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ABC's The Ten Commandments
By Christopher Gildemeister

Airs Monday, April 10 (Part 1) & Tuesday, April 11 (Part 2) at 9/8c on ABC

The story of the Jewish Exodus from Egyptian slavery into freedom is central to the development of Judaism and Christianity, and is a cornerstone of Western civilization.  For decades, television viewers could look forward to an annual showing of the classic 1956 film The Ten Commandments, which portrayed the prophet Moses in a positive and heroic light, and which respected the faith traditions of Jews and Christians alike. This year, ABC has chosen to show a newly-made version of The Ten Commandments on Monday, April 10 and Tuesday, April 11. Unfortunately, while this version is new it is hardly improved; it is a religious epic apparently made for people who hate religion. Given the progress of the film and television industry, it is sad that this story was done much better fifty years ago.

 

The familiar story is retold, with some minor alterations made to the traditional narrative. Fearful of a prophesied leader freeing his slaves, the Pharaoh of Egypt orders all Hebrew male infants put to death. The mother of one child, Moses, places her baby in a basket in the river, where he is found by an Egyptian princess and raised as royalty. In this telling, Moses is raised along with his fellow prince and best friend Menerith. Learning of his Hebrew heritage, Moses sympathizes with the slaves and kills a brutal overseer, leading to his exile. In the desert Moses befriends tribesman Jethro and weds his daughter Zipporah. But torn by doubts, Moses climbs a mountain, where God speaks to him and tells him he is to liberate the Jewish people from their slavery in Egypt. Moses returns to Egypt as a prophet, recruiting his brother Aaron and sister Miriam to assist him. He demands the Pharaoh free the slaves. When Pharaoh refuses, God sends multiple plagues upon Egypt. After all the firstborn male Egyptian children are struck dead, Pharaoh releases the slaves, but later pursues them with an army to kill them. God parts the Red Sea, allowing the Hebrews to escape but drowning the Egyptians. In this telling, Moses then must teach the Hebrews to become warriors to protect themselves and conquer the enemies they face in the desert. After defeating the Amalekites and burning down their city, Moses faces the challenge of leading the increasingly unhappy Hebrews through the desert. Throughout, Moses is tormented by the meaning of God's name, "I Am Who I Am." Encountering a destroyed temple erected by the monotheistic Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, Moses comes to the realization that there are not many gods, but One True God who is everywhere. After discipline breaks down among the Hebrews, Moses leads them to Mount Sinai, where they pledge their loyalty to God. Moses ascends the mountain and receives the Ten Commandments, while below the Hebrews make and worship a false idol. Upon his return, an enraged Moses orders the disloyal Hebrews executed, then has the remainder renew their promise of fidelity to God, warning them: "Don't agree to these laws lightly. You have seen God's power. If you say yes and fail Him He won't just punish you, He'll punish your children and your children's children."     

 

There is no profanity in ABC's new version, and sex is minimal; but parents should be warned that this retelling is extremely violent.  In the first half, Moses kills a guard and attacks some herdsmen; his preferred method is beating people over the head with a rock.  The viewer witnesses a scene of embalming and mummification, complete with entrails being lifted out of the body. One brief sexual innuendo occurs as an overseer attempts to rape a slave woman and tells her husband, "You can watch. That'll make it even sweeter. She'll probably enjoy it."  The second half contains far more graphic violence. The Hebrews battle the Amalekites, the viewer witnessing arrows and spears piercing people and blood gushing out, men falling to their deaths, and a city being burned and sacked. An adulterous couple, after being seen naked from behind, is stoned to death.  Most troubling is the scene following the making of Golden Calf, during which Moses orders all the unfaithful Hebrews executed, saying "It's God's will."  Extremely graphic violence follows, with Aaron and Joshua shown slitting children's throats and spearing women as their victims beg for mercy, leaving a huge pile of bloody corpses. Religious viewers may also be disturbed by the implication that Jewish monotheism was actually invented by an Egyptian Pharaoh whose teachings Moses just happened to rediscover.

 

While ABC's "The Ten Commandments" incorporates incidents normally overlooked and is technically more "accurate" to the details given in the Bible, it completely lacks any sense of respect for or understanding of the Biblical story. Yes, Moses doubted himself and his mission. Yes, the Hebrews battled the Amalekites, killing them. And yes, rebellious Hebrews who rejected the Commandments and a covenant with God were put to death. But the entire point of the Biblical message is that of God's unfailing love and mercy; the entire point of giving the Hebrews the Ten Commandments was to enable them to live a better, happier life; and the entire point of the Exodus was to lead the Hebrews to a land "flowing with milk and honey."  In this new version of "The Ten Commandments," the viewer sees endlessly -- the suffering and loneliness that Moses and the Hebrews endured, but never sees them happy or even pleased at God's miracles. Every time Moses (and the viewer) hears God's "voice," it is a harsh, menacing and sinister whisper which causes Moses to contort and grasp his head in agony. The message to the viewer is clear:  listening to God and doing His will is painful and unpleasant. So too with the portrayal of the Hebrews in the rest of the story; we see the Hebrews stoning sinners in their own midst, murdering Amalekites and stabbing and slitting the throats of their own rebellious children, but this is never balanced by any explanation of why such actions were necessary.

 

The message of the Bible is that God loves us and that there is a purpose to existence. The message of ABC's "The Ten Commandments" is that even if there is a God He is harsh and arbitrary, and His rules cause only division, hatred and murder.

 

Charlton Heston's legacy is secure.


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