Updated: Dec 7, 2020
The Book of Exodus is one of the most adapted stories in the Bible, for obvious reasons. It is one of the most foundational stories to the entire biblical narrative and the people of Israel and it overflows with visual spectacle and meaty themes.
Several months ago I did a series of imaginative exercises speculating about how to adapt the book of Genesis for a visual medium. I want to try the same general experiment with Exodus, although I'll be breaking it up a little differently. Instead of proceeding story by story, I'll do some higher level overviews, looking at the characters, plot trajectory, & themes for each "season."
Season 1 will begin with Israel in slavery, facing the genocide of its male children, and it will end with Israel released from slavery in the wake of the death of Egypt's male children. Roughly speaking, we'll be covering Exodus 1-12.
A written narrative can talk abstractly about what "the sons of Israel" did, but a visual medium has to zoom in and show us the actions and opinions of specific individuals.
We'll begin by thinking about the characters for this season. This is a particularly important area to focus on when adapting a biblical story because the portrayal of characters in the Bible often lacks the detail and interiority that modern viewers expect from a sophisticated show.
The high altitude of the biblical narratives poses another problem/opportunity for characterization in a visual medium. A written narrative can talk abstractly about what "the sons of Israel" did, but a visual medium has to zoom in and show us the actions and opinions of specific individuals. But this is only a problem for those who slavishly want to translate the source material without making their own creative contribution. For those who are not afraid to innovate, the generalized statements about the Israelites create an opportunity to craft original characters that help embody its themes.
Embodying "the Sons of Israel"
One of the most salient characteristics of the Israelites in the original Exodus narrative is their fickleness. We see them constantly swinging between extreme positions: at some points ready to leave Egypt, at other points protesting that they never wanted to leave, and at yet other points seeking to continue under an alternate leadership. While it is possible for a single individual to go through drastic swings like this, it's much more difficult to capture that kind of internal conflict in a visual medium.
Fortunately this erratic journey doesn't belong to a single individual; it belongs to the Israelites as a collective. As a result, the conflict can be embodied as an externally and visibly. Different positions - the pro-Exodus, pro-Egypt, & alt-Exodus - can be personified and represented by specific individuals and those individuals can debate and compete for the hearts and wills of their people. The points in the biblical narrative when Israel appears to undergo a heel-face turn can be depicted as moments when the representative of a new position gains ascendancy among the people.
With this in mind, a few characters seem necessary:
The Pro-Egypt Appeasers
In the biblical narrative, Pharaoh foments internal division among the Israelites and opposition to Moses by setting Israelite foremen in charge of other Israelite slaves (Exodus 5). After the Exodus commences, we're also told that sons of Israel begin claiming that they never wanted to leave Egypt (Exodus 14:11-12) and even propose to return (Numbers 14:2-4). This data supports the existence of a pro-Egypt faction among the Israelites.
Due to the comparative power and comfort they have in Egypt, they are resistant to the changes that Moses stirs up. When Pharaoh finally does command the Exodus, they're forced to leave, but they do so reluctantly and while still harboring a hope to return.
Because the narrative encompasses multiple lifetimes, we would need a few generations of Pro-Egypt appeasers. We don't need a lot of them - just a father and son who can gainsay Moses and voice skepticism toward his plan to leave. They would work in tandem with an Egyptian taskmaster, who would embody the brutality and viciousness of the Egyptian regime. The appeasers would perform their role convinced that they are lessening the suffering of their people and that Moses is an agitator who will bring nothing but more pain.
The Alt-Exodus Revolutionaries
Not all of the opposition to Moses will come in a Pro-Egypt direction. During the Golden Calf incident, we see that there is also a movement among the Israelites to continue on toward the promised land while forsaking the monotheistic leadership of Moses (Exodus 32). While we're not told anything explicitly about an Alt-Exodus faction before this, Moses' own story hints at the possibility. Moses famously kills an Egyptian oppressing an Israelite (Exodus 2:11-15) and there's evidence that he saw this not as a one-off act of vigilantism but rather as the potential start of a revolution (Acts 7:23-29). Eventually, Moses repudiates this violent anthropocentric approach in favor of an Exodus achieved through the power of Yahweh, but it seems possible that there were others who favored a human revolution.
The leaders of the Alt-Exodus faction (a father-son pair, mirroring the Pro-Egypt faction) would seek to incite a violent Israelite uprising in Egypt with the help of an outside military power. Indeed, it's the fear of just this scenario that leads Pharaoh to intensify the oppression of Israel in the source narrative (Exodus 1:8-10). In the broader biblical storyline, military alliances of this kind are often cemented through intermarriage and the worship of common idols (cf. Solomon), and so the same elements should be involved in the Alt-Exodus plot as well. When Pharaoh encounters Moses, he will see him through the lens of his experience with these revolutionaries, which contributes to his wavering yet stubborn heart. He sees the writing on the wall but he doesn't want to give in to what he would basically see as terrorism.
