Moses in film

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Moses, by Michelangelo

Many motion picture and television projects purport to tell the story of the life of Moses and the Exodus of Israel. Most of these projects are flawed in one way or another. They tend to assume that the Exodus took place during the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt, although recent evidence indicates that this event took place much earlier in Egyptian history. The usual candidates for the Pharaohs of the oppression and the Exodus are, respectively, Seti I and Ramesses II.

Spoiler warning
This article contains important plot information

Cecil B. DeMille

The Cecil B. DeMille project (The Ten Commandments) accepts without question the account by Flavius Josephus of Moses commanding Egyptian troops, conquering Ethiopia in battle, and engaged in deadly intrigue with Ramesses. As part of this intrigue, Moses is assigned to build a store city after Ramesses has failed. He introduces a generous grain ration and a day of rest every seven days, on the theory that well-fed and well-rested slaves could make more bricks and build a city faster. His success brings a reward: Seti announces that Moses, and not Ramesses, will marry Seti's daughter and rule Egypt by her side, according to the custom (actually observed during Egypt's Old Kingdom) that a Pharaoh always chose his successor from among his best administrators and generals, not necessarily his sons, and that the chosen successor must marry Pharaoh's daughter. (Though Seti and Ramesses were of the New Kingdom, the actual Pharaohs of the oppression and Exodus might indeed have been of the Old Kingdom and thus would have observed such a custom.)

But when Moses returns to the capital city, he finds that his intended bride has murdered a palace servant who held an embarrassing secret: Moses was not Egyptian at all, but Hebrew. Moses goes directly to Goshen to seek out his mother Jochebed, and then takes his place among the straw cutters and treaders in the brick pits. While there, he watches as an Egyptian overseer spots a lovely girl and demands that she be taken to his house. Moses goes to the house and finds the overseer whipping a fellow Hebrew. It is Joshua, who in this version is already an adult. (In fact, Joshua could not have been more than three years old at the time of Moses' flight). Moses kills the overseer, of course, and then is arrested and brought before Seti. Seti revokes his preferment from Moses and gives it to Ramesses, and then orders Moses' name stricken from all monuments and bas-reliefs. This technique, called memorywashing, was a common technique in ancient Egypt and other ancient civilizations, and illustrates the reality that history was propaganda to ancient rulers. (Multiple authorities declare that this happened to Hatshepsut, the one-and-only female Pharaoh of Egypt.)

Seti orders Ramesses to see to Moses' punishment. Instead of ordering his execution, Ramesses sends Moses into exile, with a one-day ration of food and water. Somehow Moses crosses the desert into Midianite country and to the well of Jethro. He drinks from this well and then falls fast asleep. He awakens to signs of a struggle and finds seven women being set upon by bullying goatherders. With his staff and his infantry training, Moses defeats the bullies handily and orders them to wait until the women have watered their flock, because they drew the water first. The grateful women conduct him immediately to Jethro (another variation, as Jethro had to send for Moses). Jethro accepts Moses into his camp, and Moses proves a quick study and good bargaining agent. With Jethro's consent, Moses marries Zipporah ("Sephora"), his eldest daughter.

The burning-bush incident then occurs when Moses' first son Gershom is only five years old, and after Joshua, and not Aaron, has crossed the desert to meet Moses. Moses receives the instruction from God and returns at once to Egypt. As the Biblical narrative states, Ramesses is unimpressed with Moses and Aaron's demonstration, and yields only after the Ten Plagues have intervened and Ramesses' own son has died. That last event breaks Ramesses' spirit and he angrily tells Moses to take whatever spoil his people can gather as they go.

Moses' Egyptian foster mother Bythia, long since sent into exile, is permitted to go where she will. On the night of the Passover she and her litter-bearers seek shelter under Moses' roof. Because Amram and Jochebed are both long since dead, Moses is glad that the woman who raised him from infancy is pleased to join his people.

The Exodus begins the next day, with Joshua acting as Moses' chief of staff. Bythia begins her own transformation at this time. First she descends from her litter and asks her bearers to carry an old and frail man instead of her; she will walk to the Promised Land.

Moses leads the Israelites to the shore of the Red Sea, only to see Ramesses giving chase, with his entire army at his back. Moses is incredulous that the people can still doubt him, and doubt God, after ten demonstrations (the Ten Plagues) of God's power. Then he raises his staff, and a pillar of fire blocks Ramesses' path. The waters part, and Moses leads his people across. (During this crossing, Bythia is no longer content merely to walk, and lends a hand in supporting a wagon after it has lost one of its wheels.) Then Moses raises his staff again, and the waters close, drowning the Egyptian army and humiliating Ramesses beyond words.

Moses then leads the people to Mount Sinai and spends forty days and forty nights on the mountain, waiting for God to answer him. Finally, God does. In a highly dramatic scene, God dictates the Ten Commandments and writes each with fire on two Tablets of Law. Moses takes these and starts down the mountain. Joshua meets him and warns him of a sound of war in the camp, but Moses knows better. When Moses returns to the camp, a riot is raging, centered around the Golden Calf that Aaron has made. Moses throws the two Tablets of Law at the calf, which sets the calf on fire and then opens a chasm that swallows up the ringleaders of the riot. These are Dathan, Abiram, and Korah, who in fact participated in a later mutinous incident that this project conflates with the Golden Calf incident.

