THIS movie should really be called Exodus: Moses’ Struggle with God.
Early on in the movie, Moses (at the time an Egyptian general), travels to the city of Pithom to investigate complaints about the Hebrew slaves from the Viceroy assigned to the city. They have a conversation in which the Viceroy mocks the Israelites, saying the very name itself means ‘one who fights with God’. Moses corrects him and says it means ‘one who wrestles with God’. Personally I would use the word ‘struggles’ instead of ‘wrestles’, but the point is that that exchange foreshadows Moses’ relationship with God.
As much as the movie is about the suffering and deliverance of the Hebrew people in Egypt, and about how Moses finally finds some measure of happiness in exile with his wife and son, it is more about Moses’ relationship with God–a very personal relationship, almost an equal partnership at times.
Moses is very clearly an unbeliever–he has grown up surrounded by the Egyptian religion with its pantheon of gods (not to mention Pharaohs), and has remained unconverted by any of them. He finally decides to follow God (their relationship, as I mentioned, doesn’t even look like any kind of deity worship we have today) because that’s the only way he sees to save his people.
Moses sets out to save his people from Pharaoh, but his attempts don’t have much impact, while Rameses’ retaliation seems expressly designed to dispirit and demoralise, frighten and terrorise, the Hebrew slaves. Like any clever slaveowner, Rameses avoids doing much real damage to his property, while still punishing them enough to (in his eyes) frighten them into submission.
That it doesn’t work is evident whenever we see the faces of the Hebrews as they observe the injustice. That they persevere in the face of it all seems like the real miracle to me, not the plagues and the cataclysms. Early on in the movie, Moses tells the Viceroy that you can tell a lot about a man by looking into his eyes. When you look at the faces of the Hebrews, it seems as if God is behind their eyes looking out at you.
God in the movie is a wrathful God. A God of vengeance. There are no two ways about it. He cannot coerce men nor preempt their minds, having given them free will. But He can and does preempt the natural order and the natures of the beasts and insects, and causes them to rain down upon Egypt in plague after plague. The punishment is intense, the suffering severe. Moses grows frustrated with it. ‘Who are we punishing?’ he asks. When God acts upon the face of the Earth, his action is like a giant hammer that smashes down upon all, without discrimination.
The final plague is what finally threatens to break Moses’ resolve: ‘No! I cannot be a part of this!’ In a final act of wrath, God reveals that He has heard Rameses’ threat to kill every Hebrew infant, and He will take the life of every first-born child of Egypt, unless they are in a house whose door is marked with the sacrificial blood of a lamb. Of this escape only the Hebrews are warned. Finally, God plans a way to discriminate between His people and their oppressors.
Knowing that there will be a massacre of innocent children is a hard thing to take. Yet the God of the Old Testament has many times been wrathful. He has taken perhaps millions of lives as punishment for evil. The Passover is the first time that He has actually planned out such a massacre with a human general and has chosen who will live and who will die in such a targeted way (well, perhaps since Noah, but then the Ark was also a much cruder means of selecting survivors than what they did for the Passover).
The way that God reveals Himself to Moses is interesting. Before I watched the movie, I heard somewhere that God took the form of a British public schoolboy. This intrigued me because it meant that Ridley Scott subscribed to the idea that God, being eternal, experienced all moments of time (past, present, and future) simultaneously and could thus introduce anachronisms by appearing in one time period as something from a completely different time period.
But ... I probably took that too literally. It didn’t actually happen. Instead I saw something just as interesting, but in another way. God asks Moses who he is, and Moses replies ‘A shepherd’. God says, ‘I thought you were a general? I need someone who can fight.’ As if He is a wartime leader recruiting a general to lead an army on a front. Which of course He is, and which of course is what He needs Moses to do. The portrayal is very, very interesting when you think about how Yahweh, the Hebrew God, started out in the oldest stories as a legendary warrior hero and leader of his people. In some stories, He had once been in the same position that He now wanted to recruit Moses to.
Many times throughout the film, Moses struggles with God, perhaps even chastises Him as being too cruel and vengeful. After four hundred years of watching His people suffer, apparently God has some pent-up wrath. Ultimately though they agree on one thing: the people of Israel need protection and guidance to find their way home.