §15.3 (p.90) of the book in its entirety:

15.3 Other Names For the Consecutive Preterite

The form we are calling the consecutive preterite is usually called “converted imperfect,” as if the addition of the וַ somehow “converted” a future-tense verb into a past-tense verb. It is also called the “imperfect with vav consecutive,” a better choice, but also misleading, since the basic verb is not the “imperfect” (our prefix conjugation) but rather the jussive.

You will see from this paragraph that there is no specific denial of the concept of a converted imperfect. The first sentence is stated without challenge. It is most likely that Prof. Hackett intended the ‘also’ in the phrase ‘but also misleading’ (second sentence) to signify a denial of the veracity of both the ‘converted imperfect’ and ‘imperfect with vav consecutive’ terminologies. However, since the concept of a ‘converted imperfect’ is not labelled misleading immediately after it is described, the impression I gained was that ‘also misleading’ applied only to the use of the word ‘imperfect’ in the terminology. In other words, I read the paragraph as saying that the wayyiqtol (or ‘consecutive preterite’ as Hackett terms it) can also be conceptualised as a ‘converted imperfect’ or, even better as an ‘imperfect with vav consecutive’, even though the wayyiqtol happens to be using the jussive, rather than the imperfect (yiqtol). Thus, although Prof. Hackett meant to put these other terms forward so as to deny their veracity or usefulness, there is no specific and unambiguous statement to that effect, and the paragraph can plausibly be read as though it were a mild endorsement (albeit with slight correction) of these conceptualities.

I am quite relieved to learn from Prof. Hackett that she does not endorse the ‘waw conversive’ or ‘consecutive imperfect’ views of the wayyiqtol. Yet, that makes the ambiguity inherent in the wording of §15.3 all the more unfortunate. I’m quite glad, however, that this issue could be raised and clarified here, and hope that instructors using the book are aware of the ambiguity and can take action to ensure a proper understanding of this particular section the way Prof. Hackett intended it.