The Ten Commandments ends with Moses giving Joshua his mantle of leadership and telling him to go on without him, as he is not worthy to enter the Promised Land.

Jeffrey Katzenberg

Jeffrey Katzenberg's animated-cartoon feature The Prince of Egypt presents the family dynamic of Seti, Ramesses and Moses as one involving two brothers who grow up loving one another, not as two rivals for the throne. Moses is content to be a senior prince, and when Ramesses is made a pro-rex under Seti, he names Moses as Royal Chief Architect. On this occasion, Seti's court magicians present a captured Midianite girl (Zipporah) to the two princes. Ramesses is content to let Moses have her, and Moses, after having some fun at her expense, accepts the gift. (There is no Scriptural warrant for Zipporah meeting Moses any sooner than his actual exile.)

But Zipporah has other ideas. When he arrives in his rooms, he finds his attendants bound and gagged and Zipporah escaped. He follows at a distance, but is so taken with her that he distracts a guard to facilitate her escape. Her escape route takes her through Goshen and the slave quarters, and there he meets Miriam and Aaron. Miriam tells Moses a story that he finds as offensive as it is incredible: that he is not a "Prince of Egypt," but is Hebrew, like them. Aaron tries to restrain her, but she will not stop talking. Moses grows angrier with every word she speaks, and finally knocks her down and threatens punishment. Then Miriam sings a lullaby that he suddenly remembers: it is the one that his mother Jochebed sang to him on an occasion that he can no longer remember, and about which no one told him.

Distraught, Moses rushes madly through the slave quarter and back to the palace. He falls asleep against a column and then dreams of being pursued by Pharaoh's soldiers. He watches in horror as the soldiers snatch baby boys from their mothers' arms—and as one mother, with two children by her side, puts her own baby into a basket and floats it on the Nile. Then the soldiers chase Moses again, and he falls into the Nile—and after him come the helpless bodies of hundreds of baby boys, flung to the crocodiles along with him.

He lights a torch and rushes into a hidden maze somewhere in the palace—the equivalent of consulting the secret archives. When he finds a bas-relief depicting the mass puericide of the Hebrew boys, he is sick at heart. Seti then confirms his worst fears: that he ordered this mass execution. When Seti tries to justify his edict, Moses recoils in horror.

The next day, Moses is walking among the slaves and watches as an overseer goes out of control and starts to beat a slave without mercy. Moses rushes at the overseer, yelling at him to stop, and finally pushes him off the scaffold on which they are standing. The overseer falls to his death, and Moses flees, though Ramesses calls after him and protests that he can easily nullify Moses' guilt.

Moses crosses the desert, throwing off his Egyptian accouterments as he walks. Eventually he comes to Midianite country and comes upon a party of goatherders pushing seven young women around near a well. Moses unties their camels and sends them running free, forcing the goatherders to chase after them. He then falls into the well, and the young women struggle to pull him out. But the oldest of these women is none other than Zipporah, and at first she lets him fall back into the well.

But eventually she helps him out, and the girls take Moses to Jethro, their father. Moses marries Zipporah and has a son, until at length God calls to Moses from a burning bush. Moses returns to Egypt, and Zipporah returns by his side.

Moses and Zipporah go into the throne room, where Ramesses is now Pharaoh. Ramesses is unimpressed with Moses' demonstration and orders that the workload of the slaves be doubled. Aaron, thoroughly disgusted, greets Moses with derision, but Miriam rebukes Aaron and encourages Moses to continue with his mission.

Moses stands by the shore of the Nile and calls out to Ramesses. Ramesses orders Moses arrested, but then Moses puts his staff into the water and turns the Nile into blood. But Ramesses' court magicians "demonstrate" that they can do the same thing. Again Ramesses is unimpressed, but Moses says, "Ramesses, this is only the beginning."

The next eight of the Ten Plagues take place, and then Ramesses announces that he will kill the firstborn among all the Israelites. Moses, in anguish, says, "Ramesses, you bring this upon yourself." The Passover then occurs, and the firstborn of the Egyptians die, including Ramesses' own son. Ramesses finally gives the Israelites permission to go, but cannot bring himself to say any more to Moses.

The Israelites, hardly able to believe their blessing, walk out of Egypt, past a landscape littered with fallen monuments, with Miriam and Zipporah walking side-by-side in the lead, directly behind Moses. They reach the Red Sea, only to find Ramesses and his chariots in pursuit. But as Moses raises his staff, a pillar of fire blocks Ramesses' way, and the waters of the Red Sea part. Even Aaron is finally impressed enough to believe as the Israelites cross on dry ground between walls of water so high that they can see great whales behind them. When all have safely crossed, Ramesses orders his army to follow them, and then the waters close on the army and drown it. Ramesses, in anguish, cries out to Moses, who sorrowfully bids Ramesses goodbye forever.

Spoilers end here.

Burt Lancaster

The actor Burt Lancaster also appeared as Moses in a television mini-series, Moses: the Lawgiver. This project remained more faithful to the Biblical narrative than has any other project before or since, even to making clear that forty years had passed between Moses' exile and his return to lead the people to freedom. However, this project assumes that Ramesses II was the Pharaoh of the oppression, and Pharaoh Merenptah was the Pharaoh of the Exodus. This probably had its basis in the Israel stele of Merenptah in which Merenptah boasts of a victory over a nation called "Israel."

See also