Sunday, December 7, 2014

Complaining about the Exodus Movie

My series on the Pentateuch is plodding along rather slowly and I've still got about another twenty chapters to go before I even finish Genesis, but I'm going to take a break here and attempt a timely discussion of the first part of the book that follows it, Exodus.

You may have heard there's a film coming out this week that uses the early narrative portions of Exodus as its source material. Given the widespread promotion of the film across every platform known to man, you'd have to be living under a rock not to be aware of it. I've never been a fan of these biblical epics, with perhaps the exception of Ben Hur (1959), a film which only briefly intersects the biblical narrative.

When I was a Christian I would usually lament the lack of fidelity to the source material. Now that I'm not one, I'm mainly not a fan of the genre because the films tend to be either hugely slanted toward religious audiences or stand in some kind of half-way point of being critical while still conforming to the expectations of those same religious audiences because money. I suspect Ridley Scott's film will sit solidly in the latter category, though I'm willing to be proven wrong. I'd like to be able to enjoy these films the way I enjoy films like Clash of the Titans (the Ray Harryhausen version, of course), but until such time as the culture I live in can view Yahweh, Moses and Samson the same way they currently view Zeus, Odysseus and Heracles, I don't think I'm going to be able to truly enjoy a film adaptation of a biblical narrative. That's just me. Your mileage my vary.

The Ridley Scott film has already been criticized for its portrayal of events involving specific ethnic groups without casting people in the principal roles that even remotely resemble folks from those ethnic groups. That will not be what many Christians will criticize, however. I'm going to go ahead and address some criticisms from some in the Christian community. The first is the standard complaint that the film is not faithful to "biblical history." The second is how many will be quite put off by the way the deity is portrayed in the film. Some of the early reviews I've read have mentioned that Yahweh is represented by an eleven-year-old boy and that the decisions and actions of the deity are similarly immature and, to borrow Christian Bale's term, "mercurial."

I'm going to address these objections by pointing out the following: the biblical narrative is at times so incoherent and ridiculous on its face that the details must be abandoned by the filmmakers; there is very little that is "historical" about the events of the Exodus; and finally, portraying Yahweh as a petulant, terroristic deity and Moses as a barbaric schizophrenic is not at all a betrayal of the biblical accounts.

Filmmakers like DeMille and Scott simply cannot overcome the problems in the biblical narrative without straying from it.

DeMille's 1956 film that dealt with the Exodus was not faithful to the biblical text, neither was the animated Prince of Egypt and it's easy to see that Scott's adaptation won't be either. For one thing neither Heston nor Bale look anything like eighty-year-old Semites. But casting that aside, their stories cannot follow what is an otherwise impossible plot. Filmmakers will doubtless retain many of the otherwise silly elements because they can be obscured by the suspension of disbelief typically employed by audiences when they're witnessing a good bit of story-telling. However, some of them just can't be overcome and have to be reworked so that audiences aren't left scratching their heads.

Perhaps one of the biggest head-scratchers in the text is the matter of the Egyptian livestock. The fifth plague involves some kind of disease that kills livestock (Ex. 9:5-7). One must note the comparison in verse 6 that “all the livestock of the Egyptians” died, but “not one of the livestock of Israel died.” The contrast suggests totality. The natural understanding of this text is that only the Israelites would’ve had living livestock at this point. This is odd because Egyptian livestock will be mentioned again...and again…and again. Like in 9:10 when animals break out with boils along with the people. What animals? Certainly not all the livestock that were killed in the preceding plague, right?

In 9:18-21 Yahweh says he’s going to bring hail and warns the people to bring their slaves and livestock in from the field or else they’ll die from it. Again, what livestock? How much livestock could they possibly have left at this point? Verse 21 says that some of Pharaoh’s servants did not take Yahweh’s word seriously and left their slaves and cattle in the field. Really? After six previous plagues, two of them involving livestock, they’re actually just going to take chances and not do something relatively simple to preserve what little remains of their property? Maybe they just figured they had really tough livestock. I mean, after all, these animals had already survived contaminated water, biting insects, widespread disease and boils. Why not deadly hail?

