Friday, April 6, 2012

The Ten Commandments & the Law of the Wilderness

In 1956, there was a strike going on in Hollywood, at the same time director Cecil B. DeMille was trying to make his epic of epics, The Ten Commandments, which is the reason why, in film criticism circles, The Ten Commandments is held up as a great example of why who controls the labor force is so important, which was a struggle not only between DeMille and the unions, but is expressed within the film between Ramses (Yul Brynner) and God (Himself). Who controls the labor force today is still a pertinent question, because every day, we have to ask ourselves do we make bricks for Ramses, or do we labor for God?
The Hebrew pattern of the cloth is what identifies the Levites as the shepherds of Israel. The red color is for the Love of God they bear, that they love God above all their things. The black stripe is for death to their own senses so they can be alive to the calling of God and the white is for their faith, purity and innocence, for they cannot shepherd others if they have no faith themselves.
The film is a marvelous example of structure, and how tensions in one scene are pre-empting the tensions of the next scene; if we see a symbol being used regarding one person, we will see it employed in the exact opposite way for another. Of course, these are wonderful reasons to watch the film, but more importantly, is DeMille's own faith and belief that he and Charlton Heston (Moses) poured into their work to give the world a story that would move us and inspire us to follow Moses into the desert to find God within ourselves.
Throughout the story, there are always two women pulling on Moses, one tempting him with the world, the other acknowledging the yearning within himself for that which is greater than himself. We can identify with it because the same struggle is within ourselves, the pulling upon us of the world and the yearning for our heavenly homeland. When God created Light and separated it from the darkness, He also created a people for Himself and separated them from all other people, those who would follow the Light.
DeMille realized how necessary it was to establishing the high-stakes of the film with the lavish costume and set designs, so when Moses enters the Wilderness, we have a sense of what he has given up and left behind, and how much more valuable that is which he searches for. Without seeing the luxuries of the court enjoyed by the social class which has taken Moses into its own, we wouldn't be able to recognize the temptations in our own life which we must abandon so we can be free of the chains and shackles to embrace Christ. What are the girls talking about? Getting a man, which is exactly what the daughters of Jethro will talk about when we first meet them, and in both circumstances, it's the discovering of Moses that follows the discussion, emphasizing (as Joshua will say after Moses comes down from Mt. Siani) that Moses is a man, but he is more than a man because God is with him as He has not been with any other man up to that point.
But because of sin, "each sought to do his will," instead of the Will of God, and this is the difference we will see between Moses and Joshua (John Derek): when Moses stands upon Holy Ground, the Lord has him remove both his shoes; when Joshua (in the Bible, not the film) stands upon Holy Ground, the Lord has him remove only one shoe. The feet symbolize the will, for Moses to remove both shoes means that he has completely removed any impediments to God using Moses as his instrument, God can use Moses completely; Joshua removes only one shoe because God will not use Joshua as fully as He did Moses and not require as much from Joshua as was required of Moses.
But to the story...
Bithia's empty heart leads her to pray for a son; it's reasonable to deduce that, because of her incredible faith in God (even though she does no know Him) she is rewarded and that her faith is passed on to Moses through her example (when Moses returns from Ethiopia, he tells Bithia, "Yours is the first face I look for and the last I find," and Bithia tells him she was thanking the gods for his safe return, and that kind of devotion would have been passed onto Moses, which we see throughout the film illustrated by his wisdom. We see Bithia among the reeds, for example, because even though she is Pharaoh's daughter, she is humble (reeds are associated with humility) and when we learn that her husband is dead, it makes sense, all that we have just deduced, because her husband is symbolic of  the world and worldly ambitions
"Chains have been forged into swords before now, Divine One," an astrologer tells the Pharaoh. For Christians, the state sanctioned slaughtering of the newborn in the time of Moses, again at Christ's birth and today in abortion mills is as great a crime today as then. Why is there a star? Hope. We could say that if the star foretelling Moses' birth had not appeared, all those children would not have died, Moses would have grown up amongst his own people... but the Lord works in strange and mysterious ways, and in His Wisdom, He knew what He was doing, perhaps because of the glory it would bring to Him that Moses would turn down all the riches of Pharaoh's court (as Jesus Himself would renounce Satan after His fast in the Wilderness) but also because He desired Moses to be an example to the Israelites--as Christ is an example for us--of turning aside form the world to follow God onto unknown paths.
