Exodus: Gods and kings

Ridley Scott’s movie, Exodus: Gods and kings, based on the Biblical book of Exodus, is of interest to historians of Israelite history, theologians of Jewish and Christian backgrounds, and to movie critics.

As an historian, I would caution viewers not to take Scott’s version of the Israelite exodus from Egypt too seriously. It is more like a historical novel than a serious attempt to reconstruct the events depicted in the Biblical book of Exodus.

While Scott has made a fair attempt to make sense of the difficult elements in the story, he had to invent his own framework with which to deal with the miraculous things associated with Israel’s escape from Egypt, treating them as a “mysterious other.”

Biblical Inerrancy

Some consider that the entire text of Exodus was dictated by Moses, but as an historian I find that this approach does not show sufficient respect for the text. This is because the content of the text itself reveals that it was drawn from at least three different sources, each one reflecting, at least in part, the intention of its author at the time the account was written. This is discussed here.

A corollary of the claim that the text of Exodus was written by Moses is the belief that all of the Bible is without error, being somehow inspired by God in such a way that it shows no signs of human fallibility in its construction. It is a position that defies logic, and cannot be consistently held. Yet it is the majority position among those Christians who call themselves evangelicals. Even Scott’s account makes a number of concessions to the way the story is told by those who hold to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. This includes the old chestnut of the 400 year sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt, the wrong identification of the sea that the people crossed, and the reference to 600,000 men-at-war as reported in the Israelite censuses.

  • While Scott accepted the Biblical reference to a 340 / 400 year sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt, it is an unlikely piece of accounting. Although this time-span can be sourced to a guess made 300 years after these events took place, it is actually historically impossible when one takes the totality of the Biblical evidence into account. For example, this time-span would place the references to the Hittites in Genesis even before the Hittites had emerged outside of central Anatolia. In addition, 400 years of exile are incompatible with the relatively short genealogy of Aaron’s line; it is also incompatible with the account of David’s line. Yet both of these genealogies are presented as complete. However, Biblical literalists never worry about actual history, preferring unlikely half-researched explanations.
  • The assumption, which recently re-emerged, that the Israelites actually crossed the Red Sea, rather than some other body of water, is taken at face value in this film. Those who promote the doctrine of inerrancy find this association necessary because when the J source was written around the time of King David (some 300 years later) the name “Sea of Reeds” / Red Sea was applied to the sea that the people crossed – it is elsewhere unnamed. Yet the Biblical literalists ignore the fact that the Bible says that the Israelites could see the Egyptian dead on the other side of the Sea of Reeds – something that would have been impossible for the Red Sea proper, and quite difficult (at least without a telescope) even at the northern end of the Gulf of Suez (the north-west branch neck of the Red Sea), where the sea is about 10 km wide.
  • Scott has also taken at face value the difficult suggestion that there were 600,000 men of war in the Israelite party that left Egypt. This idea can also be dated to around the time of Solomon, when this way of reading the source documents first emerged. For example, where Numbers refers to the tribe of Reuben being counted as 46 clans / thousands and five hundred men, this was taken as meaning 46,500 men, rather than the more likely 500 men in 46 clans – a form of reading that also applies to all the other tribes.

Out of the two possible readings of the tribal numbers, the “more wonderful” version, 600,000 men, was preferred by the ancient Israelite story-tellers to the “more ordinary” version, 6,000 men. Since the archaeological records do not show a massive invasion of the Israelite highlands, but rather something closer to a new people group entering Canaan around 1200 BC (such as could be encompassed by a force of 6,000 men) we can be confident that 6,000 is the correct reading. Recounting a story of 600,000 warriers was only possible for the story-tellers once the reality of their early history had faded from the Israelite view. Yet, for us, counting the Israelites as 600,000 men must be considered to be unrealistic, at both ends of the exercise. There is no evidence for such a large number entering Canaan, and there is no evidence for such a large number of Israelites leaving Egypt. Since the larger number would mean an exodus of about 2 million men, women and children out of a total Egyptian population of 9 million people at that time, it is quite improbable that an event of this magnitude would not be found anywhere in the Egyptian archaeological records, if indeed 2 million people had left the country quite abruptly.