In the final plague the firstborn cattle are struck down. What cattle? This must mean the cattle that survived the disease that wiped out all the livestock, or the cattle that survived the boils and biting insects. Or maybe it was the cattle that wasn’t in the fields that was killed by the deadly hail, or the cattle that didn’t rapidly die of starvation because there was no vegetation left to eat. Perhaps it was some of the cattle that weren’t slaughtered for food in desperation by the starving populace. Just how many firstborn were left of these amazingly resilient cattle for Yahweh to strike down? No wonder the Egyptians (and later the Israelites themselves) fashioned gods after them.

In 14:6-7 Pharaoh takes six hundred choice chariots and all the rest of the chariots of Egypt and chases the Israelites. One has to wonder what pulled these chariots. It couldn’t have been horses, right? All of them would’ve died from disease, boils, biting insects, hail, etc. They couldn’t have just taken them from the Israelites or recently imported them because chariot horses would have to be trained and there simply wouldn’t have been enough time to raise and train new ones.There are similar problems involving the destruction of plants and people. This is the source material these poor filmmakers have to work with. Do we really have to wonder why they fudge things a bit or just completely re-imagine the whole thing as Scott has done?

Most filmmakers will still ignore the really glaring problems in the story, particularly ones associated with logistics and the ridiculous behavior of central characters. Amid the first and second plagues the Egyptian sorcerers conjure up frogs with their own secret arts and turn water into blood. Why would they even do that? To prove that their gods can do what Yahweh can do? That doesn't really work. How would anyone even know that it was their frogs and not Yahweh’s fogs? The land was covered in them. How did they know it was their water they had changed to blood and not water that Yahweh had changed, considering even water in the vessels was turned to blood? Why would pharaoh even want them to do this? This would be like the president blowing up the Empire State Building in response to the 9/11 attacks and saying, "See, we can do that too!"

The pharaohs in Exodus are complete imbeciles. The first one who orders the slaughter of male children as a form of population control begins the idiocy. It is counterintuitive for Pharaoh to order the slaughter of the male children. It seems that a much more practical way to control a growing slave population would be to order the killing of the female infants, especially in a society that allowed polygamy. A lone male could impregnate multiple females at a time and maintain potency for almost his entire life, whereas women are limited to a single pregnancy at a time and have a window of fertility during their lifespans. We’re even told in the narrative that Pharaoh is working under the assumption that “the Hebrew women are vigorous.” Ergo, wipe out the women, problem solved.

Additionally, the stated point of the slave labor was to build cities. A higher ratio of females to males results in an additional strain on resources and a net loss of manual labor. It’s a pretty bone-headed idea from a practical standpoint for population control and is the kind of thing that only makes sense if we see it as plot device needed to threaten the hero and set up a later story parallel with the killing of the firstborn of Egypt in the tenth plague. If not, this pharaoh is almost as incompetent of a ruler as his successor.

Following the second plague, Moses asks the pharaoh when he wants him to ask Yahweh to remove the frogs and the head of state responds with “tomorrow.” Really, pharaoh? Why not now? The population’s entire water supply was contaminated, followed by an invasion of pests and the head of state not only has his own men duplicate Yahweh’s terrorist acts, but when given the opportunity to end them, he postpones things for a day? Perhaps we can accept that his heart was so hard that there was no concern for his own people. However, the potential for violent civil unrest had to have at least occurred to him.

In any normal situation, when a country is faced with such a crisis as a real and present threat to their entire water supply and all sources of food, there would surely be riots in the streets and other such demonstrations of desperation. Yes, the pharaohs styled themselves after gods and yes this is not a democracy, but large groups of people in any civilization simply don’t take threats to basic necessities like water and food supply with calm and collected resignation, nor would those surrounding the god-king, I don't care how many loyal bodyguards he may have had. So many of these descriptions of the ways people act in Exodus simply contradicts everything we know about normal human behavior. This is but one example.

Now let's talk logistics. In 12:37 we get an idea of just how many people are leaving Egypt to journey into the wilderness when the fighting men are numbered at 600,000. Apologists will usually do whatever they can to get estimates for the total number as low as possible. Some will say the word “eleph” should be translated “troops” or “military units” and not “thousand”, making this number appear much smaller, but that won’t work when compared to the wording of other passages in the Pentateuch like Numbers 3:39 (the Levites were to be non-combatants). Also, the census tax of Exodus 38:25-26 leaves no room for this interpretation either. Additionally, the word “eleph” is used when numbering animals in Numbers 31, so that won’t work there as cattle and donkeys aren’t typically grouped in military units.

