Moses: The Civilizing Force of Religion

  • The Ten Commandments (1923 / 56) – Heston as Moses

    Moses the Lawgiver (1974) – Burt Lancaster

    Moses (1995) – Ben Kingsley

    The Prince of Egypt (1998)

  • Exodus  (2014)

In the world according to Hollywood, there is no more powerful icon of the civilizing process than Moses; and in the history of Hollywood, there is no one more responsible for this than Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959). He made two movies of The Ten Commandments. The first was a silent film, made in 1923, and the second was the famous vehicle for Charlton Heston, released in 1956. Heston must share fully in the credit for the iconic status of Moses in Hollywood. He was virtually the only appropriate choice for this role; he looked like Michelangelo and Michelangelo looked like Moses.

The immediate descendants of Abraham kept to their tents until the time when Jacob reunited his family in Egypt. Now the Israelites acquired a taste for civilization building. They lived in honeycombed dwellings made of mud-brick, and worked by day at construction of  temples, palaces, and tombs. This happened in the Land of Goshen on the east side of the Nile Delta.

Moses was born of Hebrew slaves in Egypt, on the Delta, and would dramatically lead his people back to Israel. There is persistent debate in both biblical and secular scholarship over the historicity of the Exodus. Traditionally, the desert crossing is said to have lasted forty years, with Moses fending off temptations for his people to abandon the worship of the One God.

Though I can’t give you exact dates, my memory from years gone by is that it was a tradition for the Heston movie of The Ten Commandments to be shown each year at Easter time. This was, of course, entirely the wrong occasion for the showing of this movie, but the networks moved in mysterious ways.

There have been other representations of Moses on the screen since 1956, but nothing that matches the stature of the DeMille/Heston production. Burt Lancaster appeared in a TV miniseries called Moses (the Lawgiver) in 1975, which substituted earnestness for bombast. Ben Kingsley played the role in 1995, also on TV, and brought a Gandhi-like quality to the leading of his people out of Egypt. In 1998, Jeffrey Katzenberg premiered the first of his planned DreamWorks animated biblical epics.

The great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as Moses, are now accounted for. They were followed by the Judges, including Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. Each of these figures anchors a cautionary tale about bringing the wavering Israelites back to their faith in the One God. Movies on Joshua, and the Judges are below.

Joshua at Jericho  c. 1400 BC

The remains of Jericho, 1999

The remains of Jericho, 1999

From the Caravan Journals: Approaching Jericho with the Jordan River at our backs in 1999, we found enough devastation to make us feel that the walls had only recently come tumbling down. This was the embattled area of the West Bank. Israel had gained control of everything on this side of the river in the 1967 war, but had returned parts of it to Palestinian control in the 1990s. For people just passing through, under pressure to get in and get out, there was not much to be seen of the once thriving caravan city.

Jericho occupies a legendary position in 20th-century archaeology as “the oldest continuously occupied settlement in history.” This claim was established in the early 1950s by the redoubtable British archaeologist, Kathleen Kenyon. She was no stranger to controversy. Her findings on the dating of the biblical account of the fall of Jericho called into question the historicity of the Bible. She was a practical excavator in sensible shoes, and too refined for heated argumentation, but others would take these issues much further as this century progressed. The essence of her findings have to do with literal interpretations of the Bible versus the discoveries of modern science.

The settled life of the people in what today is Israel follows after the time of Moses.  As any follower remembers, he was allowed to see the Promised Land from a mountaintop, but would not live to go there.  It was Joshua who took over from Moses and led the People into Caanan.  There are major problems of dating and authentication here. Moses is most typically thought to have been a contemporary of Rameses II (d. 1213 BCE), but Wikipedia puts Joshua’s dates at 1450-1370 BCE.  This is the arena of scholarly debate.

Joshua and the Battle of Jericho (1978)

After the death of Moses, Joshua is instructed by God to lead an Israelite conquest of the city of Jericho, on the west side of the River Jordan. It is a walled fortress from which the Canaanites confidently defend themselves from invasions by the nomads. God has a subterfuge in mind. He commands the Israelite army to circle the walls but not to attack. After seven days, the Israelites begin to make a holy noise which causes the walls of Jericho to collapse. Sadly, God commands the Israelite army to massacre all of the citizens of the city. No trailer is available for this movie.

The Book of Judges

 Temples Up Temples  Down

Temples Up Temples Down

After Joshua’s victory at Jericho, the Israelites came to inhabit the land of Canaan, slowly transitioning from nomads to settled people. The biblical account of this time can be found in the Book of Judges, which might have been more aptly named the Book of Reluctant Heroes. These are tales of Israelites of humble birth who are called upon to restore the faith of their wavering tribes and face down the oppression of pagan kingdoms, sometimes tearing down their temples. Strangely, the one woman among them, Deborah, gets no movie.

Gideon is the prototypical reluctant hero. In 1961, a play called Gideon, by Paddy Chayefsky, appeared on Broadway. I have a vivid memory of the title character standing alone on the stage and gazing up to Heaven, where I happened to be sitting. He was arguing with God over his instructions to lead a small army of Israelites against a huge force of Midianites. It seemed to him “a silly plan.” The Bible tells us that God indeed had the right idea and the Israelites prevailed. On YouTube, there is a TNT movie, called Great Leaders of the Bible – Gideon & Samson (1966), that tells the same story a little less dramatically than Chayefsky did. By far, the most popular of these misnamed heroes is Samson. The ancient authors of the Bible have provided a perfect leading man for the Hollywood formula, and a choice role for a leading lady as well.

