Fact-checking the Film: Ridley Scott's 'Exodus: Gods and Kings'
Oscar season is here, which means a flurry of fact-based movies are on their way to theaters. EW is fact-checking these films—everything from The Theory of Everything to Wild—to see just how true-to-life they turned out.
Yes, we know: There’s no way to truly fact-check a movie based on a Bible story, given that the Bible’s status as a historical document is, putting it mildly, up for debate. But in any case, the story of Moses, first written in the Old Testament book of Exodus, is a famous one; the new Christian Bale film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, is just one of several existing works about the prophet’s life and his success in freeing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. And it’s a pretty ridiculous version at that.
Director Ridley Scott has drawn widespread criticism for casting white actors in the film’s lead roles, considering it primarily takes place in Egypt. Scott himself didn’t help matters when he told Variety, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”
When it comes to Bible stories, many onscreen projects take these sorts of liberties when adapting their source material. The epic that’s now in theaters, however, contains some especially fascinating deviations—including a few that suggest the Bible and the filmmaker hold vastly different views on the nature and power of God. Below are some of the more notable differences between the Scott production and Christian and Jewish Biblical texts. And for what it’s worth, some of these are just common sense.
Movie: Moses witnesses an Egyptian slave driver beating a Hebrew slave, and he tells the slave driver to stop. The slave is revealed to be Joshua, played by a mumbly Aaron Paul. Moses finds out the truth of his birth after being summoned by Joshua to meet with a group of Hebrews. After his meeting his kills two Egyptian guards. Two men explain Moses’s history to the Viceroy overseeing the slaves, who brings the info to Ramses. When Ramses finds out, Moses is driven out of Egypt.
Source material: The book of Exodus specifies that Moses kills an Egyptian slave driver after seeing the man beat a Hebrew slave (who goes unnamed in the text). Pharaoh hears what Moses has done and tries to kill him, but Moses flees Egypt before the order can be carried out.
Movie: Nun—a typically wise Ben Kingsley—reveals Moses’s backstory to Moses. Movie Moses is also partially raised by his sister Miriam. He has a close, brotherly relationship with the petulant Ramses, who is really into his pet snakes (especially in the scene where he has some alone time with one of them). Ramses’ mother, Tuya, also doesn’t like Moses, but despite being played by Sigourney Weaver, she isn’t given enough screen time to make any lasting impression.
Source material: In the Biblical story, Moses always seems to be aware of the fact that he is Hebrew; there is no big revelation of Moses’ true backstory. Additionally, Moses is nursed by his mother after his sister asks Pharaoh’s daughter if she would like a Hebrew woman to nurse him. Then he’s raised by Pharaoh’s daughter as her son—but there is nothing in the text that implies that Moses and the Pharaoh have any sort of buddy-buddy relationship that sours upon Ramses’ succession to the throne, though Exodus and The Prince of Egypt both depict one.
Movie: John Turturro plays Seti, the Pharaoh before Ramses, who dies, leaving Ramses to take the throne before Moses leaves Egypt. (Yes, you read that correctly. Jesus Quintana plays a Pharaoh.)
Source material: The biblical story does not make it clear which Pharaoh is ruling Egypt at the time of the Exodus story. Additionally, according to the Bible, a Pharaoh dies while Moses is in Midian. (Also, the Pharaoh has no history as a bowler.)
Movie: The first time Moses hears directly from God, he sees a burning bush. A small child with a British accent appears before him, speaks to him as a messenger of God, and builds a small pyramid out of stones.
Source material: God calls to Moses at the site of the burning bush and speaks to him throughout the story, but He’s never described as a child or even as having a human form. Moreover, the film leaves out one of the most memorable aspects of the Moses story: God commands Moses to throw his walking stick—his staff, which appears throughout the Bible story but is left out of the film entirely—on the ground, and it turns into a serpent. When he picks it up, it turns back into a staff.
