Prince of Egypt modifies a Bible story

I recently re-watched the 1998 animated movie Prince of Egypt. I’ve always loved that movie, with its beautiful animation and awesome songs (it’s a bit of a musical). And that was all just as I remembered it, and just as moving. But there was one thing I noticed this time through that I don’t remember noticing before. Specifically, the movie has a significant plot change from the original Biblical story of Moses on which it is based.

The basic layout is that the Hebrews are slaves in Egypt, and the Hebrew baby Moses ends up being raised in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s household as some sort of a prince. As a young adult he leaves his royal heritage and moves to the agrarian land of Canaan and starts a family before being confronted by the God of the Hebrews and instructed to return to Egypt and free the Hebrew people from slavery. Moses returns but the Pharaoh refuses to free the Hebrews, so Moses uses God’s power to send plagues on the Egyptians until they finally give the Hebrews permission to leave. The Hebrews then leave Egypt, crossing the Red Sea and ultimately traveling to Canaan.

What is the plot change? It revolves around why the Egyptian Pharaoh refused to free the enslaved Hebrews. In the Old Testament, God “hardened pharaoh’s heart.” In Prince of Egypt, that part gets left out entirely. Instead, the pharaoh refuses to let the Hebrews go out of his own pride and a sort of sibling rivalry (in this telling, Moses grew up as a brother to the pharaoh). In the end, his own pride and stubbornness keeps him from freeing the Hebrews. 

Here is what God says to Moses before beginning the plagues on Egypt, as recorded in the Bible:

Exodus 7: 1-5

Then the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.”

Even as an evangelical this story confused me. Why would God make someone do something and then punish him for it? The plagues upon Egypt included everything from boils to hail to, in the end, the death of every firstborn child, and from what the passage says, they weren’t necessary. If God hadn’t hardened pharaoh’s heart, the Hebrews would have been freed without this need for destruction.

A later Bible passage makes it clear why God does this:

Exodus 10: 1-2

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the LORD.”

In other words, God wanted to show off. God wanted to do great “signs and wonders” to make a name for himself, never mind this involved making the ruler of Egypt into an automaton and reigning death on the kingdom. This doesn’t sound very much like the kind, loving, just, and merciful God of modern mainstream Christianity.

It’s really not surprising that Prince of Egypt leaves out the part about God “hardening” pharaoh’s heart. It does make me wonder. How often are the stories changed in movies based on Bible stories because of a need to make them more acceptable and smooth over the contradictions of the Biblical God?

Also, I know I have a few Jewish readers. I’d really appreciate knowing what the Jewish understanding of this passage is, as the Jewish understanding of the Old Testament often seems so completely foreign when compared to Christian understandings.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    If I recall correctly, it’s kind of more like “I want to show off so they’ll know I’m the best god there is.” If you read the language of the earlier books of the Bible, it’s clear that the early Hebrew people believed in a sort of polytheistic religion. Yahweh was their “chosen” god, and he was better than all the other gods. Sometime between those earlier books and later ones, with edits and revisions, the polytheistic Canaanite culture was replaced with the monotheistic Hebrew one.

    Later editors took out or altered verses that expressed a polytheistic nature – but they didn’t get everything.

    • MadGastronomer

      It’s called henotheism: believing in the existence of many gods, but only worshiping one.

      • Amin

        Actually, the more accurate term is monolatry or monolatrism.
        As it is put on Wikipedia: “Monolatry is distinguished from monotheism, which acknowledges the existence of only one god, and henotheism, which consistently worships one god without denying that other persons can with equal validity worship different gods.” (emphasis added)
        - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monolatrism

    • Ysanne

      Actually, this is even reflected in the 10 commandments: “I am the Lord your God.”, “You shall have no gods before me.”, plus the stuff about graven images that are not to be made and worshipped.
      Not “there are no other gods” or “all other deities are imaginary but I am real!” — these subtleties aren’t even addressed.
      It’s very pragmatically about “I am the boss, don’t even think about getting another one!”

