Friday, July 31, 2009

The Prince of Egypt: Alternate Interpretation

A while back, an animated movie came out called "The Prince of Egypt". I mostly went for what I thought was some good animation, rather than the story. (And looking at IMDB, probably Patrick Stewart, too.) I was in a vague "spiritual but not religious" spot at the time, so I was a bit on the cynical side in regards to the religion angle. I didn't expect for the story to strike a chord with me, though it's probably one the producers didn't intend. Note that I only saw it once in the theater, so my memories are likely colored by time and personal biases. I may post an update if I end up seeing it again. So, with that background, on with the alternate character interpretations.

Seti, Moses's adoptive (grand?)father, older Pharoh: He was prompted to perform the mass infanticide Moses escaped by a fear of rebellion: If the Hebrews grew too numerous, they could tear apart Egypt. When Moses asked for a justification, he characterized it as a sacrifice for the "greater good," meaning, in his case, a stable civilization where his family could continue. The tone of voice he spoke in told me that he knew it was wrong, but a justified hard decision for the sake of civilization. I could hate him because he was too cowardly, too afraid of the risks to consider pushing for equal rights between Hebrews and Egyptians. He was resigned to the violence inherent in the system and lacked the will for reform.

Rameses, Moses's adoptive brother, inherits the title of Pharoh after Seti's death: Unlike Seti, Rameses is essentially too innocent to do evil by intention. He cares deeply for his brother, and doesn't understand his behavior: Moses feels guilt after killing one of the whip-cracking slavemasters, but Rameses only thinks to use his power in the royal family for a pardon, initially thinking Moses was afraid of being punished, and is confused when Moses reacts negatively to the suggestion. For Rameses, his friends and family are the only real people. Those in the lower stations are just the things that prop them up in their privileged lifestyle. Having wealth and political power since birth served to make him compartmentalize his morality to just those he cares about. He is a villain not for amusement or ambition, but out of thoughtless habit. We can sympathize with him for his fraternal love, which shows some fundamental goodness in his character. Mostly, we can pity him for the fear, stubbornness, and confusion he experiences when Moses's actions undermine his way of life in the ivory tower.

Cthulhu God: An amoral, alien force who uses Moses as a symbol and focus of its power. It sends forth horrible plagues to get Rameses to allow the Hebrews to leave. It does this not because it cares about the suffering they experience, but for it's own amusement. If suffering were a concern for God, it would have done something along the lines of teleporting the Hebrews to a nice, peaceful location where they could live. Instead, it torments the Egyptian people, innocent or otherwise, to push Rameses's buttons. This god doesn't care about morality, only "winning" and humiliating its helpless, chosen opponent.

Moses: Much like Rameses, Moses was adopted into the wealthy royal family and grew up in a life of ease and leisure. The critical difference was that Moses didn't have a complete mental block preventing his moral myopia: He saw past class lines and recognized that the little people had their own lives, worries, and people to care about. Once he saw that, he recognized that he was bound to be moral towards everyone. When his actions resulted in a death, he felt obligated to be punished for his actions. He was eventually able to forgive himself and find the resolve Seti lacked: An end to the cycle of violence. For this, he made an alliance with a being that appeared to share his goals, and would grant him the power to see it through. Unfortunately, this devil he made a deal with was far worse than anything he could imagine, sending forth plagues to kill innocents. Unable to hold back the force he unwittingly unleashed, he pleaded with his brother to let the Hebrew slaves go, so that he and the Egyptian people would be spared of suffering anything more than a collectively bruised ego. The Hebrews were free, but such a terrible cost in life, it merely looked to be yet another part of the violent cycle.

11 comments:

Dark Jaguar said...

Well put! I never saw this movie, though I was aware of it. This whole story put a big seed of confusion in me that I never was able to find a satisfactory answer to. I don't know if the movie specifically mentions it, but it's the part where Pharoah is ready to give up and let the people go and god "hardens his heart" so that he stays stubborn for a bit longer.

I never got this, and the more time passed the more issues it brought up that I couldn't reconcile. Firstly there's the huge focus in modern Christianity on free will and how god will NEVER violate that, thus explaining the existance of evil. Well, in this case, in no uncertain terms, god is directly violating Pharoah's free will so that he will continue to disobey god's own orders, the command to let the jews go.

It's not just THAT he did it, but WHY he did it that confuses me. WHY would god want to force someone to continue to keep the jews as slaves? WHY would he do that when he wanted the slaves free? WHY would he do that when he ORDERED Pharoah to free them under threat of continued plagues against Egypt? Most of all, WHY would he do that when Pharoah was just going to submit again later and god would in that case LET him surrender?