Movie: Everyone has British accents, except for women—like both Moses and Ramses’ wives, who have foreign accents that are neither British nor American.
Source material: Accents aren’t exactly specified, but the influence of the British Empire probably wasn’t super strong.
Movie: The small, British-accented boy-God instructs Moses to go back to Egypt. When Moses returns, he begins to train the Hebrews for battle. Before the plagues hit, they attack the Egyptians’ supplies.
Source material: God gives Moses three signs that he can perform for the Hebrews: His staff can turn into a snake, his hand can turn white, and he can pour water from the Nile onto the ground and have it turn to blood. Moses is also supposed to perform these for the Pharaoh, but God himself will “stiffen” or “harden” the Pharaoh’s heart so that the Pharaoh will not let the Israelites go.
Movie: Moses, in an emotional scene, leaves his wife and son behind to go help the Hebrews. It’s the biblical version of Cooper’s speech to Murph in Interstellar.
Source material: After God speaks to Moses, Moses takes his wife and children with him to Egypt on a donkey.
Movie: Moses is a lone operator, but confides sometimes in Joshua, who is—it must be said—the Jesse to his Walter White. (Reminder: Joshua is played by Aaron Paul, who, disappointingly, never says the word “bitch” in this film.)
Source material: After Moses tells God that he is “slow of speech and tongue” and therefore unfit to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, God assigns Moses’ brother Aaron to be Moses’ voice. So Aaron has a prominent role in the Bible story, though he barely registers in the film.
Movie: After Moses returns, Ramses sets out to find him and kill him, murdering random Hebrew families because Moses won’t come forward.
Source material: Pharaoh’s cruelty is manifested in the slaves’ labor conditions. He makes the Israelites collect their own straw without reducing their workload.
Movie: God performs the plagues, and Ramses is steadfast in his refusal not to let the Israelites go until the very end, after his own son is felled by the final plague.
Source material: The Bible depicts much more negotiation among Pharaoh, Moses, Aaron, and God throughout the plagues. Moses and Aaron play a part in summoning plagues, and Pharaoh makes concessions to them, only for God to “harden” his heart and make him reverse his course. This means God is also credited with Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Israelites, as if to remind the reader that God has control over Pharaoh’s and Egypt’s fates, too. (Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart? That’s an old debate among scholars and religious thinkers.)
Movie: Swarms of flies hit the Egyptians as one of the plagues.
Source material: Gnats or lice first attack the Egyptians.
Movie: A plague kills every Egyptian family’s firstborn child.
Source material: The plague that kills every Egyptian firstborn child also kills firstborn animals, as detailed in Exodus 12:12 and 12:29.
Movie: A plague turns the water in the Nile River into blood.
Source material: A plague turns the water in the Nile River into blood—and the people of Egypt dig in the ground along the Nile to get drinking water.
Movie: When the Israelites leave Egypt, they walk in the desert following behind Moses.
Source material: The film leaves out another cool piece of Biblical imagery here: In the book of Exodus, God guides the Israelites toward Canaan by appearing before them during the day as a pillar of cloud and during the night as a pillar of fire.
Movie: The famous parting of the Red Sea is depicted less like a literal parting and more like an ebb tide that pulls the whole ocean away to… somewhere else. All the water flows in one direction like a river until it has left the ocean floor dry enough to walk across. Basically, Ridley Scott doesn’t give us the one thing we all came to this movie to see.
Source material: The Bible specifies that when the Israelites cross the Red Sea, there are walls of water on their right and on their left. In this regard, other adaptations like The Prince of Egypt take a more literal (and arguably more awe-inspiring) approach.
Movie: When the Israelites discover that Pharaoh and his forces are on their tail, they pick up the pace in getting across the Red Sea. There’s a tense moment in which it’s unclear whether all the Israelites will make it across before God lets the water rush back in on the Egyptians.
Source material: God puts Moses in charge of when the water comes back in. “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen,” God tells Moses, giving him control over when exactly the sea tumbles down onto the Egyptians.