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An Ecumenical ‘Prince of Egypt’

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

There may not always be common theological ground among feminist biblical scholar Carol Meyers, Muslim American leader Ibrahim Hooper, evangelical Christian Richard Land and Rabbi Burton Visotzky. But on this they agree: “The Prince of Egypt,” DreamWorks Pictures’ animated biblical epic of Moses and the liberation of enslaved Hebrews, set for release next week, manages to be both good entertainment and good theology.

Although not every religious scholar or leader is wild about the film’s approach, consider the agreement that has been reached as a minor miracle. The task of making an entertaining film while staying true to an ancient Scripture--one cherished by millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims and reinterpreted with new generations and scholarship--might seem as daunting as parting the Red Sea.

Feminists object to portrayals of God as male and of biblical women as bit players. Muslims object to portrayals of their prophets, period, for fear of encouraging worship of individuals rather than God. Arabs object to being vilified as evil oppressors. The orthodox object to too much dramatic license. The challenges--and potential pitfalls--of bringing the Exodus epic to the screen were endless.

But, in what religious leaders call an unparalleled effort by Hollywood to get the story right, DreamWorks consulted. And consulted. And consulted.

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The company hired Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney with a background in interfaith relations, to organize a massive outreach effort. More than 300 biblical scholars, theologians, archeologists, Egyptologists, clergy and religious leaders are said to have been contacted and shown the project.

The list spanned the religious spectrum from Christian fundamentalists Jerry Falwell and James Dobson to black Christian ministers Cecil Murray, Frederick K.C. Price and Jesse Jackson, to orthodox Rabbi Abner Weiss, Catholic Archbishop Roger M. Mahony and Muslim American leader Maher Hathout.

In addition, DreamWorks brought on two biblical scholars as consultants--Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and Everett Fox of Clark University in Worcester, Mass. (A company spokesman was unavailable for comment.)

“We want to know exactly what you think. Don’t hold back,” media specialist Jack Shaheen, a Christian and Arab American, recalls being told by the DreamWorks team, who flew him out from South Carolina four times.

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One Suggestion: A Disclaimer

One of the most important suggestions the DreamWorks team listened to, said Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, was to begin the film with a disclaimer that “Prince of Egypt” was a dramatic retelling of the story of Moses and that those interested in the literal story should read Exodus.

That, Land says, “gave them wiggle room” to depart from the text, although virtually all scholars and religious leaders interviewed said the main themes of Exodus--faith, liberation, identity, leadership--are faithfully conveyed.

The film sets up a non-biblical relationship between stepbrothers: Ramses, the Egyptian prince who would one day inherit the kingdom, and Moses, the son of Hebrews who was adopted into the royal family after his mother placed him in a wicker basket along the Nile River to escape Pharaoh’s dictate of death for all Hebrew boys.

To set up the sibling relationship, the filmmakers departed from Scripture by having Moses discovered by Pharaoh’s wife, rather than his daughter.

DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted “Prince” to be a battle between brothers, said Visotzky, who worked with Bill Moyers to produce the acclaimed “Genesis” series and recently wrote “The Road to Redemption” about lessons from Exodus. “It’s a reasonable interpretation of the tension between the two,” he said.

Not all scholars agreed with that approach, however. To focus the story on stepbrothers reduced the epic from a powerful clash of titans, a confrontation between God and god, to one of “sibling rivalry,” one observer said.

Fox, who recently produced a new translation of the first five books of the Bible--"The Five Books of Moses"--says he was startled by the way the film underplayed the relationship between Moses and his blood brother, Aaron. The Bible prominently portrays Aaron as a partner and spokesman--scholars note that Moses in the biblical text rarely speaks. But in the film, Aaron becomes the voice of the Israelites, sometimes fearful and uncertain of Moses’ mission to lead them out of bondage.

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The film also managed to negotiate the delicate issues of gender roles with a minimum of controversy. In the last two decades, an explosion of feminist biblical scholarship has shed new light on the strong, central roles played by women--such as Moses’ sister, Miriam.

Fox said that key biblical scenes showing the life-giving power of women were not included--such as the midwives who refused Pharaoh’s orders to kill the Hebrew babies or the intervention of Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, to save her husband from death by a wrathful God. But the film balanced those omissions with prominent roles for Miriam as the voice of conscience and Tzipporah, who appears at Moses’ side when he confronts Pharaoh even though, Visotzky notes, there is no indication in the biblical text that she was in Egypt at the time.

“They were very concerned not to step on anyone’s toes,” said Meyers, a feminist biblical archeologist at Duke University. “Women in the film are not subordinate characters who kowtow around.”

The Issue of God’s Gender

The feminist sensitivity raised a few eyebrows, however. Eric Metaxas, a writer asked to produce a children’s book tie-in, complained to the New York Post that DreamWorks nixed his references to God as “he,” and told him he had too many referrals to “the Lord.”

Muslims and Arab Americans, typically vilified by Hollywood as terrorists or evil dictators, say that DreamWorks’ overtures to them were unprecedented.

When Katzenberg invited Shaheen, Hathout and others to view the work in progress in December 1996, they took him up on his invitation to be blunt.

“This is yet another film that America’s Muslims and Arabs would not want their children to see,” Shaheen said he told Katzenberg.

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All of the Egyptians seemed evil, he said. Pharaoh was a one-dimensional villain. The Hebrews were the good guys, the chosen people fighting for liberation from their Arab oppressors. Can’t Arabs ever be anything besides bad guys? Shaheen wondered.

Katzenberg, who is Jewish, was taken aback by the feedback, Shaheen said, and proceeded to engage them in a heated discussion over it. But, the group says, Katzenberg listened. Not only that, he invited them back three more times--including one occasion that turned into a “sensitivity session,” where Katzenberg was lectured on the stereotypes and harassment faced by Muslims and Arabs in the United States.

And when Shaheen saw the film again, “I was really impressed at the changes that were made.” Ramses was still arrogant and stubborn but not evil, and had been humanized through the more richly developed relationship with Moses. Egyptians were seen as suffering under the dictatorial Pharaoh as well, including babies who died from the plagues sent by God to compel Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go.

Muslims and Arabs are still concerned that the film might be used as propaganda to support Israeli positions in the Middle East conflict. But, said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, “this is really a groundbreaking effort to reach out to the Muslim community.”

Not all suggestions were accepted. A scene of Egyptian guards throwing babies to the crocodiles was retained, against the request of Shaheen, who viewed it as unnecessary violence.

But many suggestions were followed. The production team plied the experts with “a zillion and one” questions, Visotzky said. Would Moses and Tzipporah have broken a pottery jar during their marriage ceremony, as traditional Jewish rites do with a glass today? Would Miriam have used a tambourine? No and no, Meyers told them--although a hand drum without the jingles, which were not invented until the Roman period, centuries after the Exodus, would be historically appropriate.

After some religious leaders told DreamWorks that the song “When You Believe” implied too much self-reliance, Visotzky said, it was re-recorded to emphasize reliance on a greater power. A Mormon official thought a scene of an adult Moses being bathed by women was a bit too titillating and it was toned down.

In the end, the film--and DreamWorks--won the blessings of the diverse religious community.

“Each generation interprets scripture, often reading between the lines--that’s called midrash,” Visotzky said. “What Katzenberg has done is a great, late-20th century midrash on the Exodus that speaks to our generation in a way that is very powerful.”


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