Wednesday, July 18, 2007

3 ’Av 5767: National Ice Cream Day


Today’s news and commentary:In lieu of a weird thing, as part of my Divine Misconceptions project, I present my review of The Prince of Egypt below. Enjoy (or be scared at the gross theological errors or something).


There can be miracles when you disbelieve: a review of The Prince of Egypt:

First off, The Prince of Egypt is not a bad movie. The general outline of the story of the Exodus is intact. The plot holds together, and the animation looks good. There is no lack of imagination in the production, e.g., the dream sequence in which Mosheh (Moses) sees history on the walls as an animation imitating the style of the pictures that accompany Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Magicians’ performance when turning their staffs into snakes. The writers must also be given credit for trying to fill out the personalities, histories, and relationships of some of the less prominent characters.

However, there is a huge flaw with this movie. Everything in a rational, orthodox religion has to be linked back to prophetic revelation, the only reliable source of information about deities and what they want; getting tradition wrong leads to invalid deductions, which in turn lead to improper behavior and heretical beliefs. As such, there is a prominent unwritten rule of good religious thought:


This is not a barrier to interpretation; however, all interpretation has to remain within the boundaries delineated by tradition. And, unfortunately, The Prince of Egypt violates these boundaries repeatedly, and not to the benefit of the film. To make things worse, the tampering goes straight to the very core of the story of the Exodus. And the more I think about it, these changes seem to be mostly attributable to one single error: the imposition of modern ideas on pre-modern story.

Modern idea #1: “Religious belief has to be blind faith.”

The story of the Exodus is essentially a story of the nature of YHWH (God). Most, if not all, of what Mosheh (Moses) and ’Aharon (Aaron) do are on YHWH’s order (Exodus 3:15-4:23, 4:27-5:3, 5:22-23, 6:6-13, 6:26-7:6, 7:8-10, 7:14-19, 7:26-8:2, 8:12-13, 8:16-19; 9:1-5, 9:8-10; 9:13-23, 10:1-6, 10:12-13, 10:21-22, 11:1-12:28, 14:1-4, 14:13-21). The central relationship is between YHWH (God) and Par‘oh II (the Pharaoh identified as Raamses in the film), who are locked in a contest of wills to see who will break first. With every meeting between Mosheh and Par‘oh II, with every plague, it becomes increasingly clear that YHWH, unchangable and unmovable, has the power and that Mosheh really is a prophet. Mosheh’s prophecy is empirically verifiable, since he makes non-trivial predictions and they come true.

Today, people have the odd notion that faith has to be blind, necessitating that the reasons for belief have to be emotional. Evidence is anathema to such a system, as evidence can contradict blind faith. As such, blind faith in apparent or real contradiction with evidence is an invitation for conflict. If the disparity becomes sufficiently obvious, people make fun of those who believe blindly. Therefore, those who are wise modify their beliefs to accommodate the evidence and do not believe blindly, but those who are unwise prefer to ignore the evidence or deny it. In The Prince of Egypt, the filmmakers have taken the path of the unwise and have thus taken pains to lessen the amount of evidence in the story so that blind faith is more workable. No one sees Mosheh’s staff swallow up the staffs of the Magicians. Mosheh’s performance of the miracle of his hand turning white from the skin disease sara‘ath (Exodus 4:6-7; it is often mistranslated as “leprosy”) has been eliminated. While the Magicians’ reproduction of changing water into blood is presented, the escalation to producing frogs (Exodus 8:3) and their conceding defeat when they cannot produce vermin (Exodus 8:14-15) is not. Most of the plagues have been crammed together into a single montage, eliminating the increasing stress which Par‘oh II has to withstand, his moments of panic, and the unkept promises he makes before he ultimately crumbles, making it seem that he stands uncompromisingly firm, blindly believing in his own gods and himself the entire time. Eliminated, too, is ’Aharon’s prophecy; only Mosheh hears the voice of YHWH, and everyone else is expected to believe blindly. Indeed, the filmmakers concocted the fiction of Mosheh urging the Jews to believe during the plague of blood.

