After Darren Aronofsky’s bible story re-imagining, Noah, became one of the most divisive films of 2014 – ruffling the feathers of both religious viewers and hardcore cinephiles alike – the release of 20th Century Fox and director Ridley Scott’s Moses movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, was destined to carry another wave of controversy into theaters. While some filmgoers have been intrigued by the idea of a swords and sandals epic centered on one of the bible’s most well-known leaders, others have balked at images depicting a bearded Christian Bale wielding an ornate sword – rather than a staff.
However, now that Exodus: Gods and Kings has arrived in theaters, we finally know just how far Scott has strayed from the Old Testament story. For our official thoughts on the quality of the filmmaker’s adaptation, read our Exodus: Gods and Kings review or check back soon for an Exodus episode of the Screen Rant Underground podcast.
If you’ve already seen the movie (or do not mind being SPOILED), read on for our breakdown of this new interpretation of Exodus, as well as info to help casual moviegoers understand any differences between Gods and Kings and its biblical source material.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
CLICK on any topic to jump directly to it:
- Moses’ Backstory and Historical Context (This Page)
- The Relationship Between God and Moses
- Ramses and the Hebrew People
- God’s Influence on the Exodus
Moses’ Backstory and Historical Context
Despite some significant changes to Moses’ adult life, the basic setup for Exodus: Gods and Kings remains the same. Fearing that the Hebrew population was growing too fast, the Pharaoh orders every male newborn of Israelite descent be drowned in the Nile River. However, one Hebrew woman, Jochebed, refuses and places her son, Moishe, in a basket, floating him downstream – so that an Egyptian might discover and spare the child. Moses’ sister, Miriam (Tara Fitzgerald), follows behind the basket and, upon its discovery by Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithia (Hiam Abbass), Miriam helps persuade the princess to raise the child (and employ her as well as Jochebed to care for him). In the scripture, Jochebed is brought-in as a wet nurse, but the film does not directly address this aspect. Moses’ birth mother is only shown at the time of his banishment (played by Anna Savva) – and her role in/outside the Egyptian court is not specified.
As Moses becomes an adult, the lines between scripture and moviemaking become a bit more blurry. Scott’s film clearly depicts Moses as a well-trained general and strategist in King Seti I’s army – alongside his “brother” (read: adopted cousin) Prince Ramses. In the scripture, there is no direct mention of Moses serving in the Egyptian army, training as a warrior, or even carrying a sword – meaning that Scott definitely took liberties with his battle-hardened version. That said, given his role in the royal family, it is plausible that the biblical Moses might have fought in the Egyptian army – since kings, princes, and other royalty often led the charge in battle and, at the very least, were trained to defend themselves against assassins, spies, and other threats.
Still, without question, at the point that Moses returns to Egypt following his banishment (more on that in a minute), he was never depicted as an armored warrior; instead, Moses was a quiet (but firm) shepherd of the Hebrews – one who delivered his people from bondage with a staff (and God’s “wonders”/plagues), not an ornate Egyptian sword.
As for how Moses comes to be banished from Egypt, the scripture never pinpoints a specific moment when his true heritage is revealed to him, whereas the film inserts an entirely fabricated intervention – specifically a meeting with Hebrew slave, Nun (Ben Kingsley), who outright tells Moses the backstory.
Nevertheless, the turning point, where he elects to spill Egyptian blood in order to protect a Hebrew, remains somewhat the same. In the scripture, Moses kills and hides an Egyptian guard that was mercilessly beating a slave – only to find out that other Hebrews had witnessed the murder. As word spreads of his actions, Moses runs away from Egypt – and King Seti “sought to kill him“.
Exodus 2:11-14: One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.”
In the film, Moses kills (but does not bother to hide) two Egyptian guards that were mercilessly beating a Hebrew, but returns to Egypt anyway, hoping that his conversation with Nun (and rumors of his true heritage) never resurface. Unfortunately for Moses, a pair of spies overheard the meeting with Nun and report back to the corrupt Viceroy Hegep of Pithom (a character that does not appear at all in Hebrew scripture). Following the death of King Seti I, Hegep spreads rumor of Moses’ Hebrew parentage to Ramses in the hopes of earning favor with the new king. Reluctant to cast his “brother” out, and with no proof to outright validate the Viceroy’s claims, Ramses tests Moses’ allegiance by threatening to amputate Miriam’s arm.
