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.