Friday, September 7, 2007

24 ’Elul 5767: National Thylacine Day/Neither Snow Nor Rain Day


Today’s news and commentary, some of which Barry is responsible for:In place of the usual weird thing, today I present below my latest review for the Divine Misconceptions Project. Enjoy, share the weirdness with the thylacine in your life, and Shabbath shalom.


You cut up the Bible, you bloody baboon!
A review of The Ten Commandments and The Ten Commandments: The Musical
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

Having already reviewed The Prince of Egypt, I was afraid that The Ten Commandments (the famous 1956 film produced by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Charlton Heston) and The Ten Commandments: The Musical (which is virtually unknown) would make all the same mistakes. Unfortunately, I was wrong, so this review will be longer than 50 words.

1956 film: Clearly the intention was that this would be a serious film on a grand scale, and the overall feel is definitely grand and detailed. The special effects were probably state of the art at the time. However, the acting feels rather stiff and unnatural, especially that of Charlton Heston, who plays Mosheh (Moses). The language used is a pretentious “Bible English”.

2006 musical: Had it received sufficient attention, the musical genre would died with it. Plenty that could go wrong went wrong, starting with the casting of Val Kilmer in the role of Mosheh. Though Mosheh in the original text has a speech impediment (Exodus 4:10, 6:30), it is far more likely that his problem is stuttering or slurred speech than an inability to carry a tune. The dialog is unremarkable. The costumes are bad. The scenery is atrocious and dreary. The special effects are pathetic, even given the limits of what can be done on stage. If the ancient Egyptians can fake turning staffs into snakes (Exodus 7:11-12), despite relatively primitive technology, anyone in our era reenacting the Exodus story has no excuse not to fake it passably well. The story is inappropriately compressed to fit it into two acts with insufficient and sometimes nonexistent marking of the passage of time, making for a very rushed feeling. The DVD is a good present for someone with a firearm, who will gladly use it for target practice.

Both versions, like The Prince of Egypt, create backstory for Mosheh in terms of rivalry with the second Par‘oh (Pharaoh), in both assumed to be Ramses II. In the 1956 film, much of the rivalry is in terms of competency. Unlike in The Prince of Egypt, the 1956 film makes Par‘oh II a poor administrator and Mosheh very competent at getting slaves to do what Par‘oh I (assumed to be Seti I) wants. Both versions also have Mosheh and Par‘oh II in a love triangle with Nefertiri, a woman who favors Mosheh but settles for Par‘oh II after Mosheh leaves Egypt. (And according to Wikipedia, Nefertari was the real-life wife of the real Ramses II, so Mr. DeMille apparently did some homework.) Unfortunately both versions of The Ten Commandments are riddled with errors, both those found in The Prince of Egypt and original ones (not a mere repeating of errors), all violations of a prominent unwritten rule of good religious thought:


Violating this unwritten rule can lead to disaster, and just as in The Prince of Egypt, it does in both versions of The Ten Commandments. And as in The Prince of Egypt, much of what goes wrong is the introduction of modern ideas.

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

This is just like in The Prince of Egypt. Neither version has the Jews or Egyptians give any real a priori reason for their beliefs. Both versions, like The Prince of Egypt, reduce the role of YHWH (God), reducing prophecy to just Mosheh and the empirical verification of said prophecy. The Ten Plagues are considerably reduced, especially in the musical. The central relationship in both versions is shifted from YHWH versus Par‘oh II to Mosheh versus Par‘oh II, thus automatically lowering the quality of the central relationship. Unlike in The Prince of Egypt, much of their rivalry is over Nefertiri; this works as a means of torturing everyone in the love triangle, though there is an element of pettiness in it. Par‘oh II knows that Nefertiri wants Mosheh and not him; he is a fool to pursue her nevertheless. Why these two men are at odds over Nefertiri in the first place is an unanswered question; we see little of her outside of the role of a love interest or (later) wife in the 1956 film and and nothing in the musical; indeed, the film places a never-explained constraint on Nefertiri that she must marry the next Par‘oh of Egypt, artificially giving Par‘oh II and Mosheh another reason to stab each other in the back. On the bright side, in both versions there is an element of “my god can beat up your god”, but in the 1956 film Par‘oh II at one point ventures into atheism for no apparent reason. We are spared in both versions The Prince of Egypt’s turning ’Aharon (Aaron) and Miryam (Miriam) into a morality play of blind skepticism versus blind faith, though since Mosheh is wrongly portrayed as speaking (though not singing) decently, the role of ’Aharon is diminished.