When Miriam refuses to come clean, Moses intervenes and the Pharaoh banishes both Moses as well as Miriam to uncertain death outside the walls of Memphis (the Egyptian capital). Knowing that his mother, Queen Tuya (Sigourney Weaver) wants Moses killed, Ramses hides a sword in his brother’s pack – to protect him in the desert from hired assassins.
The Relationship Between God and Moses
Moses survives his time alone in the desert, and in both the scripture and Scott’s film, flees to the land of Midian. There he defends the daughters of a local priest, Jethro, from a band of disrespectful shepherds, and is subsequently invited to their home for dinner.
Yet, in the scripture, Moses settles in the land as a shepherd, the priest “gives” one of his daughters, Zipporah, to Moses in marriage, and the pair conceive a son, Gershom. Religious and historical scholars can debate how much choice Zipporah possessed in the aforementioned “giving,” but for the film, Scott presents the relationship as mutually enticing to both Moses and Zipporah – with Zipporah outright encouraging Moses to stay in Midian.
Similarly, the 2014 movie takes a number of liberties with Moses’ calling – as well as his overarching relationship with God. In the text, Moses leads his flock to Horeb (the Mountain of God), where, inside a cavern, he is drawn by the sight of a burning bush, sees an Angel in the flames, and hears the voice of God. God commands Moses to confront the Pharaoh and demand the release of all Hebrew slaves, but Moses is reluctant to accept – fearing that he is simply not the right man for the task.
Exodus 3: 10,11: “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”
To help encourage Moses, God reveals three different wonders – wonders that Moses can use to convince the Pharaoh, among others, that he actually was sent by God (for example: transforming his staff into a living snake). After his initial doubts, he returns from the mountain and requests Jethro’s permission to leave Midian – taking Zipporah and their sons with him. At the same time, God commands Moses’ brother, Aaron, to join him on the journey – so that he can speak for Moses (who is nearly 80 years old at this point).
In Gods and Kings Moses’ sheep escape him, running up the mountain, and he is injured in a mudslide. Trapped in the wet soil, he see the burning bush as well as God, who appears in the form of a young boy. The boy commissions Moses to free the Hebrews; but later, Moses doubts whether his vision was real – or simply a hallucination caused by his injuries. Moses is the only person capable of seeing the boy, a point that is hammered home by the fact that Joshua (Aaron Paul) later watches in confusion (on several occasions) as Moses talks to thin air.
Yet, when elements of the vision begin to appear in his real life, Moses becomes convinced that he truly has been entrusted with the responsibility of liberating the Israelites – and leaves his son and wife behind, promising to return once the task is accomplished. Instead of wonders, Gods and Kings relies on the relationship between Moses and Ramses – as Moses attempts to reason with the Pharaoh’s humanity rather than simply prove he is an instrument of God. Aaron also appears in the film (played by Andrew Tarbet) but his role is greatly reduced – serving as one of Moses’ generals rather than his voice.
Early on, Scott’s Moses is prophesied to “wrestle” with God – a key idea on which the entire film is built. In several occasions, Moses outright argues with the boy, calling God out for not being involved enough as well as questioning the severity of key plagues that God inflicts upon the Egyptian people. Thanks to his close relationship with Ramses as young man, Moses voices conflicted feelings regarding God’s supernatural siege – especially when it is revealed that God intends to kill every firstborn child in Egypt (including the Pharaoh’s own son).
Conversely, after his initial trepidation, the Moses depicted in scripture never questions his role in God’s campaign against Egypt. He does what God asks, rarely debating, and is a welcome participant on several occasions. In fact, Moses and Aaron are directly involved in kicking-off the first plague – when they turn the Nile into a river of blood (killing all of the fish within its waters).
Some readers will, without a doubt, argue that recurring themes in the Hebrew scriptures hint that Moses wasn’t always entirely onboard with God’s methods – but aside from asking why God does not liberate the Hebrews sooner (and through more direct means), the text does not include any arguments between the two.