Some will point out that there’s no reason to estimate the total population at over 2 million since the text only makes certain that there were 600,000 military-age men. But isn’t less than 2 million a bit unreasonable? Surely the men of military age would’ve made up less than 30% of the population, right? After all, we’re constantly reminded of how prolific these folks were at popping out kids. If for every man of military age there was an average of just one wife and two under-age kids, we’re already at 2.4 million people and we haven’t even begun to add in the elderly, the infirm, the “mixed multitude” and “very much cattle” mentioned in the next verse. 3 million is not an unreasonable assumption for a total population that supposedly had 600,000 men able to go to war and 40 years later had just as many after all of the adults had died off. There had to have been a considerable number of women to pop out all those kids and a considerable number of male children to make up the difference after they die off.

A population of 2.5 to 3 million people along with their livestock and “very much cattle” creates a myriad of problems. First we have the population growth necessary to get to this number. We’re told that fewer than a hundred people or so went into Egypt either 430 years or 215 years prior, depending on whether or not the 430 years is supposed to include the time in Canaan after Abraham received the promise in addition to the time in Egypt (see Gal. 3:17 in addition to the four-generation-long genealogy from Levi to Moses in Ex. 6:16-20). Even if it’s 430 years, the sustained growth rate that would’ve been necessary to produce this multitude is astounding.

Attempts have been made to show how this might have been possible, but they stretch the bounds of anything remotely believable. Never mind that these were oppressed slaves that experienced at least one point of imposed population control during captivity when they were required to essentially sacrifice their male children to the Nile River. No wonder the Egyptians were alarmed.

Additionally, the Land of Goshen, presumably in the eastern Nile delta near Avaris, Ramesses and Pithom, must’ve been incredibly fertile to have sustained a population density this massive without the aid of things we take for granted today like international trade, modern farming techniques, modern medicine and food preservation. These things, which were unavailable to the ancient world, are what make population growth possible. Just as a reference point, a population this size did not exist in any single urban area in the world until London in the mid-nineteenth century whilst in the midst of the Industrial Revolution.

Setting the growth rates and sustainability aside as astonishing miracles, there are insurmountable logistical problems involved with moving a group of people this size through any environment, much less an arid desert. If they each only had a paltry three feet of space about which to maneuver, then lined abreast at half a mile, they would stretch back nearly four miles. But, even the most disciplined Roman legion wouldn’t be able to maintain ranks like this, especially across the wildly divergent terrain. The column would have to narrow greatly, which would lengthen them out for tens or potentially even hundreds of miles. The Sinai Peninsula is only 120 miles across at its widest point. Geography alone presents some serious problems for a traveling group this size.

Aside from those problems there are things like access to the water supply and sanitation issues within the camp. We’re told that they got water from a rock on at least a couple of occasions or that a watering rock even followed them (1 Cor. 10:4), but getting access to that water would be a real problem. In order to get enough water for themselves and their flocks, thousands of people would’ve needed to be able to access this water supply at the exact same time. Waiting in lines of tens would not work. People couldn’t carry enough of it or store enough of it to hold them over until the next time they could get back in line. Just think about it. Two million people waiting in line for a single water source?

In 15:22-23 the Israelites journey out into the Desert of Shur, walk for three days into the desert and find no water. Then they come to Marah, but can’t drink the water there because it’s bitter. This is the first time in the entire journey where water, their most basic physical need, is addressed. Verse 22 says they’ve gone at least three days without finding any water. Just how much water do 2 to 3 million people along with their flocks and herds need and how much could they carry that would allow them to travel that far without finding any? Would they survive in any environment walking for three days on less than half a gallon of water per person per day? It’s doubtful, and this is in a desert environment in late spring/early summer.