  • Rachel

    You know, just yesterday I wondered what you thought of the movie, and whether you would show it to Sally someday. I didn’t like it when I was in Orthodox day school and refused to see it with my family because it took too many liberties with the text, but I saw it in college and it quickly became a favorite. I love that they use midrash in the story — not all of it, of course, but lots of it.

    I am not an expert on this, and I don’t have time to look this up, but the idea is that, though God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, he wasn’t doing anything against Pharaoh’s earlier inclinations: Pharaoh was going to be a dick no matter what. I *think*, and I will have to check sources on this, that there’s a midrash that says after a couple of the plagues, Pharaoh was going to give up, and that’s when Hashem hardened his heart — because once he’d gone down this path, and been warned, it was too late to change the consequences. (Also, Pharaoh is supposed to have changed his mind a whole lot: he would say, “no, you can go,” the plague would stop, and he’d reverse his decisions.)

    (Note my use of God/Hashem? I slipped into using the more religious term when I delved into Midrash, and decided to keep it so you know when background set in.)

    The other idea is that Pharaoh, at this point, had already crossed the moral event horizon, and then some, not just by putting the Jews into slavery, but by advocating for genocidal assimilation by killing all the Jewish boy babies so the Jewish women would have to marry Egyptians.

    To Katherine’s point above, the traditional Jewish interpretation wasn’t that God was showing off his power over other Jewish gods (and whether or not Katherine is right about polytheistic early Hebrews, this is not what traditional Jews believe about their history*), but rather that he was showing off his power over the uselessness of the Egyptian idols. Who could do pretty awesome magic, and could replicate most of the plagues on their own, which is one of the reasons it took 10. That’s also why they slaughtered sheep: that was a really bitchy move on God’s part, telling the Jews to go off killing the sacred animal of the Egyptians. At least we’re sad that Egyptians died as collateral damage.

    *This may be my bias, because I don’t like the documentary hypothesis: I think it’s uselessly complicated, and basically believes that all historical documents have to be consistent. I do agree with Katherine’s point that there have definitely been edits to the text in the last two thousand years — some accidental, some deliberate.

  • Keith

    Doesn’t say much for the Christian doctrine of free will. Apologists are generally pretty supportive of this doctrine, as they say it neatly explains evil. But this story shows god removing the pharaoh’s free will in this instance, with a lot of evil and suffering as he result.

    Which seems to indicate to me that god would be responsible for evil.

    • Dalillama

      Isaiah 45:7 certainly implies such:
      I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things. (NIV)

    • http://kagerato.net kagerato

      An omniscient God guarantees determinism in any case. The demonstration is trivial:

      [P1] God knows everything with certainty.
      [P2] Everything includes the future (the actual future, not hypotheticals).
      [P3] The future is where all free agents express their choices.

      [C] The choices of agents are actually predetermined, and therefore not free.

      I had a philosophy professor for a course in college who once made one of the dumbest analogies I had ever heard, on this topic or any other. He compared the fact that we can know the decisions of agents in the past (historical figures) with near-certainty to God knowing the decisions of agents in the present with absolute certainty. I was too dumbstruck by the illogicality of it, and too disinterested in the class itself, to bother to point out at the time that knowing the past and knowing the future are obviously completely different.

      One imagines that every college and university in the country has at least one professor foolish enough to make that argument. (This wasn’t a religious college, either, so we can’t make any such qualification.)

      There are other bizarre escape routes one can try. For example, randomness and random events. However, genuinely random events are equally incompatible with perfect omniscience because even God doesn’t know the result beforehand. Randomness also interferes very obviously with omnipotence, since absolute control guarantees the lack of any unknown or arbitrary outcomes.

      As an aside, I’ve posted before about how free will and determinism is a false dichotomy that — whichever side you end up on — simply ends up as a tool for supporting the status quo and existing authority. I won’t go into that again here.

      • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

        What’s wrong with that analogy? What does it mean to choose something freely?

