Monday, April 2, 2018

Towards a Good Exodus Movie: Brandon Sanderson's Second Law

There have been numerous film versions of the biblical Exodus story, none satisfactory. In honor of Passover, I would like to consider what it might take to do the exodus right. We do not need Prince Moses discovering himself. As great an actor as Charlton Heston was, Moses should not be some macho superhero who is emotionally invulnerable. That being said, Moses should not whine or feel sorry for himself like in the Prince of Egypt. We do not need a cycle of repetitive big special effects plagues followed by a stereotypical stubborn Pharaoh refusing to let the Children of Israel go. We need Moshe Rabainu, the Jewish tragic hero.

The first thing to consider is the soul of the story, something that the exodus can offer like no other story. Harry Potter is about being taken to a magical place that you dearly wish actually existed. The exodus is about God exists and he cares about the downtrodden. The unjust moral order that you take for granted is about to be overturned. I do not care if you are an atheist, you desperately want this to be true. The exodus is about a good man, Moshe, living in a terrible world. He has given up trying to fix it. He is content to be a shepherd and a  family man. Then he receives the surprise of his life. Not that God exists (without God there can be no standard to judge the world as wicked) but that God cares about the scum of the earth Israelites that Moshe has tried to distance himself from. Now it is Moshe's task to get the Israelites out of Egypt and make them into a people worthy of God's love.

The critical challenge to telling the exodus is the fact the Moshe is simply too powerful. He has the power of God behind him. How can the story turn out any other way than him defeating Pharaoh, taking the Israelites out of Egypt and living happily ever after? This is predictable and boring. Furthermore, it does not challenge us. As with all stories, problems are opportunities to make something truly great. For this, we turn to Brandon Sanderson's Second Law of Magic; what a character cannot do is much more important than what he can do. It might be cool to imagine a character with all kinds of superpowers, but ultimately what gives you a plot are the limitations that even the powerful operate under. What kinds of problems can't the hero solve with their powers? Even better, what kinds of problems are created by these powers.

Moshe has a staff, his brother Aaron, God, and a whole battery of miracles to beat Egypt into submission. Here is what he does not have, the ability to force either Pharaoh or the Israelites to consent to anything. This is what makes Pharaoh an intriguing adversary. He has the power to thwart God himself. All he needs to is to harden his heart and be stubborn enough to allow the destruction of Egypt. As the plagues unfold, what is happening is not the wicked Pharaoh getting what he deserves. On the contrary, Pharaoh is winning. Egypt may be burning but for Pharaoh that is a small price to pay for him to beat God and prove that, in some sense, he is a god too. Despite all of Moshe's power, Pharaoh can lie and humiliate him with utter impunity.

In the end, Pharaoh does crack after the deaths of the first-born Egyptians, but he has one last card to play. He knows that the Israelites do not want to actually leave Egypt and become some kind of chosen people. All he needs to do is show up with his army and the Israelites will gladly hand Moshe over and return to Egypt. Pharaoh will have won and there is nothing Moshe or God can do about it. Pharaoh's plan is undone because the Israelites possess the faith to jump into the water and God is willing to differentiate between the Israelites and the Egyptians. As the Israelites sing at the shore of the Red Sea, it appears that God's miracles have not only redeemed Israel from Egypt but have led to a spiritual awakening to make them worthy of receiving the Torah.

I would suggest a corollary to Sanderson's Law; any hero who is sufficiently powerful must ultimately fail and come to a tragic end otherwise the audience would never believe that their weaknesses were ever genuine to being with. Think of characters like Oedipus or King Lear, all powerful in their domains with no plausible challenges. There is no way to tell a story about them that is not a tragedy. Oedipus and Lear need to fall not because anyone could beat them but because they self-destruct through their failure of understanding. Oedipus, the man who understands the nature of man, fails to see himself and accidentally murders his father and marries his mother. Lear lacks the theory mind to appreciate how Regan and Goneril could lie to him and fails to appreciate the value of Cordelia speaking a simple selfless truth that he does not want to hear. By this thinking, we must follow Moshe's success in Egypt and at the Red Sea with an act II in which everything falls apart.

Let us go back to Moshe at the burning bush as he tries to tell God that he does not want to be the savior of the Israelites. This is not the Hero with a Thousand Faces initially refusing the call of destiny (Luke Skywalker not wanting to abandon the family moisture farm to rescue the princess). This is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane saying "take this cup away from me."

(Jim Caviezel anchors the movie with the scene. For the passion sequences to work, Jesus needs to both suffer and transcend that suffering. Jesus and the audience knows that he is about to be tortured.  Here we are allowed to see Jesus be truly vulnerable in a way that you can't in the rest of the movie as he needs to always be moving forward without ever wanting to escape his torment.)

Moshe knows that he is being set an impossible task. It does not matter if he can twist Pharaoh's arm into letting the Israelites go. The Israelites are not worthy of redemption and any attempt to do so is doomed to failure. Moshe is being asked to undergo not twelve hours of torture, but forty years of abuse and humiliation all for nothing. He is going to be Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill.

Moshe takes on this battle that he knows he cannot win. He undergoes his tribulations with Pharaoh and a few altercations with the Israelites to hint as to what is coming. They get through the Red Sea and on to Mount Sinai. Just as we are tempted to think that this might all work out after all, we get the Golden Calf. Here we get to the crucial moment for Moshe. He has proven that he was right about the Israelites all along. Even God now agrees and is going to destroy the Israelites and let Moshe off the hook. Moshe puts himself in harm's way to save the very people he despises by threatening God that if God will not save Israel, he does not want anything to do with God. More incredibly still, Moshe succeeds at doing what Pharaoh could not, forcing God to change his mind.

Despite Moshe saving Israel, things do not really improve. The Israelites demand meat, the spies convince them not to go to Canaan and Korah rebels. Eventually, when the Israelites demand water, Moshe just snaps; he yells at them and hits the rock. God punishes Moshe and refuses to let him into the Promised Land. Moshe dies standing on Mount Nebo looking down as the people under Joshua prepare to enter the Land. We know that this is not going to turn out well. We have hundreds of years of the Israelites sinning against God, culminating in their expulsion from the Land and the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Babylonians.

As with most good tragedies, there is transcendence and hope. Long after the pharaohs have gone, those Israelites who rejected Moshe time and again still keep Moshe's Torah. Every year, they gather around a Passover seder to remember their teacher as parents tell their children the real greatest story ever told.

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