Though I listed the depiction of Mount Sinay being ridiculously tame as an independent blunder in my review of The Prince of Egypt, on further consideration I have realized that is due to pushing blind faith; a pyrotechnic theophany (Exodus 19:16-20:17) is clear evidence of the existence of YHWH. The Prince of Egypt’s misrepresentation of the revelation on Mount Sinay is prefigured by that of the 1956 film. Both versions of The Ten Commandments gut the theophany by having the revelation only to Mosheh, where in the original text, the entire Jewish people participate in a mass revelation and receive the Decalogue. But both versions of The Ten Commandments have everyone waiting around for 40 days without a clue what is going on without a preceding revelation; as such the Golden Calf incident is transformed from a misguided act of worship into an anything-goes party. Rather than having Mosheh incensed that the Jews are doing something that they were specifically told not to do, both versions of The Ten Commandments have Mosheh incensed at the Jews for doing things that they never were told are prohibited. This is not fair, and it smacks of the traditional Christian misinterpretation of the God of the Hebrew Bible being a cruel, vengeful god. Dramatically it makes for an anticlimactic ending.

Modern idea #2: The liberation of women and its opposite, the subjection of women.

Like The Prince of Egypt, the 1956 film version of The Ten Commandments abbreviates the role of Miryam in favor of Sipporah (Zipporah/Sepphora). Unlike The Prince of Egypt, the 1956 film only makes a token step towards liberating Sipporah; she stands up to the attackers at the well—only on her sisters’ urging—and gets knocked down for it, leaving the way clear for Mosheh to save the day (despite being dead tired from his travels in the wilderness), and she does ask her father to let Mosheh stay with them. For the rest of the film she is at best passive-aggressive. Though this version of Sipporah is attracted to Mosheh from the beginning, she lets Mosheh drive it. While the 1956 film has one of Sipporah and Mosheh’s sons appear, it prefigures The Prince of Egypt in eliminating the scene in the desert inn where Sipporah quells YHWH’s anger and saves her husband’s life by circumcising her younger son (Exodus 4:25). This omission of Sipporah’s actual act of fortitude—emergency circumcision is not a task for the faint-hearted—may be due to the modern notion that faith has to be blind. Having Sipporah directly encounter YHWH would destroy her blind faith, and since this scene is not absolutely necessary to the plot, it is eliminated. (I am kicking myself for not realizing this when I wrote The Prince of Egypt review.) However, a very passive Sipporah seems to be part of a larger pattern.

The notion that “good” women are passive is imposed upon the other female characters. Miryam’s taking initiative at the Nile is omitted. All of them spending their time being buffeted about rather than driving the plot. Yokhevedh (Jochebed, not “Yochabel”) and the Daughter of Par‘oh—identified conventionally as Bithyah (Bithiah)—still take the initiative to save the infant Mosheh, this being critical to the story, but after the Daughter of Par‘oh swears her servant Memnet not to reveal that the child is Jewish, they stop driving the plot. Sipporah’s sisters all fawn over Mosheh from the moment they see him and very actively wash him following the fight at the well—in contradiction to the original text, in which their father is surprised that they did not so much as bring their savior home for dinner (Exodus 2:20); of course, Mosheh chooses the passive Sipporah for his wife. There is also a completely fabricated “good” female character, Lilia, who seems to exist mostly for men to fight over. Though she begs a lot, she is behaviorally a doormat, the only real exception being her putting blood on the doorposts and lintel to save the life of her evil master, Dathan. None, however, approaches Sipporah for passivity; she does very little on her own initiative, she is not sexually forward, and she does not drive the plot.

While the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments does not attempt to liberate Sipporah, there is one female character who is active on a regular basis, and that is Nefertiri. Nefertiri is not a passive character; she hits on Mosheh and tries to manipulate both Mosheh and Par‘oh II for her own benefit, even convincing Sipporah to leave Egypt, and she successfully goads Par‘oh II into chasing after the departing Jews. She is so successful at capturing the hearts of both Mosheh and Par‘oh II that Par‘oh II secretly arranges for Mosheh’s banishment (in place of the original text’s having Par‘oh I try to kill Mosheh, resulting in Mosheh fleeing Egypt; Exodus 2:15) in an effort to make sure he does not have to compete with Mosheh in absentia for Nefertiri’s affections. Taken together with Sipporah, we see a curious symmetry: Sipporah, the most passive of the passive, is “good” and wife of the hero, while Nefertiri, the most active of the active, is “evil” and wife of the villain. Sipporah is at the mercy of the plot, while Nefertiri drives it. The subtext here is clear and distasteful.