However, if people are supposed to believe blindly in YHWH, YHWH cannot be the central character or participate in the central relationship, as this would make the existence of the Deity too obvious and destroy blind faith. Thus the filmmakers have changed the focus of the film so that the central relationship is between Mosheh and Par‘oh II, effectively snubbing YHWH. Not only is snubbing YHWH theologically offensive, but the new central relationship is of a lower quality than the original one. Mosheh versus Par‘oh II is the story of two brothers whom duty demands be enemies; Par‘oh II’s refusal to free the Jewish people from slavery is further strengthened by his resentment for all the trouble that Mosheh got him into when they were children, i.e., his refusal is fed by human pettiness. The original central relationship, on the other hand, is not a spat between mere mortals, but a contest of wills between gods. If you know little or nothing about Ra, Isis, Osiris, Horus, Nephthys, Set, and everyone else in the Egyptian pantheon, I recommend Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods by Dimitri Meeks and Christine Favard-Meeks; the whole lot, as detailed in the book, is fairly disgusting and rather banal. The Egyptian gods are material entities, essentially magnified humans; almost all of them are created beings. Their behavior is likewise human, incorporating rather unsavory elements of human behavior, such as lawsuits fated to go on forever, unfair juries, murder, cannibalism, adultery, and incest. YHWH, the Jewish god, is a rather different sort of deity, transcendent and without form, and condemning behavior that the gods of the contemporary Middle Eastern religions considered normal and perfectly acceptable. Such a deity must have seemed downright bizarre and possibly dangerous. Par‘oh II’s stubbornness may not be a mere refusal to give in to Mosheh, another human, but may have a heavy component of “my god can beat up your god”—blind faith which he struggles to stick with until after ten plagues he cannot convince himself any longer that his gods will eventually triumph. And since the Par‘oh is supposed to be a god himself, his refusal to submit may be due to a need to make himself equal to any god who challenges him, lest he be proven lesser than a deity. Paradoxically, making Par‘oh II embrace his alleged divinity would have made him a more human character.

Frequently a bad religious idea will have an opposite and equally bad twin, and blind faith has the equally thoughtless twin of blind skepticism. These two bad ideas are embodied in the film in the persons of Miryam (Miriam) and her brother ’Aharon. These two bumble through the film in a constant disagreement, with Miryam believing that Mosheh is the savior for no apparent reason and ’Aharon being very skeptical and supporting maintenance of the status quo. Miryam inevitably comes out looking wonderfully happy and optimistic, and ’Aharon unsurprisingly looks like a jerk.

This basic morality play makes plenty of sense for filmmakers trying to make blind faith look good and skepticism bad, without even wanting to deal with the notion that belief, disbelief, and even doubt can have solid reasons. But casting ’Aharon as a skeptic is baseless in the original text, and even examining the Mosheh-Par‘oh II relationship, the movie-makers perplexingly screwed up a golden opportunity, and that would have been to emphasize the competing Mosheh-’Aharon relationship. ’Aharon in the original text is Mosheh’s supporter, right-hand man, co-prophet, and spokesman (Exodus 4:14-16, 4:27-30, 5:1, 5:5, 5:20, 6:13, 6:26-27, 7:1-2, 7:6, 7:8, 7:10, 8:4, 8:8, 8:21, 9:8, 9:27-28, 10:3, 10:8, 10:10-11, 10:16-17, 11:9, 12:1, 12:28, 12:31-32, 12:43, 12:50). (Mosheh has a speech impediment (Exodus 4:10, 6:30), also not portrayed in the film.) ’Aharon also takes part in the performance of ritual acts accompanying the miracles (7:9-10, 7:19-20, 8:1-2, 8:12-13, 9:8, 11:10). The constant presence of ’Aharon could easily infuriate Par‘oh II, for, after all, why should Mosheh be siding with the long-lost brother he never knew against his favorite adopted relative? Mosheh siding with an amorphous Jewish people is one thing, but always having ’Aharon along, effectively replacing Par‘oh II in his life, can be taken as an insult to Par‘oh II personally, thus raising the tension. The filmmakers did not even have the sense to cast Miryam as Mosheh’s sidekick, which in a more patriarchal world might be considered an even bigger insult to Par‘oh II.

