Missing the Heart of the Story
There’s a new show on in London’s West End: The Prince of Egypt. Based on the 1998 DreamWorks animated film of the same title, the musical is a dramatic retelling of the story of Exodus from the birth and rescue of Moses to the crossing of the Red Sea.
After a few weeks of previews, the show officially opened with its press night on February 25th and received less than desirable reviews. I saw the show during previews. While there are some good moments, especially in the original songs, I would agree with much said in the reviews.
What struck me most though is something which – unsurprisingly - none of the reviews mention; it’s what the creators have done to the story. Now, it’s easy to watch adaptations of biblical stories and to complain about inaccuracies in their retelling. I’m not sure such complaints are always wholly justified. The nature of adaptations is that some level of artistic license is inevitable, and the brevity of biblical narrative means that expansion is usually necessary to meet modern expectations for films and shows.
But it wasn’t these changes that struck me. The changes I noticed are more fundamental. They’re about what’s at the very heart of the story, and they illustrate a somewhat skewed reading of the biblical text. Three aspects struck me in particular. (I’ll avoid revealing any significant spoilers in what follows, but those who want to see the show with fresh eyes may not want to read on!)
The Prince of Egypt puts a strong focus on the internal struggles and journeys of the key characters. The first act highlights the relationships of the two brothers – Moses and Pharaoh (identified as Rameses in the show) – and their respective wives, as each pair meet and journey towards marriage. The internal dynamics are explored as Rameses wrestles with whether he wants to marry the woman picked for him by his parents and Moses struggles with his growing affection for a Midianite woman. Other highlighted internal struggles are Moses’ questioning of his identity when he finds out he is a Hebrew by birth, his feelings of guilt when the plagues hit Egypt, and the anguish of Rameses’ wife after the death of their firstborn.
There is also a subtle message about the human heart. The show ends with an ambiguous and surprising turn of events. (I’ll try not to give too much away.) The underlying idea seems to be that the human heart is inherently good, so even if there have been disagreements and conflict there is always hope for resolution and reconciliation.
The third thing I noticed was about what isn’t there, rather than what is. The show retains many mentions of the gods of the Egyptians, and so it is striking that Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, is rarely mentioned and his role is downplayed. For example, the burning bush incident is a very short scene near the end of the first act; Moses, if anyone, is presented as the force behind the plagues, and even in the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea, Yahweh isn’t given a prominent part.
These three emphases in the story of The Prince of Egypt strike me as a very modern take on the story which stands in tension with the biblical account. Biblical narrative usually has little interest in the internal life of the characters; rarely are we told what characters think or feel, and so, when we are, we can be sure that those details are significant. In Exodus, there is little about the internal life of Moses, apart from his repeated discomfort with Yahweh’s plan to use him as messenger and leader. The revelation of this discomfort should help us to recognise that it is important; it contributes to a key theme.
This key theme is that Yahweh is the sovereign God of all and he is therefore able to triumph over the so-called gods of the Egyptians, to rescue his people, and to keep his promises. The first part of Exodus is a showdown between Yahweh and the gods of the Egyptians, represented by Pharaoh. The partial erasure of Yahweh from The Prince of Egypt sidelines this element of the story, a fact which reveals a lack of understanding about Old Testament narrative: it’s almost always primarily about God! It is this theme in Exodus that explains Moses’ protests about his suitability for the task. It is exactly his weaknesses which make him the perfect candidate for Yahweh to use because they will allow Yahweh to show that he and he alone is responsible for the victory.
The idea that the human heart is inherently good is also in conflict with the biblical account. The recurring motif of Pharaoh’s hard heart – and the complex interplay between God and Pharaoh in terms of the cause of this hardness – is meant to speak of the fact that the human heart is not inherently good. The account of Exodus beyond the crossing of the Red Sea will show that the problem of hard hearts was just as prominent among the Israelites, and so as the biblical narrative continues through the rest of the Pentateuch and beyond it is looking for the answer to this problem. The answer will be briefly mentioned later in the Pentateuch (Deut. 30:6), promised in the prophets (e.g. Ezek. 11:19; 36:26; Jer. 31:33), and then, ultimately, enacted by the Messiah (e.g. Rom. 2:29; Heb. 8:10).
Does all this mean that The Prince of Egypt is a bad show? Not necessarily. In terms of these elements, perhaps only if it’s claiming to be a faithful retelling of the biblical account. Should we go to see it? Sure, but don’t go seeking to learn how to read the Old Testament! In Scripture, God has spoken to us in words, and each of these words and the nuance and emphases they communicate are important. We need to read them well. Would I go again? I still can’t decide!