The new biblical epic from director Ridley Scott, “Exodus: Gods and Men,” has drummed up a lot of criticism in advance of its release. Most commentators have focused on the issue of race in the casting of the film. But one commentator—who also happens to have been cast in the film—has his own unique feelings about the movie. And when Moses speaks, people tend to listen.
In an interview with ABC’s “Nightline,” Christian Bale described his character, Moses, as a “freedom fighter.” Hey, not so bad, right? Moses is sort of famous for having played a part in freeing his people. But Bale was careful to make sure that we also empathize with the enslaving, murderous, genocidal Egyptians, to whom Moses would have been, according to Bale, a “terrorist.” There’s nothing wrong with trying to see things from both sides. But Bale appears to have concluded that Moses may have been more bad than good.
According to Bale, Moses was “one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.” Since all we know about Moses is based on the Bible, it’s natural enough that Bale’s research for the role would have started there. One suspects that Bale didn’t read so closely.
In the Bible, Moses does kill a guy—the Egyptian slave master who is beating an Israelite to death. Disturbingly violent, sure. Barbaric? Maybe, in a righteous sort of way. You’d think Batman would understand. Outside of that one encounter, however, Moses is pretty meek. After killing the Egyptian he runs away for years, becomes a shepherd, starts a family. He doesn’t think he has what it takes to free the Israelites. Even when he does reluctantly return to Egypt, his main actions are hitting water with a stick, throwing ashes into the air, holding his arm out toward the sky, and waving his staff over the sea. Unlike all the trailers and screen shots for the movie, in the Bible Moses never holds a sword or wears armor. He’s less barbarian and more traffic cop.
The Bible is pretty clear that Moses doesn’t bring about any of the plagues that strike Egypt—that’s God. Moses doesn’t kill the Egyptian firstborn—that’s God. Moses doesn’t wipe out the Egyptians at the sea—that’s God. And if Christian Bale thinks that the Exodus story is uncomfortably bloody, he clearly didn’t read what came before or after it. Joshua puts to the sword women, infants, and animals at Jericho. David wipes out the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Jehu murders all seventy of Ahab’s descendants. Herod the Great slaughters a city’s worth of infants. God kills every living thing (non-fish, non-Noah category) in a global flood.
We might also gently suggest that before making judgments about the barbarism of biblical characters, Bale could try reading some nonfiction—dunno, maybe some histories of Europe in the 1930s, or the Soviet Union in the 1950s, or Syria and Iraq right now. It’s all about perspective.
Bale has linked Moses’s barbarism to the prophet’s supposedly fragile emotional state. Turning from biblical interpretation to psychiatry, the actor added, “I think the man was likely schizophrenic.” It is unclear if Bale (who has not treated the patient) is referring to Moses’s lengthy jaunts up mountains to commune with deities, his conflicted identities as prince of Egypt and leader of the Hebrew people, or the time Moses entered into a conversation with some shrubbery. The diagnostic criteria are unspecified. But if Moses’s exchanges with God make him “schizophrenic,” there’s not a person in the Bible who shouldn’t be medicated.
The problem with Bale’s attitude to Moses is that it’s anachronistically modern. He turned to an ancient collection of religious texts—texts build on the premise that human events are manipulated by supernatural forces—and decided to evaluate it using modern concepts: freedom fighter, terrorist, schizophrenia. In a world in which everyone believes in the supernatural, there’s nothing certifiable about talking to God. At least, no crazier than someone today trying to diagnose the psychological state of a character in a three thousand-year-old book.
With his anachronistic attitude toward the biblical story, Bale is just following the lead of his director. When it came to shooting the famous parting of the Red Sea, Ridley Scott elected to show a tsunami splitting the waters. In explaining his decision, Scott added that he remained nonplussed after watching the Cecil B. DeMille epic “The Ten Commandments” as a child: “I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought I’d better come up with a more scientific or natural explanation.”
Scott’s right, of course: walls of water aren’t believable in the modern world (then again, it’s not clear that a tsunami in the Red Sea is particularly believable either). He’s not the first person to attempt to naturalize biblical miracles. This was all the rage among Bible scholars in the nineteenth century. But if the biblical authors had thought that the Red Sea parted as the result of a natural event, they wouldn’t have written it down. The whole point of the story is that God saved his people—not that the Israelites caught a really lucky break. Naturalizing miracles studiously misses the point. It saves the Bible story as historically plausible from our modern perspective, but bankrupts the worldview and religious claims of the story itself. Now it’s just a movie about being in the right place at the right time.
And perhaps that’s all Scott wants it to be. After all, the director has gently admonished those who try to read too much into the message of the film: “Just sit down and enjoy the fucking movie. It’s a movie!” Perhaps Christian Bale should be the first to take this advice to heart—at least the “sit down” part.