Exodus: Gods and Kings was a terrible movie, but that won’t stop me from finding some redeeming value in its new interpretation of the Exodus story. I waited for the Torah readings about the Exodus story in our Torah reading cycle to tackle the most thought provoking aspect of the recent film.
The familiar version of the Exodus story includes a litany of harsh punishments levied by God against Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. Their suffering during these plagues is so immense that we have an ancient custom to spill some wine from our of goblets at the Pesach Seder as we recount each plague to demonstrate our sympathy for their pain. Nevertheless, the story is focused on our pain. We eat matzah to recall the bread of affliction that we ate in slavery. We eat maror to relive the bitterness of our servitude. We dip in salt-water to taste the tears of suffering we endured. In our version of the story, we are the good guys, the Egyptians and the Pharaoh are the bad guys, and God is our Secret Weapon.
The movie presents a more objective view. It tells the story with less self-interest than when we tell it, so we are able to see things in the film that we may normally overlook. I believe it’s a huge flaw in its storytelling that viewers of the film empathize more with Ramses II than Moses (see my review linked above), but it also speaks to a greater challenge the movie presents. We get the sense that the Egyptians are also victims of the Pharaoh. They are not innocent parties, but the average citizen can hardly be held accountable to the degree that Joe the Breadmaker must be made to suffer so greatly. In the film, fishermen do not deserve to be eaten by giant crocs. They’ve done nothing wrong. It is excruciating to hear the primal screams of the mothers of the stricken first borns during the final plague. They don’t deserve that either.
The movie is making a decent point. Great suffering and harm must be justified in order to balance the moral scale. How are we to understand Divine collective punishment? It is disconcerting. I thought we were supposed to be the good guys in the Exodus story? Why is our Secret Weapon causing so much unnecessary suffering?! Perhaps more importantly, what are we supposed to think of all this? Is it okay to even ask this question?
There is something that must be done before suggesting answers to this challenge. We need to establish the validity of the question. If you’ve wondered about this, I salute you. This is a question that has to be asked, and the ability to ask this question is a fundamental skill that has infinite value to me. To step back and wonder if the story demands clarification is important and sophisticated. This is not a childish or rebellious question. This is a genuine question that we should all struggle with. Further, the question is sometimes better than the answers available to us.
I can think of four accepted approaches in Orthodox Judaism:
1. All of the Egyptians must have deserved it. God does not punish the innocent and if they were punished they must have been guilty. Here you can be creative about their sins. I call this the Ray Lewis approach. “God does not make mistakes.”
2. Some Egyptians deserved it and others were collateral damage. God was punishing the leaders and the oppressors within the Egyptian nation. Once shots are fired, innocents will be harmed. I call this the Hiroshima approach.
3. Only the guilty Egyptians actually suffered from the plagues. In other words, the descriptions of the plagues are generalizations that seem to include every Egyptian. The truth is that only a small number of leaders and oppressors were punished, and their experience is described in the Torah. The innocent were not harmed; only a few guilty parties felt the terror of the plagues, and the rest of Egypt watched in horror. I call this the Selective Anecdote Becoming History approach.
4. Some argue that collective punishment is moral. Handwringing over death to Egyptians is a corrupt symptom of modernity and we need not think twice about innocent victims. There’s no problem here in the first place. I call this the Old-School Morality approach. “Woe to the wicked person. Woe to his neighbor.”
It’s also possible that an indirectly related novel idea I posted on Facebook before Parshat Va’era might reduce some of our anxiety about innocent Egyptians dying.
Finally, I think there might something else worth exploring. The question we are asking is certainly built on modern sensibilities. I don’t think the ancients were bothered by such concerns. (I could be wrong.) Just a few years earlier, the Pharaoh had decreed that all Israelite males be killed for population control purposes. Clearly, we are dealing with a society that is at odds with our views of morality.
Exodus: Gods and Kings superimposed modern morality on an ancient civilization. It’s not a perfect fit, and the act of forcing them to work together creates collateral damage to the narrative. Judging the way God deals with an ancient civilization with objectionable moral standards using our progressive modern standards of morality is worse than someone who only understands English judging Ugaritic poetry. It’s impossible to do, and if one tries, it demonstrates a lack of maturity.
I don’t think we have to think that God would do the same thing as God did in ancient Egypt. God does not conjure supernatural miracles to punish entire peoples anymore. Meanwhile, the world has changed. The way God interacts with the world could be reflective of the way we act toward each other. Thus, it’s not a problem for me if God’s actions toward an ancient civilization do not square with modern moral standards. I wouldn’t expect otherwise.
This is not to say that we should not even think about this sort of question. On the contrary, we must ask these questions and discuss the various options. The inquiry is more important than the conclusion, and should be encouraged. Exodus: Gods and Kings helped me think about the Exodus in a new way. It invited new questions and new questions invite new discussions and new discussion invite new answers.
This is beauty. This is Torah. This is where we experience the beauty of Torah.
Why Did God Punish All the Ancient Egyptians? http://t.co/l04AUCh848
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) January 19, 2015