Even though women in the Hebrew Bible are not liberated in a modern sense, they are not doormats, and this is even limiting the scope to just the story of the Exodus. The midwives Shifrah and Pu‘ah (left out of the film) lie to Par‘oh I that the Jewish women are “wild animals”, giving birth without assistance before the midwives arrive (Exodus 1:19), an action for which YHWH rewards them (Exodus 1:20-21). Yokhevedh hides Mosheh for three months before desperately putting him in a basket in the Nile (Exodus 2:2-3), defying the government. The Daughter of Par‘oh commits deliberate fraud when she adopts Mosheh (Exodus 2:10), at the very least risking her father’s displeasure. Miryam proves herself clever in sweet-talking the Daughter of Par‘oh into letting Yokhevedh nurse Mosheh (Exodus 2:7-9), which is doubly notable since Miryam is still a child at this point. Sipporah not only can circumcise her own baby, but she can also rebuke her husband for failing to do so himself; the language she uses is somewhat cryptic, but “bridegroom of blood” (Exodus 4:25-26) is definitely not a compliment. Miryam also leads the other Jewish women in song at the Reed Sea (Exodus 15:20-21), rather than remain quiet and in the background. The only section of the story not having women doing good, active things is Mosheh performing his mission, but in that section the focus of the story is YHWH versus Par‘oh II—which I explained in my review of The Prince of Egypt as a god-versus-god showdown; at that point, Mosheh is just the messenger, and it is YHWH’s time for action; when the spotlight shines upon a god, no one else can truly share it. Mr. DeMille elided as much as he could the notion that a woman can be active and still be good, making his only major non-desperate active female character, Nefertiri, downright selfish; he embraced an anti-Biblical, anti-feminist view that women are supposed to be passive.

It is doubly disgraceful that the creators of both The Prince of Egypt and The Ten Commandments: The Musical did not recognize the subjection of women as a modern intrusion on Mr. DeMille’s part, but instead unthinkingly copied watered down versions of characters that were much stronger in the original text. Nothing regarding women which was omitted by DeMille was included in the two later films, even though they both present a more positive attitude towards active women. Not having done the obvious (not to mention the correct thing to do) of going back to the original text of Exodus, of necessity they have had to fabricate material to portray active women in a positive light. While The Prince of Egypt retcons a purely fictional meeting of Mosheh and Sipporah before the well incident, The Ten Commandments: The Musical instead ramps up her levels of aggression so she not only fights alongside Mosheh, but also expresses very clearly love at first sight. This may be an attempt to improve on The Prince of Egypt, which has Sipporah start off hating Mosheh (including pushing him into a well) and then having to segue her into liking him enough to marry him. Alas, the musical repeats the mistake of The Prince of Egypt of having Sipporah be a major character yet not move the plot along; Cecil B. DeMille at least has the dramatic sense to have Sipporah be used as an irritant, obstacle, and pawn in the Mosheh-Nefertiri conflict. The other “good” female characters in the musical also do little to move the plot along, except for Yokhevedh and the Daughter of Par‘oh, whose actions at the Nile cannot be eliminated without forcing the writers to be creative in rewriting the plot. Nefertiri retains her role as a major plot-mover, though without even the arbitrary rule that she must marry the next Par‘oh, why she does not voluntarily go into exile with Mosheh but instead marries Par‘oh II is an unexplained problem.

Modern idea #3: “There are no old heroes who work without a young hero.”

