Ridley Scott trades out God for nature’s fury in scientific ‘Exodus’

Tinseltown is getting all Old Testament on us December 12 with its new treatment of Moses and Pharoah. A conversation with the consulting rabbi

Ridley Scott's Moses is a master military leader in 'Exodus: Gods and Kings.'  (20th Century Fox)
Ridley Scott's Moses is a master military leader in 'Exodus: Gods and Kings.' (20th Century Fox)

Director Ridley Scott doesn’t do anything small. When he nails it, it’s legendary, as with “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator.” When he’s got a turkey, it’s a misstep that would destroy most ordinary men, like “1492: Conquest of Paradise” or “Robin Hood.” His latest is “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” and it has people talking before anyone has even seen it.

There was controversy about the casting, in which Brit Christian Bale played the Israelite Moses and Aussie Joel Edgerton played the Egyptian Pharoah, Ramses II.
Then there were grumblings that “faith-based” audiences in the United States and elsewhere might reject a movie that deviates from the biblical text.

There were rumors that God is envisioned as a petulant child, and that Moses could be interpreted as a schizophrenic hearing voices, not communing with the Divine. Furthermore, early reports said that the Plagues and the parting of the Red Sea would get the full 3D CGI treatment, but would also have a backdoor for “scientific” explanations, like a well-timed tsunami in lieu of Faith offering the Israelites their needed escape.

Having seen the film, which opens in US theaters on December 12, I can tell you that the rumors are (mostly) all true. Whether or not this hurts the film is up to your interpretation. (Allow me to suggest that the movie could still very well be lousy for reasons not listed above.)

Rabbi David Baron of Beverly Hills' Temple of the Arts courtesy)
Rabbi David Baron of Beverly Hills’ Temple of the Arts courtesy)

Nevertheless, Ridley Scott and his producers (including Jewish-American mogul and philanthropic mensch Peter Chernin) didn’t dive into the sea without waving a staff over it. They hired the services of Rabbi David Baron of Beverly Hills’ Temple of the Arts.

Temple of the Arts approaches religion through music, drama, art, dance and film, and “is somewhere between Reform and Conservative if you must label us.” Being situated in the heart of showbiz, Rabbi Baron has been a consultant on a number of film and television programs. (He was even on an episode of the Drew Carey Show as himself!)

It likely comes as no surprise that the man can talk, and he and I had a great schmooze after I saw “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” An abridged version of that conversation is below.

How did you establish yourself as a go-to guy to check on Biblical matters for film and television?

It developed out of relationships with members of my congregation who were directors and producers. When they dealt with Jewish subject matter, they turned to me for either referrals to a scholar or a Ph.D., or if it was a generic question that my familiarity with the subject matter warranted, then to secure my services to consult.

The first was the 1991 movie “Mobsters,” where they were replicating the wedding reception of the mobster Meyer Lansky [played by Patrick Dempsey] in New York in the ’20s. They wanted to know what the chuppah and ceremony would have looked like. I was able to give them a pretty good overview of what a Jewish wedding ceremony circa 1925 looked like.

And then from there — it’s a small community. “Oh, I used this rabbi for this, and I used this rabbi for that.” I did not make myself a macher; these things either happen or they don’t happen.

So, you say “members of your congregation” — okay, well, Ridley Scott, last I checked, is not a member of the Hebraic faith, so he clearly is not someone who’s coming to your synagogue. How did you get involved in “Exodus”?

One of the people who worked for producer Peter Chernin’s company asked for me specifically; he knew I had written that book “Moses on Management,” and in some of my sermons that he attended, I spoke in great detail about scholarly interpretations of the Book of Exodus. They thought if they were going to take some departures from the biblical text, that they ought to get an input on where they were departing from the text, what controversy might it create.

So, not to rap them on the knuckles and say, “Uh-uh, this wasn’t how it worked,” but more of a dialogue of, “We know we’re making this change; how does that affect the character? How does that affect the way Moses is interpreted?”

‘This is not a group of scholars, clergy, and rabbis writing the movie, it’s a group of Hollywood moviemakers bringing excitement and drama’

Correct. And also — how would it be received by audiences? That ranges from the fundamentalist Orthodox Jews and Christians to the more open-minded liberal. And again, I emphasize: This is not a group of scholars, clergy, and rabbis writing the movie, it’s a group of Hollywood moviemakers bringing excitement and drama.

I don’t know what they think. I know they had a point of view, and Ridley Scott certainly had a vision. He did not want to remake Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.” And he wanted to do a more — I guess he called it “scientific” — approach as to how some of these miraculous events may have occurred.

And when you go to the film, you know you’re getting one man’s perspective on it. You’re not getting the be-all and end-all, and that’s the other point; when I heard criticism of biblical films in the past, people tend to forget that they’re not saying, “This is the way we’re telling you it happened. This is the way we think it happened from our perspective,” and you’re getting the filmmakers’ perspective.