More vivid and more miraculous

It is recognized  (or it should be) among historians that stories of extraordinary events carried down over time (without firm written sources) tend to become more vivid over time, and reported miracles become more miraculous.

A tendency in this direction can be seen in the wonderful song of Moses and the children of Israel found in Exodus 15. This gives a vivid account of the defeat of Pharaoh and his chariot army at the Sea of Reeds. This version is drawn from the oral traditions of the tribe of Judah (and of Aaron’s descendants). This version is much more elaborate than the two line song of Miriam, also found in the same chapter, which is likely to have been drawn from the Akkadian texts surviving from that period. While both versions of this song have their own place in the historical record, their composition cannot both be dated to the same moment in time.

It is not only Israelite song-writers who are given to depicting vivid imagery. When we turn to Scott’s account of the sea swallowing the Egyptians, it would be difficult to have constructed a more hyperbolic account. His version goes far beyond even the most dramatic description found in Exodus itself.

Even though it would have been easier for Scott to have created a plainer account, it would have been much less entertaining, and would not have provided the excellent graphic imagery he has gifted to us. Can it then be surprising if the Israelite story-tellers also adapted the story to current needs as they told it? This is especially the case since the exodus and the rescue of the early Israelites from slavery in Egypt was the central event of their history, not something invented 600 years later, as some have suggested.

Historical context

From an historian’s perspective, there are at least some things in which it is difficult to disagree with Scott’s version:

  • Ramesses II as the Pharaoh of the exodus – this is uncontroversial.
  • Moses as the (imputed) grandson of Pharaoh Horemheb – this shows some insight. It even could be possible that the purging from all monuments of the name of Horemheb’s predecessor, Pharaoh Ai, was due to Egyptians’ disgust with that pharaoh’s decision to order the unjust killing of all newborn Hebrew boys, if indeed Ai was responsible for this decree.

Other aspects of this recounting are more difficult from a historian’s perspective:

  • Scott has Pharaoh Seti implying that Moses was more worthy to be his successor than his own son, Ramesses. Given usual dynastic ambitions, this seems quite unlikely, and can be considered to be an imaginative reconstruction of no historical value.
  • While Moses was brought up in Pharaoh Horemheb’s court, it does not naturally follow that he would have been in Pharaoh Seti’s court or been one of Seti’s generals. This aspect of Scott’s story can also be taken under the heading of imaginative reconstruction. On the other hand, one can at least accept that Ramesses and Moses knew each other: the royal clique was not so large as to make this unlikely.
  • The Egyptians seem to have been portrayed somewhat unkindly in Scott’s version, with his presentation giving insufficient recognition to the importance of Maat (truth and justice) among the Egyptian nobility. Scott also failed to observe the openness of the Egyptian nobility to Asiatics where these foreigners had particular talents of use to the Pharaoh.
  • It is difficult to accept that Moses, Seti and Ramesses did not know of Moses’ Israelite ancestry. It is not likely that Moses’ Israelite origins was a terrible secret only disclosed at the last minute.

As a Christian, one has also to take issue with Scott’s depiction of Yahweh (the name for God that Moses learnt in Midian) as a petulant child and of Moses’ difficult relationship with Yahweh.  It is likely that Scott has given us his own view of the God of the Old Testament, even though it is one that many others may share. Yet this film is his creative work and naturally reflects his opinions (or those of the director and writers together). However, his interpretation of this story can hardly be accepted uncritically, nor do we have to accept his opinion that he was depicting a foundation myth, not an actual historical event.

Conclusion

Even though Scott’s film has limited value as an historical account of the beginnings of the Israelite nation, it remains a good yarn, and probably worth watching for the issues that it raises.

Dr Graham Lovell / Historian / Sydney

 

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