A gallon of water weights about 8 pounds, so for just themselves, each person would need to have set out from the Red Sea carrying about 12 pounds of fresh water just to be able to drink half a gallon a day, which probably isn’t enough for desert travel. Where they would’ve gotten this water from in the first place, we aren’t told. Also, we haven’t even factored in their flocks and herds. If they’re using pack animals to carry their stuff, each one of those animals would’ve had to carry water for itself as well. The water needs for most livestock is going to be even greater than that of the humans. Keep in mind they’re carrying everything they’ve plundered from the Egyptians including over 11 tons of precious metals they would later need for the tabernacle (Ex. 25:1-3, 11, 17-19, 31; 30:12-16; 38:24-29). The problems involved in transporting this much water just gets ridiculous.

15:27 implies that the 12 wells of water at Elim provided enough water for 2 to 3 million people and their animals. If we assume that the water in these wells was virtually inexhaustible, that 10 people at a time could access the water from each well and that they took a mere 30 seconds each to draw water – a highly unlikely scenario – that means 240 people per minute could draw water. At that rate it would take nearly 2 whole days for each of the 600,000 numbered fighting men alone to draw water just once.

How about food? In 16:1-3 we find that it has been about 45 days since the people left Egypt as they arrive at the Desert of Sin. This would probably put them well over 150 miles from the Nile Delta. It’s only then that they begin to complain about food and Yahweh provides manna. This implies that they’ve been carrying enough food prior to this point and it has just run out. Perhaps you are familiar with the saying that an army travels on its stomach? Add a massive amount of food to the list of things they would’ve had to carry with them.

Just how much food was it? One ounce of dry wheat kernels provides about 42 calories. If their average caloric intake was just 1,000 calories per day - a paltry amount for this kind of travel – they would each consume about a pound and half of dry wheat per day. This means that each person would’ve needed to set out from Egypt carrying nearly 70 pounds of food with them. The 600,000 numbered fighting men alone would have needed over 20,000 tons of wheat over this 45 day period.

One can’t simply solve this problem by having the already-overburdened pack animals carry the load. Small sheep consume about 3 lbs. of dry matter per day, cows about 25, and donkeys and horses about 14, so positing more animals to carry stuff only further exacerbates the problem. Note that this problem doesn’t go away by dramatically cutting back the number of people in the group from 2 to 3 million to say 20 to 30 thousand. This would be a problem for a group of a couple hundred people.

Passages like 16:23 imply that there was some baking and boiling going on in the camp to prepare all this manna and quail Yahweh was providing. How much firewood would be consumed? As a rough estimate, they’d probably need at least 10 pounds of firewood for a family just to have a small cooking fire. Anyone who’s ever cooked with a campfire will recognize that this is an incredibly small amount of firewood, but let’s just be as conservative as possible.

If they only had one small fire for every 4 people, they’d still need over 3,000 tons of firewood per day just for cooking. That’s over a million tons of wood in a year and after 40 years of wandering that’s over 40 million tons of firewood. A forested area might average up to 75 tons of tree biomass per acre. This means our Israelites would be burning an average of 40 acres of forest per day, or nearly 15,000 acres per year. That’s over half a million acres of forest over a 40 year period. If they were wandering through the “wilderness” of the Pacific Northwest and if we ignored all the additional problems faced in the harvesting of that wood, that might be feasible, but they’re not. They’re wandering in an arid region where they’d be lucky to find a handful of acacias and sycamores dotted across an otherwise barren landscape.

Now think about how much urine and feces a group of people this large would excrete. People produce about one ounce of poop per day for every 12 pounds of body weight. If we average the bodyweight of the Israelites to just 120 pounds each, that’s 10 ounces of poop per person, per day. That means this multitude would be crapping nearly 1,000 tons of poop each day with, at best, very basic camp-style sanitation. We should probably assume that in a desert environment, they’re not going to be peeing as much as normal, but they would still need to urinate some to maintain health. Even if each person only peed 8 ounces a day of super-concentrated urine, they’d collectively still produce nearly 150,000 gallons of urine per day. That’s over 2 billion gallons of stinky, concentrated pee over the course of 40 years of wandering. The Sinai Peninsula would’ve been turned into the largest litter box in history. Sites like Kedesh Barnea, where they supposedly spent quite a bit of time, would’ve been absolutely overrun with sewage.