      • http://kagerato.net kagerato

        What’s wrong with that analogy? What does it mean to choose something freely?

        In the weakest sense, it means that the decision is not made in advance. Whether literally, as in the case of omniscient God, or merely practically, as in cases like imprisonment and coercion, is probably not that important.

        No one is completely free, of course, as that implies having absolute power. However, reducing this to thinking there is no such thing as will and choice is absurd. We need not hop from one ridiculous conclusion to another, especially when either is without reason (let alone evidence, which in this case is laughably absent).

        The stronger senses of freedom and/or choice tend to refer to the existence of opportunity to pursue a goal or path that is not known or set in advance. Opportunity doesn’t guarantee any results regardless of will, of course. It’s also not clear what degree of non-trivial probability is required to count as opportunity, and one suspects that this differs from person to person.

  • CJO

    Not Jewish, but from a historical/text criticism perspective, the first thing to notice is how overwhelmingly literary the treatment is. The narrator is letting us peek behind the screen of the unknowable and understand the divine reasoning. It’s similar in this regard to passages like Genesis 22:1, where we are told explicitly that God has decided to test Abraham. From the author’s and original audience’s perspective, remember, God is responsible for everything and knows everything (cf. Ps 139, where verse six says “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain it.”). That no one can know the mind of God is axiomatic, yet here we have all these stories whose implied narrators are purported to do exactly that.

    So, perforce, if God is a character in a story in which someone’s heart is hardened, God makes it so. So I think that rather than having been understood as a big dick move by God to harden Pharaoh’s heart in order to set him up for his comeuppance, it would have been understood as an acknowledgment of God’s omniscience and omnipotence as a character in a literary narrative. What happens, happens in God’s sight, because God wants it so, the story is telling us. Questions only arise under the expectation that God, standing in as the agent responsible for arbitrary and often cruel fate, is a beneficent figure. Few ancient persons harbored such an expectation; the world was too obviously an indifferent or actively malicious system to have any such illusions.

  • kagekiri

    I think it’s messed up theologically not only because God is being unjust to the Egyptians to show off, but because it basically is God taking away free will.

    That strongly counters the Christian idea that without free will, love would be meaningless, which is why God is so loving to let us have a chance to choose to suffer in Hell forever, and why humans are better than angels or other perfectly created beings because “we can choose to love God but they can’t” (of course, the identity of Satan as a fallen angel kinda messes with that idea already, but yeah, I do recall reading about saints being put above angels because they chose God).

    The defense I’ve heard of God “hardening hearts” was basically that since God is omniscient, he knew Pharaoh was going to choose to hinder the Israelites, so God just pushed Pharaoh further in the wrong direction he’d already chosen to give Himself a chance to be glorified. So, basically, Pharaoh was pre-destined to choose evil, so God just made him more evil and stupider.

    You could probably use a verse like “Those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them” from the Gospels to justify it. Pharaoh didn’t have faith or belief in God, so God just amplified that disbelief.

    Or, go with “God’s glory is the purpose of Creation, so who are we to question something that glorifies God?”

    That whole “we live to serve God and nothing bad happening to humans really matters on the scale of eternity; if we don’t understand it, it’s our problem/fault, not God’s” line for justifying things that seemed unjust/evil really screwed the hell out of my self esteem when I was Christian, yet it was the only way to justify Hell, God’s commands to rape and pillage and slaughter, or things like the story of Job to my own sense of justice.

  • Binjabreel

    Yeah, at some point the message of the Pentateuch starts to change, to emphasize the fact that YHWH has power over all people, not just the ones who worship him.

    Once upon a time, when you travelled to other lands, you assumed that the gods of that land had primacy over what happened there. This is God attempting to demonstrate that He’s the one controlling the strings of history, much like when he assures the prophet in Israel (Elijah? I forget now.) that the destruction of Israel at the hands of the Syrians and Babylonians is indeed His work, and that He can even use the armies of the infidels as a tool for shaping history.