The notion of the importance of blind faith is taken is taken to an extreme and heretical level. One of the songs has lyrics that are just downright inappropriate for the story:

Many nights we’ve prayed
With no hope anyone could hear.
In our hearts a hopeful song we barely understood.
Now we are not afraid
Although we know there’s much to fear.
We were moving mountains long before we knew we could.

There can be miracles when you believe.
Though hope is frail, it’s hard to kill.

Who knows what miracles you can 
When you believe?
Somehow you will,
You will when you believe.

In this time of fear,
When prayer so often proved in vain,
Hope seemed like the summer birds
so swiftly flown away.
But now I'm standing here (Now I’m standing here)

With heart so full I can’t explain
Seeking faith and speaking words I never thought I'd say.

There can be miracles when you believe.
Though hope is frail, it’s hard to kill.

Who knows what miracles you can
When you believe?
Somehow you will,
You will when you believe.

For one thing, it is never claimed in the original text that the Jews were redeemed because they believed. On the contrary, Mosheh is hesitant to accept his mission and raises possible difficulties (Exodus 3:11, 3:13, 4:1, 4:10, 4:13) and the Elders blame Mosheh for punishment they receive from Par‘oh II (Exodus 5:15-16, 5:21). The redemption happens despite the disbelief. YHWH forbid that anyone claim we need belief for open miracles to happen! If we say thus, we lower ourselves to the level of pseudoscientists and magicians who claim the phenomena they believe in only happen when everyone in the area believes in them. What sort of fool would attribute such a preposterous limitation to a deity who objectively exists?

For another thing, even though correct belief is meritorious, it does not, in and of itself, accomplish anything. We are machines whose existence and functioning is only according to the Divine Will as manifest in the inviolable laws of physics. Even if a prophet seems to perform an open miracle, since even the greatest prophet is bound by the Divine Will to the laws of physics, it is not really the prophet who performs the miracle, but YHWH. For YHWH, being the Creator of the laws of physics, is not bound by them at all and may freely violate them. As belief is a function of our brains and thus ultimately a physical process, our believing can only accomplish things permitted by the laws of physics. Belief can be translated into physical actions, but mere physical actions are not usually referred to as miracles. Likewise, prayer, while also meritorious, is nothing more physically than producing sounds, and thus it cannot of itself cause an open miracle. What makes the song heretical and not merely wrong is that it incorrectly asserts that belief and prayer accomplished the Exodus and denies the words of Scripture. As it is said, “I am YHWH your deity who brought you out from the land of Egypt from the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2)—“I am YHWH your deity who brought you out” and not “You brought yourself out”.

Modern idea #2: The liberation of women.

Even without making Miryam Mosheh’s sidekick, as his sister and a prophet and (especially) playing a crucial role in convincing the daughter (not wife) of Par‘oh I to let Yokhevedh (Jochebed, Mosheh’s mother) care for the baby Mosheh until he is weaned (Exodus 2:5-8), she would still be the rational choice for a female lead character to explore beyond the original text. Bafflingly, the filmmakers eliminated her interaction with Mosheh’s adopted mother, reduced her to a stereotype of blind faith, and emphasized Sipporah (Zipporah, wife of Mosheh) instead. What the movie got right about her behavior is that she marries Mosheh (Exodus 2:21) and that she goes with him at least part of the way down to Egypt (Exodus 4:20-25). Practically everything else about her in the film is a fiction. The filmmakers could not even be bothered to have her present when the rest of her sisters are attacked at the well (Exodus 2:16-17). The character invented seems to be an attempt at transplanting an idealized liberated woman into a patriarchal society, willing to fight and not above dropping Mosheh into a well. Now, Sipporah may well be a tough woman; she has enough strength of character to circumcise her own infant son and rebuke Mosheh (Exodus 4:25). But emphasizing her as a strong, prominent character in the film has not been thought out properly, as she is never, ever used to advance the main plot. All her liberation achieves is to establish a new story for the first meeting of Mosheh and Sipporah—and one rather unflattering to Mosheh, at that. Once they return to Egypt, she appears with Mosheh at the first visit to Par‘oh II and then disappears mysteriously until after the Slaying of the Firstborn. The filmmakers would have done better to have her take her and Mosheh’s children (strangely absent from the film) and return with them to the household of Yithro (Jethro) implied by the original text (Exodus 18:2-4; perhaps she fears that there will be another instance of Divine anger and the children will be killed) and have a reunion at Mount Sinay (Sinai) (Exodus 18:5-6).

