Supersessionism on the Big Screen

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Much has been written about how “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is unfaithful to the biblical narrative. A movie is midrash, exploring a biblical text. That is why I am not troubled with adding an Israelite elder named Nun, a character absent in the biblical text except in Joshua’s patronym ben Nun, nor with the plagues appearing as a domino effect of natural causes, a theory popularized a half-century ago by biblical scholar Greta Hort.

The problems I have are more serious: Christianizing the central, formative narrative of Jewish identity.

Consider, for example, God appearing as a little child or Moses replying to a question about slaughtering so many lambs with, “Pity the lambs if I am wrong. If I am right, we will bless them for all eternity.”

In the Gospels, the little Christ child is sent to lead people to salvation, thus fulfilling such biblical prophecies as Isaiah 11:6, “a little child shall lead them.” The Gospels continue that this divine and suffering messiah was killed as a sacrificial lamb on Passover to atone for our sins; thus, all who believe in him are blessed. Later, Christian commentators read Jesus back into Jewish Scripture even at the burning bush. As the still widely read Christian commentator Matthew Henry wrote about the scene at the burning bush, “It may also be looked upon as a type of Christ’s taking upon him the nature of man, and the union between the Divine and human nature (on Acts 7:30-41).” Never mind that the Exodus narrative and all Jewish faith is based on the belief in an un-seeable God or that the lamb’s blood was a sign to mark the Israelites’ doors, not an atonement sacrifice.

It gets worse.

In the movie, after the death of the first born, Pharoah exclaims, “What kind of fanatics worship such a God?” This from the genocidal leader responsible for ordering every male Israelite child slaughtered. Coupled with the writers’ decision to skip the opportunity God gives Pharaoh in the Bible to repent before each escalating plague, the movie presents God as vengeful. This image reflects centuries of classic Christian anti-Judaism, called supersessionism or “replacement theology,” that the “new” testament’s loving God replaces the “old” testament’s wrathful God just as the new covenant between God and Christ’s followers replaces God’s old covenant with the Jews. Outside the covenant, Jews are increasingly identified in Matthew, John and later writers as God’s enemies and murderers, servants of Satan on earth.

After the Holocaust, many churches recognized supersessionism as responsible for centuries of Jewish persecution culminating in the Holocaust. Great strides in interfaith relations and biblical scholarship sought to ameliorate this harmful legacy. It is troubling that director Ridley Scott and his team did not try harder to understand the implications of their artistic choices and make more responsible, and more accurate, decisions about their final product. The results would have not only made a better movie but one that could unite all those who turn to the Exodus story for inspiration.

 

Rabbi Susan Grossman, spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia and an editor of Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, served as head of Holocaust programming for the National Jewish Resource Center and recently completed teaching the interfaith course “Parting of the Ways: How Judaism and Christianity Became Two” in her community.

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