It makes god seem like a petty brat just looking for sport and, upset when the opponent surrenders too quickly, forces him to keep playing until god gets bored with the game.

There are two excuses which I can think of. The first is reinterpreting "god hardened his heart" to mean that Pharoah thought about god and got angry at the concept and hardened his heart. That's one I never heard presented, I just made it up, but it does sound exactly like the sort of thing that might be used by an apologetic. The problems with this one I came up with back then came to me pretty quickly, and that's that the context makes it very clear that god literally controlled Pharoah as Pharoah hadn't just been saying he would surrender to Moses, but to god, and further there's very little wiggle room for this interpretation. At any rate, any time I heard this from a pastor or anyone, they would never use that interpretation either, always saying god DID harden Pharoah's heart, direct control, that is the popular belief as it stands and no other interpretation.

The only other excuse would be one I've heard to defend a lot of god's rather bizarre actions, he SAID he'd do it and he'll stick by that. This is the sort of mentality you expect in a bully or heck a mob boss for that matter. That is, sticking by your word is the highest moral good, and anything getting in the way is just a casualty. I think sticking to one's word is important, but if to do that, you have to kill innocent people, or any other sort of horrible thing, I think that breaking your word is not just acceptable, but morally required. Only a thug says "well I can't just let it go, my word is my bond". If someone out there does justify this particular act of hardening pharoah's heart as a case where god is just making sure his statement of releasing ALL the plagues comes to pass, it doesn't make god any more moral. I don't have any respect for sticking to one's word being held above human rights.

Dark Jaguar said...

Couldn't fit everything in there...

At the time when I was still a believer, I hadn't thought quite this far along, my basic confusion was simply how could god violate pharoah's free will if he's never supposed to do that?

(Note that for those who believe in the preordained version of christianity, where god is directly controlling every single action every single person takes, and yes I've met someone who believes in this version, this isn't a problem at all. They don't consider free will to be something god won't touch, but to me their version just makes god all the more monstrous. I've never got any real attempt at explaining the problem of evil from that viewpoint, and I think they just don't think about that. However, I will say that to them, an evil act is evil even if you aren't in control, and someone, even someone directly controlled by god to murder, still is guilty and still has to go to hell. It's the sort of thing where you have to wonder why they even bother arguing with anyone or trying to accomplish anything. I could only point out that if that's the case, even that discussion was being conducted by god, and for what possible purpose?)

At any rate, Okami is a game that, among other things, made me realize that NO game company could get away with releasing a similar game based on christian mythology, at least not in the US. After all, Okami isn't meant as an ultra-respectful super serious and overbearingly "accurate" portrayal of Shinto myth, it's an imaginative story simply based on that mythology. We're used to that for Greek and Norse myth of course because there are no current believers in that, but in the case of Shinto, it's still practiced, yet I never heard of any protests in Japan when the game came out. Here, well just look at DaVinci Code and the protests that sparked up. The church still hasn't shut up about it. Heck, even USING a church in Resistance got their ire, and that wasn't even some disrespectful or "reimagining" of their faith, it was just using A CHURCH as a simple SETTING.

However, I still would love to see such a game. I bowed before the awesome styles of Okami, and while that sort of art style wouldn't work for a similar game set in the Christian mythos, I think I would love to see graphics designers attempt full motion "stained glass" style artwork.

My idea would basically be a reimagining of the life of Jesus. In my mind, I think Jesus would fit a good roll as someone who wants to do good but is forced into a roll he doesn't want and doesn't understand by a tyrannical "father figure" he's desperate to please. Satan's roll would be a little different. I'm not about to make him a good guy but rather he'd be an older brother figure, who while rebelling against god's tyranny ended up becoming just as bad himself, and Jesus presented with this would suddenly worry that if he did rebel, would he just perpetuate an endless cycle?

Dark Jaguar said...

I guess I'm getting carried away, here's part 3.

I'd pretty much write out things like him talking about coming "as a sword" and striking down some innocent fig tree for not being in season. Barely anyone even knows about that stuff and that's really not what Jesus is known for, unlike god, who IS in fact known as much for his biblical atrocities as his acts of kindness (though always in much smaller degrees).

By the end, the whole point would be questioning why god would even need this sort of blood sacrifice at all. In the end, instead of blaming the romans, the jews, or "all of humanity" as modern christians insist is the "proper interpretation", the death of christ will be placed squarely on the one truly responsible in this story but who always seems to escape blame, god.