Samson and Delilah – Cecil B. De Mille (1949)

In the tale of Samson and Delilah, the Jews are trembling under the threat of the powerful Philistines in the area of Gaza, circa 1100 BCE. The folk hero of the Jews is Samson, a giant of a man, and the burning issue of this time is slavery. Ancient kingdoms are bent on conquest and forcing their enemies into bondage. It will go on for millennia, and only at the end of the last millennium in our time will slavery be spoken of largely in the past tense. Samson (Victor Mature) has little in the way of relgious agenda. He just wants to be his own man and does not want to be dominated by other men. When he pushes down the pagan temple, it is not an act of religious subversion but a cry for individual freedom. He is not so clearheaded, however, about his romantic enslavement to the beautiful Delilah (Hedy Lamarr). She is an aristocrat of the occupying kingdom who loves him and then betrays him. Despite his more personal motives, Samson became a symbol of the pushing down of the old temples to make way for the One God.

Hedy Lamarr had top billing in this film and she was at the peak of her career as a film seductress, but you would not know it from what little is seen of her in the trailer. This movie was a blockbuster in every sense of the word.

 The Story of Ruth (1960)

After the more obscure tale of Deborah in the Book of Judges, this movie celebrates the Book of Ruth. She is the first fully rounded female exemplar of faith portrayed in this movie collection. The story follows her from childhood, where she is marked as one of the virgins to be sacrificed to the voracious God of the Moabites. After she is married to a man from Judah and widowed on the same day, the story continues as she crosses the River Jordan and embraces the faith of the Israelites. She will find love again, becoming the grandmother of King David, and ancestor of Jesus.

David and Solomon

David and Bathsheba  (1951)

David and Goliath  (1960)

King David  (1985)

Solomon and Sheba  (1959)

Solomon  (1997)

The Old Testament reaches its last Hollywood high point with the reigns of the Kings, David and Solomon, father and son. It was in this time that Jerusalem became the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel, and the First Temple was built. There is a prelude to this dynasty that unified Israel in the reign of King Saul. Orson Welles portrays this monarch in the movie David and Goliath (1960) as if he were Macbeth. David would play his harp, slay the giant, and endear himself to the king. In time, he would inherit the throne and marry the King’s daughter. The real love of his life, however, was Bathsheba. The 1950s films, in my estimation, capture the declamatory quality of the Bible better than later efforts.

King David fell out of favor with God over his infamous love affair with Bathsheba. He paid dearly for his transgression when he was denied the right to build a temple for the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. He had to leave that task to his son and heir, Solomon. Oddly, Solomon is famous in movie history for an equally torrid love affair. After Solomon, the unity of the kingdom would dissolve. All this happened before and after the year 1000 BCE.

Israel99b - 019From the Caravan Journals: April 1999. Halfway between Jaffa and Haifa Harbor, we left the coast and ascended to the top of Mount Carmel, where a statue of the prophet Elijah marks the place of his legendary sacrifice. He lived in the time of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, not long after the reign of Solomon, when the country was divided into northern and southern kingdoms. The First Temple was then standing in Jerusalem, but in the hills to the north, Elijah did battle with the worshipers of Baal. From the Carmelite monastery that sits on the top of the hill today, there is a panoramic view of the valley of Megiddo. The New Testament promises that one day on this spot the ultimate battle for the soul of monotheism will be waged, Armageddon.

Sins of Jezebel (1953)

Paulette Goddard plays the title role as Queen to King Ahab of northern Israel, who reigned from circa 885 to 874 BCE. She encouraged her husband to embrace the cult of Baal and reject the One God of the Israelites. The prophet Elijah warned of great calamities to be brought upon the land as a result of the worship of a false god. All I have found is a brief clip featuring Elijah and Ahab.

The Babylonian Captivity

I am Semiramis, AKA: Slave Queen of Babylon  (1963)

Jeremiah  (1998)

The Book of Daniel  (2013)

In 587 / 605 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and led much of the population into bondage at Babylon. As I searched this epoch on the Internet, I found a strange digression into movies about Semiramis (say Sem–ira–mis, or Semi-remiss) and the legendary building of Babylon. She has a complex and disjointed lineage, most of it outside of the Bible. If she stimulates your curiosity, recommend a Google search.

The biblical movie, Jeremiah (1998), gives a vivid picture of the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple, built by Solomon. I could find no trailer, but the full movie is available on YouTube as I write this in 2014. The Second Temple would be built after the return of the Jews from their long captivity. The Book of Daniel (2013) is set in the time of the Babalonian captivity.

The Book of Esther


Esther and the King  (1960)

This is the Joan Collins version, with interesting experiments in portraying Asiatic characters with Hollywood actors.

One Night with the King (2006)

After the dramas of David and Solomon, the last of the Old Testament stories to get significant Hollywood treatment is taken from the Book of Esther. She is more in the tradition of Delilah than of Deborah. Set in Persia at the time of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 BCE, this is yet another drama of the Jews in exile.

While the old kingdoms bring themselves down, the stage is set for the rise of Alexander the Great and his conquest of Persia (see Greek World for the 300 and Alexander). We are now within five hundred years of the birth of Christ.

New Testament Jerusalem and the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world will be found in Roman Empire.  Except for the thirty-three-year lifespan of Jesus, not much of Christian history happened in Israel. For movies on modern Israel, beginning with Exodus, go to Movies About Modern Israel.

Israel: Old Testament Related Posts:

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