A consequence of the liberation of Sipporah is tampering with her age relative to Mosheh. Mosheh is 80 at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 7:7). Sipporah has a baby soon before that (her second, compare Exodus 2:22 and 4:20), so (barring an open miracle) she probably is no older than 40 at the time, perhaps a lot less. An age gap of 40 years or more makes plenty of sense in a patriarchal society where marriages are arranged. Said gap makes little sense in modern times, however, when women have a greater choice in who they marry. A woman today can marry a man old enough to be her grandfather, but she does so under the suspicion that the reason for the match is anything but true love. Automatically, we label the woman a “gold-digger” and the man a “cradle-robber”. To avoid such an unacceptable situation, the age of Mosheh has been drastically reduced so that he and Sipporah are about the same age. The drastic lowering of Mosheh’s age has also been applied to his siblings, ’Aharon and Miryam.

Making Mosheh dramatically younger may make him someone with whom younger people (an important demographic for marketers) can better identify, but it also hampers him on his mission. Today the rate of societal change is rapid; as such younger people, who are less set in their ways and tend to be more easily adaptable, have an advantage. But in the old days, when the rate of societal change was much slower than today, older people had the advantage; their accumulated knowledge would still be current even after decades, so life-experience meant a lot more. It is a serious thing for Par‘oh II to snub an 80-year-old Mosheh, a man who exudes wisdom and is to be respected. Making Mosheh young makes him an inexperienced upstart unworthy of consideration; Par‘oh II has no reason to assume he knows what he is talking about. Arguably sending someone so green would also reflect badly on YHWH; surely a great deity could find someone better than some dumb kid to be his messenger.

Modern idea #3: Adolescence.

The reduction in the age of Mosheh works well not merely with the liberation of Sipporah; it also works well with another idea foreign to the world of the Hebrew Bible: adolescence. Of course humans back then went through the same physical changes that we go through now, but there are no references in the Hebrew Bible to a period of life when it was expected that young people would tend to act irresponsibly. I am not aware of such behavior being considered normal until relatively recently. Indeed, I have trouble imagining it would be tolerated when it was expected that people would take on adult responsibilities (such as jobs) much earlier than they do today. In fact, there is a famous law permitting parents under certain conditions to put irresponsible boys to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-23), fortunately little invoked (Talmudh Bavli, Sanhedhrin 71a).

Making Mosheh irresponsible as a young man automatically lowers his esteem in the eyes of Par‘oh II, especially since the memories are still relatively fresh and Par‘oh II repeatedly gets into trouble because of him. And since at most only a few years pass in the film between Mosheh fleeing Egypt and returning, Par‘oh II has little reason to assume he has changed. This only intensifies the low esteem Mosheh should find in the eyes of Par‘oh II due to his young age.

A side effect of giving Mosheh an adolescence is a transformation of the events which led to his leaving Egypt. The killing of an Egyptian overseer who is beating a Jewish slave by Mosheh is clearly deliberate in the original text; Mosheh checks first to see if anyone is looking, and then he kills (Exodus 2:11-12). There is a second incident the next day, in which Mosheh tries breaking up a fight between two Jewish slaves, one of whom rebukes him, mentioning the killing. At that point Mosheh flees, rationally fearing for his life (Exodus 2:13-14). The movie, however, condenses the two incidents into one which does not reflect either of the two well. Mosheh tries to stop the Egyptian overseer from beating a Jewish slave, and not thinking—as would be expected from an irresponsible young man—ends up plunging with the overseer to the latter’s death publicly in the middle of a temple construction site. Mosheh irrationally leaves Egypt despite assurances from Par‘oh II that he will paper over the incident so nothing bad will happen to him, and considering that Par‘oh II has little regard for the lives of those under him, this may well be the truth. Both versions do have Mosheh take a moral stand against the beating of a slave, but the film transforms his behavior from deliberate and rational to impulsive and irrational.

Modern idea #4: Abhorrence of animal sacrifice.

