With almost four hours of movie and plenty of religious subject matter to cover, we’ll have to split this movie up into two parts to do it justice. On this episode we’ll cover all the way up until the movie’s intermission.
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Cecile B. DeMille is one of the most legendary filmmakers in cinematic history. Between 1914 and 1956, he directed a whopping 80 films. That’s just more than two films a year in his 42-year directorial career.
With a career spanning the silent era and into the era of sound in films, until Steven Spielberg recently passed him for the top spot, for decades Cecil B. DeMille held the number one ranking with the most highest-grossing films for the year they were released with five. That’s including 1932’s The Sign of the Cross, 1947’s Unconquered, 1949’s Samson and Delilah, 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth and, of course, the movie that most people today probably know him for: The Ten Commandments.
I’m not referring to his film from 1923 called The Ten Commandments starring Theodore Roberts as Moses and Charles de Rochefort as Rameses. That movie was heavily overshadowed by the last film he’d ever direct.
With an epic runtime of three hours and 40 minutes, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments starring Charleton Heston and Yul Brynner from 1956 was made with a $13 million budget, an amount it made back tenfold.
For the lead role of Moses, Charleton Heston beat out William Boyd after impressing Cecil with his knowledge of Egypt. Playing opposite Charleton, a massive list of Hollywood’s leading ladies vied for the role of Nefretiri, including Vivien Leigh, Jane Griffiths and Audrey Hepburn. Everyone wanted it.
Anne Baxter ended up getting it.
While she may not be a household name today, Anne, who was the granddaughter of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was a star of the time as she was coming off an Academy Award win in 1947 and another nomination in 1951.
After the roles were cast, production began on what would be a massive movie. Even though it’d go on to win an Academy Award for Special Effects, they weren’t the computer-generated visual effects we see today. Instead, at times Cecil B. DeMille directed upwards of 14,000 extras and 15,000 animals throughout the course of the production.
If you were to ask anyone what movies define a blockbuster film from Hollywood’s earlier years, The Ten Commandments is almost assuredly one of those that’ll be near the top of the list. But is it true?
The true story behind The Ten Commandments
Cecil B. DeMille’s epic masterpiece opens with Cecil B. DeMille himself narrating the scene as he sets it up. In the opening monologue, he goes from telling the Biblical story of creation found in the book of Genesis to explaining that man had turned to slavery. In particular, the monologue mentions the Egyptians enslaving the Israelites.
Then he goes on to explain that God responded to the cries of the children of Israel by giving them a child. Born of Amram and Yochabel, this child would grow to be a man that would stand against an empire.
And right away, we have our first major religious point of view that I’m sure plenty of you are firmly planted on one side or the other—the story of creation. Regardless of where you fall in your beliefs on the topic, the words used to open the movie are taken straight from the Christian Bible.
Of course, there’s hundreds of versions of the Christian Bible and each of them word things just slightly differently.
The movie begins with, “And God said, let there be light: and there was light.”
To be more precise, that comes from the King James Version. But while this is the beginning of the movie, it’s not the beginning of the Bible.
The first verse of Genesis in the King James Version of the Bible says, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
Before we go any further, I’d like to point out that there are plenty of other versions of Moses’ story out there. For example, in the Qur’an, his name is Musa. Or, more accurately, it’s not even in English at all.
There’s people who dedicate their lives to the studies of Moses, Musa or whatever you call him. Since I won’t be dedicating my life to this one episode, whenever I’ll compare the movie to the Bible throughout this episode, I’ll be using the King James Version. If for no other reason than that’s the version of the Bible the movie uses in the beginning.
Anyway, while it might sound like the rest of the opening monologue pulls other verses from the Bible, that’s actually the only Bible verse used verbatim. In just a couple paragraphs, the movie spans events from Genesis 1:3 past the next 50 chapters all the way until Moses was born in the aptly named second book of the Bible, Exodus.
As a side note, it’s named Exodus because it tells the story of how the Hebrews would exit Egypt.
Anyway, the general gist of what the movie says in its opening monologue is pretty accurate to the story told in the Bible. Probably the most inaccurate part is the naming of Moses’ parents.
They got Amram correct, that was Moses’ father. His biological mother in the movie is Yochabel, who’s played by Martha Scott. That’s a slight difference from the woman named as Moses’ mother in the Bible.
According to the first half of Exodus 6:20, “And Amram took him Jochebed, his father’s sister to wife; and she bare him Aaron and Moses…”
So very similar, but a slight change there. In fact, today a lot of people refer to Moses’ mother as Yochabel because of the movie.
On the other hand, there’s also a lot of debate about even the name Jochebed. Some scholars and historians believe it’s a mistranslation of other names from the Bible such as Ichabod or maybe even Jacob, who many believe was Jochebed’s father. Or maybe he was her grandfather.
We just don’t know for sure.
Speaking of things we don’t know, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention something before we get too far into this story.
Even though Moses is in the holy books for three of the world’s largest religions—Judaism, Islam and Christianity—outside of those holy books and other related religious texts; speaking strictly from an archaeological and historical perspective, it’s really hard to prove the historical existence of a man named Moses at all.
A huge part of that is because in the Bible we hear a lot about Pharaoh, but that’s a title…like the Caesar in Rome or a King.
The Bible does mention the Israelites settled in the land of Rameses, but the problem comes when we try to figure out which Rameses. Most historians agree that it was probably Rameses II, who was arguably one of the most powerful Pharaohs in ancient Egypt. He’s commonly referred to as Rameses the Great, and many believe he’s the Pharaoh the Bible is talking about in the book of Exodus.
In the movie The Ten Commandments, Yul Brynner clearly reflects the filmmakers belief in this being the case as he’s cast as Rameses II.
My primary point here is while both the movies and historians often agree that it might’ve been Rameses II, the Bible only mentions the title, Pharaoh. And we have no historical proof that Rameses II had an adopted brother named Moses or even that the Exodus event happened.
When we see Martha Scott’s version of Yochabel laying down the baby Moses in the film, there’s another child there. As we learned from Exodus 6:20, Moses had a brother named Aaron.
That’s not him.
That’s Moses’ sister, Miriam, the younger version being played by Babette Bain.
According to biblical texts, Miriam was about seven years older than Moses while Aaron was about three years older.
And as another side note, the baby playing Moses in the movie is actually Charlton Heston’s son, Fraser Heston. He was born just before the movie started filming, and so they decided who better to play a baby version of Moses than the real child of the actor who would play the adult version of Moses?
Back in the movie, driven by fear of a prophecy among the Hebrew slaves that a deliverer is born, Pharaoh issues an edict to kill all the male newborn Hebrew children.
To clarify a little bit here that the movie doesn’t really explain, the father of Yul Brynner’s version of Rameses II in the movie is Seti I, who is played by Cedric Hardwicke. But in this introduction, there’s a mention of Rameses.
That’s because the real Egyptian timeline of Pharaoh’s went from Rameses I from about 1292 BCE to 1290 BCE to his son, Seti I from about 1290 to 1279 BCE to his son Rameses II from 1279 to 1213 BCE.
But that’s getting a bit ahead of our story.
As the movie says, so let it be written; so let it be done. That brings up a good point because much of what we’ve learned from Egyptian history comes from documents that have survived from ancient times. That’s to be expected for a massive empire like the Egyptians had. Most of their laws had to be written to spread across their territory.
As of this recording, at least, archaeologists and historians have never been able to find anything that’s proven such a law to kill the Hebrew babies throughout the land of Egypt. At the risk of sounding like I’m repeating myself, though, that doesn’t necessarily prove it didn’t happen.
After all, there’s new discoveries every single day. Some big, some small. Some helping to back the accounts told in the sources the movie mentions.
