The Power of Moses 22 December 2014

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The story of Moses is told and retold through the generations, the most recent incarnation being Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’. Joseph Adams explores the heroic nature and universal appeal of this timeless tale.

Exodus: Gods and Kings The Ten Commandments

‘So let it be written, so let it be done.’ These words are almost sacred. They may echo the Bible, but they belong to the film The Ten Commandments.

It was director Cecil DeMille’s most enduring work, and the first true epic movie. With a budget of $13 million and a cast of thousands, it redefined the movie industry and created a classic. Its production values are so high, I find it difficult to believe the film was shot nearly sixty years ago.

Since then however, the story of Moses has been retold several times over on the big screen and the small, not to mention countless operas from Moses und Aron to Moses in Egypt. Director Ridley Scott is releasing the latest incarnation of the story of Moses in November with Exodus: Gods and Kings. It is the latest in a series of Biblical movies released, and the latest in a long line that explore the story of Moses.

But what makes Moses so compelling? Why is the story so powerful? Why do we return to it time and time again, in countless mediums?

A Hero Rises
In 1949, Joseph Campbell, noted scholar of mythology and religion, wrote one of his most celebrated works, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Inside, he details what he believes to be the most basic pattern which structures countless epic stories of heroism, the ‘monomyth’. Campbell particularly draws on the story of Moses, which he cites as an example of archetypal monomyth. There is a Call to Adventure, a Supernatural Aid, a moment of darkness (or Belly of the Whale), a Return and a final Mastery and Freedom which is attained by the hero at the end. Proponents of the monomyth argue it is as applicable to Star Wars as it is the Book of Exodus.

Moses in this narrative, plays the archetypal hero upon which many more are based. The Children of Israel’s slavery in Egypt is poignant and relatable for many. Their salvation comes not from some outside force, but one of their own – a child of Israel, raised in the House of Pharaoh, but one of them nonetheless. He embodies the hope of resistance and freedom.

Whether we’re talking Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, the hero is often found in unexpected places with an unexpected upbringing. Moses is born amongst royalty, raised as royalty, and treated as such – yet discovers his heritage is from the lowest echelons of society – the slaves – and becomes their hero. A motif that is familiar to many, and perhaps has its most recent retelling in the The Dark Knight trilogy.

Following his call to Prophethood and talking to God, Moses takes on a new role. Empowered, yet shaken by his experience, he is sent to challenge Pharaoh. He is given supernatural aid – a magical staff – and a newfound courage in his mission. Sound familiar? Many hero stories include a similar moment of revelation; it is the essential stuff of the hero story, Campbell argues. For those familiar with the superhero genre, the discovery of a character’s superpowers (whether caused by a spider bite as in Spiderman or a special serum as in Captain America) is an integral part of the hero mythos.

A supernatural aid is often common too (in Star Wars, it is the light sabre, in Harry Potter, the wand). Our hero is given the tools he or she needs to achieve their potential and reach their goal.
Moses is perhaps the first hero of Western literature. Every incarnation of the monomyth in some way draws inspiration from the Book of the Exodus and the place of the Bible in Western canon. It is unsurprising then that storytellers in all genres feel pulled back to retell the original story.

The Villain
Yet I don’t believe the monomyth is the only reason the story of Moses is so captivating. Often the power of a good story lies in its villain. In Pharaoh, we’re presented with a Biblical villain that is neither hollow nor empty. He is a tyrant, and rules over his people with hubris and pretension. A good villain’s fame can sometimes outstrip that of the hero (think The Joker or Darth Vader), just as Moses presents us with the archetypal hero, Pharaoh is an archetypal villain.

His confrontations with Moses present us with a figure that is full of self-confidence and self-belief. Pharaoh stands resolute against the plagues of Egypt that would clearly have shaken lesser men, we’re repulsed by Pharaoh’s delusions but cannot help but admire his indefatigability. In the Islamic narrative, the hubris of the Pharaoh is often represented as being almost unique in human history. An old saying found in the Arabic canon highlights that “God sent most Prophets to entire nations, but he sent Moses and Aaron to a single person”. Aaron also being considered a Prophet makes the Pharaoh unique in being addressed by two divine messengers.

