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Friday 17 September |
Saint of the Day: St. Hildegard of Bingen

What Hollywood got surprisingly right in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”

Tod Worner - published on 06/20/17

Okay, okay. So it was a little bit Hollywood.

But touching on deeper truths, Hollywood may not have done so badly this time..

Let me explain.

It happened when my wife and daughters found ourselves engrossed (for the umpteenth time) in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic movie, The Ten Commandments. You might even remember the scene. The Israeli slaves were enduring the back-breaking work of assembling a city for the Pharaoh. Exhaustion was certain and death not uncommon under the heat of the Egyptian sun and the lash of the overlord’s whip.

And then it happened.

An aged Israeli slave – an old woman – was greasing the leading edge of massive granite blocks being pulled together to form the foundation stones of the city. As thousands of sunburned and sinewy bodies pulled the ropes and a gaggle of sadistic foremen barked for greater effort, the old woman’s cloak became caught under the block. As the stone advanced, the frantic woman tried to free herself, but simply found herself too weak. Her fate was sealed. Pulled to her knees, she knew. In a moment, she would be crushed alive.

Witnessing in horror, a fellow slave Lilia, began to scream in order to halt the advancing stones. Her cries were met with sneers and disdain by the Egyptian overseers,

“We don’t stop a moving block for an old woman!”

Hearing the voice of Lilia and understanding the emergency, Joshua, the stonecutter, attacked the whip-bearing foreman. Unrest ensued, the stone’s advance was halted and the old woman’s life was spared – for the moment. However, Lilia knew that Joshua’s act – a slave attacking an Egyptian – meant certain death. Lilia ran as quickly as she could (with the whip-wielders in hot pursuit) to call upon the mercy of Moses, the Prince of Egypt, who happened to be working near the site. Only Moses could spare the life of the courageous Joshua.

Upon hearing Lilia’s breathless plea, Moses’ interest was piqued. Stepping away from his work, he came to the site where the old woman – Yochabel – knelt still trapped between the granite blocks. Moses sneered at his fellow Egyptians,

“Would you bury the old woman alive in a tomb of rock?”

As he cut her trapped cloak and freed her, his accompanying administrator callously explained,

“They use the old ones to do the work of greasing the stones, Lord Prince. If they are killed, it is no loss.”

Moses snapped back,

“Are you a master builder or a master butcher?”

And then came the exchange between Moses and Joshua that gave me pause. The all-powerful pagan Prince of a draconian state stood face-to-face with an enslaved God-fearing defender of a Chosen People.

Moses: You know it is death to strike an Egyptian?

Joshua: I know it.
Moses: Yet you struck him. Why?
Joshua: To save the old woman.
Moses: What is she to you?
Joshua: An old woman.
Moses: The man has courage. You do not speak like a slave.
Joshua: God made men. Men made slaves.
Moses: Which god?
Joshua: The God of Abraham. The Almighty God.
Moses: If your god is 
almighty, why does he leave you in bondage?
Joshua: He will choose the hour of our freedom and the man who will deliver us.


Now, I know, I know. There is no Biblical documentation of such a conversation. Even more, I am pretty sure that this is not contained in the writings of non-Biblical contemporaries. And with notable exceptions, Hollywood traditionally does more damage to Biblical narratives than benefit. But on thoughtful consideration, this exchange bears the mark of profound Biblical truths.

Let me elaborate.

As the old woman, Yochabel, is about to be crushed, we all wince at the injustice of an old lady forced into such grueling labor only to be brutally sacrificed in the name of heartless efficiency. It just isn’t right. And Joshua’s answer to Moses is perfect. What is she to me? Do I actually need to explain this to such a powerful, sophisticated man and his society? She is an old woman. Isn’t that enough? 

Next, Joshua answers Moses’ wonder with a pointed truth. Though you stand there in splendor and I in squalor, there is no difference between you and me. We are both human, both men, both children of God. Only you and your sinful society have erected a false construct that enriches the dignity of some by bleeding the dignity of others. God made men. Men made slaves.

And who is this God that created man (and woman), imbued them with ineradicable dignity, and holds any society that disrespects this truth to eternal account? Not the pagan gods of Egypt, nor the preening, willful god of the Pharaoh. This God is the God of Abraham. The Almighty God. The God of dignity, calling, suffering and grace. The God from whom, out of his faithful’s bitter patience, deliverance will come through a path splitting the towering sea and ultimately through a God-made-man who will assume our sin and raise us from death.

This brief exchange in a 1956 Hollywood epic, spoke volumes about our creed. The dignity of human life, it’s origin in God, the fallibility of man and the certain glorious deliverance that awaits the faithful.

Yes, of course. It came from Hollywood.

But touching on deeper truths, Hollywood may not have done so badly this time.

How surprising. And refreshing.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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