When I reviewed The Prince of Egypt, I thought that Mosheh’s age has been significantly reduced due to the liberation of Sipporah, as it is generally considered very distasteful for a woman today to marry a man 40 or more years older than her. While it seemed plausible at the time, only afterwards I found out that the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments reduces Mosheh’s age without bothering to liberate Sipporah. Since The Prince of Egypt seems to be derived from The Ten Commandments, my original hypothesis is unlikely. I therefore propose an alternate hypothesis which works with all three films under discussion: Mosheh’s age has been reduced due to the modern idea that an old hero must always work with a younger hero. Mosheh is working essentially alone, especially since DeMille’s insistence on blind faith reduces communication with YHWH. But an 80-year-old man acting alone as a hero is unheard of. Does Gandalf take the One Ring to Mount Doom to destroy it without help? Does Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda bring down the Galactic Empire single-handedly? Does Professor X have the slightest chance of acting alone? Of course not! They have help in the form of younger heroes. Unable to think of a counterexample (certainly not a prominent counterexample), I hereby suggest that DeMille, consciously or unconsciously, was influenced by the cultural tradition that old heroes do not get to act alone, and so he took the easy path of reducing Mosheh’s age.

Possibly related to modern ideas of heroes in the movies and musical is that in all three Mosheh has no speech impediment, in blatant contradiction to the original text (Exodus 4:10). People in fiction are rarely depicted as having problems speaking unless it is critical to the story, and I cannot recall a single modern hero depicted with speech difficulties. This convention may have been inadvertently been applied to Mosheh.

Modern idea #4: Abhorrence of animal sacrifice.

Just like in The Prince of Egypt, the fact that the lambs being slaughtered are sacrifices (Exodus 12:27) received no attention in the 1956 film. The paschal sacrifice is completely omitted in the musical.

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

The 1956 film prefigures The Prince of Egypt’s error of depicting YHWH as a smoky, material being who takes time to wander around Egypt slaying the Egyptians’ firstborn (in contradiction to Exodus 12:29). In fact, it does The Prince of Egypt one worse by also depicting YHWH on Mount Sinay (Sinai) in the form of a mass of animated fire. This is taking a poetic metaphor (Deuteronomy 4:24) a bit too far.

While I am complaining, in the musical, Mosheh claims that YHWH dwells within all men. Even allowing for the possibility of panentheism, the belief that YHWH permeates the universe—a view which I deem much less probable than transcendent theism—this is akin to saying the government of the United States dwells within the White House. Such a formulation is not attested anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, and it smacks of idolatry. Lest anyone think I am exaggerating, keep in mind that the Nepalis have the institution of the Kumari, a girl who is believed to be inhabited by the Hindu goddess Durga and actually worshipped.

Another complaint: The Jews at that time are well aware of YHWH’s names, despite the claims of the 1956 film. Cecil B. DeMille seems to have misinterpreted the verse “I appeared to ’Avraham (Abraham), to Yishaq (Issac), and to Ya‘aqov (Jacob) as ’El Shadday (God Almighty(?)), and [by] my name YHWH I was not known to them” (Exodus 6:3). The verse cannot be sensibly interpreted as meaning that the Jews knew none of YHWH’s names, as it specifies that the name ’El Shadday was previously known. It also cannot be taken literally to mean the name YHWH was not previously known, as that name is spoken previously (Genesis 14:22, 15:2, 15:7-8, 16:2, 16:5, 16:11, 16:13, 18:14, 19:13-14, 21:33, 22:14, 22:16, 24:3, 24:7, 24:12, 24:21, 24:27, 24:31, 24:35, 24:40, 24:42, 24:44, 24:48, 24:50-52, 24:56, 26:22, 26:25, 26:28-29, 27:7, 27:20, 28:13, 28:16, 28:21, 29:32-33, 29:35, 30:24, 30:27, 30:30, 31:49, 32:10, 49:18); most likely the significance of the name was previously unknown.

Yet another complaint: A few times in the Hebrew Bible people fear that if they encounter divine beings, they will die (Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:20-22; Judges 4:22). Considering that YHWH and the angels are more powerful than us and have power over us, this fear is not crazy. None of us are perfect, and thus an encounter with the Judge who knows all our darkest secrets or His/Her representative might very well be the last encounter one has, especially if one treats the divine being too lightly. The theophany on Sinay (omitted from all three films) is so terrifying that the Jews are begging Mosheh to act as an intermediate, they cannot bear the direct revelation. Despite Mosheh’s unusual fortitude in the face of Divine revelation, he tries to get out of being YHWH’s messenger at the Burning Bush; he is frightened and tries to find a reason, any reason to be let off the hook (Exodus 3:11, 3:13, 4:1, 4:10, 4:13). The Ten Commandments, The Prince of Egypt, and The Ten Commandments: The Musical all do not even attempt to convey a feeling of sheer terror appropriate to prophetic encounters.