Ramses and the Hebrew People
While the Pharaohs (both Seti I and Ramses) are heavily featured in the Hebrew scriptures, neither is presented as anything much more than a vindictive and corrupt ruler. After unknowingly raising a Hebrew in his own royal family, Seti quickly turns on Moses – following the aforementioned murder of an Egyptian soldier. Following his father’s death, Ramses is an equally cruel and unreasonable figure. When Moses and Aaron first arrive in Egypt, requesting that Ramses release the Hebrews, the Pharaoh doesn’t just deny their petition – he puts pressure on the Egyptian people to make life even harder on their slaves.
The film portrays both Seti and Ramses in a slightly more positive light. Seti is depicted as a capable (albeit complicit) leader and a caring father figure to Moses – dying before Moses is revealed to be a Hebrew. Ramses is also fleshed out as a sensitive but insecure young man who, over time, becomes suspicious and arrogant. When Moses first appeals to Ramses on behalf of the Hebrews, the Pharaoh’s main concern is economic; specifically, he doesn’t believe that Egypt could survive the loss of its primary labor force. This isn’t to say that Ramses is in the right, and Scott still portrays the Pharaoh as a greedy and self-centered ruler; however, Exodus: Gods and Kings also highlights the challenges of Ramses’ predicament: the Egyptian gods (source of his birthright) were not responding – while the Hebrew god was terrorizing the Egyptian people with one horrifying (and deadly) plague after another.
Add the fact that, in both versions, God was actively “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” and it’s clear that Ramses wasn’t just evil, he was being pushed deeper into malevolence, for the purpose of an especially painful comeuppance.
Exodus 7:1-4: The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment.”
We’ll breakdown any differences between depiction of the actual plagues on the next page, but in scripture and on the big screen, Ramses finally grants the Israelites their freedom – after the loss of his own son (along with hundreds of other Egyptian children) during the “Death of the Firstborn” plague.
Upon release of the Israelite people, Scott’s adaptation takes a much speedier path to the Red Sea, while the scriptures assert that the Hebrews first plundered the Egyptians, who gave up their possessions in fear of further retribution from God, and then traveled into the wilderness.
Furthermore, the text asserts that, despite agreeing to let the Hebrews leave, Ramses (as well as the Egyptian people) began to second-guess the decision – and became enraged at the thought of the Israelites camping in the wilderness on the road to freedom. For that reason, the Pharaoh rallied his army in pursuit of Moses and his people.
Scott’s film plays out similarly, as Ramses chases the Hebrews with over 600 chariots in his wake – though the catalyst for Ramses’ change of heart is different. In keeping with the film’s more humane portrayal of Ramses, it isn’t until the king’s grief turns to rage, during the mummification of his dead son, that he decides to hunt Moses and the freed slaves down.
God’s Influence on the Exodus
As indicated earlier, God’s participation in Exodus varies in the scriptures and film. The text version of God is more present throughout the event, while also demanding direct involvement from Moses and Aaron (as mentioned, the brothers actively change the rivers, lakes, and pools of the land into blood). Conversely, the film’s God often leaves Moses in the dark, while also requiring less direct action from Moses (and Aaron) in the actual plagues – positioning the brothers as little more than messengers throughout the majority of God’s assault.
Instead of a series of separate events, Scott presents several of the plagues as a series of (somewhat) interconnected events – beginning with a horde of crocodiles that ruthlessly kill Egyptian fisherman before turning to cannibalism, bloodying the waters of the Nile. Frogs from the river take to dry land and, unable to return to the sullied waters, then die and decay – creating a breeding ground for gnats and flies. The rest of the plagues play-out similarly to scripture with the death of Egyptian livestock, painful skin boils, a thunderstorm of hail and fire, crop-devouring locusts, and perpetual darkness, before culminating in the death of every firstborn child across Egypt (save for the Hebrews that painted their doors with lamb blood).
