Exodus — The great exit that wasn’t

Bryan Zepp Jamieson

June21st, 2024


Just about everyone likes Cecil B. DeMille’s second attempt at a movie about the exodus, the one with Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston. The special effects for the time were amazing, and Brynner and Heston had tons of fun chewing the scenery. It’s a great movie, and belongs in the same category as Lord of the Rings or Princess Bride.

If you protest that those two were action/fantasy fictional movies, then yes, they are. So is The Ten Commandments. Yes, there was (and is) a nation of Egypt. And yes, there was a pharaoh named Ramses II, considered the greatest of the pharaohs, During his 66 year reign, he changed the face of the Egyptian empire with many great and heroic constructions.

Sixty six years is a helluva long time to be a ruler (in recent times, Queen Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years, with modern amenities and medicine, and a fraction of the burdens of rule). During those years, there were doubtless many plagues, just as there have been over similar periods of time throughout Egypt’s 5,000 plus years of history. He had indentured labor for many of his projects, and there were slaves, although the conditions of servitude were much closer to the Roman variation than the American one. Slaves had rights, and often were manumitted and/or granted full citizenship after a set period of servitude.

So the movie got that part right, and thus has a better track record than the bible does.

There’s nothing in the record to indicate that Egypt ever had Israelite slaves. Ever. Yes, Israelites did sometimes go to Egypt, usually because Egypt provided a secure escape from the many enemies the Israelites fought and usually lost to. The bible claims Egypt held 600,000 Israelite slaves who were men over the age of twenty. Which would mean at the very least 1.5 million Israelites were supposedly enslaved by Egypt, and all left at once under Moses, and then spent forty years wandering around the Sinai desert. That’s quite a mob to have wandering around in a land with no food and hardly any water. I doubt a single scorpion survived. Yes, scorpions are edible. And keep in mind that after 40 years, even the children would be getting a bit long in the tooth to endure blisteringly hot days and freezing nights without good shelter, some decidedly worn-out clothing, and a steady diet of bugs.

So: The Exodus? Never happened. Pure fantasy.

But it has the main story element of the so-called ten commandments, the ones that zealots like the governor of Louisiana want to inflict upon us, in a party led by a criminal who probably can’t tell you what three of the commandments are. Supposedly Moses went up a mountain to talk to a burning bush (God) and God gave him two stone tablets (various translations identify the stones – three, rather than the popular two – as either sapphire or lapis lazuli). He came back down, and found the Israelites partying and carrying on and supposedly made a golden calf (quite a trick in deep desert lacking gold or fuel for a really hot fire). He throws the tablets down, shattering them. Later, after he and God have knocked back a few and gotten reflective, God gives Moses a long list of commandments, including the first set. All have the same weight as the first bunch, and there are hundreds of them. It’s immediately followed by instructions that a big cairn of raw rock be made, and any priest who climbs it should be put to death because the crowd, looking up at him, might see his balls. The next chapter deals with the care and feeding of slaves, and when it is appropriate to execute an ox, and sometimes the owner of the ox. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, all that stuff. And it goes on and on and on, listing thousands of offenses and various remedies and penalties. (MAGAts should be aware of these two commandments: 21 Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

22 Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.) Amazing list of things you can be put to death for and/or an abomination in the eyes of God; heating your home on the sabbath, eating shellfish, wearing mixed blends, disobeying your parents. Some of the rules are pretty sensible, including the dietary restrictions, which for the most part are designed to head off food poisoning. Most are pretty ridiculous and draconian, and probably were back then, too. None, however, involved giant fingers reaching out of the clouds (apparently the Sinai desert is a very cloudy place) and writing in tablets of sapphire.

God and the Israelites were both pretty feckless about these holy edicts. The first edition got destroyed when Moses lost his shit. The second was put in the ark of the covenant, made famous in those Indiana Jones movies, but they, erm, lost the ark. Or it got stolen. Or maybe Pharaoh Ramses put a boot jack on it for repeated illegal parking. Some damn thing or another. Anyway, it’s gone the way of Ozymandias. Don’t look upon my works but despair anyway.

Now, the ten commandments that the zealots want to inflict upon us (but never themselves) are based on the story as outlined above. It carries the same moral and logical authority as how Superman or Spiderman got their powers, or how Baba Yar curdled the milk in all of Russia.

Ignoring the “thou shalt have no other gods before me” drivel, the remaining six are, at best, solid laws for any society and at worst good guideposts for decent behavior. But divine word of God they are not.

Leaving aside the promise of the founders that no one in America should ever be subjected to the whims of a religion underpinned by the power of the government, there is the fact that given the mythic nature of the ten commandments, schools may as well put up plaques detailing how Santa Claus delivers all those toys, or what orifice the Easter Bunny uses to make those chocolate eggs.

Religion and politics are toxic to one another, and should never be intertwined. Religion claims eternal truths (and has neither) and politics is always mutable and flexible, often to a fault, but as far removed from the fantasy of eternal truths as you can get.

The governor of Louisiana is a zealot and a fool. His disservice to the children of Louisiana should not be allowed to stand.

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