Those being from other ancient texts from Philo, Josephus, Eusebius, The Midrash and, of course, the Christian Bible.
Breaking those down a bit, Philo was a Jewish philosopher who probably lived from 20 BCE to about 50 CE in Alexandria, Egypt.
Josephus was a Jewish scholar and historian who lived from the year 37 to 100. His writings have helped fill in a lot of gaps for historians about many events in the Bible, and we’ll be pulling quite a bit from his texts ourselves as we compare the movie with history.
Then you have Eusebius, a Christian historian of Greek heritage. He lived much later, around the year 260 until about 339 or so.
Finally, the movie mentions The Midrash as a source. That’s a collection of interpretations and commentaries on the Jewish law, both the Written and Oral Torah.
Collectively, these are great sources for a movie like The Ten Commandments to pull from—they’re the same sources that many biblical scholars and secular historians together pull from to piece together evidence of what might’ve happened throughout history.
But each and every one of these writings have had their authenticity debated, and are still debated to this day.
So rather than offering up this sort of explanation each time, I think perhaps it’d be best to issue a blanket statement for the rest of this episode. Simply put, most of the events we see in The Ten Commandments cannot be proven by archaeological or historical finds.
There’s not really much historical proof outside of the religious texts. It’s not for the lack of trying, there’s an entire subset of archaeology referred to as biblical archaeology. And while there’s been a lot of great finds that have offered some evidence, like most evidence from ancient times it’s almost impossible to prove something without a shadow of a doubt.
For example, today one of the most widely known Pharaohs from ancient Egypt was King Tut. He ruled around 1324 BCE, so just before Rameses I.
And yet, until his tomb was discovered in 1922, no one really knew who he was. So for over 3,000 years, the golden burial mask of King Tut that is now synonymous with ancient Egyptian lore wasn’t a thing.
Not only that, but it wasn’t until 2010 that DNA evidence suggested we finally might know who King Tut’s father was. Thanks to that evidence, historians now believe his father was Akhenaten.
Akhenaten, in turn, made some sweeping religious changes throughout Egypt. That can be an episode in and of itself, but basically after thousands of years of Egyptian culture worshiping an array of gods, he changed the laws so Egypt went from a polytheistic society to a monotheistic. That is, instead of having many gods, Akhenaten declared that all of a sudden, Egypt will worship the one and only god, Aten.
There’s a lot we don’t know about the end of Akhenaten’s, and a lot of that is because after his reign he was stricken from a lot of historical records.
It wasn’t until recently, some thousands of years later, that we’ve been able to start piecing together a lot of this story—a story that happened a mere 30 to 40 years or so before Seti I took over as Pharaoh of Egypt.
That doesn’t even begin to cover how much of this is tied in with religion today. Very quickly, things become way too complicated to cover in a single episode here.
My point here is that while there is a lot we know about Egyptian history, there’s a lot we don’t know as well. New technology and new discoveries are helping to fill in the pieces of stories that were written into the pages of history thousands of years ago. Who’s to say there’s not another tomb out there, waiting to be discovered; perhaps waiting to share more information about history that we just don’t know yet?
There’s no way we can say for sure that Moses did not exist—that the events told in the Bible did not happen.
I think the Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona, William Dever, said it best in an interview with PBS. When asked how biblical archaeology can prove the events in the Bible actually happening, he suggested that perhaps that’s not the right question. Instead, he commented, that if we could somehow bring back one of the people who helped write the Bible that they’d probably laugh at the idea of proving its accuracy with archaeology.
After all, faith doesn’t need proof. Faith is faith. If you believe the holy books with tales of Moses and the events we see in The Ten Commandments, that is all the proof you need.
So for the sake of this episode, since we likely won’t get a lot of help from modern-day archaeological finds to prove the events in the film, we’ll have to assume the Bible itself and some of those other ancient philosophers and historians were telling the truth—not for religious purposes, but treating them as if they’re a historical document of events past.
With all of that said, even though archaeologists haven’t found anything definitive to back it up yet, using the Bible as a source, the movie is accurate in its depiction of an Egyptian slaughter of male children while allowing the females to survive. This comes from Exodus 1:15-22.
However, the movie is not accurate in both the rationale behind the law, as well as how the law was carried out.
In the movie, the reason for the law that we learn from one of Pharaoh’s advisors is because of a prophecy of a deliverer born among the Hebrews. They know of this from a star in the sky.
That’s not what that same section in Exodus says. According to that, the reason for this murdering of Hebrew children was because the Egyptians were afraid that with a growing Hebrew population, they’d outgrow the Egyptians and band together with their enemies to overthrow Egypt.
As for how the law was carried out, according to the movie, we see scenes of the Egyptian soldiers carrying out this edict—slaughtering children in their cribs with swords while the mother stares off into nothingness.
Again, going back to Exodus 1:15-22, Pharaoh’s edict was to cast the male children into the river. Different means, same horrific result.
To get around this, in the movie, we see a baby Moses get placed into a basket and sent down the river with Miriam watching carefully to see where he ends up. That’s when the basket washes up to Bithiah, an Egyptian princess played by Nina Foch in the film.
This, too, is fairly accurate to the way the Bible tells the story.
In Exodus 2:2-10, we learn that, much like the movie shows, Moses’ mother hid him until she couldn’t hide him anymore—about three months. Then she made a basket of bulrushes, or cattail, slathered in pitch to keep it watertight and sent it along the river. His sister, Miriam, kept watch on the basket from the shore.
While she’s not named, the story in Exodus 2 continues to explain that Pharaoh’s daughter had come near the river to wash herself along with some of her maidens. That’s when she saw the basket and ordered one of her maids to get it.
So it wasn’t Pharaoh’s daughter who fetched the basket like we saw in the movie.
Oh, and even though Exodus 2 doesn’t name Pharaoh’s daughter, we learn later on in the Bible, in 1 Chronicles 4:17, that Pharaoh’s daughter is Bithiah. Interestingly, she also would go on to have a daughter of her own named Miriam, the same name as Moses’ sister.
Of course, we have to go back to there being multiple Pharaoh’s with multiple daughters, and there’s little to no proof that Bithiah was the one Exodus 2 is talking about.
Back in the movie, after Nina Foch’s version of Bithiah finds the basket, Miriam emerges from the reeds to recommend her mother take care of the child for the princess.
That’s also accurate to the story in Exodus, with one big exception.
That exception is when we see Bithiah’s servant, Memnet, who’s played by Judith Anderson, explaining the pattern of the cloth in the basket must mean he’s Hebrew. In the movie, Bithiah simply ignores this.
Toward the end of the Exodus 2 account, the Bible explains that Pharaoh’s daughter said at once that the child in the basket was Hebrew. But she had compassion on him anyway, and wept when she saw him. There’s no mention of Memnet or anyone else having to hide the secret of the boy’s Hebrew origins.
Probably a bigger inaccuracy here, though, is when Bithiah says in the movie that the boy will be raised in her house.
According to the account in Exodus, that’s not the case. Instead, the Bible explains that after seeing where the boy ended up, Miriam emerged from the reeds to ask Pharaoh’s daughter if she wanted her—her being Miriam—to go find a Hebrew to nurse the boy for the princess.
She agreed, and Miriam returned the baby boy to her own mother—and his own mother, too. Of course, even though Bithiah knew the boy was Hebrew, she didn’t appear to know that it was his own mother who would be raising him.
Although the movie does mention this much later on when Memnet is explaining what happened to Nefretiri.
Later, he was returned to Pharaoh’s daughter.
I say later because, well, the Bible doesn’t ever give any sort of indication about how much time passed. As Exodus 2:7-10 says:
Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee? And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child’s mother.
And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the women took the child, and nursed it. And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water.