Similar to the problems associated with this multitude of people, there would be a myriad of problems associated with the massive flocks and herds that they supposedly had with them. Speaking of flocks and herds, if the priests did begin performing sacrifices with them as prescribed in later parts of the Pentateuch during the wilderness wanderings as we are led to believe, that presents even more absurdities. There were only 3 priests (after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu) to officiate what would have been a ridiculous number of daily sacrifices required for a camp this size.

The census of Numbers 26 indicates that roughly the same number of Israelites that went into the wilderness came out of it. Unless they left Egypt with an even greater multitude of children than previously supposed, further compounding all the prior problems, this would likely require over 120 births per day to maintain the population. Each one of these births required a purification sacrifice. Working 12 hour days, that’s a rate of over 3 sacrifices each per hour just for the associated purification rituals. Keep in mind this is just one of the duties of these priests. Leviticus prescribes lots more duties for these guys and here’s just a single task that would’ve been monumental.

What about all the dead bodies? Everybody but Caleb and Joshua who was an adult at the time of the report of the spies had to die over that 40 year period. That’s well over 1 million corpses scattered across the wilderness at various campsites. The writer of Deuteronomy tries to deal with the problem of clothes wearing out by positing that it was a miracle of Yahweh (Dt. 29:5). However, no miraculous explanation is given for exactly how they managed to clothe the generation of Israelites born into and growing up in the wilderness over that 40 year period. Maybe the clothes just appeared and grew with them? Maybe it was from the animal skins of all those flocks and herds they had with them that had been slaughtered for sacrifices?

All of these things: the population growth and sustainability, the traveling ranks, the sacrifices, the firewood, the sanitation issues, access to the water, the campsite size, the clothes, and every other associated impossibility simply have to be swept under the massive “God did it” rug. Every absurdity must be met with this solution. It is simply the only solution available to anyone who wishes to reconcile the incredible problems associated with the population size suggested in this and other passages. Nobody thinks about this stuff in Sunday school or church or when reading the Precious Moments Children's Bible or when watching Heston lead DeMille's cast of thousands out of the MGM backlot or when watching Bale lead his rag-tag CG army of 600,000 across the Red Sea, so they don't have to worry about it.

Talking about lack of "historical accuracy" is really pointless because Exodus is not historical in that sense.

OK, so perhaps you're one of those people who thinks that maybe the writer of Exodus fudged some things or wasn't real precise with his wording. Couldn't this still be an actual historical event? Eh, not really. Not only are the biblical accounts hopelessly mired in contradictions and plot holes in addition to the problems noted above, there simply isn't anything in the historical or archaeological records to actually support it. Sure, there are some events that may have formed the kernels of cultural memories for the story, but they are spread out over about 700 years.

About a month ago links to an article about supposed evidence for the Exodus began showing up in my Facebook News Feed, posted by no fewer than six people in my relatively small friends list. There was this little gem here that seemed aimed at me in particular, since I'm pretty sure I'm one of about three people this person knows who is an unbeliever:
The article makes some astounding claims. Such a discovery, purported to have been chariot wheels and whatnot, does not support the Exodus story. It would more readily support the idea that a barge carrying chariots sunk in the Red Sea. It doesn't matter. The site is nothing but fake news stories as is evident from their disclaimer:

Setting that aside, this person did bring up a common tactic when it comes to questioning the historicity of the Exodus, or any event in the biblical record for that matter. Namely, that absence of proof is not proof of absence. The phrase itself is true enough in the absolute sense, but what we are dealing with is not proof, but evidence. And in this case absence of evidence is certainly evidence of absence in the probabilistic sense.

We can't prove beyond all doubt that the Exodus never happened simply because, as I suggested before, some deity could be fooling us by changing all the evidence. This standard is ridiculous when we look at history or even everyday reality for that matter. What's to say a god didn't create the universe last Thursday and implant prior memories in all of us? We must deal in the realm of probability and evidence. In the case of the Exodus the absence of evidence is indeed strong evidence that it never occurred, simply because such an event would be expected to produce quite a bit of evidence.

Just take the ten plagues in Egypt, for example. All ten were catastrophic in scope and most of them directly threatening things that are basic necessities for the sustaining of a civilization. Yet somehow Ancient Egypt manages to survive and even thrive for hundreds of years following the contamination of their entire water supply, the widespread deaths of their livestock on at least three separate occasions, the destruction of their cultivated and uncultivated food supplies on at least two separate occasions and a dramatic reduction in population?