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

It is obvious that either no one who worked on either version of The Ten Commandments and had any real power in the project knew Hebrew, or if they did, they did not care enough to do the film right. Just like The Prince of Egypt, both versions of The Ten Commandments make the mistake of having “Let my people go” and “Thou shalt not kill” instead of the more accurate “Send [forth] my people” (Exodus 5:1) and “You will not murder” (Exodus 20:12). (OK, the musical is more poetic about both than Cecil B. DeMille’s film, but the basic error in meaning remains the same.)

When I reviewed The Prince of Egypt, I thought that the reason that the creators had changed Mosheh’s killing the Egyptian from deliberate to accidental was a side effect of Mosheh’s age being reduced due to the liberation of Sipporah. On further consideration, it may also be due to the King James Version mistranslation of the commandment “You will not murder” (allowing killing in certain cases) as “Thou shalt not kill” (always forbidding killing); it is incongruent to have the hero deliberately breaking a major rule. The killing is still depicted as deliberate in the 1956 film, but the musical copies The Prince of Egypt and makes it accidental and in public.

Modern idea #7: Judaic anachronism.

The musical has two anachronisms of modern Judaism. When leaving Egypt, Mosheh wears a tallith (prayer cloak); while the institution of wearing fringed garments is commanded in the Torah, this one looks remarkably like one bought in a Jewish bookstore. An ancient tallith would most certainly have some fringe strings dyed with tekheleth (a blue dye made from the ink of Murex snails), and there would be no purple stripes on the garment itself. (Tangent: Mosheh’s wearing the tallith looks rather strange since he does not wear a kippah (skullcap/yarmulke) with it.) Also, the marriage of Mosheh and Sipporah takes place under a huppah (marriage canopy); this practice is from Jewish oral tradition and not attested in the Hebrew Bible. (Deliberately paralleling the wedding of Mosheh and Sipporah with that of Par‘oh II and Nefertiri is an interesting symmetry, though.)

Other blunders:

1) The 1956 film constantly rewrites the text of Exodus, both in dialog and narration, to the point of severe annoyance of anyone familiar with the original text.

2) The 1956 film starts of claiming that life is created from light. I have no clue where Mr. DeMille got this idea.

3) Despite the claims of Mr. DeMille, Jewish newborn boys are to be thrown into the river (Exodus 1:22), not killed with swords.

4) Despite the claims of Mr. DeMille, Yithro (Jethro) is not a Bedouin sheik. Bedouins are a modern Arab group who naturally do not appear at all in the Hebrew Bible. He is not even an Arab. Yithro, also known as Re‘u’el (Reuel; Exodus 2:18) is a priest of Midhyan (Midian; Exodus 2:16, 3:1). He and the rest of Midhyan are not descended from Yishma‘e’l (Ishmael); Midhyan is one of the sons of ’Avraham and Qeturah (Keturah; Genesis 25:2). Why DeMille Arabized Yithro, I do not know. Perhaps this is an attempt to make the film more “inclusive”.

Also: Yithro also has no privy knowledge of YHWH in the original text.

5) In contradiction to the 1956 film, in the original text Mosheh decides to go see the Burning Bush only when he is out tending the sheep and sees it himself (Exodus 3:1-3), not on the prompting of anyone else.

6) Just as I complained about when reviewing The Prince of Egypt, 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). Apparently the 1956 film was the source for The Prince of Egypt to copy.

7) We are spared misplacement of the Song at the Sea, since, unlike The Prince of Egypt, both versions of The Ten Commandments omit it altogether.

Also: The musical completely guts the Reed Sea episode, not bothering to have the Egyptian army even show up (in contradiction to Exodus 14:7-28), but rather having Par‘oh II have a completely fictional reconciliation scene with Mosheh.

8) The musical makes repeated reference in song to “the horns of Jericho” sounding. Jericho does not fall to the sound of horns until after the Jews cross the Jordan River into Israel, 40 years later (Joshua 6:2-25).

Overall classification of The Ten Commandments: Pretentious serious film.

Theological rating of The Ten Commandments: D.

Overall classification of The Ten Commandments: The Musical: Low-quality musical.

Theological rating of The Ten Commandments: The Musical: D-. (Extra points off for panentheism.)
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