The Prince of Egypt

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken January 31, 1999

Moses has always been a hit at the box office. He must be the only prophet ever to win an Oscar, and now he is in the movies again. Last month DreamWorks studios released The Prince of Egypt, an epic animated film based on the life of Moses. Tonight I want to say a few words about Moses, and about the film, partly since I have been asked if I am willing to "let my people go" see it.

As far as animation is concerned, The Prince of Egypt is extremely impressive. And it should be. The film cost more than $100 million, and took 400 artists and others four years to produce. Some of the graphic effects are breathtaking, even heart-stopping. I was less taken with the parting of the Red Sea than some critics have been, but I was thoroughly impressed with the enormous pyramid building sites and with the frenzied chariot race near the beginning of the film. The film also did fair justice to the plagues.

There are, of course, several major problems with The Prince of Egypt. The people at DreamWorks would hate to hear me say that, because they invested a great deal of time, money, and energy trying to pander to Christian moviegoers. To some extent, the filmmakers were responsive to suggestions they received from evangelical leaders. For example, they changed one of their lyrics from "You can work miracles when you believe" to "There can be miracles when you believe."

But I still have some reservations. One question to consider is whether or not it is appropriate to use animation to portray biblical history. Perhaps this shows the maturation of animation as an art form. However, as an artistic genre, the cartoon is most closely associated with comic fiction. Putting an animated Moses on the big screen runs the risk of minimizing biblical history. In fact, most secular reviews of the film have dismissed the historicity of Moses. The Exodus is treated as just another fable.

Nor were the people at DreamWorks as careful with the Bible as they might have been. Many of the historical errors are distracting, even if they are relatively minor. Aaron's part seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor, partly because Miriam gets an expanded role.

A more obvious distortion of the biblical text is the character of Rameses. The Bible is silent about Moses' relationships with his half-brothers in the Egyptian royal family. But the movie is dominated by the friendship and rivalry between Moses and Rameses. This makes for a good story, but it also has the odd result of making Pharoah a sympathetic figure.

Then there is the fact that the film ends only two-thirds of the way through Moses' life. The Egyptians drown in the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments make a cameo appearance coming down the mountain, and then the movie is over. The result is a Moses who is a liberator but not a lawgiver.

Nor is anything said about the Hebrews grumbling around the desert and wanting to go back to Egypt. Forty dreary years in the wilderness may not have made for a very good story line, but they might have provided some much-needed realism.

These historical errors and omissions are especially confusing for children. One of our Sunday School teachers mentioned reading the story of Moses to her class. "Oh, I already saw the movie," said one of her students. The teacher explained, of course, that the Word of God holds the ultimate authority. Still, the episode shows how the image threatens to take precedence over the word.

Having made these criticisms, I should also say that The Prince of Egypt is generally faithful to the biblical text. For this reason, going to see it yields some fresh insights into the life and ministry of Moses.

The film vividly portrays the dilemma Moses faced as a Hebrew raised among Egyptians. How did he learn of his Hebrew birthright? What made him decide to identify with the people of God?

These are matters of speculation, but it is obvious from what the Bible says that the choice Moses made was not easy. In Hebrews we read that

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward (Heb. 11:24-26).

The Prince of Egypt gets this just about right. It portrays Moses growing up in the privileged luxury of Pharoah's court. It also shows him renouncing his riches and his royal titles in order to deliver God's people. The Bible does not explain how Moses came to make his decision, but it was a bold and deliberate choice made through faith in God's promise.

The other impressive scene in the movie was the Passover. The film did not show Hebrew fathers actually sacrificing lambs to save their families. But it did explain the divine institution of this sacrament, and it did show doorpost after doorpost covered with blood.

There was a sense of drama as the angel of death came up to each household. Was there blood on the doorpost or not? If there was, the angel passed by and the audience breathed a sigh of relief. If not, the angel swirled into the house and took the life of the firstborn son.

Some important things about were not said about this judgment. The film did not explain that God requires a blood sacrifice to atone for sin, or that God's Son has offered just such a sacrifice on our behalf. But then those are things to discuss when you take a friend to the movie, or when you talk about it with a friend who has already gone.

Be sure to find a way to mention that The Prince of Egypt is really about the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6), the lamb slain to deliver his people from death.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. ©2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org