So, they’re not looking for a kosher certificate from you.

No, no, no.

Did they show you the shooting draft of the script? Did you come to the set at all? I’m just curious what your involvement was.

Not the shooting draft; they showed me the script, and I gave them extensive, copious notes on it. I told them where they could anticipate criticisms. They did not follow all of my advice, but they received it, and they did discuss it. I am told, in a number of writers’ meetings that they did have lengthy discussions about some of my comments, but ultimately, they decided to go in the direction they were intending to go all along. And I think they did make a couple of tweaks based on some of my notes.

Ridley Scott directing Christian Bale on the set of 'Exodus: Gods and Kings.' (20th Century Fox)
Ridley Scott directing Christian Bale on the set of ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings.’ (20th Century Fox)

I did not go to the set. But I did meet Christian Bale once. They did a media pre-screening of certain clips, an advanced peek. Christian spoke at that, and I got a chance to chat. I think he’s a fine actor. He did a great job, I feel. Again, you have to keep in mind that things get misquoted all the time. And I got to see how he was misquoted.

I was at that event and people asked him a question. They said, “Christian, with that intensity of the role you were playing  —  you were playing Moses for 15-hour days. What did you do to unwind?” He said, “Hmm, well I went back to my trailer and I watched funny movies. I needed a laugh. I watched Monty Python.” And then the next day, one of the headlines read, “Christian Bale drew from Monty Python his inspiration for the role of Moses.” It’s not what the guy said.

Let’s talk about religious literalists, people who abide by the letter of the Torah or the King James Bible. What are they going to see in this film that will strike their fancy, that they’ll say, “Ah, yes. That moment in that film is exactly as I know it.”

‘It reopens the Bible for a new generation on a stylistic level, it relates to them, and it’s a spectacle’

I think they will come away enthused that this biblical episode, which tells the story of freedom we need so desperately in our world, is being revisited for the 21st century. So, I think that will be very important, because young people, specifically young people may come away inspired, may learn something.

That’s the endgame for me, is that young people from all religious backgrounds see this eternal story of freedom taking new light. And maybe they’ll go back to the Bible and reread it, compare notes. Certainly, if a film like this was never made, they’d be a heck of a lot less likely to go back and look at the Bible. So, it reopens the Bible for a new generation on a stylistic level, it relates to them, and it’s a spectacle. And it’s moving to see the Israelites leaving. It’s powerful; it’s moving.

I am not a Torah scholar by any means, but I reread Exodus before watching the film. There are large sections of this movie that, as far as I could tell, seemed to come out of thin air. And I wanted to ask about their origins.
For example, the whole first 20 minutes of the movie, you have Moses as sort of an aide-de-camp to the Pharaoh. He’s fighting wars, he’s doing administrative work. He’s sort of a big shot in Pharaoh’s cabinet, if you will. I don’t remember any of that in my reading of Exodus, and I’m wondering — is that completely out of Ridley Scott and his writers’ imagination?

Well, it comes from a couple of places. First of all, the opening text — actually, the whole text — is quite terse, and so historically, through the ages, it’s left room for a lot of interpretations. There’s a beautiful Midrash, that theory that Moses might try to undermine Pharaoh and he places a bowl of jewels with a bowl of hot coals in front of him, which is the story that explaining why he was tongue-tied, which is not displayed in the film. But it’s a Midrash, and he was going for the jewels, as any baby would, and he thought that would mean that he was trying to take the royalty. An angel pushed his hand, and he touched the coal and put it to his mouth, burned his tongue, and became lame of speech.

That’s a Midrash trying to explain very terse references in the biblical narrative. The same is true of his role of clearly being raised by royalty, as alluded to in the Torah. What did that look like?

‘There was one prominent rabbi who says something that most scholars agree with, but offended a lot of traditionalists — that Moses probably never existed. We don’t have any proof’

Well, the Torah doesn’t tell us what that might have looked like —  two brothers growing up side by side, and not real brothers, and then an identity being revealed that his lot was that of the son of Amram and Jochebed, and the Israelites flee. So, this kind of reference does evolve from the text over the centuries of commentary, interpretation, both traditional rabbinic and Christian and also scholarly interpretation based on the text — what limited references there are in the text. So, how that story is built is a big part of that.

On “The Ten Commandments,” they consulted a well-known biblical scholar, E. A. Speiser, and his take on the Moses narrative. So, again, you have to realize that there is no hard fact — in fact, there was one prominent rabbi who says something that most scholars agree with, but offended a lot of traditionalists — that Moses probably never existed. We don’t have any proof.

What I’m really pleased that the writers did is that they looked at some of the new research of hieroglyphics that have come to the fore, that indicate references to a God who’s called “I am,” and to Egyptian soldiers floating on the water, referencing a time very close — if not right there at the Exodus. And a young researcher named Brad Sparks has been promoting these discoveries to the biblical research community. And if they’re upheld, they will verify that this episode did actually occur.