    It also functions as a good cognitive defense, since otherwise the question can be raised, “if God is all-powerful, and He told me to change Pharoh’s mind, then why won’t Pharoh change his mind?” The question, “Why would God tell you to do something and then immediately make sure it won’t happen?” lends itself much more readily to being dismissed with just some hand waving.

    Of course, I’m not Jewish, either, I just adore theology and history and psychology.

  • Landon

    Rabbi Telushkin gives a particularly gymnastic answer to this in his book “Biblical Literacy,” but I can’t find my copy just now, so I don’t know what it is off hand. I’ll post again when I find it – in the meantime, if anyone else has it or can find it on Google Books…

  • CJO

    I don’t like the documentary hypothesis: I think it’s uselessly complicated, and basically believes that all historical documents have to be consistent. I do agree with Katherine’s point that there have definitely been edits to the text in the last two thousand years — some accidental, some deliberate.

    Well, la-de-da. Seems like an awfully casual dismissal of the farthest-reaching conclusion arising from more than two centuries of text-criticism on the Bible.

    The DH is not predicated on the idea that “all historical documents have to be consistent”. It does, however, start with the premise that where we have a compilation of ancient literature of unknown provenance that contains doublets, retellings of the same basic narratives, and where those doublets betray authorship at different periods motivated by different concerns, it’s entirely reasonable to posit that some of the seemingly unitary texts are in fact composites, the product of rewriting and redaction long after the original authorial activity. It should be noted also that this activity all happened longer ago than two thousand years.

    The only alternative to some version of the DH would seem to me to be late, more or less unitary composition (with extensive use of sources), of very nearly the whole of the Tanach, in say, the late Persian and/or Hellenistic periods. Some “minimalist” scholars like Thompson and Lemche are pursuing such ideas in their work, and there may be something to it. Certainly, this appears to avoid what you and others see as the needless complexity of the standard DH, but it opens up a whole other set of problems. For one, it would be a literary acheivement unprecedented in the ancient world. Maybe only Herodotus would come close. For another, this person, or school of scribes, or what have you, would have had to have introduced their masterpiece as already being of great antiquity, given that so many of the sources would have been obvious and well-known. At a certain point, distributed authorship in time and place followed by more or less extensive redaction comes to seem less complicated than the kind of scribal conspiracy that would have been required and for which we have no evidence.

    • Rachel

      CJO – To me, the documentary hypothesis is a needlessly complicated invention akin to the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy. It’s not a scientific proof, it’s a literary invention because 18th and 19th century scholars didn’t think how it was put together made sense, and made their own version. I don’t agree with it. Many academics agree with this position. It’s not a ridiculous position to hold. Note that I’m not arguing in favor of Mosaic authorship, or even divine inspiration: just that instead of different sources being redacted together, each with its own agenda, it’s more likely that there was one text with additions and deletions gathered over time, some more recent than others. Which is the more common current theory.

      Re free will: in Pirkei Avot, it’s said, “Everything is foreseen by God, yet free will is granted to man.” We have free will, God just knows what the choices are going to be. With Pharaoh, after he had repeatedly ignored

      From aish.com, a website I don’t necessarily recommend (http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48937417.html):

      Rabbi Yochanan said: “Does this not provide heretics with ground for arguing that he had no means of repenting, since it says: ‘for I have hardened his heart’? (Midrash Rabbah, Shmot 13:3)
      The Midrash provides an answer:
      To which Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish replied: “Let the mouths of the heretics be stopped up … when God warns a man once, twice, and even a third time, and he still does not repent, then does God close his heart against repentance so that He should exact vengeance from him for his sins. Thus it was with the wicked Pharaoh. Since God sent five times to him and he took no notice, God then said: ‘You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart; well, I will add to your uncleanness.’” (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 13:3)

      Then again, if you think God does have control over everything, then Ramses’s sibling rivalry was also caused by God…;)