The villain of the Pharaoh is also one that echoes through the ages. The modern allusions are clear. When the Arab Spring led to a series of protests across the Middle East and North Africa, Pharaoh was repeatedly used to represent various tyrant rulers, whether Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria or of course, Mubarak in Egypt. Egypt is once again under the control of the military despite the revolution, and many Egyptians turned to the story of Moses in the Quran for reassurance – the Pharaoh withstood the plagues, and the military has withstood the revolution, but villains always fall.

The timelessness of the Pharaoh is no doubt why we keep returning to Moses and the Israelites – Pharaoh embodies all that we despise and admire most in humanity

Failure
Moses’ journey also presents, with brutal honesty, a story of failure. It is perhaps one of the most alluring aspects of the Biblical story that there is no fairy-tale ending. We are repeatedly confronted by human fallibility, represented most powerfully through the Children of Israel and Moses’ fraught relationship with them. Tasked with not only their physical rescue from the Pharaoh, but also their moral salvation, Moses is shown to be full of rebuke for the Israelites.

This failure is shown powerfully when the Israelites turn to the worship of the Golden Calf in Moses’ absence. Moses’ own period of sanctity on Mount Sinai is contrasted with the slow descent of the Israelites into lewd ecstatic worship. Some Biblical commentators consider it an analogy for the tension between mystical charismatic worship and pious obedience in religion, others see the scene as representative of the clash between the visual and the transcendent. The multiplicity of understandings is no doubt part of the reason the image of the Golden Calf is so enduring. Yet this moment comes after the great victory of Moses over the Pharaoh, and the miracle of the Red Sea crossing.

The story of Moses might end after the Red Sea crossing if it were a modern epic. Moses and his people, finally free, a few months away from the Promised Land – all’s well at last. Yet the Book of Exodus continues. The Israelites fail (and fail abysmally) and spend forty years in the Sinai. It is this lack of ‘Happy Ever After’ which lends the narrative credibility and gravity. The pain of living with the decisions made, battles won or lost, and former glories, is often the stuff of life itself. The story of Moses presents it to us clearly.

Truth or Fiction
It is an incredibly modern concern to ask whether the story of Moses actually took place. Those who ask the question are often concerned with a particular type of truth, and risk missing the wider truths that stories can tell us. Biblical archaeology however is not absent on the debate. There was of course an Ancient Israel, and the Exodus is in most cases considered a founding myth for the kingdom (much like the story of Romulus and Remus is to Rome). A selection of Biblical scholars are content to leave it at that.

Others however seek to look further into the story and our knowledge of Ancient Egypt. Comparing Biblical accounts often leads to difficulty. There is no Moses mentioned outside of Israelite sources. The figures given in the Bible for the Exodus are also incredibly large (603,550 men with families), and such a wide exodus from Egypt would have no doubt been recorded as a dramatic event in Egyptian history. Dating the event of the Exodus itself is also incredibly difficult.

That said, some archaeologists look at the story of Moses and the Exodus, and argue it is not difficult to imagine it alludes to a slower, less dramatic, migration of Israelites from Egypt into what would become Ancient Israel. Thus Exodus depicts in a few months what might have taken centuries. Slavery in Egypt may have been more symbolic than literal, referring to the poverty and harsh agrarian life of the Egyptian Israelites. The Biblical Pharaoh is so difficult to date because he isn’t a single person, but several Pharaohs amalgamated into a single figure. It is a tempting theory, and it has its advocates.

Of course this may be missing the entire point of the story. As Karen Armstrong argues in A Short History of Myth, stories such as that of Exodus are about the great truths, and often not meant to be about historical accuracy.

Modern Retellings
Whether or not there was an Israelite lawgiver in the Sinai desert, Moses will remain with us in literature, film, plays and operas. Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is currently mired in controversy, as race equality campaigners have argued that it whitewashes Egypt’s black history by casting Moses, the Pharaoh and other key figures with European and American actors, while giving black actors less significant and derogatory roles. It’s even been pointed out the recreated Sphinx for the movie has a European profile.

The debate is significant because it reveals the very modern questions of equality and oppression that the story of Exodus also grappled with, and reminds us that Moses’ story will no doubt speak to generations to come.

Want to read more fascinating commentary on religion in popular culture, politics and society? Subscribe to On Religion magazine – it’s just £19 for a year’s subscription to the quarterly magazine.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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