Yochabel and little Miriam sending Moses along his way. You recognize immediately the resemblance to Noah's Ark as the trusting mother, inspired by God, tries to save her son, and then when Bithia commands Memnet to "sink the ark" Bithia herself has become the ark to save God's chosen, just as the ark saved Noah and his family. Later, when Moses has gone into the mud pits and Nefretiri has found him, she tells an overseer that she needs a new oarsman for her bark (ship), but Nefretiri will not be a ark for Moses, but (as Moses points out) the "lovely dust" God chooses to work out his will.
One of the greatest lines from the film--if not THE greatest line--is, "So let it be written, so let it be done."  Why? An earthly king expects his commands and decrees to be obeyed; as surely as the king orders it to be written, so he expects all his subjects to adhere to it, upon penalty of death. God, however, writes the Ten Commandments with His own Hand, and no one obeys them, but death is still the penalty. The film presents us with the stumbling blocks of our free will, and how we adhere to the state, that has no interest in us outside of taxes, and yet our own father desires Life for us and we heed Him not. If only following the word of God was as easy as it being written, but it's not enough to just know the Law; so we will value what we do know, what God has taught us, we are shown a world where not even that Law existed.
It's not just that Bithia opens the basket and sees a baby; Bithia opens her heart and sees her own desire; Bithia opens her heart and sees her destiny in life. This is what happens to each of us when God has "called us by Name," called us to fulfill His purpose and intent for us in this life, because we see what our heart has longed for and recognize it as what we want and need to fulfill our life.
There is a reason why we first see Moses as the "conqueror of Ethiopia," because it will lead to his making a far greater conquest: himself. When Moses sees Sethi, Moses embraces his earthly father figure with both his hands, just as Bithia embraced the infant Moses and Sethi embraced him, as Joshua uses both his arms to strike the Egyptian to save Yochabel, as his father-in-law Jethro will embrace him and as God will embrace him and Moses will embrace God. There is also a possible reference to a future event the film will not cover: Moses' second wife after the death of Sephora. Moses remarries a woman from Ethiopia, which the princess of Ethiopia might symbolize, and that marriage, in the Bible, foreshadows the Bride that Jesus Christ will take for as His own, the Church.
Arms symbolize our strength and from where our strength comes. Moses is stronger than Ramses because Moses' strength comes from his heart, whereas Ramses' strength comes from his power and position. Moses embraces his "father" with both arms, just as both those arms will later be pinned back upon the binding pole of a slave.
As Moses enters the palace of Pharaoh, a priest recites all Moses' names and titles, and Sethi exclaims under his breath, "Windbag," and again when the priest is praying as Sethi is about to die. This wonderful tie-in between the two scenes provides the audience with a comparison that might otherwise elude us were DeMille not so intent upon our own involvement with the film: all these titles are passing, and we too shall pass, like the dust of the pyramids.
A wonderful way of comparing the women and what they represent in the film is the scene with Yochabel about to get smashed between the rocks. Yochabel putting grease under the stone to help it move can be symbolized as her love and prayers being the "grease" to help Moses (a rock foreshadowing Christ the Cornerstone) to move from Egypt to Goshen; Yochabel herself can be taken as a symbol of Israel, "caught between the stones" of bitter bondage of Egypt (Nefertiri tells Moses earlier, "I am Egypt!" and we should take her at her word) and God not hearing their prayers (although He has heard). When Yochabel tells Moses, "I had not the strength to free myself," we should take this two ways: first, that Yochabel is Israel and Israel does not have the strength to free itself from Egyptian rule; secondly, that she does not have the strength to free herself from the bondage of sin.
All the references to Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) to a rat and ferret illustrates for us what serving the world does to us: it turns us into animals.
While Moses can free himself from sin, he can't free anyone else, and this is why there must be a future Messiah that must come, one strong enough to be able to free people from sin; this is illustrated by Moses giving the temple grain to Israel, he can give grain, but Moses himself is not the Bread of Life. Moses can give a day of rest, but he cannot institute the Sabbath as God's Law can. Moses can build a worldly city, but he cannot build the heavenly city of Zion. DeMille does a wonderful job of showing us all the Moses can do, so we have a better understanding of what he couldn't do, and why that was still left for the Messiah to achieve (which we will see in our next post on The Passion of the Christ). 
