Prince of Egypt

Moses in Exodus

Having succumbed to television advertising, Debbie and I went to watch this recently released Spielberg film over the Christmas break. I was so struck by it that when college term restarted I shared something about it with my Fellowship Group, most of whom hadn’t then seen it. Everybody was keen to see it, including George our Egyptian tutor who, on a visit back to Egypt over Christmas, had learned that there was some outcry against the film in the Muslim Arab world. He wanted to see it too, to discover what all the fuss was about. So, with most of the group, Debbie and I went for a second viewing. The film portrays a number of fascinating insights into the Exodus story which I’d like to share.

Having settled with Zipporah in Midian (Ex 2:21) Moses observes that Jethro’s family is able to live in dignity. That phrase struck me particularly. For me it sums up a truth of the whole Bible stories that perhaps we all too easily lose sight of – I’ll return to this later. From a burning bush (Ex 3:2) the God of his blood ancestors kindles in Moses’ heart a burden that the relatives who he has so readily abandoned in Egypt were not enjoying anything of the same dignity.

Moses could not now escape the conviction that he was the one to highlight the indignity of the Hebrew slaves. As a Prince of Egypt he had unique access to Pharaoh’s court to bring Yahweh’s challenge to restore dignity to an oppressed people. The film includes a twist not in the original, though not implausible, that there has been a change in the Egyptian dynasty whilst he had been away. Pharaoh is not now his father but his brother, with whom he enjoys deep friendship!

Rameses is conscious of upholding the traditions of the dynasty and of not being ‘a weak link’. One can feel how his heart would be hardened to allowing his slave labour to go free. Moses’ request does not come alone, but with the power of Yahweh and the display of wonders (Ex 3:20). Initially this is seen as a taunt by the priests the Egyptian pantheon. They delight to display their powers and sing an amusing ditty to Moses, "You’re playing with the big boys now!". It is sheer irony that what finally breaks Pharaoh’s resolve is his suffering the same indignity that his father had imposed on the Hebrew slaves, the death of their sons (Ex 1:16). This death is felt just as keenly by Moses himself. Finally, the Hebrews are free to go… at least for as long as Rameses is consumed by grief.

The film concludes with Moses descending from the mountain with the Decalogue, Yahweh’s gracious gift to his people who have regained their dignity.

I’d never read the Exodus account before and heard within its lines the pains of adoption - when you discover your real identity, wanting to know the facts, however painful, behind what had led to the adoption - and then wanting to break free of the adopted family to discover the deeper, true, family identity. Profound!

Being filmed in the genre of cartoon the story is able to be portrayed with delightful graphics and yet, as the opening credits claim, it stays faithful to the spirit and essence of the original account.

I’d like to return to that theme of dignity. I’m toying with it as a model or paradigm for biblical theology. God created the world with a view to mankind enjoying life with dignity, free from the kind of oppression that the Egyptians imposed on the Hebrew slaves. The Exodus story is one of the recovery of dignity. When Jesus shared the same Exodus Passover with his disciples he proclaimed a covenant (Mk 14:24) for the bringing of dignity to the lives of many. It is notable how Jesus spent so much of his time with people who, in the eyes of society of his day, were undignified (or worse!) The irony too is that to win dignity for people Jesus himself had to suffer ultimate indignity (Phil 2:6-11).

Jesus’ sobering challenge is for me, like Moses, to put aside whatever are the trappings of an upbringing that would insulate me from the indignity felt by people around, and to be prepared to follow God’s instruction to restore dignity to those lives, even if that involves personal expense.

Andrew Smith
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th January 1999