‘The biblical text said Moses held out his staff, the waters parted, the Israelites walked through, the waters closed. And what Ridley Scott took was the theory of the eruption of the volcano of the island of Santorini, right around the time of the Exodus’

The biblical text said Moses held out his staff, the waters parted, the Israelites walked through, the waters closed. And what Ridley Scott took was the theory of the eruption of the volcano of the island of Santorini, right around the time of the Exodus. And geologists have found rocks from the island of Santorini in the Nile River Delta, so we know that that eruption, which occurred around the time of the Exodus, not only created tremendous ash — which could be referring to the pillar of smoke and the pillar of fire in the Torah — but also, probably created a humongous tsunami that caused the waters of the Red Sea to recede significantly, and then to come back with a vengeance in a huge tsunami way.

And that’s what you saw in the film, and that’s the choice the filmmakers made for their interpretations of the splitting of the Red Sea.

The other more rooted in quote-unquote reality is the sequence with the plagues, how they have sort of a “hip bone connected to the leg bone” where the fish are dead, so the flies come, the flies bring the maggots, the maggots bring the locusts, so on and so forth.

It’s sequential, yes. The sequential nature. Which is kind of a scientific or logical approach to these events, as opposed to the purely miraculous. But as I said to the film writers, for people of faith, it isn’t just the supernatural event that occurred, it’s more importantly the timing of how and when it occurred, and how it broke the Egyptian hierarchy of the Pharaoh.

I didn’t remember crocodiles, though, in the original text. That one was new to me.

Well, there are a group of Sephardic scholars who describe the second plague as crocodiles, not as frogs, so he kind of got ’em both in.

He got the best of both worlds. He had the crocodiles and then later, the frogs. Okay.

Right. Later the frogs. But what’s interesting too is that the crocodile, the beetle, you know — as I pointed out to the writers, ancient Egyptian society was a zoomorphic, polytheistic society. They worshiped everything that came out of the Nile River, including the Nile River and the sun.

This is a society where the beetle was reverent, and a human life, a slave life, meant nothing. This comes into sharp, direct conflict with the Israelites, who think human life is precious. Even the life of the slaves. So, that conflict does get captured, I think, in the movie; that’s a very compelling and important part.

Another question, similar to before, the “where did this come from?” issue. In the film, after Moses has already spoken with God, and he’s decided that he’s going to be messenger and confront Pharaoh, but before the plagues come, he’s almost like a “Braveheart” figure. There are exciting, action sequences in the film where you can see him training some of the other non-Egyptian Israelites, and teaching them how to ride a horse, and how to shoot arrows and stuff. Is there a Midrash for this, or was this, again, just something that came out of Hollywood?

'Exodus' a la 'Braveheart.' Moses prepares the slaves for rebellion. (20th Century Fox)
‘Exodus’ a la ‘Braveheart.’ Moses prepares the slaves for rebellion. (20th Century Fox)

This came out of Hollywood.

But logical — a rebellion just happened — did this just come out of the blue or was there an orchestrated and organized slave revolt? Ridley Scott clearly wants to see this as a slave revolt as well as inspired by a divine connection.

And again, he keeps that sort of open to interpretation in that he could be communing with the divine, or he could just be hearing voices in his head and it’s kind of up to you, the audience to decide. Now, clearly, that’s one literalists will maybe get annoyed about, but I guess there’s really nothing you can say to that. It’s open for interpretation.

Yeah. And again, we all keep in mind that the Hollywood take on the Bible is not the scholar’s take or the clergy’s take on the Bible.

At the end of the film, when they are on the other side of the Red Sea and they’re headed toward Canaan, and Moses is speaking, I guess, to Aaron, or maybe it was Joshua. And he says, in a rather foreboding voice, “we will be perceived as invaders when we get to Canaan” and “what will become of us when we stop running?”

This, to me, is a clear reference to the State of Israel, and may even be Ridley Scott saying, “I have an international audience, I have to make my film appeal to people in Turkey and France. I’ve got to get a little wiggle room in here and not seem as if I’m a hundred percent pro-Israeli in my film.” Did you have any reaction to those lines when you saw the film?

You know, I didn’t read it in that way that you did, about the Palestinian question. If anything I had modern-day Egypt going on in my mind while I was watching the slave uprising, but as far as that specific reference at the end of the film, I don’t know if he’s playing to an Arab audience there, a Muslim audience there.

I do feel that the comment he’s making is valid; I make it in my book “Moses on Management.” He was leading a group of recently freed slaves. For them to learn to survive and do combat, they have to become more militaristic, and how would they change once they began to inhabit their own permanent promised land?

It’s a question that all nations who’ve gone through and experienced exile and return go through. So, we can look at the experiences of many great nations in this regard.

Christian Bale as a militant Moshe in Ridley Scott's 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' ( 20th Century Fox)
Christian Bale as a militant Moshe in Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ ( 20th Century Fox)

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