Oh, and as for his name, the film also got that reasoning spot on. While historians and linguists have spent centuries figuring out what the Bible means here, some suggest the name Moses—or Moshe as it’s referred to in Hebrew—is a play on the word mashah, which means “to draw out.”
Or maybe it’s because of the Egyptian root msy, which means “child of” and is a reference to being a child of the Nile river.
It’s hard knowing why some parents name their children the names they do today…imagine trying to come up with the reason behind someone’s motives in ancient times. So let’s just leave it at it being really hard to know for sure the real rational for Pharaoh’s daughter naming the boy Moses other than what the Bible says.
Oh, and according to the works of Josephus, none of that may have been true at all since it wasn’t Bithiah who pulled Moses from the Nile, but rather a princess named Thermuthis.
To add even more complexity to this, according to the Hadith, Bithiah’s name was actually Asiya and she was Pharoah’s wife—not his sister. According to Sura 28:9 in the Qur’an:
And the wife of Pharaoh said: (He will be) a consolation for me and for thee. Kill him not. Peradventure he may be of use to us, or we may choose him for a son. And they perceived not.
So yet another version of the tale that proves, if nothing else, that there’s a shroud of mystery surrounding the true history of the story.
Going back to the King James Version of the Bible that the movie uses, after learning of Moses’ name, the next verse then goes on to talk about him being grown. So even though the story is a little different than what we saw in the movie, perhaps it’s fitting that the film cuts here to show Charleton Heston’s grown up version of Moses.
Cedric Hardwicke’s version of Seti I is Pharaoh and he has two sons, Moses and Yul Brynner’s Rameses II.
Well, technically Rameses II was Seti I’s son. Moses being pulled from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, as the Bible says, would’ve made him Bithiah’s daughter. That’d be Rameses I’s daughter, or Seti I’s sister’s son. Which is something the movie mentions very briefly when Cedric Hardwicke’s version of Seti I greets Charleton Heston’s Moses for the first time.
When we see Moses here, he’s returning home from a triumphant military victory by laying siege to the city of Saba. At least, that’s what the movie says.
The city mentioned in the movie, Saba, did exist. Or maybe it did. Most historians think it was more a kingdom. But there were a lot of city-state type kingdoms, so it’s possible it was both a kingdom and a city.
In the King James Version of the Bible, it’s more commonly referred to as Sheba. If you’re familiar with the stories in the Bible, that might ring a bell from the tales of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon.
According to many modern historians, Sheba most likely began at some point around 1200 BCE, but they didn’t really began to flourish for almost 500 years later at some point after 700 BCE.
Since Seti I reigned for an 11 year period from 1290 to 1279 BCE, that’d put the timing close to the beginning of Sheba’s—or Saba as the movie mentions it—early days. But they wouldn’t really have been much of a threat over 500 years earlier.
Still, that doesn’t mean the Egyptians didn’t triumph over the city. In fact, the movie is probably pulling from the works of Flavius Josephus here, because in his work called Antiquities of the Jews, he told the story of a young Egyptian prince who earned a name for himself by conquering Saba.
In Book II, Chapter 10, which is entitled, How Moses Made War with the Ethiopians, Josephus explains:
Now when the Egyptian army had once tasted of this prosperous success, by the means of Moses, they did not slacken their diligence, insomuch that the Ethiopians were in danger of being reduced to slavery, and all sorts of destruction; and at length they retired to Saba, which was a royal city of Ethiopia, which Cambyses afterwards named Mero, after the name of his own sister. The place was to be besieged with very great difficulty, since it was both encompassed by the Nile quite round, and the other rivers, Astapus and Astaboras, made it a very difficult thing for such as attempted to pass over them…
Then later in the chapter, he goes on to mention Tharbis, the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians. She saw Moses leading the army, fell in love with him and sent a servant to Moses asking if they could get married. According to Josephus:
He thereupon accepted the offer, on condition she would procure the delivering up of the city; and gave her the assurance of an oath to take her to his wife; and that when he had once taken possession of the city, he would not break his oath to her. No sooner was the agreement made, but it took effect immediately; and when Moses had cut off the Ethiopians, he gave thanks to God, and consummated his marriage, and led the Egyptians back to their own land.
That’s just a couple extracts, but already we can tell that if Josephus was correct here, Moses would’ve returned from Ethiopia not only a conqueror but also a husband. Of course, there’s no mention of his new bride, Tharbis, returning to Egypt. It only mentions the Egyptians going back to their own land.
So maybe he just left her in Ethiopia and then seemingly went about his life as if she didn’t exist.
Which is interesting, because the movie shows the Ethiopian king and his sister being brought by Moses to meet with Seti I as a proposed ally and friend. That’s not really what I gather from Josephus’ mention of Moses cutting off the Ethiopians, so I’d venture to guess there’s quite a bit of creative freedom there.
If you want to dig into some more of the details, you can read that entire chapter, or really the entirety of Antiquities of the Jews online through Project Gutenberg, which I’ll link to in the show notes over at basedonatruestorypocast.com.
Back in the movie, there’s a bit of a budding romance between Charleton Heston’s version of Moses and Anne Baxter’s Nefretiri.
That’s not to be confused with Nefertiri, who was the wife of Akhenaten, the Pharaoh we learned about a bit earlier.
Nefretiri is also commonly referred to today as Nefertari, and while we do have proof that she did live during this time period, as you can probably guess there is no proof of a romance between her and Moses.
Going back to the film, we’re introduced to a few more characters with their own budding romance. There’s Joshua, who’s played by John Derek, along with Lilia, who’s played by Debra Paget.
Just like the non-existent romance between Moses and Nefretiri, there’s no proof of a romance between Joshua and anyone, well, anyone at all. And certainly not anyone named Lilia. She is a fictional character who is not mentioned in the Bible at all, and as such we can only assume this romance seems to have been added for the movie.
After we’re introduced to these two lovebirds, the sneaky Dathan walks up. He’s played by Edward G. Robinson in the movie, and while we’re mentioning new characters, we might as well mention Frank DeKova plays Dathan’s brother, Aviram. He’s got a much smaller role in the film, but not necessarily in history.
The real Dathan and Aviram were great grandsons of Reuben, one of the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. So they would’ve probably been slaves like everyone else, except together the brothers managed to find a way to convince the Egyptians to hire them to work as overseers of the slaves.
According to the 1913 publication of fourth volume of the Catholic Encyclopedia, Dathan and Aviram, along with a couple other people who weren’t in the movie, Core and Hon, led a revolt against both Moses and Aaron.
So while the details were made up for the movie, the overall spirit of Dathan being a villain in the story is at least rooted in truth, even if it’s not something we have a ton of details to back it up.
Speaking of not having a lot of detail to back things up, the next scene where an old woman is caught by her garment and almost crushed under a rock is, well, for all we know it’s made up. There’s no proof of this happening, nor is there anything to suggest the woman just happened to be Moses’ biological mother, like the movie shows.
But it makes for a good story in the film.
As does the next scene where Moses decides to do something that shocks everyone—lead the Hebrew slaves into the Egyptian temples and burst open the granaries. Great story. But since it’s not mentioned in any ancient texts, including the Bible, there’s no way to prove or disprove that it happened.
Back in the movie, there’s a moment where Moses is showing Seti I the glorious city he’s built in Seti’s honor. As he shows the massive buildings, he explains the pylons commemorate Seti’s victory at Kadesh where he broke the Amorites.
That’s something that actually happened.
Most historians refer to Seti’s conquering of Kadesh, which is in modern-day Syria, as the greatest military achievement of his reign. Although, interestingly, it wasn’t the Amorites he defeated there. Well, not really.