The Pro-Exodus Faithful
When it comes to depicting the faithful faction that participate in the Exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, there isn't a need to invent new characters; existing characters just need to be given more depth or screen time.
Moses is, of course, the leader of this faction. He is one of the few fully rounded characters in the source narrative and so he requires much less work. Perhaps the most challenging task with Moses is disentangling what we know about him from the biblical narrative from what we assume about him based on other adaptations. Cecil DeMille's The Ten Commandments and Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt both reinforce the assumption that Moses was unaware of his Israelite identity until adulthood, and that this sudden revelation contributed to the events that led him to kill an Egyptian. And yet there's no evidence in the biblical material that Moses was unaware of his Israelite origins; indeed, if Moses was circumcised, he was probably all too aware.
There are a few other assumptions influenced by The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt that need to be rethought:
In order to make Moses more sympathetic, the murder of an Egyptian is often depicted as an accident or at least not fully intentional. On the contrary, Moses seems to envision himself as a kind of revolutionary setting out to free his people.
During his upbringing in the court of the Pharaoh of the oppression, Moses is portrayed as a competitor for the throne, perhaps even receiving greater favor than the future Pharaoh of the Exodus. It seems unlikely that a child adopted by the daughter (not son) of Pharaoh and known to be from a hated slave population would ever be seriously considered in line for the throne or on par with the natural heir. While a pre-existing relationship between Moses and the Pharaoh of the Exodus is an opportunity that's too tantalizing to pass by, making them peers goes too far.
Moses' transformation into a leader is often presented as sudden and complete. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Moses did not suddenly have all of his hair turn white and become perfectly faithful: the bridegroom of blood incident, Moses' complaints against God in the wake of his initial "failure," and several events in the wilderness suggest that Moses was a much more three dimensional character, even during his later years.
In addition to Moses, his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, can play expanded roles in the narrative. When Moses returns to Egypt and prepares for the Exodus, they will play a role in catching him up to speed on what's been going on in his absence. It may also be worth hinting at the start of a rift within the family that eventually culminates in their rebellion against his leadership while in the wilderness (Numbers 12).
Of course, the parents of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, Amram and Jochebed, are also significant, particularly for any episodes that take place before Moses is born. They will themselves be people of extraordinary faith. Jochebed seems to be the more active of the too, which could fit with Amram being slightly more fearful but ultimately dedicated to preserving the life of their son in defiance of Pharaoh's edict.
We also have plenty to work with when it comes to the external opponents of Moses in Egypt. The two Pharaohs, the Pharaoh of the Oppression and the Pharaoh of the Exodus, both seem to be arrogant, stubborn, and very nationalistic. To add a touch of depth, I think it would be interesting to make the Pharaoh of the Exodus start off more sympathetic and compassionate toward the Israelites, only to have his worst fears proven true when the Alt-Exodus faction attempts to rebel. If in his youth we see him considering how to treat the Israelites more humanely, it would make his fuming over the Israelites being "idle" all the more poignant.
Pharaoh's magicians have intrigued previous generations of Bible artists - and for good reason. They serve as an interesting foil to Moses throughout the plague stories. Moreover, the source narrative makes it clear that Pharaoh isn't acting as a solitary individual. Actions are usually ascribed to "Pharaoh and his servants." While this probably suggests an entire royal court, the magicians can serve as representatives of this group. They can give us insight into the political stakes for Pharaoh that prevent him from simply capitulating to Moses' demands. When Pharaoh's heart begins to soften toward Israel, their provocations (intentional or not) can egg him and make him harden himself once more (Pharaoh and Moses' common love interest serves this function in The Ten Commandments).
Jethro and his Midianite tribe play a relatively minor role and so I don't feel compelled to make them too three dimensional. They seem to be firmly pro-Moses. Moses' wife Zipporah is notable for her boldness in cutting off the foreskin of her child - an act that also suggests a clear understanding of Yahweh's purposes.
The Alt-Exodus faction necessitates the existence of an outside nation in opposition to Egypt. Some people would find it interesting to research what nations could realistically have tried to pull that off in the historical setting of the Exodus, but, alas, I am not that kind of person. For the sake of this project, I'll just refer to this group in general terms (e.g. Foreign Nation). Regardless of what nation it actually could have been historically, I'll make assumptions that seem safe for the general region (i.e. idolatrous/polytheistic, war-like, alliance-making).
Okay, that's the extent of the character-work that I'm planning on doing for this season. With that out of the way, we'll now be ready to begin plotting out how the narrative elements from the source material will translate into episodes in a visual medium.