The reduction in population would have been not only from the death of every first born, but also from the massive starvation, disease and civil unrest which would surely have followed these plagues. What about mass migration? One would think the idea of emigration would have occurred to these folks. Surely it dawned on some of the Egyptians that maybe now would be a good time to sell themselves into slavery to some neighboring people in Philistia or Cush just to get the heck out of Egypt, right? Are we to believe that after say the 4th or 5th plagues everybody was still intent on riding this thing out?

Additionally, their civilization managed to survive other minor things like the death of their monarch and his successor, the total annihilation of their chariot forces, and the departure of a slave labor force numbering in the millions that supposedly took much of the remaining material wealth with them along with a “mixed multitude” of Egyptians who decided to go with them. Any one of these devastating events could have precipitated the collapse of this entire civilization, and yet they seem to bounce back rather quickly from them all. That’s quite curious and not at all expected.

Not only did the resilient Egyptians manage to recover from these events, they managed to wipe them clean from their otherwise well-kept records of the period. Even if they had managed to purposely remove all written records of these events including any alternate accounts, surely there would have been a profound psychological and cultural impact on them and the generations that followed for hundreds of years as they searched for meaning and explanation for these hardships. And yet, nary a scrap of cultural or archaeological evidence pointing to such an utterly devastating encounter with a foreign deity remains.

Things like the Hyksos, Akhenaten’s henotheistic shift and accounts of the aftermath of a volcanic eruption are sometimes pointed to as possible examples of how the Exodus may have impacted Egyptian culture and history, but those events are relatively minor by comparison and have much simpler explanations accompanied by actual archaeological evidence. Never mind the fact that they wouldn’t fit the chronology anyway and are spread out. At best the story of the Exodus is an incredibly over-exaggerated retelling of some rather minor historical events involving the departure of some foreign slaves. At worst the whole thing was completely made up.

The chronology of the Exodus is impossible to reconcile with the historical record. The Bible's internal chronology points to a date of around 1440 BCE, yet it mentions the city of Ramses and the first pharaoh associated with that name comes around over a century later. The writer of Exodus could've made things much easier by simply identifying the pharaoh (any pharaoh) by name. Indeed no Bible writer ever identifies which pharaoh is involved in any story until we get to Shishak at the time of the divided monarchy following Solomon's reign. Even then it's hard to line up the details of the biblical account of Shishak with the Egyptian records of Sheshonk I. Nevertheless, that is about the time that history and archaeology begin to converge on some of the biblical accounts. As it stands the Exodus may as well have occurred, "once upon a time in the land of Egypt."

That's probably an appropriate beginning, considering it opens with an infant exposure myth. The infant exposure motif was very common in ancient mythology and often involved water of some kind, probably symbolizing afterbirth. In the ancient world birth was a rather perilous event in and of itself and this motif would highlight that struggle. The hero would certainly face great obstacles later, but in overcoming the obstacles at birth, his favor with the gods and track record of victory is established at the outset of his story.

Sargon of Akkad (2270-2215 BC) was one such infant exposure story and his tale predates Moses. His infant exposure story involves his mother hiding his birth, making a basket of rushes, sealing it with bitumen, and placing him in the Euphrates River. Like Moses, he’s born to the priestly class, but unlike him, he’s raised as a peasant and later wins the favor of the goddess Ishtar as a gardener and becomes a great ruler. Other examples include Karna, a 9th century BC Indian warrior placed in a basket on the Ganges River; Oedipus, Paris, and Telephus who were all Greeks abandoned on mountains; Perseus who was put in a box and cast into the sea; Romulus and Remus who were placed in a basket along the Tiber River; and Sigurd, a Norse hero placed in a crystal vessel and kicked into a river.

Many other lines of evidence abound in the disciplnes of History and Archaeology and I will examine more of them in my MoM:EU series, if I ever finish Genesis. If you don't want to wait that long or just don't really want to hear from a rank amateur pseudo-scholar like me, check out chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Finkelstein and Silberman's The Bible Unearthed, the Oxford Bible Commentary's intro to Exodus, the Anchor Bible commentary on Exodus, or view this lecture from the guy who authored that commentary.