You see, even though the Amorites were the people in and around the region where Kadesh was, their downfall began around the year 1740 BCE when they were overrun by the Babylonians. It continued when the Hittites conquered them time and time again during the 14th century BCE until, ultimately, by the time 1200 BCE rolled around they had completely disappeared from history.
Interestingly, the city of Kadesh used to be an Egyptian stronghold, but the Hittites had captured it from the Egyptians during the reign of Akhenaten. His son, King Tut, tried to recapture it but failed. More attempts were made, but each one failed.
Seti I was able to achieve this victory when the Egyptian forces faced off with the Hittites at Kadesh.
While the movie doesn’t mention this at all, that was a short-lived victory. Seti I soon lost control of the city and it fell back under Hittite control. Most historians think the primary reason for this is simply because the Egyptians couldn’t keep a military presence there for any prolonged period without leaving Egypt itself vulnerable.
The Hittites retained control of Kadesh until 1274 BCE when Rameses II, by then the Pharaoh of Egypt, led about 20,000 Egyptian troops in battle against what most historians think could’ve been up to 50,000 Hittites defending the city.
But anyway, none of that is in the movie itself. There’s enough backdrop there to make it seem realistic along with some good old fashioned Hollywood storytelling to fill in the blanks we don’t know.
Oh, and the movie never mentions the name of the city that Charleton Heston’s version of Moses is building. But Yul Brynner mentions at one point that the city he builds shall bare my name.
We know from history that Rameses II established a city named after himself. Called Pi-Rameses, it’s believed to have been the capital of his kingdom during his reign. We don’t really know why he moved his capital from Thebes to Pi-Rameses, but in the city of Pi-Rameses there is a temple dedicated to Seti I.
Unfortunately, nothing much remains in the temple. So if there were once grand statues to honor Seti I like what we see in the movie, they’re not there anymore.
It’s interesting to point out that in the movie Seti I is so pleased with Moses’ leadership in building the city in his honor that he says Moses’ name will be carved alongside his on every pylon. Then he turns to Yul Brynner’s version of Rameses and says that his will be nowhere, because he accused Moses falsely of treason.
There are no mentions of Moses carved alongside Seti I’s name in the city of Pi-Rameses. So either that never happened in the first place, any mentions have disappeared throughout the millennia, or there was a massive undertaking to undo all of that work. If the latter, that’d point to a cover-up of some sort to hide Moses’ name from history. Much in the same way the Egyptians tried to hide Akhenaten from history.
Of course, we don’t even know if the city Moses is building in the movie is the one that would eventually become Pi-Rameses.
Getting back into the film, the next major plot point happens when Nefretiri kills the now-elderly servant Memnet after she threatens to go to Rameses with the piece of Hebrew cloth that Moses was wrapped in as a child. Moses finds out and seeks to find his true origins.
All of this is made up for the movie. At least, there’s no historical evidence to support any of it. The method by which Moses found out he was the son of a Hebrew slave is something that many historians still debate today.
According to the Bible, the only evidence we get comes from the first half of Exodus 2:10, which we already learned about earlier. That’s the verse that mentions Moses getting his name and being brought back to Pharaoh’s daughter after having been nursed by his biological mother.
The next verse starts off by skipping a ton of detail and simply says:
And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked upon their burdens…
As a quick side note, that last part there, …he went out unto his brethren, and looked upon their burdens… Cecil B. DeMille quotes this passage of the Bible as part of his narration once Charlteon Heston’s version of Moses joins the Hebrew slaves in the mud pits. But that’s getting a bit ahead of our story.
As best as we can gather from this, by the time Moses was grown up he knew his brethren were the Hebrews enslaved by the Egyptians. We don’t really know how he found out or, really, if he knew all along.
Although, it’s worth saying that it isn’t very likely Moses knew all along. Or if he did, he must’ve kept it a secret. After all, the Hebrews were slaves and the Egyptians likely wouldn’t have readily let a Hebrew slave be the Egyptian general that led the battle against Sheba.
So, as you can guess, the next scene in the film is made up, too, where Moses follows Bithiah, his Egyptian mother, to Yochabel’s home, his biological mother. There Moses recalls Yochabel as being the woman he rescued from getting crushed by stone earlier in the movie. After Yochabel breaks and can’t deny her son any longer, Moses meets his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam.
We’ve already covered the real people here back when we saw them as a children, although we didn’t really see Aaron as a child. But we see him now, and he’s played by John Carradine in the movie. The adult version of Miriam, on the other hand, is played by Olive Deering.
This whole scene in Yochabel’s humble home is made up. Or so we have to assume because, well, there’s just no proof of it anywhere. Because details like this are lost in history, we can only assume what it must’ve been like for someone who was once running the halls of the palaces in Egypt to trade in those riches for the life of slavery.
We can only imagine what thoughts must’ve been running through his head and the minds of those around him to drive him to this sort of decision.
Assuming, of course, all of this happened. Remember, even the Bible is extremely vague on the details of what occurred.
Going back to the movie, though, there’s a moment that ends Moses’ bid to become the next Pharaoh once and for all.
This happens after Moses decides to leave his princely riches for the muddy pits of the slaves. After Nefretiri tries to rescue him from the pits, Moses in turn stops the Egyptian Master Builder—that’s his title—named Baka. In the movie he’s played by the legendary actor Vincent Price, and he has an eye for Joshua’s woman, Lilia.
Of course, as we already learned, Lilia is a fictitious character.
Moses, meanwhile is pulled from the mud pits by Anne Baxter’s Nefretiri. After leaving her chamber, Moses heads over to Baka’s home to check on Lilia. Joshua shows up first, attempting to break Lilia free but getting caught himself.
As Joshua is strung up to be whipped by Baka, Moses comes along and, in the struggle that ensues, Charlton Heston’s Moses kills Baka. Meanwhile, the sneaky Hebrew overseer, Dathan, watches and reports this to Rameses.
Rameses, in turn, shocks the whole of Egypt when he delivers Moses to Seti in chains as the deliverer, prophesied by the Hebrew slaves.
These are all things that are mentioned in the Bible, but not really in the same way that we saw in the movie.
Let’s start by understanding what happened as told by Exodus 2:11-15:
And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.
And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.
And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?
And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known.
Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian…
So as we can tell from this rather vague account, there’s plenty of additional details added into the movie that isn’t in the Bible. For one, there’s no mention who the Egyptian was. In fact, there’s no mention of Baka anywhere in the Bible.
Not only that, but there’s also no mention that Joshua was the Hebrew that the Egyptian was beating—or even who it was. There are no names mentioned.
While the Bible itself may not mention details of what happened, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other versions of the tale. Probably one of the more descriptive versions of what happened comes from an ancient text called the Haggadah.
In case you’re not Jewish, the Haggadah is a sacred text for the Jewish religion that essentially lays out the order of the Passover Seder—or the ritual that takes place during the Passover holiday. The Passover, in turn, is perhaps one of the more important celebrations in the Jewish faith. It celebrates the deliverance from slavery in ancient Egypt thanks to the leadership of Moses.
As is often the case with religious meanings, there’s some debates about the origin of the name, but most people today would tell you that the term Passover refers to the passing over of the Hebrew homes during the Ten Plagues of Egypt—the ultimate punishment from God for the Egyptians for holding the Hebrew people as slaves that ended up with Pharaoh releasing the entire nation from slavery.
But that’s getting ahead of our story.
Back to the account of Moses killing the Egyptian, the Haggadah tells a completely different tale than what we saw in the movie.
This comes from the Haggadah Volume II, Chapter IV: Moses in Egypt:
While Moses abode in Goshen, an incident of great importance occurred. To superintend the service of the children of Israel, an officer from among them was set over every ten, and ten such officers were under the surveillance of an Egyptian taskmaster. One of these Hebrew officers, Dathan by name, had a wife, Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan, who was of extraordinary beauty, but inclined to be very loquacious.
