The Prince of Egypt

So I was watching The Prince of Egypt, and it got me thinking about liberation…

“God’s salvation in Exodus does not focus on saving Israel from sin but is experienced as liberation of Israel from the oppression of a tyrant… the Exodus story is a major biblical corrective to a spiritualized notion of God’s salvation.”[1]

These words from a phenomenal theological text are played out in the animation classic The Prince of Egypt. In visually-inventive fashion, the film depicts even the most disconcerting aspects of the Exodus tale. In so many ways this movie, like the Exodus story itself, is an essential story even for young people, but must be approached with care, caution, and preparation.

It’s a masterpiece of theological and biblical filmmaking in the ways it both adheres to and expands on the text. It works within the Exodus story like a midrash, (a sort of “explanatory comma” that ancient Jewish teachers and scholars would add to the text to expand, explain, or challenge.)

In adhering to the text, it highlights often overlooked aspects of the Exodus story. First is the absence of God at the beginning. In fact, the burning bush occurs right at the film’s midpoint, before which God is silent, and if not absent is at least veiled. In the same text as the quote above, these renowned Old Testament commentators point out, “In the context of bondage God seems absent, but hope for the future is preserved through the courageous action of five women who thwart Pharaoh’s actions.” Overlooked in the early chapters of Exodus is that Pharaoh is actually never named, but these women who enable the eventual salvation of Israel are named. In traditional historical accounts, we remember and learn the names of powerful leaders and forget the small faithful actions of the few – so often women. Exodus, and The Prince of Egypt, insist that you know their names and stories.

The Pharaoh in the movie, however, has a name: Rameses. The original text does not feature this dynamic of brothers and sons, but it is the central element of the movie. In naming Rameses and making him a real character with a real arc, the film accomplishes two significant theological ideas form the text. First, it grounds the story in real people and real relationships, preventing it from becoming just myth. The original text was written by and for the people of Israel to understand themselves in history and the present. For us reading, today, we can feel such a distance from it. The film brings us back in by highlighting relationships that may echo some of our own or that we’ve seen: a disapproving father, a jealousy between brothers, and grieving the loss of a child. The further we get historically from a biblical text, the less it can seem like our own life, but the story of oppression and liberation is always at our door. Most of the time we don’t see it because we are on the wrong side.  

The other thing that Rameses’ characterization accomplishes is that it allows us to have the empathy and love of God even for the “villain.” The larger story of Exodus and the rest of Scripture allow us to see God’s redemptive work on behalf of Pharaoh and Egypt, but in the story itself we can easily imagine the empire as a monolithic and purely evil force. To be sure, God chooses a side in this conflict, an idea we should not be quick to overlook. But God’s compassion and grace extend even to the oppressors, the enemies of God’s redemptive work. The heartbreaking moment where Moses tries to comfort Rameses after the Passover event, followed by the solemn song of hope from Miriam and Tzipporah envelop this film in grace.

In lovingly embracing and expanding on the tale of the Exodus, The Prince of Egypt shows that real, historical liberation is what God’s salvation looks like. It shows that it often begins with the faithful, desperate actions of anonymous people, accompanied by the veiled work of God, but that can erupt into a cataclysm of redemptive power. It shows that salvation is more than spiritual, and calls us to look at our own world and identify the broken people who oppress and the oppressed in need of God’s saving. It calls us to set the oppressed free, and to extend grace and hope for the redemption of the oppressor too.

James Cone asked and answered, “What has the gospel to do with the oppressed of the land and their struggle for liberation? Any theologian who fails to place that question at the center of his or her work has ignored the essence of the gospel.”[2] The Prince of Egypt, in the spirit of the Exodus text, does just that.

[1] A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, Birch, Brueggemann, Fretheim, Petersen

[2] God of the Oppressed, James Cone.

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