      I’m surprised at people who never thought the Exodus story is brutal: it’s a story of survival, of supernatural survival, with costs. During the seder, we pour out from the cup of wine to remember the Egyptians who died. We mourn for them. But at the same time, the other side is putting the Hebrews into hard labor for centuries and has been literally attempting to kill Hebrew babies and commit genocide. It’s not happy, except for the escaping slavery part. (Which makes it really fun, 3500+ years later, when people start using the Bible to justify slavery…)

      • ‘Tis Himself, OM

        My reading of Exodus is that God is a sadistic bully with the emotional maturity of a spoiled six year old. He kills people just because he can. For instance, the omniscient God has the Hebrews mark their houses so that, in the midst of his killing frenzy, he doesn’t kill some of the wrong children by mistake.

        One thing I’ve noticed about most gods is they’re immature bullies. Omnipotence, omniscience, and various other omnis do not a wise deity make.

      • Dalillama

        “Everything is foreseen by God, yet free will is granted to man.” We have free will, God just knows what the choices are going to be.

        This is self contradictory. If it is known beforehand what actions will occur, and there is no probability that something else will occur, it is entirely meaningless to say that a choice was involved, because every action is foreordained.

      • Rachel

        Om – Sure, by 21st standards, Exodus is pretty horrifying. But this isn’t a text that was intended to be understood in the context of the 21st century. It’s not even in the same context of the world of Omnia. It was intended to be seen in the context of Molech, where there were worshippers who offered up their own children to the flames. Or, again, the mass murder of Hebrew babies, and working Hebrew slaves to death, because the Egyptians wanted to “sleep with” (i.e. rape) the Hebrew women. (And for the record, the traditional Jewish understanding of the sacrifice of Isaac was to make it very clear that under no circumstance would child sacrifice ever be allowed or permissable under Jewish law: Jephthah’s sacrificing of his daughter is seen as an abomination. This led me to a lot of confusion when I first heard about Jesus: why would God, who so hates human sacrifice, sacrifice his own son? That goes entirely against all of the Tanakh!)

        Dalillama – But the person doesn’t know it’s foreseen, so the choice still matters. For all you know, this conversation was meant to happen, by God or gods unknown. But if we sat down and refused to type any more, in order to defy the omnipotent will…that was also foreseen. When absolutely everything is foreseen, your choices end up mattering again, because you do the thing you were meant to do because you choose to do it. It’s not automatic: it’s basically quantum physics on a large scale, thought up before quarks (or physics) were ever determined. (Again: I am not endorsing this view of the world. I’m just saying, this is how it is interpreted, by those who believe it.)

      • http://kagerato.net kagerato

        When absolutely everything is foreseen, your choices end up mattering again, because you do the thing you were meant to do because you choose to do it. It’s not automatic: it’s basically quantum physics on a large scale, thought up before quarks (or physics) were ever determined.

        What an utterly nonsensical construction, and very woo heavy on top of that. If it’s not “automatic”, then it’s not actually determined. If it were similar to events in quantum physics, then it would be random (according to a probability distribution), not determined. I wrote more about this already in a response to #3 above.

  • Alexs

    “How often are the stories changed in movies based on Bible stories because of a need to make them more acceptable and smooth over the contradictions of the Biblical God?”

    It’s pretty much standard operating procedure. “Solomon and Sheba” has Sheba quoting Ruth “Your people shall be my people and …”. “The Story of Ruth” begins with Ruth as a child being prepared as a human sacrifice to a Moabite idol. “The Ten Commandments” begins with an introduction by the producer explaining that since there is little of Moses early life to be found in the bible, that they have used Jewish oral traditions to expand on it.

  • Landon

    Well, I still can’t find my Telushkin, but the Oxford Bible Commentary just bites the bullet – it references several scholars who come to the conclusion that Libby Anne came to, which is to say that the primary purpose of this whole shebang was to show off for the Jews, to impress his own people, rather than to gain their freedom. After all, what’s the good in getting them free if they won’t worship you after?

