The Prince of Egypt: A Pulpit Review

Sermon given January 15, 1999, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
I well remember the shocking moment I first discovered that the Bible stories I had learned in Religious School and the Bible itself were not entirely the same thing. In my college dorm room, preparing for a Religion class, I read about Abraham. Furiously, I flipped the pages of the Bible, backwards and forwards, looking for the familiar story of our first patriarch smashing his father’s idols. To my dismay, it wasn’t there!

The next day, I indignantly asked my professor what had happened to that critically important narrative. Wherever had it gone? Did my Religious School teachers make it up? My professor laughed knowingly. She had learned the same story in Religious School. My teachers had not invented it. And yet, in the Bible, Abraham smashes no idols. In fact, we’re not even told that his father was an idol maker. That entire tale is a Midrash, a story told by our ancient rabbis to make a moral point or fill a gap in the biblical narrative. Nobody insidiously inserted that Midrash into Religious School texts or deleted it from the Bible. That story, like many others, has been part of our Jewish tradition for many centuries, though it was never in the Torah itself.

Later that semester, as we studied the Exodus from Egypt, several of my classmates asked about various tales they had incorrectly expected to find in the Bible. Again, my professor laughed. This time, though, she did not credit the ancient rabbis. Instead, she suggested that an entire generation’s view of the Exodus from Egypt had been shaped by Cecil B. DeMille, creator of that most famous of biblical movies, The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses.

Cecil B. DeMille, The Ten Commandments, and even Charlton Heston were replaced last month. The next generation of adults may still not know the biblical story of Moses. Instead, they will imagine the Exodus as interpreted by Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg in The Prince of Egypt. They will picture Moses as an animated figure, with the voice of Val Kilmer.

        The Prince of Egypt begins responsibly, with a disclaimer, admitting that the movie is an interpretation of the biblical text, and urging viewers to consult their Scriptures for the original story. Therefore, we would be unjustified in criticizing the film simply for the fact that it departs from the Torah text.

Moreover, for some 2000 years, Jews have read the Holy Scriptures through the prism of rabbinic literature. Rather than studying the Torah simply in its own words, we consult Midrash, as well as the commentaries of learned rabbis who have studied the Torah before us. As Reform Jews, we also give significant weight to modern Bible scholarship, and to liberal interpretations and newer Midrash generated by faithful Jews in our own day.

From a Jewish perspective, The Prince of Egypt is a modern Midrash. It makes important moral statements, relevant to today. It fills wide gaps in the biblical text with intriguing theories. At the same time, though, it reflects the biases of our generation, not all of which are positive. If this movie, or any one Midrash, for that matter, were the only prism through which we viewed the biblical narrative, it would narrowly limit our understanding. However, as long as The Prince of Egypt sends us back to the text, to study the Torah itself, as well as other ancient and modern Midrash and commentary, the film will enhance our discussion of the Bible.

When we do read the Bible, we find the familiar story of the baby Moses. His mother places him in a basket in the Nile, in a desperate attempt to save him from the Pharaoh’s wicked decree that all Hebrew infant boys are to be killed. Moses is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, who somehow knows that the boy is a Hebrew. All the while, the baby’s sister is watching. She offers to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the child, and Pharaoh’s daughter accepts. Moses, then, is suckled by his own mother.

Strangely, though, the biblical story breaks off at that point. We learn nothing of Moses’ adolescence. The next thing we know, Moses, already grown, kills an Egyptian taskmaster who has been brutally mistreating a Hebrew slave.

From the biblical text itself, we can’t be sure how Moses knows to identify with the Hebrews. We may theorize that he has always known, having been suckled by his mother. Maybe he heard from the Egyptian princess, his adoptive mother, who knows that he is a Hebrew. Perhaps, though, Pharaoh’s daughter would have concealed Moses’ identity in order to save him. As for having been suckled by his mother, well, that was when Moses was a baby. Who could remember that?

