By: Yaacov Bronstein  | 

The Religious Necessity to Watch An Exodus Movie

Certain representations of the Exodus story in popular media have become, for many, indispensably associated with the seasonal Passover experience. For these adherers, the notion of forgoing an annual screening of Prince of Egypt or the Rugrats Passover episode would constitute an unthinkable abrogation of personal tradition. Alongside the inherited family Seder plate, sentimental melodies, and immutable holiday destinations, the Exodus movie has obtained its place on the mantelpiece of household custom, to be reverently disturbed once a year along with all the others.

The notion of viewing a dramatic rendering of the Exodus harbors much inherent religious benefit. The classically trotted obligation on the Seder night is to see oneself as though one had actually exited Egypt. This emphasis on the experiential is a tall order, necessitating not just a simple cognitive reiteration but a sensitive immersion. To expect to see yourself leaving Egypt is to mandate a personal, vivid visualization and imaginative engagement with the Exodus story. Unfortunately, for many modern readers, the biblical text, even when read continuously as an epic story, uninterrupted by the divisions of the parsha or unencumbered by commentaries, fails to convey the dramatic gravity and immersive magnitude typically achieved by, say, the Lord of the Rings movies. Though the actual story of the Exodus leaves little to be desired even relative to the plot of Lord of the Rings, the literary style of the Bible is notoriously frugal with its words, and descriptively skeletal when compared to contemporary literature, making it difficult to access and appreciate. Oftentimes the most timeless and compelling aspects of the Exodus story, the colossal heroism, triumph of liberation, and relatable human drama, are tragically lost on the modern reader detached across a dramatic lacuna stretching three millennia into the past, or, regarding a parallel issue, on the religious individual who has studied these stories into a dulled and rote oblivion. A film adaptation of the story, if done well, has the potential to revitalize and concretize the Exodus within the imagination, immersing the viewer in the story in a manner otherwise unattainable. The events become not just words on a page, but a real and vivid drama.

It has been my personal tradition for some years to view the film The Ten Commandments at a time close to the holiday. The movie stretches almost four hours long, utilizing an epic scope and grand theatrical style befitting the Exodus story. The script is quite loyal to its source, and makes a conscious effort to harness the biblical voice, frequently lifting verses directly from the text, allowing them, for many religious viewers, to be heard genuinely spoken for the first time. As a serious and loyal portrayal of the story, I feel that it reinvigorates in me the awe one should feel for the Exodus, much as the holiday itself should do, and provides the proper framework for my own visualization.

For example, while I have known since pre-school that God split the sea to allow safe passage for the Jewish nation, I failed to appreciate the sheer scale and power of that moment until I saw it brought to life in this film. The drama of the scene lies in its uncertainty, but as perennial readers of the text we easily forget to appreciate that those standing on the banks of the sea that day had no intimation that the sea would split, or that the elite Egyptian army would be destroyed. No one considers the individual willpower mustered that day, and the fear which was overcome, to step into an unnatural and immense chasm of water, poised, at any moment, to topple back to its usual state. Viewing this scene in the film reminds us of the human reality latent in the text.

Pharaoh’s chariots thunder in the distance and the nation, encamped near the sea, flees helplessly to the shore, where the people harangue Moses, poised on a high and promontory rock, for leading them to their deaths:

“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you took us away to die in the wilderness!”

As a pillar of fire descends to bar Pharaoh’s encroaching army and dark clouds convene to storm over the sea, Moses’ deep voice trumpets over the nation:

“After this day, you shall see his chariots no more! The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us! Behold His mighty hand!”

As he raises his arms over the waters the seas swell and recoil into massive shimmering walls, emerging as a towering canyon of water stretching into the distance. The nation slowly passes through, glancing warily upwards at the wavering heights. Suddenly, the fire dissipates, and hundreds of golden chariots give chase with leveled spears, eagerly anticipating an easy massacre. The Hebrew stragglers, having spotted the encroaching chariots, reach the safety of the opposite bank before the towers of water collapse, crushing the golden army under the weight of the sea. A divine light shines down through the clouds onto the liberated people, and Moses says,

“Thou didst blow with Thy winds, and the sea covered them. Who is like unto Thee, O Lord? From everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.”

Many more personal examples could be cited along similar lines, as the film frequently articulates aspects of the story which had never occurred to me despite years of study. The grief Moses feels while wandering towards Midian in Egyptian exile, the conflicts of an identity divided between Egyptian prince and Hebrew Prophet, the stubbornness of Pharaoh, the horrors and hopelessness of slavery, and on and on, are all brought into sharp and understandable human relief.

Scripture charges the liberated nation, in what practically becomes a refrain, to use the memory of enslavement to hold themselves to a higher moral standard.

“And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20)

Throughout Scripture the propagation of the Exodus story becomes an act concurrent with the perpetuation of these ideals. Annually reliving the Exodus reminds us of our charge, but a lesson which hinges on a story requires a compelling storyteller. For the modern religious individual, the Exodus movie has the dramatic potential to be that storyteller, to revitalize the text in a powerful and poignant way, and imbue a crucial humanity into the most important story ever told.