Oh, and being in a wonderfully rendered "stained glass" art style (at least if it looked anything like what it looks like when I imagine it), the last bits need not be torture porn like Passion of the Christ. The focus on that extreme level of violence would be much more toned down, after all this is a story meant to be taken seriously on it's own merits, not hours of blood.

Ah, and the gameplay would generally focus on doing tasks for people, more like an adventure game than an action game. I mean Jesus is known as a peaceful guy, again writing out the parts most don't even know about where he talks about using violence to overthrow things. I can imagine all sorts of interesting gameplay mechanics for things like walking on water or healing large numbers of sick people or dividing food to feed a hillside. There'd also be all sorts of additional things he'd be running around doing, yes running, it may not be "proper" in those times but it's a danged video game and I won't force the players to walk wherever they go.

Bronze Dog said...

Nothing wrong with getting carried away, DJ. You seem to be quite good at it at times.

Definitely find the "stained glass" look as a good style to emulate.

And you've inadvertently reminded me of another idea I've been thinking about doing something with: Jesus as a rebel against God: God puts up arbitrary laws to keep people out of heaven, and Jesus does the whole sacrifice thing as a big "screw you," in some manner that overrides the OCD laws God came up with. Though not perfect, the new method is more merciful than the random 'damn them all' previous method.

Just a crazy idea that came up when I pointed out to one apologist that the whole story he was spinning seemed to be all about Jesus teaching an alien, inhuman God the concept of forgiveness.

Akusai said...

Re: Okami

I got to the snow-covered island and then my Wii kept freezing for no reason I could surmise. I was pissed off because I really loved the game but couldn't seem to get any further.

Re: Alternate take on Jesus

I recommend you read the book "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Friend" by Christopher Moore. It's awesome and hilarious.

Bronze Dog said...

Wow, that stinks, Akusai.

One odd thing I remember that caused a crash that you might try as a desperate shot in the dark: Toggle the widescreen setting. One of the Strong Bad episodes would freeze up in widescreen mode.

Dark Jaguar said...

Wow, that is teh suck... I've had my Wii freeze up on me before, but it was one time and I was never able to replicate it. I haven't seen it since so I think it's safe to say it was a one-off situation. Have you considered sending it in to be repaired? It would be pretty bad design if the game itself was causing it.

Hey I got those SBCG4AP episodians too! I got the PC version though, because I prefer my adventure games in mouse clicky form. I DIDN'T LIVE THROUGH 3 CONSOLE WARS TO GET NO SASS MOUTH FROM YOU!

Anonymous said...

Well the Old Testament God is considerably more wrathful, vengeful and fire-y brimstone-y than the New Testament God. The plagues he inflicted on Egypt are nowhere near the worst he has done. The tales of Sodom and Gomorrah tell of two cities that were so steeped in sin that God decided to burn them to the ground, killing almost all the inhabitants. Only a few people escaped, and one was turned into a pillar of salt just for looking back.

However, none of this was done out of some sadistic pleasure. The terrible plagues inflicted upon Egypt are vengeance for the countless years of slavery inflicted upon the Hebrews, God's chosen people. Pharaoh always had the choice to release the Hebrews, but seeing the suffering inflicted upon his own people, his heart was hardened. It was not until God paid back the Egyptians in full for the crimes of the Pharaohs (killing the firstborn sons) did he realize he was out of his league.

Pharaoh had countless chances to release the Hebrews. After refusing Moses, God's messenger, God took a more active role, punishing the Egyptian people as Pharaoh and his predecessors abused the Hebrews. While I'm not saying vengeance is right, God was justified in his actions.

Bronze Dog said...

You heard it here from Anonymous: You it's wrong, but perfectly just to get revenge against some individuals by murdering innocent children and use mind control magic on a non-elected political leader into refusing your demands so that you can follow through with threats.

And then you can describe it all as being for your "glory" in the text.

djfav said...

Well then, anon, what do you make of this.

I suppose it's alright to have slaves, so long as you're God's chosen people.

Akusai said...

The terrible plagues inflicted upon Egypt are vengeance for the countless years of slavery inflicted upon the Hebrews, God's chosen people.

Except the archaeological record has done an amazing job of finding exactly zero evidence that the Jews were ever enslaved in Egypt.

While I'm not saying vengeance is right, God was justified in his actions.

I read that as "While I'm not saying vengeance was right, God's vengeance was right." Does 2+2 equal 5 where you come from?