The God in “Exodus” is Pint-Sized, Angry…and Biblical

Ridley Scott’s divine depiction may be more like the God of the Bible than we want to believe.

Ridley Scott’s biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings came out today, and already it has triggered a plague of controversy. People have blasted the movie for racially insensitive casting, biblical liberties, and for star Christian Bale’s apparent lack of piety. (He called Moses “one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.”) But for faith-based moviegoers, nothing may stir up righteous anger more than a little boy.

Scott chose 11-year-old Isaac Andrews to play God — an unpredictable, petulant, angry deity in the guise of an angel-faced waif. Watching the film, you sometimes get the feeling that the kid is playing with toy soldiers. He drafts Moses as his “general,” then whines that Moses’ methods are “taking too long” to free his chosen people. When Moses himself is worn down by God’s plagues, God pushes on — satisfied with nothing less than complete capitulation from the Egyptians. In critical moments God seems to vanish, leaving Moses to wander alone.

It’s easier to fear Scott’s God than to love him, to cower in the shadow of his child-sized fist than to curl in the cup of his hand. This cinematic deity, this boy, feels so foreign to the God that many of us worship and praise. No wonder so many folks had issues with the portrayal. I know I did.

But I wonder whether my discomfort might have had as much — maybe even more — to do with the original story as it did with Scott’s portrayal. Here’s the thing: the God we read about in the Bible doesn’t always match the God we want to believe in and worship.

I don’t think this dichotomy is restricted to Christianity. People of all religions, I imagine, wrestle with these sorts of faith-based problems. But maybe it’s particularly keen for Christians given the many facets of God we read about in the Old and New Testaments.

And the problems start early. Some of my earliest memories are of Sunday school teachers telling me about a perfect, loving God — one who loved us so much that he became human to save us. “Yes, Jesus loves me,” we sang. “The Bible tells me so.”

But a few years later, I sat in another Sunday school class and heard the Exodus story, unalloyed by children’s songs. God sent plague after plague on the people of Egypt . . . and that same God purposefully “hardened his heart” — apparently so he’d have an excuse to send more plagues. “Everything created by God is good,” 1 Timothy 4:4 reads, but those plagues sure didn’t look all that good to me as an 11-year-old. In fact, they still don’t look all that great.

Death is the final plague, of course — the wholesale destruction of Egypt’s firstborn. In Exodus, the Pharaoh Ramses (played by Joel Edgerton) confronts Moses, his own dead son cradled in his arms. “Is this your God?!” Ramses thunders. “Killer of children?!”

I struggled with that very thought in Sunday school so many years ago. Is this my God? The same God that loves us so much? Where is he in this story? Why doesn’thHe love the Egyptians, too?

I never asked anyone these questions back then. I don’t think most Christians do. We don’t want to rock the boat. Maybe sometimes we’re afraid of the answer. We concentrate on the Gospels and letters to the Romans, take snippets from the nicer Psalms and embroider them on throw pillows. We skim over the “bad” stuff, the stuff we don’t understand, the stuff that doesn’t fit our modern sensibilities, until we almost forget it’s there. And then, when someone like Ridley Scott throws it up on the big screen for all of us to see, it hurts us — not so much because Scott made it up, but because he didn’t.

See, I think in a way, almost all of us wind up making God in our own image — or, at least, imagine him as we’d like him to be. In Exodus, Scott — who’s been quite critical of organized religion — gave us a God that fit his perception of what God looks like, ignoring even the countless Old Testament references to God’s compassion, mercy, and love. But are we so different? Are we so much better than Scott when we turn God into an inoffensive, pocket-sized mascot? A gentle, non-judgmental best buddy? When we overlay our own twenty first-century, first-world predilections on a Lord unfettered by time or space?

Let’s face it: God is troubling. And really, he should be. We’re finite beings trying to understand the Infinite — dime-sized crabs contemplating the Pacific. We go to great lengths to understand and explain him, and I’m sure there have been many, many sermons written that put my own concerns about this and every other troubling bit of scripture to rest. But in the end, as much as God wants us to draw ever nearer to him, we can’t know him. Not fully. We don’t have the capacity to. We don’t have the maturity. And that can be, for believers like me, deeply frustrating. We’re like Moses in Exodus as he struggles to flee Egypt. We ask our questions and receive no answers. Not now, anyway.

I have a lot of questions about God. I always have. As long as I draw breath, I always will. Sometimes, I get answers. Often I don’t. And it’s in those times that I gravitate to Job — a book whose titular protagonist was plagued with his own deeply troubling questions.

