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Netflix’s ‘Story Of Moses’ Series Takes Creative Liberties That Just Don’t Work

Moses holding tablets of stone in Netflix documentary "Testament."
Image Credit Netflix / YouTube

Netflix’s documentary ‘Testament: The Story of Moses’ is both entertaining and frustrating.

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Netflix’s docuseries “Testament: The Story of Moses” is both entertaining and frustrating. On one hand, the documentary series takes some valid creative license with the story of Exodus. On the other hand, the series diverges from the Bible strictly for the sake of politically correct sensibilities (I mean, after all, this is Netflix).

The choice of commentators studiously avoids stodgy white males, a staple of the biblical docuseries genre. In fact, the choice of commentators ranges from biblical scholars to airheads. The series perhaps accurately judges that its audience is not up to the English of the King James Bible and so eliminates the “thees” and “thous.” (Yes, I’m aware Moses didn’t speak English.)

Lastly, if we’re going to get technical, the Bible refers to Moses as “fourscore years old” at the time of the burning bush. In “Testament” he looks about half that age.

Zipporah

One of the key departures from the text of the Bible comes in the chapter in which “Moses Takes a Gentile Bride” (Exodus 2:21). Moses takes a wife named Zipporah in a land called Midian, which, according to my Bible’s annotations, is “a land closer to Canaan than Egypt.” Therefore, Zipporah would have been a woman of Middle Eastern extraction, unlike the black actress (Dominique Tipper) director Benjamin Ross cast as Zipporah.  

After God appears to Moses in the burning bush, Moses resolves to go back to Egypt to free the Hebrews. Moses does indeed bring Zipporah and his son: “And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt: and Moses took the rod of God in his hand” (Exodus 4:20).

After they arrive in Egypt, Moses’ wife rarely appears in the Exodus account. Yet in “Testament” we’re led to believe she’s running the show, as though she’s the brains behind Moses. She relentlessly nags Moses to the point where he has to remind her, “I am your husband.”

After that, he more meekly cajoles her: “With you at my side,” Moses feels he can complete the task appointed to him by God to free the Hebrews. Let’s call this highly speculative at minimum and highly convenient to a feminist narrative in which women must be central characters regardless of what the historical record tells us.

Slavery

It is perhaps the logical conclusion of multiculturalism that the series would include the ancient Egyptian perspective, rather than strictly providing the point of view of the Hebrews. It’s funny that this foundational story of both Western civilization and Judaism is deconstructed in this manner.

At one point in the Netflix series, an Egyptian commentator asserts that there wasn’t actually slavery in ancient Egypt, perhaps eager to avoid the recriminations leveled against the U.S. founders. After this assertion, she is directly contradicted by a black commentator who suggests there was slavery.

When Zipporah, who is played by a black woman, looks at the situation of indentured Hebrews in Egypt, we are meant to think of a parallel with American slavery, as though to see it through her eyes is to somehow engender white guilt regarding the Exodus story (or history, if you like). But this implication seems dissonant with the rest of the documentary.

Creative Licenses vs. Historical Realities

Nonetheless, there are creative licenses in the series that work. It is interesting to see the pharaoh portrayed as agonizing over the predicament with Moses and the Hebrews, quite reasonably not wanting to lose face in the standoff. In the Bible, the pharaoh is a kind of stone of a man, immovable and impenetrable.

In the Netflix series, the pharaoh steals the show with Mehmet Kurtuluş’ churlish depiction of the Egyptian king. Though the pharaoh claims to be a god, we are presented with someone all too human. At one point the pharaoh refers to the Hebrews as a “skilled, resourceful people,” and one can’t help but wonder if these are the sentiments of director Benjamin Ross rather than the sentiments of the tyrant who enslaved them.

There is also a certain cultural relativism in the portrayal of the God of the Hebrews (simply “God,” if you are a Christian) and the pantheon of gods of ancient Egypt. Just as Moses appeals to God for the miracles and plagues, the pharaoh has his “magicians,” as they’re called in the Bible, who can also turn rods into snakes (albeit snakes that get eaten by Moses’ rod-turned-snake).

All this speaks to the reality that the religions of the ancient world were much less monotheistic than today’s principal religions. In Exodus, God even refers to Himself at one point as “LORD God of the Hebrews” as he advises Moses to represent Him as such to the pharaoh, rather than just “God.”

Similar to the pharaoh, Moses has some inner turmoil. In the Bible’s stark prose, we do see some of Moses’ doubt when he expresses his skepticism to God about his ability to persuade the pharaoh to release the Hebrews. Yet in the Netflix series, Moses is in anguish and in a sense traumatized by his killing of the Egyptian guard who had struck a Jew. This is a psychological dimension not present in the Old Testament — though the Bible does not rule out that Moses might feel this way.

Suffice it to say, then, that “Testament” brings up some interesting questions about the drama that lies beneath the story presented in Exodus. It is a given in Netflix that the casting is going to be historically inaccurate in a manner that strains credulity and takes away from the verisimilitude of the entire production. This is not to disparage the actors in question who don’t look like they hail from the Middle East region circa the 13th century B.C.

But if you can get past that, “Testament: The Story of Moses” might renew your interest in this timeless story of when Moses told the pharaoh, “Let my people go.”


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