The historical and archaeological records simply do not support the historicity of the Exodus in any meaningful sense. Now, you are free to appeal to Yahweh's magic if you'd like to explain away that evidence. As with many of the Bible's problems, you can solve almost every one of them by attributing it to a miracle of God. That’s not what the text does. The text does not say that firewood appeared on the ground every morning alongside the manna. It does not say that God miraculously healed Egypt after the Hebrews left. It does not say that God kept making new livestock appear after every plague. It does not say the angels came down and zapped all the poo from the encampments away or evaporated the human corpses. It does not say that Aaron and his sons were given super-speed like the Flash so they could perform all the daily sacrifices for hundreds of thousands of people. It does not say that God wiped clean every last scrap of tangible evidence that these events ever occurred and scrubbed the minds of every Egyptian capable of writing an alternate account and planted historical and archaeological evidence to foil scholars and researchers who've been combing the desert for the last two hundred years. But hey, don't let that stop you. However, that would make Yahweh out to be a rather devious entity, would it not? Come to think of it, is that out of character for him? Maybe not. Which brings me to my final point.

Portraying Yahweh as a petulant, terroristic deity or Moses as barbaric is in conformity to the text.

Christian Bale has taken heat for his comments about Moses and his god a few months ago and for suggesting that their tactics were akin to terrorism and that Moses would likely have drone strikes unleashed on him today. Additionally, some moviegoers will likely balk at the image of the Angel of Yahweh as an eleven-year-old-boy with a sadistic streak that makes even the barbaric Moses recoil in horror. However, I suspect Scott's portrayal of Yahweh and Moses will be rather generous in comparison to the way the Bible portrays them. People like Brian Godawa may dismiss such characterizations as patently absurd, but are they? Let's just consider some things.

What are Yahweh's chosen methods in this story when he wants to get the pharaoh to release his people? Well, pretty much subterfuge and terrorism. He tells Moses up front that the goal is to get pharaoh to release the people and yet he tells Moses to ask merely that the people be allowed to go into the desert and worship. When the pharaoh refuses, he will unleash horrible plagues on the pharaoh, his officials and other political and military targets while sparing the innocent populace. Hah! No. I'm kidding. That's not what he's going to do. He's going to target the civilian population in a feigned effort to bend a political entity to his will. If only we had a term for premeditated, politically-motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets.
"We lift up holy hands and sing to our Childish Terrorist King."
I admit that's a bit inflammatory and perhaps unfair...to actual terrorists. See, Yahweh is only pretending to be a terrorist attempting to change the pharaoh's mind by bringing all this horrible death, suffering and destruction. He informs Moses that he will harden pharaoh's heart so that no matter what, he won't listen to Moses and let the people go. Yahweh is going to use a Jedi mind trick on the ruler of Egypt to ensure he does the exact opposite of what he tells him to do, all while unleashing unrivaled terroristic actions on that ruler's people under the guise of using those things to try to convince the pharaoh to let his people go. That's, well, that's pretty sick. He's making up an excuse to justify his actions simply so he can show people his mighty power. Apparently that's just his prerogative because might makes right and we have no right to question such things. Perhaps, but does that mean people can't rightly find Yahweh to be a mercurial, maniacal terrorist when they read the biblical account of the Exodus? Should we really be surprised when people like Christian Bale read the material for themselves and reach such conclusions?

This is hardly an isolated incident that makes Yahweh look this way. Others in Exodus abound, but let’s jump over to Numbers 11:4-35. Here we have an account that comes on the heels of Yahweh’s own people complaining about traveling resulting in “the fire of Yahweh” consuming the outer parts of the camp. Having just witnessed this, this mixed multitude or rabble now feels compelled to complain about a lack of meat. Really? Eating meat was often seen as a luxury in the ancient world, particularly for slaves, so this is an emphatically stupid request on their part.