Whenever the Egyptian taskmaster set over her husband came to their house on business connected with his office, she would approach him pleasantly and enter into conversation with him. The beautiful Israelitish woman enkindled a mad passion in his breast, and he sought and found a cunning way of satisfying his lustful desire.
One day he appeared at break of dawn at the house of Dathan, roused him from his sleep, and ordered him to hurry his detachment of men to their work. The husband scarcely out of sight, he executed the villainy he had planned, and dishonored the woman, and the fruit of this illicit relation was the blasphemer of the Name whom Moses ordered to execution on the march through the desert.
At the moment when the Egyptian slipped out of Shelomith’s chamber, Dathan returned home. Vexed that his crime had come to the knowledge of the injured husband, the taskmaster goaded him on to work with excessive vigor, and dealt him blow after blow with the intention to kill him.
Young Moses happened to visit the place at which the much-abused and tortured Hebrew was at work. Dathan hastened toward him, and complained of all the wrong and suffering the Egyptian had inflicted upon him. Full of wrath, Moses, whom the holy spirit had acquainted with the injury done the Hebrew officer by the Egyptian taskmaster, cried out to the latter, saying:
“Not enough that thou hast dishonored this man’s wife, thou aimest to kill him, too?” And turning to God, he spoke further: “What will become of Thy promise to Abraham, that his posterity shall be as numerous as the stars, if his children are given over to death? And what will become of the revelation on Sinai, if the children of Israel are exterminated?”
Moses wanted to see if someone would step forward, and, impelled by zeal for the cause of God and for God’s law, would declare himself ready to avenge the outrage. He waited in vain. Then he determined to act himself. Naturally enough he hesitated to take the life of a human being.
He did not know whether the evil-doer might not be brought to repentance, and then lead a life of pious endeavor. He also considered, that there would perhaps be some among the descendants to spring from the Egyptian for whose sake their wicked ancestor might rightfully lay claim to clemency. The holy spirit allayed all his doubts.
He was made to see that not the slightest hope existed that good would come either from the malefactor himself or from any of his offspring. Then Moses was willing to requite him for his evil deeds. Nevertheless he first consulted the angels, to hear what they had to say, and they agreed that the Egyptian deserved death, and Moses acted according to their opinion.
Neither physical strength nor a weapon was needed to carry out his purpose. He merely pronounced the Name of God, and the Egyptian was a corpse. To the bystanders, the Israelites, Moses said: “The Lord compared you unto the sand of the sea-shore, and as the sand moves noiselessly from place to place, so I pray you to keep the knowledge of what hath happened a secret within yourselves. Let nothing be heard concerning it.”
The wish expressed by Moses was not honored. The slaying of the Egyptian remained no secret, and those who betrayed it were Israelites, Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Pallu, of the tribe of Reuben, notorious for their effrontery and contentiousness.
The day after the thing with the Egyptians happened, the two brothers began of malice aforethought to scuffle with each other, only in order to draw Moses into the quarrel and create an occasion for his betrayal. The plan succeeded admirably. Seeing Dathan raise his hand against Abiram, to deal him a blow, Moses exclaimed, “O thou art a villain, to lift up thy hand against an Israelite, even if he is no better than thou.” Dathan replied: “Young man, who hath made thee to be a judge over us, thou that hast not yet attained to years of maturity?
We know very well that thou art the son of Jochebed, though people call thee the son of the princess Bithiah, and if thou shouldst attempt to play the part of our master and judge, we will publish abroad the thing thou didst unto the Egyptian. Or, peradventure, thou harborest the intention to slay us as thou didst slay him, by pronouncing the Name of God?”
Not satisfied with these taunts, the noble pair of brothers betook themselves to Pharaoh, and spoke before him, “Moses dishonoreth thy royal mantle and thy crown,” to which Pharaoh returned, saying, “Much good may it do him!” But they pursued the subject. “He helps thine enemies, Pharaoh,” they continued, whereupon he replied, as before, “Much good may it do him!”
Still they went on, “He is not the son of thy daughter.” These last words did not fail of making an impression upon Pharaoh. A royal command was issued for the arrest of Moses, and he was condemned to death by the sword.
So as a little summary to that bit of historical text, basically Dathan had a beautiful wife named Shelomith. An Egyptian, who remains unnamed, took advantage of her while Dathan was away. When he returned, he was understandably angered and then Moses, who happened by, took revenge for him by merely speaking God’s Name which killed the Egyptian.
We also got some insight into the possibility that the Hebrews knew of Moses’ descent, while it seemed to have been a surprise to Pharaoh.
But that’s not the only version of the story. There’s another one where Shelomith was married to an unnamed Hebrew man and she wasn’t the only Hebrew woman the Egyptians would defile. In this version, Shelomith had a baby boy from an Egyptian taskmaster which lead to the Egyptians demise.
Or there’s another account from the Bible. This one comes from the New Testament and again mentions that Moses beat the Egyptian to death with his hands. This comes from Acts 7:20-29:
At that time Moses was born, and was fair in the sight of God. And he was reared for three months in his father’s house. When he was put out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him up and reared him as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in words and in deeds.
When he was forty years old, it came to his heart to visit his brothers, the sons of Israel. But seeing one being wronged, he defended him, and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand. On the next day he appeared to them as they fought and tried to reconcile them in peace, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’
But the one wronging his neighbor pushed him away, saying, ‘Who appointed you a ruler and a judge over us? Will you kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ Moses fled at this word and became a sojourner in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
Some biblical scholars have suggested perhaps the neighbor in this passage is referring to Dathan. But what does all of this mean?
Well, we could continue to debate how much of this actually happened as people have done for thousands of years, but since none of us have millennia to live, let’s just focus on the historical accuracy of The Ten Commandments.
Simply put, based on the evidence we’ve learned so far, it would appear that yes, Moses killed an Egyptian.
Back in the movie, much happens after all of this. Seti’s sister, Bithiah, is banished from Seti’s sight. Yul Brynner’s version of Rameses II is given both Nefretiri’s hand and the promise of the throne of Egypt when Seti dies. As for Moses, he’s banished from Egypt.
While there’s no way we can know what it was like to be in Pharaoh’s palace at the time, from the passages we’ve looked at so far we know that after killing the Egyptian, Moses fled the land for Midian. We don’t really know if he was banished as the movie implies, or if he fled of his own accord.
As a geographical refresher, the region of Midian is in modern-day Saudi Arabia. It’s just to the east of the Sinai Peninsula, along the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba and to the east of Egypt and south of modern-day Jordan.
You’ll notice there’s not a mention of being captured and brought before Pharaoh; only that Moses feared Pharaoh’s wrath.
There’s also no mention of Bithiah being banished or even present at the time, like we saw in the movie.
But if there’s one thing we’ve learned throughout all of this, it’s that there is a lot we just don’t know.
Anyway, back in the movie, it’s here that Seti I issues a new edict. The name of Moses will be stricken from history. Every book and tablet. All pylons and obelisks and every monument of Egypt. The name of Moses will be unheard and unspoken—erased from the memory of men for all time.
As we learned about with Akhenaten, we know for a fact that the Egyptians had tried to erase those who were deemed, in Akhenaten’s case, a heretic from the pages of history. Did they try to do the same from Moses? That seems to be what the filmmakers are suggesting, but we just don’t have any proof to show that’s the case. If they did do that, they did such a good job that we have yet to discover anything to the contrary.
Maybe it didn’t happen at all, like many suggest.
Maybe, like the Pharaoh Akhenaten whose true story is still being pieced together today, thousands of years later, we just haven’t found the pieces of the puzzle that connect together the story of Moses yet.