The fact that the lambs being slaughtered were sacrifices is omitted (Exodus 12:27). Americans tend to have an irrational disgust for animal sacrifice, viewing killing an animal as a form of worship as barbaric and primitive, all the while finding nothing wrong with the idea of killing an animal for their own pleasure as faultless. Given our disapproving culture, failure to mention that the lambs were sacrifices is arguably an act of moral cowardice.

Modern idea #5: YHWH is a smoky, material being.

YHWH is never depicted in the Hebrew Bible as looking like whatever lived in the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I have no idea where Lucas got that idea in the first place, but Dreamworks should never have plagiarized it. Furthermore, YHWH most certainly did not wander around Egypt serially visiting every house like Santa Claus. Whatever happened happened simultaneously all over Egypt (Exodus 12:29). Considering that the writers got the theology wrong, this should not be surprising.

Modern idea #6: “What? Me learn Hebrew?”

Those who are committed to a particular religion must study that religion’s canon and classical literature. These books are the very definition of a religion or sect, and every valid interpretation and ruling must be grounded in them. In order to facilitate proper understanding, the best thing to do is to learn the language of the canon and classics. Those who fail to do so have no choice but to rely on a translation.

But relying on a translation is fraught with danger. Translations are necessarily imperfect. Words in one language often cannot be rendered precisely in another. Interpretation is inevitably imposed on the texts. Vagueness is easily metamorphosed into clarity. Even worse, the translator can get the translation blatantly wrong, transforming the text into something very different than the original. And scarily enough, in modern America, the average person has never, ever considered the dangers of translation and will look puzzled when confronted with this problem.

One consequence of this is to copy the dialog from a faulty translation rather than translate the original. “Let my people go” is not a correct rendering of the Hebrew original of Exodus 5:1. An accurate translation would be “Send [forth] my people”—not passive permission, but a demand that Par‘oh II actively get the Jews out of Egypt. Furthermore, the names used for characters are typical English ones, not ones reflecting the original language as I have done.

Though the filmmakers could not be bothered to even stick to even a bad translation of Exodus in writing the script, in what is probably an attempt to make it look like they knew what they were doing, they put some Hebrew in a song at the beginning and included the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15:1-19) near the end. However it is blatantly obvious to anyone who understands Hebrew that whoever is responsible for the Song’s placement did not understand the lyrics. In the original text, the Song at the Sea is sung after the Egyptians drown at the Reed Sea (Exodus 14:31-15:1). (Thank YHWH they avoided the mistranslation “Red Sea”.) In a clear violation of the sense of the lyrics, the movie has the Song at the Sea sung before the splitting of the Reed Sea, and it makes no sense to have the Jews singing about how the Egyptians have drowned before it occurs.

While I am complaining, the movie also eliminates panic at the Reed Sea (Exodus 14:10-15) and ignores that most people in such a religiously charged situation would probably be strongly affected emotionally, and many would be flipping out, babbling, having visions, and even losing self-control. Not to mention the Egyptians are not on record as dismounting their chariots in the Reed Sea.

Other blunders:

1) The Jews in Egypt are not on record as erecting monuments or temples. They are on record as having making bricks (Exodus 1:14, 5:7-8) and building store cities (Exodus 1:11).

2) Par‘oh II’s reaction to Mosheh’s demands is not to double the workload on the Jews; rather he orders the Jews to deliver the same quota of bricks as before, only now without one of the components, straw, being provided for them (Exodus 5:18).

3) In the original text, Moshe does not go to Par‘oh II after the Slaying of the Firstborn. Rather, Par‘oh II comes to Mosheh and practically throws him out of the country (Exodus 12:31-32). In fact, there should be an immediate push by the Egyptians to get the Jews out of Egypt, right there and then, in the middle of the night (Exodus 12:33).

4) The depiction of Mount Sinay (Sinai) is ridiculously tame, with no attempt to capture the pyrotechnic flavor of the original text (Exodus 19:16-20:17).

5) While the music sounded good, it did not fit the story well, particularly at the Burning Bush, where it is too happy. Considering that the story of the Exodus is straight out of the Torah, why could they not compose something that sounded reminiscent of Torah cantillation?

Overall classification: Decent family movie.

Theological rating: D.
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