Nearly 52 years ago, on October 5, 1956, a newly released movie billed itself as “the greatest event in motion picture history.”
“The Ten Commandments,” Cecil B. DeMille’s telling of the Exodus story, did in fact win an Academy Award and become one of the highest-grossing films of all time. But the film had another impact no one could have anticipated: it made DeMille the most successful and familiar Hebrew-school teacher of modern times.
Most Jews today understand the narrative of the Exodus and its theological significance solely through the cinematic interpretations of Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Yvonne De Carlo, Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price. The movie is still broadcast every year on television around Passover, attracting millions of viewers.
It’s too bad the movie screenplay deviates from the original Author’s intent. DeMille got some things right – the 10 plagues, the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea and the extraordinary wonders performed by God – but he also got something terribly wrong.
Due to the overpowering influence of the Cecil B. DeMille school of interpretation, most people view the Exodus narrative as one of God redeeming a passive Israelite slave population. This is not accurate. In fact, before they were liberated, the people of Israel had publicly and courageously affirmed their absolute faith in God.
Up until the 10th plague, the Jews were indeed passive in the process of their liberation. The Torah relates that God heard the cry of the Jews suffering under the burden of slavery. “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out in pain; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.”
Still, the people of Israel had not been proactive in any way. They had not organized or planned a revolt or even selected a leader. In fact, Moses was a leader who came to them from the outside.
The Jews’ passivity ended, however, when God commanded Moses to direct the people of Israel to challenge the authority of their Egyptian masters by painting their doorposts with the blood of slaughtered lambs.
In Egyptian society, sheep were treated as gods. During certain periods of the year, they were paraded in pomp and honor on elevated platforms so the masses could pay homage to them.
God had told Moses to instruct the Israelites to paint lamb’s blood on their doorposts to save them from the 10th plague – the killing of the first-born. The painted lamb’s blood would serve as a public proclamation that this was an Israelite home whose inhabitants believed in the Jewish God and who believed their children would be saved while Egyptian families would lose their first-borns.
Can anyone imagine the anguish Jewish parents must have felt when Moses told them to take lambs, keep them on public display for four days, slaughter them, feast upon them and paint the blood on their doorposts? This public proclamation made the Israelites extremely vulnerable.
What’s more, Moses’s performance record until this point was 0 for 9. Through the ninth plague, Moses kept promising that the Jews would be freed, but it wasn’t happening. In fact, the slaves’ toil became harder as Pharaoh increased their burden with each new plague. The blood on the doorpost meant certain death for that entire household if Moses’s promise did not materialize.
This was the moment in history when each Jew had to make the ultimate choice. They were being asked to risk their lives and their families’ lives to follow Moses’s direction. This was a challenge of ultimate sacrifice and affirmative belief in God.
How many of us today would be willing to do the same? For that matter, how many of us today have absolute faith in God?
In 2006, Harris Interactive conducted a survey of religious beliefs in America among various religious denominations. In answering the question, “Are you absolutely certain that there is a God?” the Jewish response was the lowest of all the denominations. Only 30 percent of Jewish respondents said that they were absolutely certain there is a God.
On April 19 this year, Jews around the world will gather with family and friends to celebrate the 3,500-year-old tradition of the Passover Seder. The purpose of the Seder is to recount the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery, an event that enabled our acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and our formation as the Jewish people.