Or maybe, because Moses’ story is told through many holy texts, the thousands of years of religious tales about him have forever muddled the true history. Perhaps the very same faith that is based on the events that it claims to have happened is the very thing that will forever keep us from knowing what actually happened.
Such things have been debated for thousands of years and likely will be debated for a thousand more.
After being cast out of Egypt, Charleton Heston’s version of Moses wanders the desert. The movie doesn’t show how much time is passing, but we see day, then night, then day…all the while sand and rock. No life as far as the eye can see.
But still, he struggles onward as Cecil B. DeMille’s monologue explains that he’s driven on by some unknown strength. When Moses drops to the ground, he happens to hear a sheep’s bell. Then, looking up, he sees a palm tree and a well nearby.
While this is all dramatized for the film, as we learned earlier, Moses didn’t seem to be banished from Egypt like the movie shows. The Bible also mentions where he went, but it doesn’t really talk about if he knew where he was going when he left Egypt.
There’s no way to know exactly how far Charleton Heston’s Moses would’ve traveled as seen in the movie, but we can get a general idea.
We saw him in the throne room of Seti I when he admitted to being the son of Hebrew slaves in front of the Egyptian Pharoah. The movie doesn’t make any mention of where this is located, but it’d stand to make sense that his throne would be in the capital of Egypt.
While the capital of Egypt moved around over the course of Egypt’s millennia of Pharaohs, during the reign of Seti I, most historians agree that his capital was at Memphis. Thanks to the hard work of archaeologists over the centuries, we know that the ancient city of Memphis was located about 15 miles, or 24 kilometers, south of the modern city of Cairo. That’s just south of the delta in the Nile on its west bank.
So that gives us an idea of where Moses came from, but where was he going?
As a bit of a refresher, here’s what Exodus 2:15-16 has to say on the subject:
But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well. Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock.
The ancient land of Midian is in modern-day Saudi Arabia, just south of Jordan. Of course, there’s no way we’ll ever know the precise location of where in Midian this random well happened to be, but for our purposes let’s say it’s near the modern-day city of Magna in Saudi Arabia. Why Magna? Well, because in Magna there’s a historical landmark called the Well of Moses that many believe to have been the location of the well that Moses stumbled upon.
OK so if we measure from Memphis to Magna, we’d find that Moses would’ve had to have traveled at least 419 miles, or about 675 kilometers. That’s a 136 hour walk, or about five and a half days.
Oh, and that’s assuming you’re walking 24 hours a day for those five and a half days, which is not physically possible. And it’s also assuming Moses knew he was traveling to Magna and walked there directly, which is also not likely since he was essentially wandering in the wilderness.
In the movie, Yul Brynner’s version of Rameses sends Charleton Heston’s Moses packing with one day’s supply of food and water. While the average human can survive for up to three weeks without food, after only three days you’d die without water.
So the ultimate question is this: Did Moses supposedly traveled over 400 miles on foot across the blistering Sinai desert with only one day’s worth of food and water?
Ultimately, we don’t know the answer. But if he did, for it to be humanly possible he would’ve had to have had drastically different scenario than what we saw in the movie or—as many religious folks will tell you, it would’ve truly been a miracle.
Once he arrives at the well, in the movie, Moses gets his fill of water and dates and passes out to be discovered the next day by Sephora, who is played by Yvonne De Carlo.
Sephora is one of seven girls at the well, so it’d seem that the movie is sticking to the Bible’s account of there being seven daughters of the Midian priest watering their father’s flock at the well.
Oh, and Sephora’s name according to the King James Version of the Bible is Zipporah.
As a little side note, there’s clearly sexism at play here in true 1950s Hollywood fashion. First you have some of Sephora’s sisters talking at the well about how they wish they could find a man, with another saying there’s not any men from here to Horeb.
We can only assume she’s referring to, of course, Mount Horeb. Now, today there isn’t a Mount Horeb, but most historians believe this was another term for Mount Sinai, which is located in the Sinai Peninsula. That’s at least a good 250 miles, or 400 kilometers around the Gulf of Aqaba.
Then, just as the women ogle Charleton Heston while acting like they haven’t seen a man for ages, a bunch of people come. Oh, and wouldn’t you know? They’re men. These are shepherds who, according to the movie, ignore Sephora’s mention of their father, Jethro, a sheikh of Midian, and drive away the sisters’ flock and water their own instead.
So…maybe there were men around after all.
Although the Bible never mentions the women being so obsessed with men that the Hollywood portrayal of them does, but it does mention the ensuing fight that we saw on screen.
According to Exodus 2:17-19:
And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.
And when they came to Reuel their father, he said, How is it that ye are come so soon to day?
And they said, An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew water enough for us, and watered the flock.
Now if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that the Bible mentions the name Reuel, while the movie mentioned the women at the well-being the daughters of Jethro.
Despite this seeming discrepancy, that’s actually still pretty accurate to the Bible. Even though Exodus 2 mentions his name as Reuel, the next chapter, Exodus 3, calls the same man Jethro. But then again, much later in the Bible, in Numbers 10:29, he’s mentioned as Raguel.
Then Josephus merges the two in Chapter 12 of Antiquities of the Jews when he explains that, “Jethro…was one of the names of Raguel.”
So for this part, at least, we can give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and just assume they wanted to avoid confusion by calling the same person by multiple names.
For the sake of clarity in this episode, I’ll refer to him as Jethro, too.
While the Bible is vague about a lot of the details of what happened, the movie inaccurately depicts one of the things that the Bible does mention.
In the movie, while her six sisters are fawning over Moses, Yvonne De Carlo’s version of Sephora says she’ll ask a welcome for him in their father’s tent. Oh, and if you recall, Moses drew water for the women…not the women falling over themselves to serve Moses, like we saw in the movie.
After what we heard about in Exodus 2:17-19 just a moment ago, the Bible goes on to say this in verse 20:
And he said unto his daughters, And where is he? why is it that ye have left the man? call him, that he may eat bread.
The implication here in the Bible seems to be that after Moses ran off the shepherds, Jethro’s daughters—all of them and not just the one—returned to his tent without Moses first. Then, at their father’s request, they went back to get Moses.
This is just my speculation here, but something else I gather from this verse is that Jethro’s daughters weren’t ogling Moses like we saw in the movie. They didn’t even bring him back to their father’s tent without his urging.
Speaking of which, in the movie, the character of Jethro is played by Eduard Franz.
When Moses comes to his tent and mentions he’s from Egypt, Jethro is surprised he made it by foot. Jethro mentions that he who has no name must’ve guided your steps, implying it was indeed a miracle. This piques Moses’ interest, and asks if they know the God of Abraham.
Then Jethro explains that Abraham is the father of many nations and that they are the children of Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael. They are the obedient of God.
What he’s referring to is something the movie doesn’t really mention directly, but it’s mentioning the difference between Judaism and Islam.
As with most of the religious topics we’ve learned about so far, this is all way too involved to get into with a lot of depth, but basically as holy texts explain it, Abraham was married to a woman named Sarah. Sarah, in turn, was barren and couldn’t have children, but God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations.
In an effort to continue his family line and help push the prophecy along, Sarah suggested to Abraham that he sleep with her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar. When he did, Hagar bore him a son they named Ishmael. Then, Sarah would end up having a child anyway that they named Isaac.
No doubt helped along by their mothers didn’t seem to like one another after all was said and done, both Isaac and Ishmael grew up at odds with each other. Generations later, Isaac—whose own future son, Jacob, would be renamed Israel later in his life—would go on to become a patriarch of Judaism while Ishmael would go on to become a patriarch of Islam.