    Basically, one thug viciously and dramatically beats up another thug, not to give his captive freedom, but to scare the victim into service to a new master.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    They changed other stuff, too. Moses killing the overseer is turned into an accident.

    • Amin

      Interesting, seeing as it is displayed as a deliberate act in the Bible:
      “Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” Ex 2,12
      Moses first assured that no one was watching him before he killed the Egyptian. Doesn’t sound much like an accident to me.

  • Maverick

    Commentaries vary from those that say god nullified Pharaohs will entirely so he could show off (like those Landon mentions), to those who say (eg. Maimonidies) that the hardening was only to balance the influence of circumstances (ie. the plagues) that would place undue influence on Pharaoh and effectively remove his free will (so hardening his heart gave Pharaoh the ability to choose of his own volition).

    I would imagine artists and writers usually use poetic license with the Biblical stories. In this case, the change made Pharaoh a more complex character than the flat one in the original.

  • Pingback: UPDATE: Prince of Egypt modifies a Bible story | Love Joy Feminism « Regional Wars!

  • davidct

    If leaving slavery means 40 years of living off the land in the Sinai desert you need some heavy duty scaring. You need to get people to do that and kiss your ass at the same time. It is so much fun to be the chosen people. No wonder they kept switching over to Baal.

    • Ysanne

      It beats being the non-chosen people who get used when god decides to make a point about his power and his willingness to use it for hurting and killing.

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      On of my favorite “Far Side” cartoons shows Mr. and Mrs. Moses in the desert. The wife is saying, “But would you ask the burning bush for directions? No, not Mr. ‘I’d rather wander the desert for 40 years’.”

    • anne mariehovgaard

      It always confused me that they needed 40 years to cross the desert, when Mensen Ernst walked from Alexandria to Jerusalem in 24 days in 1827. And he took the scenic route.

      • anat

        They spent 38 of the years in Kadesh Barnea, just on the border, waiting for the last of the original generation (bar Joshua and Caleb) to die. The message of Exodus + Numbers on slavery as an institution is that slavery corrupts the slave. That a person born and raised in slavery becomes unfit to live as a free person, the best they can hope for is to have their children in the desert and die so their children grow free of the corruption of slavery.

  • Gordon

    This movie is what made me realise how horrible and how evil the exodus story is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mvils leni

    Maverick:

    …that the hardening was only to balance the influence of circumstances (ie. the plagues) that would place undue influence on Pharaoh and effectively remove his free will (so hardening his heart gave Pharaoh the ability to choose of his own volition).

    That is just… I’m speechless. It’s so stunningly absurd that it almost made sense for a second.

    • BlackHumor

      You’ll find that’s common among rabbinical explanations, I’m afraid.

  • seditiosus

    I found this episode quite disturbing when I was a kid. It was one of my earliest “hey, something’s not right here” moments.

    • Ysanne

      See, that’s why in my children’s bible, it wasn’t God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but Pharaoh himself…

  • DataSnake

    My favorite quote on the ten plagues: “There is a word for the school of thought that says ‘you will do as I say or I will kill your children.’: Terrorism.”

  • esther

    In a way, God wanted to show off but it was only because the Egyptians refused to believe in His power. In order to harden Pharoah’s heart, God had to capture his attention first, as well as the attention of the Egyptians. He chose to do this through 10 plagues, which is a symbolic number in the Bible. When Moses asks Pharaoh to let his people go so that they may worship the Lord, Pharaoh is unfamiliar with who ‘the Lord’ is. Because the Egyptians were polytheistic and served well over 70 gods, they had no idea who Moses’ God was. Therefore, in order to let the Egyptians see who He was, God had to prove his existence through the 10 plagues. Each of the 10 plagues was a direct hit against many of the Egyptian gods. For example, even the first plague directly attacked gods that the Egyptians worshiped. The first, Hapi, was god of the Nile. The second was god of the annual flooding of the Nile and Heket was the goddess of water. Therefore, in order to prove his power over the Egyptian gods, God had to address them all.
    Hope this makes it somewhat clearer.


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