Yahweh’s initial response appears to be in keeping with what happened back in Exodus 16, but there’s a definite sense of foreboding. He tells them to set themselves apart for a special day. He tells them they will eat quail for a month and have so much that they’ll be sick of it. He has Moses gather 70 elders to assist him. The Spirit rests on them and they prophesy together (though nobody seems to really know for sure what that means or what the purpose of it was). A wind bursts forth from Yahweh and quail comes from the sea. Everything seems in line with the notion of coming blessings, but as it turns out, it’s all just part of Yahweh’s sadistic prank.

It’s a ridiculous amount of quail that is sent, regardless of how the passage is interpreted. Quail bodies are stacked three feet high either “beside the camp” or “in the midst of their camp” (Ps. 78:28) for a day’s journey (15 to 20 miles) from end to end. How ever it’s understood, this is an insane amount of quail. We’re told the people spent at least 36 hours gathering it and that the person that gathered the least had nearly 90 gallons of quail. The numbers here are just mind bogglingly absurd when you start to try to conservatively estimate just how much quail this is and then try to conceptualize the impact of this event and its aftermath environmentally. Literally billions of rotting quail carcasses would’ve been littered across the Sinai desert. It’s just another event in a long line of the staggeringly absurd.

Just when it looks like the people are going to reap the blessings of Yahweh’s provision and grace, he gets angry and strikes them with a great plague while it’s still in their teeth. This is really odd because he previously stated they would eat quail for a month; not that they would have a month’s worth of quail, but that they would eat for a month. Are we to understand that they continued to eat it after they watched people get struck with a great plague before they even swallowed the stuff?

This whole story is like a kid whining to her dad for candy, only to have him say, “You want candy? That’s a great idea! Go get dressed because we’re going to go visit a candy factory and you can have more candy than you could ever imagine. Just you wait. It’ll be a special treat!” and then taking her to a Hershey’s factory and throwing her feet-first into a giant boiling vat of molten nougat.

OK, maybe that analogy doesn’t work after all. What that earthly father does is not nearly as warped as what Yahweh does. These people just wanted some meat, not candy. And no parent in their right mind would treat their children this way. I mean, what father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?

Moses doesn't do much better than Yahweh in the character department. Despite the fact that he talks the wrathful deity into sparing the Hebrews on the basis that it would be really embarrassing for him to destroy them, he has plenty of episodes of barbaric behavior. He flies into a rage and orders things like the slaughter of all the Midianite boys and non-virgin women, or orders his fellow tribesmen to slaughter three-thousand of their "brothers, friends and neighbors" and then rewards them for it. I could go on, but really that should be enough to show people why Christian Bale may have gotten the impression that Moses was a bit barbaric.

Granted, Moses is often just acting on orders from his god, but still, this is your god and his chosen spokesman, Christians. The Bible may call your god a god of compassion and love, but the actions of that god as put forward in that collection of books often do not conform to what most people mean when they speak of compassion and love. You shouldn't really be shocked when people read the Bible and conclude that your god is a monster. Maybe some of you should actually read it sometime. Personally, I'd really like to see someone actually portray the events of the Exodus as the Bible puts them forward. I'm not sure what would stand out more, the monstrous deity or the awkward, unrealistic story. In the meantime, maybe people should just cut these filmmakers some slack, considering the nature of the source material they're having to work with here.

4 comments:

  1. Yes, but God is much, much better now. He's found some medication that works for him, and he's seeing a therapist on a regular basis to try to get his abusive tendencies under control.

    — Thought2Much

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  2. I found this whole thing BEYOND fascinating. I love seeing this kind of critical examination of myths. -- Cas

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  3. Yes, the Yahweh who is so good and moral and pro-life and gives people free will so they can choose to go to hell or not...forces the pharaoh to not release the Jews, allowing Yahweh to murder firstborn sons, including babies.

    I'm really glad you brought that up. I'm also glad you hit on the lack of historical evidence. There's not even any proof that the Jews were mass enslaved in Egypt. Babylon, at one point, but not in Egypt. Even the structure of the bible provides evidence against it. See, they wrote a lot of stuff down while enslaved in Babylon. When the messiah, Cyrus, conquered the place and sent them back, that's when you started getting less-xenophobic stuff like the Book of Ruth. Jews actually had to spend time around non-Jews and got less rabidly xenophobic, realizing people could be good and not be Jewish.

    You don't see a similar change after the book of Exodus. You get a lot of murder instead.

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