As a little side note, Jethro himself is known as the spiritual founder of the Druze religion, which is yet another Abrahamic religion, albeit much smaller in size at approximately 2 million followers today than other Abrahamic religions like Islam, Judaism or Christianity.
Back in the movie, Jethro offers Moses a place to stay, which he accepts.
The only mention in the Bible is that, “Moses was content to dwell with the man”, that man being Jethro.
Although, it’s interesting that they travel to Mount Sinai and they actually call it Sinai in the movie now instead of Horeb. So the filmmakers seemed to want to keep things simpler by only using one of Jethro’s names, but added confusion by using two names for what most historians believe to be the same mountain.
As we learned, that’s quite a distance from where they were before, so not a short trip by any means. Although technically, they could travel by boat across the Gulf of Aqaba, but that’s not likely seeing as they have flocks of sheep with them.
And yet, when you’re living in the desert, the search for pastures for grazing flocks of sheep is something that could often mean traveling great distances to achieve.
So the movie is certainly filling in a lot of holes here, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.
In the movie, time passes. We don’t really know how much time, but soon we’re back in Jethro’s tent with other sheikhs as they observe Jethro’s daughters dancing. Moses’ task is to decide which of Jethro’s daughters he wants to marry.
Here again, the movie is filling in a lot of holes from texts that are quite vague.
Let’s start with what the Bible says about these events.
Exodus 2:21 leaves a lot of detail to be desired when it simply says:
And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter.
The man mentioned, of course, being Jethro. But still, even though there’s not much detail here, the Bible seems to be implying that it was Jethro who gave Zipporah to Moses as more of an arranged marriage, and not Moses who chose her.
But we can get a little more detail from the works of Josephus about what happened with Moses after he fled Egypt. There’s not a lot, but this is the entirety of Chapter 11 of Antiquities of the Jews. The chapter is entitled How Moses Fled Out of Egypt into Midian, and is essentially a summary of everything we’ve learned so far in this episode:
Now the Egyptians, after they had been preserved by Moses, entertained a hatred to him, and were very eager in compassing their designs against him, as suspecting that he would take occasion, from his good success, to raise a sedition, and bring innovations into Egypt; and told the king he ought to be slain.
The king had also some intentions of himself to the same purpose, and this as well out of envy at his glorious expedition at the head of his army, as out of fear of being brought low by him and being instigated by the sacred scribes, he was ready to undertake to kill Moses: but when he had learned beforehand what plots there were against him, he went away privately; and because the public roads were watched, he took his flight through the deserts, and where his enemies could not suspect he would travel; and, though he was destitute of food, he went on, and despised that difficulty courageously; and when he came to the city Midian, which lay upon the Red Sea, and was so denominated from one of Abraham’s sons by Keturah, he sat upon a certain well, and rested himself there after his laborious journey, and the affliction he had been in.
It was not far from the city, and the time of the day was noon, where he had an occasion offered him by the custom of the country of doing what recommended his virtue, and afforded him an opportunity of bettering his circumstances.
For that country having but little water, the shepherds used to seize on the wells before others came, lest their flocks should want water, and lest it should be spent by others before they came.
There were now come, therefore, to this well seven sisters that were virgins, the daughters of Raguel, a priest, and one thought worthy by the people of the country of great honor. These virgins, who took care of their father’s flocks, which sort of work it was customary and very familiar for women to do in the country of the Troglodytes, they came first of all, and drew water out of the well in a quantity sufficient for their flocks, into troughs, which were made for the reception of that water; but when the shepherds came upon the maidens, and drove them away, that they might have the command of the water themselves, Moses, thinking it would be a terrible reproach upon him if he overlooked the young women under unjust oppression, and should suffer the violence of the men to prevail over the right of the maidens, he drove away the men, who had a mind to more than their share, and afforded a proper assistance to the women; who, when they had received such a benefit from him, came to their father, and told him how they had been affronted by the shepherds, and assisted by a stranger, and entreated that he would not let this generous action be done in vain, nor go without a reward.
Now the father took it well from his daughters that they were so desirous to reward their benefactor; and bid them bring Moses into his presence, that he might be rewarded as he deserved. And when Moses came, he told him what testimony his daughters bare to him, that he had assisted them; and that, as he admired him for his virtue, he said that Moses had bestowed such his assistance on persons not insensible of benefits, but where they were both able and willing to return the kindness, and even to exceed the measure of his generosity.
So he made him his son, and gave him one of his daughters in marriage; and appointed him to be the guardian and superintendent over his cattle; for of old, all the wealth of the barbarians was in those cattle.
With that, we get a different picture of what happened than what we saw in the movie. For some context, this chapter is right after telling the tale of Moses being a great Egyptian general capturing the city of Saba—or Sheba.
Anyway, the implication here could be that even after Moses led the Egyptian army to victory, they didn’t like him. So it was them who went to Pharaoh to ask that he be killed. That’s completely different than everything we saw in the movie about him being cast out, or even different than what the Bible says about Moses fleeing of his own accord.
Not only that, but once Moses makes it to Midian, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of time passing from Jethro hearing the account of what happened to Jethro making Moses as his own son. Of course, there’s nothing to say a lot of time did or didn’t pass either way. Nor is there any proof that Jethro’s daughters didn’t perform a dance in their tent in an attempt to woo Moses like we saw in the movie.
But that’s not likely.
The way Josephus worded things makes it sound like Jethro’s offering of one of his daughters, Zipporah, to marry was a direct result of Moses’ actions at the well.
It would also seem, according to Josephus’ account anyway, that it was Jethro’s idea to have Moses lead his flocks of cattle. That’s different than when Sephora suggests that Moses would find peace by tending her father’s flocks. You’ll notice there’s also no mention of any other sheikhs being present for this like we saw in the movie.
A sheikh, by the way, is the ruler of a tribe.
Yet again we’re faced with multiple accounts that differ in the details. No wonder why so many facts seem to be lost through time.
Going back to the movie, after Moses chooses Sephora, we’re whisked back to Egypt where Seti is on his death bed. As they speak for the last time, Yul Brynner’s version of Rameses mentions to Seti, his father, that he has restored Egypt to her greatness.
That’s a very minor detail, but it’s actually something that most historians agree upon. Earlier we talked about the generations before Seti I, Akhenaten was Pharaoh and made a major stir when he declared that Egypt would no longer follow many gods, but instead follow one god, Aten.
This was short-lived, and Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhamun, immediately started down the path to rectify all of the changes his father had made as soon as he took power. Today, you probably know Tutankhamun more as King Tut.
Anyway, those changes weren’t made all at once. It was Seti I who most Egyptologists refer to as being able to finally pull Egypt back into being restored to its greatness, such as it was before Akhenaten. This set up his son, Rameses II, to become one of the greatest Pharaohs who ever lived.
Despite this, there’s no proof that Seti I ever broke his own law like we see in the movie when Cedric Hardwicke’s version of the dying Pharaoh speaks the name of Moses with his dying breath.
Of course, there’s no proof that law ever existed. Sort of like there’s no proof outside the many sacred texts that a prince of Egypt named Moses ever existed.
There’s no mention of timeline in the movie, but if this is around when Seti I passes away then it must be around the year 1279 BCE.
To offer a quick little side note here, after Seti I’s reign came to an end with his death in 1279 BCE, his remains lay untouched for thousands of years until, in 1817, his tomb was discovered in the Valley of the Kings. His tomb is the longest and deepest of all of the royal tombs belonging to Pharaohs of the New Kingdom there, at 446 feet or 136 meters long.
