This past year has been a year for Bible movies. Almost a year ago, 20th Century Fox released Son of God, about Jesus, based on the History Channel’s 2013 miniseries hit, “The Bible,” that had 100 million cumulative viewers. Paramount soon followed in March with Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s reimagining of the Biblical story of the flood and its survivors. April brought us Heaven Is For Real, Sony’s movie based on the best-selling book that tells about a young boy’s after-death experience meeting with Gd and Biblical heroes. And just in time to be considered for the Oscars, comes Exodus: Gods and Kings. And the other night I saw Patterns of Evidence, a documentary that presents the new archeological evidence for the Exodus—some of which I’ll be presenting in my classes on Sunday mornings.
What explains this sudden revival of Hollywood’s interest in the Bible? It makes sense if you consider that the Bible is the best-selling book of the year—every single year. It accounts for 2 of the top 15 highest grossing movies of all time. Where else could you find subject matter for a movie that already occupies a place of respect and reverence in the minds of billions of people?
However, I’m told by everyone I know who has seen it that Exodus: Gods and Kings was a terrible movie, and that’s why I didn’t go. But after reading several reviews and after conversations with those that have seen it I am told that it does present a unique perspective—it presents the events from the Egyptian side, leaving viewers to empathize more with Pharaoh than with Moses.
The Torah story of the Exodus includes a litany of harsh punishments levied by Gd against Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. Their suffering during the 10 Plagues is so immense that we have an ancient custom to spill some wine from our wine cups at the Pesach Seder—as we recount each plague—to demonstrate our sympathy for their pain. Nevertheless, the Torah story is focused on our pain. We eat matzah to recall the bread of affliction that we ate in slavery. We eat maror to relive the bitterness of our servitude. We dip the karpas in salt-water to taste the tears of suffering we endured…In the Torah’s version of the story, we’re the good guys, the Egyptians and the Pharaoh are the bad guys, and Gd is our Secret Weapon.
The movie, I’m told, makes out the average Egyptian as a victim of Pharaoh. Never mind, as the Midrash tells us, most Egyptians had Jewish slaves. In the film, fishermen do not deserve to be eaten by giant crocodiles. It’s excruciating to hear the primal screams of the mothers of the stricken 1st-borns during the final plague. They don’t deserve this, the film suggests.
It may not be a good movie, it may be filled with inaccuracies—some even offensive—but it does make a point: great suffering and harm must be justified in order to balance the moral scale. How are we to understand Divine collective punishment of all Egyptians? Why does Gd cause so much unnecessary suffering? Rabbi Eli Fink of “The Shul on the Beach” in Venice California asks this question in his blog and suggests 4 approaches from Jewish sources:
1. All of the Egyptians must have deserved it. Gd does not punish the innocent and if they were punished they must have been guilty. Here you can be creative about their sins. I call this the “Ray Lewis” approach. “Gd does not make mistakes.”
2. Some Egyptians deserved it and others were collateral damage. Gd was punishing the leaders and the oppressors within the Egyptian nation. Once shots are fired, innocents will be harmed. I call this the “Hiroshima approach.”
3. Only the guilty Egyptians actually suffered from the plagues. In other words, the descriptions of the plagues are generalizations that seem to include every Egyptian. The truth is that only a small number of leaders and oppressors were punished, and their experience is described in the Torah. The innocent were not harmed; only a few guilty parties felt the terror of the plagues, and the rest of Egypt watched in horror. I call this “The Selective Anecdote Becoming History approach.”
4. Some argue that collective punishment is moral. Handwringing over death to Egyptians is a corrupt symptom of modernity and we need not think twice about innocent victims. There’s no problem here in the first place. I call this the “Old-School Morality approach.” “Woe to the wicked person. Woe to his neighbor.”
While I think there is merit for each approach, Rabbi Fink suggests something entirely different to explain the duration of the plagues. He asks, “Who is the target audience of the plagues?” The text seems to indicate that the plagues were designed to get Pharaoh to relent and free the Israelites, but when he’s ready to let the Jewish people go, Gd hardens Pharaoh’s heart. When the Jews finally do escape they just pick up and go. The plagues don’t actually free them.
The Jews were about 2-3 million people. That’s a lot of people. They certainly way out-numbered their Egyptian slave masters. Yet, they never tried to escape. It’s almost as if the Israelites were incapable of freeing themselves. Rabbi Fink suggests: The Israelites are so broken and so stuck that they can’t leave. If more than 2 million people try to leave, they can just go. Some will die, but the others will be free. Still, they just can’t do it.
Slavery transforms a person from a self-determinative person to a marching ant. Everyone needs self-respect and confidence to succeed. A slave has none.
[Here’s the crux of Rabbi Fink’s point.] The plagues were not a punishment for the Pharaoh or the Egyptians. Gd wasn’t strategically weakening the Egyptians either. We didn’t need that in order to leave. We could have left as soon as we were ready. What we lacked was the autonomy and courage to believe in ourselves and our Gd. The plagues were for us. Gd was telling us, “Look what I am doing for you! You are worth all of this!”
In other words, when Pharaoh finally had enough and wanted us to go…we weren’t ready to go. And so Gd hardened Pharaoh’s heart to give us more time to develop this sense of self-determination and self-respect. The plagues were about us. Finally, after 10 plagues we had the strength to leave and we just got up and left the same way we could have left all along. This is a fascinating way of looking at the Exodus, is it not?
But that self-respect turned out to be short-lived. Once at the Red Sea trapped by the Egyptian army, they lacked the ability to turn and fight and just cried out to Gd who split the sea for them. Throughout the 40-year journey through the desert, these former slaves battled those same demons. They struggled with believing in their self-worth and even cried at times, that they wanted to go back to Egypt.
My friends, this is our story—is it not? We’re born as slaves to our physical selves—our instincts and passions. Our lives are then journeys, transitioning ourselves to freedom—to develop our Gd-given potential, to create a life that’s meaningful. At some point we realize what’s really important and we begin to muster enough strength to live that way by manifesting our better selves—to be what we were meant to be. But, like the Israelites in the desert, our freedom to be our higher selves is often short-lived. Life’s struggles challenge us and we sometimes slip back to old patterns.
Why did Gd have to forge the Jewish people with the experience of slavery and redemption? It was so that His people would understand from the outset that a human has value and worth and should not be a slave. As that old American philosopher Snoopy once put it: “Gd don’t make junk!” Just as the Israelites could have left at any time, know that Gd gave you the ability to stand up to any challenge. So when life is hard and you don’t know how you’ll get through it all, hold your head up and remember: you’re an image of Gd, there’s not much you can’t do. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis