Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt is a terrific animated musical that retells the story of Moses, who in the Book of Exodus leads the Israelites to liberation from slavery under the Pharaoh of Egypt. You know the story: the burning bush, the ten plagues, the Passover, the parting of the Red Sea. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it. The voice-acting is top notch—Val Kilmer plays Moses and Ralph Fiennes plays the Pharaoh, just to name two of the fantastic cast members—and the songs are both fun and genuinely moving. I also believe that the film’s use of artistic and historical license enlivens, rather than betrays the integrity of, the Exodus narrative. But most of all, my favorite thing about the movie is that it illustrates the deep sense of ambivalence I have about the Israelites’ victory over the Egyptians.
On the one hand, the liberation of the Israelites in the Book of Exodus speaks to God’s ultimate opposition to and triumph over systematic oppression, a divine paradigm of paramount importance to our theology as Christians. This aspect of the Exodus story has rightly inspired millions of people around the world in the righteous battle against slavery, subjugation, exploitation, and social injustice.
But on the other hand, the conditions of God’s victory over the Egyptian slave-masters have never sat well with me. The triumph of the Passover seems to be predicated on God’s ruthless slaughter of thousands of firstborn Egyptian children. I have never been able to understand why God would choose to do such violence. Such behavior seems wildly inconsistent with the God we encounter in Christ Jesus, who throughout his earthly ministry is consistently and steadfastly opposed to violence of any kind.
So, whenever I experience the Exodus story, whether on the big screen or in the pages of the Hebrew Bible, as the Israelites march out of Egypt toward freedom, I cannot help but feel a great sadness. A victory won by killing thousands of innocent children is surely hollow at best. I wonder, is it a victory at all? This is why my favorite moment in The Prince of Egypt by far is the scene right after the Passover. The Israelites are liberated from bondage, and thank God for that, but Moses’ initial reaction is not joy. Rather, his facial expression reveals a potent mixture of grief, shock, and horror in response to the deaths of so many Egyptian children. I relate to that very deeply.
Thankfully, I am not alone in my uneasiness about the Exodus story. St. Gregory of Nyssa, a prominent fourth-century theologian and one of the great Church Fathers, expresses similar reservations in his magnificent commentary on Exodus, The Life of Moses. I encountered Gregory’s work for the first time this summer, as part of my exploration of Christian mystical theology and exegesis, and I’m so happy I did. I find his interpretation of the Passover story to be both reasonable and compelling, and his response to its violent aspects has taught me so much about what it means to have a life-giving relationship with the Bible.
Like me, Gregory loves Scripture, and has faith that it always has something to teach us. But, also like me, he is not satisfied with a literal reading of this particular violent event in Exodus, and other violent moments like it, because such a reading makes God into a vindictive and cruel deity. Reflecting on the death of the firstborn of Egypt, he writes a beautiful lament: “How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion. He does not know to distinguish between his right hand and his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother’s nipple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one now pays the penalty of his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries: The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father? How can the history so contradict reason?”
A core tenet of Gregory of Nyssa’s theology is that God is the ultimate Good: God is Virtue, God is Justice, and God is Love, and we meet that Virtue, Justice, and Love in the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus. It is clear to Gregory that there is no divine Goodness, no divine Virtue, no divine Justice, and no divine Love in the slaughter of innocent children. Therefore, for Gregory (and for me) a literal reading of this particular moment in Exodus cannot be acceptable because it flies in the face of our understanding of God. After all, if God’s modus operandi is violence toward innocents, then where the heck is the Good News?
So, Gregory asks, what’s really going on here? His answer, in summary, is this: he understands the entire Exodus narrative as an allegorical illustration of the soul’s flight away from wickedness (the land of Egypt) to communion and friendship with our loving God (liberation, the Promised Land). The death of the firstborn fits directly into that allegorical framework. The slain Egyptian children don’t literally signify dead kids; rather, they represent how we must destroy the roots of our wicked actions— “the first birth of evil” —before we can move on to virtuous liberation. So, the story is by all means a true one. It illustrates the reality of a battle with wickedness that forms an integral part of our quest to attain fellowship with the God. Such a reading ensures that the story’s truth does not have to include a rationalization of our God of Love acting with ungodly violence. Ancient theologians like Gregory of Nyssa understood that spiritual truth and literal truth do not always go hand-in-hand.
That’s a bare-bones synopsis, and it’s really worth reading Gregory’s entire Life of Moses to experience the fullness of his theology and exegesis. His writing is engaging and entertaining, and his interpretation is astoundingly consistent.
But even if you don’t read the work in its entirety, I hope that this example may illuminate for you what Gregory of Nyssa has taught me about reading the Bible: we absolutely need to have a critical, dynamic, and creative relationship with Scripture in order for the lessons of Scripture to be consistent and life-giving. It’s not enough to read it; we also need to think about it. We need to interpret it in light of the divine witness we see in the Love of Jesus. We have to understand that, in the Bible, when God kills, there might be something else going on, a deeper truth which rejects violence and instead speaks of our spiritual journey, a journey to blissful and liberating union with a God who out of compassion became one of us; a God who out of mercy aids us as we escape the bonds of wickedness; a God who was and is and always will be Love. If we fail to do this, if we don’t confront the violence that pervades some of our most important Bible stories with criticism, creativity, and faith in God’s Love, our Holy Book will all too quickly become a weapon that justifies wanton destruction. And make no mistake: if that’s what our Bible becomes, then there will be hardly any Good News to be found in its pages.
 Gregory of Nyssa. The Life of Moses. Translated by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson. The Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1978, p. 75.
Aidan Stoddart ’21 is a sophomore in Eliot House.