As in the scripture, Moses meets regularly with Ramses throughout, asking the Pharaoh to release his people. But despite favoring a sword over the iconic staff (not to mention the inclusion of a training montage and isolated moments of guerrilla warfare tactics), Scott still positions God’s unrelenting siege over Egypt as the catalyst for Ramses’ decision to free the Israelites. It is still God who forces the king’s hand – not a newly-formed Hebrew fighting force.
However, once outside the walls of Memphis, the film God does not lead the Hebrews to the Red Sea. In the scripture, God guides Moses and his people with a massive pillar of smoke and fire, shepherding them through the wilderness to a predetermined crossing point – as angels warned of the Pharaoh’s pursuit. Once there, with Ramses’ closing in, Moses parts the waters of the Red Sea until the Hebrews can pass through to the opposite shore – only to release the walls of water (and drown the Egyptian army).
Exodus 14: 21,22: Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Instead, Scott presents Moses as the primary decision-maker on the journey to the Red Sea. There is no pillar of smoke to follow and, even though Moses asks for help from God, his cries go unanswered. As a result, he makes the choice to lead the Hebrews through a mountain pass that he had never traveled himself, hoping that Ramses’ chariots would not fit through the narrow and twisty trail. The pass successfully slows the Pharaoh’s pursuit, but upon arriving at the sea, Moses is no longer sure he’s brought the Hebrews to a position on the coast where, in low tide, they would be able to cross.
Frustrated, Moses throws his sword into the sea and, after a humble appeal to God, the waters begin to recede – slowly revealing the seafloor. Terrified at what they are witnessing, and unsure that they’ll make it across safely, the Hebrews express doubt in both Moses (as a leader) and God (as their creator). Still, Moses asks them to have faith, and the Israelites wade into the water as the Egyptians break through the mountains in view of the shore. While the remaining Hebrews sprint to the other side, Moses and his generals, including Aaron and Joshua, prepare to hold-off the first wave of Pharaoh’s army.
Since the waters are at God’s command, not Moses (and his staff), a tidal wave of formerly withdrawn sea appears – threatening to kill the Egyptians, Ramses, Moses, and any Hebrew stragglers. Seeing the wave, the Egyptians turn to flea, and Moses commands his generals to the shore – pleading with Ramses to follow them, asserting that there isn’t time for the king to make it back to the Egyptian beach. Unable to accept the plea, Ramses tries to kill Moses and the pair are consumed by the wave, washing to their respective sides of the sea. Safe and sound, the Hebrew people pull Moses from the water – while Ramses crawls onto the beach to find his entire army destroyed or drowned when the waters returned.
Moses then leads the Hebrews through Midian, where he reunites with his family. Shortly after, he stands atop Horeb once again, watching with God as the Israelites build a Golden Calf to worship. Angered, God commissions Moses to carve the Ten Commandments – as guidelines and principles for the Hebrews to follow going forward. Playing-off the theme that Moses has “wrestled” with God, the boy asks the Hebrew if he agrees with the commandments – to which Moses replies that he wouldn’t be carving the stones if he did not agree.
However, the scriptures do not paint as pleasant of an ending. In the text, God carves the Ten Commandments into stone himself, and then gives Moses the tablets for presentation to the Hebrews – while also demanding that the Levites (a tribe within the Hebrews) kill all of the calf-worshippers.
Exodus 32:27-29: He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’” The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.”
These are the biggest differences between Exodus: Gods and Kings in comparison to the source texts. Without a doubt, there are plenty of other changes that we either did not include or may have missed – and encourage our readers to respectfully discuss those as well as the larger film in the comment section below. Of course, Given that countless translations of Hebrew scripture exist, select comparisons between the movie and bible may vary depending on translations/interpretations of the scriptures.
NOTE: In the interest of including direct examples, we used the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) for any relevant citations. However, this isn’t a direct endorsement of the NRSV over other versions (or religious over non-religious beliefs). We’re simply comparing the film to its print source material and selected the NRSV because it is often used by religious scholars and is one of the most popular bible translations (across multiple denominations).
SEE ALSO: Exodus: Gods and Kings Review
Exodus: Gods and Kings runs 150 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.
Notice any major differences that we didn’t mention? Feel free to share them in the comments below! For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our Exodus: Gods and Kings episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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