Sethi and Nefreretii playing hounds and jackals. This scene foreshadows how she will "play a game" of state between Ramses and Moses, cheating one moment and sacrificing the next, thinking she's smarter than everyone else and carrying only about getting what she wants, like Scarlett O'Hara and her men in Gone With the Wind.
It's a sad situation when Memnet comes to tell Neferiti that Moses is a Hebrew slave. What happens in this scene, again, foreshadows what will happen in later scenes. When Neferiti pushed Memnet through the window (over the balcony), it symbolizes reflection; it appears that Moses being a Hebrew slave doesn't effect her, she "loves him" and still wants to marry him, throwing herself later at his feet when he's naught but a condemned slave; but it's odd, isn't it, that the Hebrew cloth Memnet drops is right there at her feet as she ascends those stairs and she doesn't see it but Moses does? She wants Moses to see it, because it does bother her, and she wants Moses to tell her it's not true. As with all of Nefertiri's plotting, it does backfire. While Nefertii pushes Memnet through the window of reflection--that Memnet is willing to die for her cause to keep a slave off the throne of Egypt--because Nefertiri does not reflect (go through the window) she herself dies.
In killing a slave, Nefertiri becomes a slave herself.
Moses goes into question Bithia, and the beads she strings together symbolizes the lies she has "strung together" to keep up the facade of who she wants Moses to really be, a prince of Egypt. When Moses leaves her room, Bithia stands quickly and her chair falls over; this isn't bad acting, coincidence or bad directing, Bithia's authority (her throne) has been overturned because Moses now knows that she is not his mother, and with the loss of her motherhood, she loses her authority, which her chair symbolizes. The opposite of this is true when Moses sees Yochabel.
We don't realize that Yochabel is sick in this scene, but she dies when Moses is in jail. Yochabel and the old mud dancer both get to see Moses, the deliverer of Israel, just before their deaths (just like Simeon and Anna see Jesus just before their deaths) to reassure us that all God has promised will come to be.
Throughout this scene, Yochabel stays seated because she has re-gained her authority as Moses' mother, and not just as his mother, but Israel as a country enslaved to Egypt as regained its dignity because God has heard their prayers, and the deliverer has taken the first step towards fulfilling his destiny. When Moses sees Yochabel, he says,  "You were the woman caught between the stones" because she's caught between the hardness of her bondage (and not wanting that for Moses) and her rock-solid faith in God that they will be delivered. "My son would be a slave."  Moses asks her, "Does this god demand a scarred back and broken hands as the price of his favor?" Yes, he does, because Jesus Himself would offer that to God.  "Look into my eyes and tell me you are not my mother," and she cannot, because upon both their souls, like the fabric of his Hebrew swaddling cloth, is the pattern of God's design for each of us, and Moses knows it and Yochabel knows it, and they recognize the pattern looking into each other's eyes.
This is a great shot because we know that it is Nefretiri who is covered with the mud of sin, whereas Moses is the one being cleansed; she thinks she is saving him from the mud pits, but Moses will not be able to save her from damnation. Nefretiri complains about being condemned to be Ramses, but she continuously chooses Ramses because she chooses the world and not God, she doesn't want Moses' God, only Moses.
One of the most controversial things in the Bible is when Moses murders the Egyptian, in this case, Baka (Vincent Price). In the Bible, we could say that the Egyptian is the part of Moses that wants to stay in Egypt, that's why Moses has to kill him and bury him within the sand, where nothing will grow (where Moses won't start nurturing memories of Egypt when things get tough and try to go backwards). In The Ten Commandments, Moses kills Baka because Baka has unlawfully taken Lilia, who symbolizes the future of Israel, and the tainting of Lilia (later by Dathan) symbolizes the Egyptian within Israel that can't be buried in the sand (as Moses does) but must die out from time and following God's word.
The rest of the film we will use as a comparative analysis for our next post, The Passion Of the Christ, because it provides a comparative analysis with the plagues and Christ's mission.