“Who is it that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” God booms in Job 38. “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you will answer me.”

The Lord goes on for pages and pages, using some of the most beautiful imagery and powerful language in the Bible, to tell Job one simple truth. God doesn’t have to explain himself to anybody.

I’m troubled by Scott’s God, just as I can sometimes wonder about my own. Who are you, really? I ask. Are you the God of Exodus? The God of Romans? The God of Psalm 23 or of Psalm 83? Who are you?

The answer I get is both frustrating and true, the same answer given to Scott’s Moses and the biblical Moses, the answer Christians must, in the end, accept.

I AM.

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Paul Asay
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  • Carstonio

    I don’t know if any religion’s gods exist or not, and I have no way of knowing one way or the other. If Asay is right that people imagine a god as they would like the being to be, I shudder at what might have been on the minds of the long-ago authors of Genesis and Exodus. What Asay doesn’t acknowledge is that humans are morally justified in saying that there’s nothing loving about the Flood or demanding the sacrifice of Isaac as an obedience test. An individual is entitled to object to how others treat him or her. The gods in the Greek myths were equally guilty of immorality and barbarity, but those myths never said the Olympians were loving gods. That criticism is not aimed at the Old Testament specifically, but instead at people who insist that the god is a loving being as if this were self-evident. If gods exist, and there very well may be one or more gods, we shouldn’t assume that the beings’ personalities are what we want them to be.

    • georgeor

      Carstonio, I would like to respectfully offer you a different perspective on the stories of the flood and of Isaac’s sacrifice. Let me also say that I don’t believe love is ever self-evident, even when it exists between two people who love each other and less so when it is between God and people who may or may not love Him back.

      The flood is essentially a story of the world getting out of control. In the course of 3 chapters (Genesis 4 – 6) the world sees its first murder (Cain murders Abel), a few generations later Lamech boasts that, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech is avenged 70 times.” By the time the flood comes on the scene the world is described as “filled with murder.” God’s response is to call the world of murderers to account and to spare the exception. If you accept the author’s given (the world was filled with murder), cataclysm with the righteous being spared (ie. Noah and his family) is a fitting response.

      As we look ahead to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, I think that it is important to remember that the world of Abraham’s day was a world where gods were believed to demand human sacrifices. In other words, there were a lot of other mountains with other men worshiping other gods where no angel stopped the knife from falling and no ram was to be found caught in a thicket. This story would have been the exception and a shocking one at that. This God doesn’t demand the life of our sons (in terms of our spilling their blood) to know that we love Him; this was NEW information that the author was trying to convey at the time he was trying to convey it. Instead, this God demands that we offer up our children by adopting a perspective that they are really God’s children. I think this is a shocking story, but shocking in the opposite way to the way you seem to have taken it, given the time and the people to whom it was initially addressed.

      Well, there you have it. I hope what I’ve written helps you see that a careful reading of the text of Genesis yields a God who is not capricious, vindictive or even barbarous, but rather one who is loving towards His creation. I know that there are other examples out there that people who are critical of the faith that I hold cite and an explanation of all of them would be impractical in the comment section of an article.

      • Carstonio

        Your description of the Flood story encapsulates the horrid morality behind it. I oppose capital punishment partly because no one deserves to die or suffer, with the emphasis on deserved, and because the idea of wholly good or wholly bad people is a falsehood. The Flood defines humans as rabid dogs who not only need to be put down for their own good, but who also don’t deserve to live. Any concept of dividing people into righteous and unrighteous allows individuals to decide for themselves who deserves to die or suffer.

        And I was aware of the historical context of the Isaac story. That context doesn’t make a difference. Abraham was still being asked to choose between his son’s life and his god’s possible anger, an emotionally torturous situation. I hope that in his position, I would be brave enough to say that the god could destroy me but I wouldn’t kill my son.

  • Robert Fahey

    I couldn’t resist questioning encrusted old beliefs, though questioning was the worst of all sins. Adam and Eve had been fine wandering around nude among tigers and snakes until they’d eaten that apple and started thinking things through. We had to
    bet our souls on stuff that didn’t make sense; on wandering stars, wives turning to salt, and God stopping the sun so his own children, made in his image, could kill each other. Samson hadn’t cut his own hair, someone else had, but rules must be followed, so the hell with him, God said. Then our principal kicked a kid out of school for refusing to cut his. Adults kept changing “eternal truths,” and I couldn’t keep up. Everybody kept hammering away at the world like blacksmiths, each trying to beat it into something different. – From “Entertaining Naked People” by Edward Fahey.