As is often the case, even the passing of power between Seti I and Rameses II is something that historians have debated, and continue to debate even today. Some, such as the Egyptologist Peter Brand, suggest that the carvings we’ve found today that establish Rameses II as the successor to Seti I were actually carved after Rameses II took power. As such, Rameses could’ve written the history however he wanted and we don’t know for sure if Rameses took power after Seti I passed or, perhaps, he took power much earlier and served right alongside Seti I as a sort of co-regency—two kings at the same time.
Still others, like renowned Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, reject this idea since there’s simply not enough evidence to suggest such a co-regency took place.
However it happened, we know that Rameses II was the Pharaoh of Egypt after Seti I.
Back in the movie, after seeing the transfer of power in Egypt, we’re back with Moses who now has children. Not just a baby, but a toddler. So obviously more time has passed.
We don’t know how much time, and unfortunately the Bible doesn’t really help with this. Although, it does back up the fact that Moses had a son.
Exodus 2:22 says this right after the mention of Moses marrying Zipporah:
And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.
So it’d seem the movie gets the little boy’s name right. Gershom is played by little Tommy Duran in the movie.
But the movie doesn’t get this next part right. At least, not to the best of our knowledge of history.
After seeing his son, Gershom, Moses is called to the rocks where there’s a man among the sheep. This man turns out to be John Derek’s version of Joshua, and Joshua urges Moses to return to Egypt, to free the Hebrew slaves.
Then, as they’re talking and Charleton Heston’s version of Moses keeps denying that he’s the one God has called to deliver the Hebrews out of Egypt, he pauses…looks up at the mountain. Do you see that light? A bush that burns, but it is not on fire.
While Joshua and Sephora return to their tent, Moses heads up the Mount Sinai. Here, according to the movie, Moses sees the face of God and talks to God in the burning bush.
The movie does a decent job of depicting the spirit of what happens, at least. Probably the biggest difference is that nowhere does the Bible mention Joshua being there. It merely states that time passes and the cry of the children of Israel had grown so great that God heard it, and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
This moment of Moses speaking to God in the burning bush is one that’s discussed a lot in many of the Abrahamic religions, and is often seen as the turning point for Moses. When God himself speaks to Moses directly.
As such, it’s also one that’s debated just as much. For example, the Bible actually says it was an angel of God who appeared as a flame in the midst of the bush. But then later it mentions that God called to Moses from the midst of the bush.
The key points here in the movie are that when Moses approaches the bush, after calling Moses’ name, God told Moses to remove his sandals because he was standing on holy ground.
That is true, according to Exodus 3:5. But it’s not really the first thing God said to him after calling his name, according to Josephus. In Chapter 12 of Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus explains:
Moses was aftrighted at this strange sight, as it was to him; but he was still more astonished when the fire uttered a voice, and called to him by name, and spake words to him, by which it signified how bold he had been in venturing to come into a place whither no man had ever come before, because the place was divine; and advised him to remove a great way off from the flame, and to be contented with what he had seen; and though he were himself a good man, and the offspring of great men, yet that he should not pry any further; and he foretold to him, that he should have glory and honor among men, by the blessing of God upon him.
So it’d seem that yet again we have some conflicting details. Did God suggest Moses remove his sandals or did this voice tell Moses how bold he was for venturing where no man has gone before, and merely suggest he leave?
Such things and more are the cause for debate to this day.
Since we’re here to discuss the movie and not religious theory, it’s worth pointing out that for this scene it’s clear that the filmmakers are following the account from Exodus.
After taking off his sandals, according to the movie, God gets right to the point and tells Moses that he needs to go back to Egypt and lead the Hebrew people out of bondage. Charleton Heston’s version of Moses asks some typical questions like, “Who am I to do this?” and “How?”
For the sake of time, I won’t read the entire passage, but if you read Exodus chapters 3 and 4 you’ll get the story of the burning bush. Suffice it to say, the general storyline we see in the movie is actually fairly close to the account from Exodus.
Except there’s some that the movie cuts out, like when Moses still doesn’t believe the Hebrew people will listen to him and God turns Moses’ staff into a snake, and then back into his staff.
The Bible doesn’t mention anything about Moses’ hair turning white like we saw in the movie. Although it does mention God turning Moses’ hand leprous as snow and then healing it again, all in an attempt to prove his power to Moses. Still, according to the Bible’s account, Moses didn’t want to speak in front of Pharaoh. His next excuse was that he wasn’t eloquent. So God suggested that Moses’ brother, Aaron, be the one to speak and Moses be the one to work the miracles God would perform through him.
I’ll make sure to add a link to that in the show notes over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com if you want to give it a read.
After leaving the mountain, the Bible doesn’t mention going to meet with Joseph and Sephora like we see in the movie. Exodus 4:18-19 explains what happened when Moses left the scene of the burning bush:
And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father in law, and said unto him, Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren which are in Egypt, and see whether they be yet alive. And Jethro said to Moses, Go in peace. And the Lord said unto Moses in Midian, Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life.
That last little bit is interesting. Does this imply that Rameses II didn’t want Moses dead? I’m afraid that’s a question that we don’t have an answer for.
Oh, and one other key point here in the movie is when God mentions his name. In both the movie and the Bible, God says, “I Am that I Am” and tells Moses to tell the children of Israel that “I Am” has sent you. From Josephus’ account, he simply says that, “God declared to him his holy name, which had never been discovered to men before; concerning which it is not lawful for me to say any more.”
You see, God is not a name but a title. Much like Pharaoh is a title. Of course, God is a bit more of a powerful title than Pharaoh for most people. But the true name of God is something that, like many other things we’ve come across so far, has been debated by countless people over thousands of years.
With that said, though, if you want to learn more about the true name of God, I’d really recommend checking out the work of modern-day scholars Nehemia Gordon and Keith Johnson who have worked for decades, both separately and more recently together, to discover the real name of God. A name that, like Josephus implies, was forbidden to be spoken by religious leaders for generation after generation.
Anyway, going back to the movie, after this bit is the intermission for the movie. We’ve seen this in long, epic films before, like when we covered Lawrence of Arabia on this podcast.
And with that, we’ve come to roughly the halfway point in the movie with plenty more to cover. So, if you’d like, you can take a break here and in our next episode we’ll come back to conclude the story behind The Ten Commandments.
LINKS AND MORE RESOURCES
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- The Ten Commandments (1956) – IMDb
- The Ten Commandments (1956) – Synopsis
- 10 Fascinating Facts About The Ten Commandments (The Movie) | HuffPost
- The Ten Commandments – Comparison with biblical account
- Movies | Ten Awesome Non-Bible Things In “The Ten Commandments”
- The Ten Commandments (1956) Synopsis – Plot Summary – Fandango
- Exodus 6 KJV – Then the LORD said unto Moses, Now – Bible Gateway
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- Exodus Gods and Kings Movie: Truth Behind the Moses Story? | Time.com
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- How Christian Bale’s Exodus Compares to the Bible and History | Time.com
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- In Sinai desert, no trace of Moses – The New York Times
- Is there any historical evidence that Moses existed and led the Jews out of Egypt? | Yahoo Answers
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- Sheba – Wikipedia
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- L 365 Josephus Jewish Antiquities IX: 12 13 : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive
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- Timeline of ancient Egypt
- Akhenaten: Egyptian Pharaoh, Nefertiti’s Husband, Tut’s Father
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- Tales and Maxims from the Midrash index
- Exodus Rabba
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- Dathan – Wikipedia
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- The Name and New Discoveries – NehemiasWall.comNehemia’s Wall
- The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus – Book – NehemiasWall.comNehemia’s Wall
- A Prayer To Our Father – Book – NehemiasWall.comNehemia’s Wall
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- Did the Nile River Really Turn to Blood? : Christian Courier
- The Science of the 10 Plagues
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- Numbers 20 KJV – Then came the children of Israel, even – Bible Gateway