Egypt’s Right, the New Exodus Movie Is Historically Inaccurate

The Egyptian censorship board said last week it was banning ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings due to ‘historical inaccuracies.’ Egypt may be right, but that’s no reason to ban Ridley Scott's movie.

The question here isn’t whether the Exodus from Egypt took place or not — that had been discussed quite enough, and it is quite clear that there is no historical evidence to support the historicity of the biblical account of Exodus.

The question is whether the movie departed from the biblical account of Exodus. According to the BBC report, the Egyptian authorities said the movie’s historical inaccuracies included “the film’s depiction of Jews as having built the Pyramids, and that an earthquake, not a miracle by Moses, caused the Red Sea to part.”

In both cases, the Egyptians are correct — the movie does not align with the biblical myth. All of the 138 pyramids known to us were built during the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom, that is between 2686 B.C.E. and 1650 B.C.E. But the Exodus, if it indeed did take place, has been dated to some time between the 15th and the 12th centuries B.C.E. That means the pyramids would have been completed long before the putative Jewish enslavement in Egypt.

Where does this idea that Jews in Egyptian captivity toiled on the construction of the pyramids come from? That is not clear, but it certainly isn’t the Bible. The biblical account has the Jews building the cities of Pithom and Rameses: “So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.” (Exodus 1:11) What a “store city” is and just which cities Pithom and Rameses were is unknown, but no pyramids are mentioned.

Regarding the parting of the Red Sea, the movie depicts it as being caused by a massive wave precipitated by an earthquake. This doesn’t align with either the Hebrew Bible or the Koran. In both narratives, it is Moses who parts the sea: “And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14:21) “Then we told Musa by inspiration: ‘Strike the sea with your rod.’ So it divided, and each separate part became like the huge, firm mass of a mountain” (Surah 26:63). Thus, within the Muslim tradition, claiming that Moses did not part the Red Sea would seem to be heretical.

The movie departs from the Biblical narrative in many other ways that were not cited in the BBC report on Egypt’s decision. For example, the movie has a plague of giant alligators, which is absent in the biblical account, though to be fair some important biblical commentators, namely Abraham ibn Ezra and Saadia Gaon, failing to see why a plague of frogs would be so terrible, did write that the tz’far’de’im mentioned in the Bible were alligators. This is without merit though.

Clearly, Ridley Scott departed from the biblical narrative, and clearly the film is not supposed to be taken as historical fact. But this doesn’t matter, there is no reason to ban a movie for being unhistorical: no movie is.