Katzenberg’s film changes a few, relatively minor details of this story, fills in major gaps, and offers an interesting theory. Moses is a full member of the royal family, with no conscious knowledge that he is a Hebrew. Through a series of improbable coincidences, he literally runs into Miriam and Aaron, his sister and brother. Miriam sings a lullaby, which Moses had heard from his mother as an infant. A chain of memory begins, culminating in a dramatic dream. The young man Moses wakes up, realizing that he is no prince, but rather a Hebrew; the Pharaoh is no father to him, but the oppressor who has sought to perpetrate genocide against Moses’ people.

In the Bible, God frequently uses dreams to reveal important messages. The implication of the film, then, is that God reveals Moses’ identity to him. As is so often the case in the Bible, the actions of the Lord are barely visible. Frequently, when God seems to be absent from the Torah text, our sages of old describe God’s subtle actions in Midrash. Here, then, The Prince of Egypt is classic Midrash, answering our questions about the text and enhancing our appreciation of God’s constant presence.

In other parts of the biblical narrative, God’s actions aren’t subtle at all. The ten plagues, for example, and the parting of the Red Sea, are explicitly described in the Torah as dramatic miracles. Though some modern scholars have attempted to offer scientific explanations that dismiss these miracles as natural phenomena, The Prince of Egypt is faithful to the biblical text. The magnificent portrayals of the plagues, and especially the parting of the Sea, are downright awe-inspiring.

Also exciting is the film’s portrayal of the significant women in the story. One of the most important functions of modern Midrash is to find and hear the voices of women, too often silent in the Bible and in ancient interpretations. In The Prince of Egypt, both Moses’ sister, Miriam, and his wife, Zipporah, play more significant roles than they do in the Torah.

In this respect, the film’s portrayal is more believable, or at least easier to embrace, than the biblical text itself. In the Torah, for example, Moses’ wife does not accompany him to Egypt. In the movie, though, she is at Moses’ side, not only providing support, but offering valuable counsel as well. Miriam does have a significant role in the Bible, both during Moses’ infancy and later, in the desert, after the Hebrews have been freed from slavery. However, in the Torah, Miriam is largely absent from the segments dealing with the liberation from Egyptian bondage. Frankly, this gap is inconsistent with Miriam’s otherwise strong character. The Prince of Egypt offers us a Miriam who remains consistently active.

Lest you leave with the impression that my opinion of Katzenberg’s movie Midrash is completely favorable, allow me to reveal one appalling flaw. In the Torah, Moses is eighty years old when called by God to go to Egypt and free his people from slavery. Even Cecil B. DeMille was faithful to this important detail: the then-young Charlton Heston was made up to look considerably older than he was. The animated Moses of The Prince of Egypt, on the other hand, appears to be a young man, no older than thirty, with a young adult voice.

The suggestion is that Moses has to be young, that no person of advanced years could even theoretically have engaged in this conflict, that God would not call a senior citizen for service. Perhaps our youth-oriented society can not tolerate the image of an elderly Moses.

Had Katzenberg remained faithful to the text in this respect, though, he could have made a great impact on the current generation. Among its many lessons, The Prince of Egypt might have taught that it’s never too late to take on a great task, and that learning and leadership are available to the faithful at any age. The Prince of Egypt misses this unique opportunity.

Nevertheless, The Prince of Egypt remains an inspiration. The enduring image of the movie is the scene of the Hebrew people, together with a mixed multitude, just as the Torah teaches, crossing the Red Sea on dry land, exhausted and frightened, but boundlessly joyful.

In Hebrew, they sing two verses from Exodus chapter 15, the Song of the Sea that our people sang at that moment of liberation: Ashirah l’Adonai ki ga-oh ga-ah, “I shall sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed mightily,” and the more familiar words of Mi Chamocha, “Who is like unto You, O Lord, among the mighty?” They also sing in English, “There can be miracles, if you believe.” The music is stirring and the image overwhelming.

Our ancient rabbis taught, “In every generation, each Jew should experience personally the liberation from Egypt.” Accordingly, The Prince of Egypt allows us, in our own day and age, to feel the exodus in powerful ways. That experience can only be matched by reading Torah itself.

Amen.