In the late 80s and early 90s, The Ten Commandments aired on television every Easter Sunday, so like a Norman Rockwell painting, my family watched it together at my grandmother’s house while eating cake shaped like a cartoon rabbit’s head; coconut supplementing for fur and jelly beans for eyes and a mouth. I loved the way Anne Baxter said “Moses” with her affluent Hollywood-meets-Connecticut accent, I loved Yul Brenner’s diversity hire as the Pharaoh, but mostly I loved the Egyptian imagery. I realize I was supposed to be rooting against them, but the Egyptians had all the cool palaces and statues. Moses had zero statues. The Egyptians also had colorful costumes and shiny, fitted armor while Moses and his gang had muddy makeup caked on their faces to trick us into believing they were vaguely ethnic. So while I knew to root for the Hebrews, I was far more intrigued by the Egyptians.
I enjoyed the first part of the film when Moses saved his mother from being smushed and I was onboard as he left all he’d ever known to discover who he really was. I’d watch up to the point where Moses talked to the burning bush, after which I’d politely excuse myself to go play in another room. Not only was that the point when God, voiced by Mufasa, started shouting audibly at Moses, but it’s also when Charleton Heston was entering peak beard. That beard scared the hell out of me. I can’t place why it scared me so much but watching as he furiously stood on that mountain, throwing stone tablets at the blasphemous Israelites, well it made me completely swear off Moses in all his Moses-ness. I only had to see that once to know I should cut and run post-burning bush in any subsequent Easter viewings.
Years later when I was a freshman in college, Moses’ story actually became a large part of my life. Each year, the drama teams I directed were a part of a fine arts competition sanctioned by the denomination in which our church was a part. This was something I’d been involved with since I was in the seventh grade and every decision I made was coiled around the pillar of the drama and music we created within our church’s fine arts program. I wish every kid—not just church kids but every kid—would have the opportunity to create art that expressed their souls in the way me and my Super-Christian cohorts were able. We competed at the district level in the spring and then at the national level toward the end of the summer. The national competitions were held in a different city each year so the trip was a week-long arts camp/vacation hybrid with my best friends and as such, it was my favorite week of the year.
When I graduated from high school, I left the competing part behind but continued in a directorial capacity for three more years. The Prince of Egypt had hit theaters long before, but the soundtracks (there were three) were in a regular rotation in my Discman long after. On the bus back from Nationals, I listened to the music from the movie and as I did, a story began building itself in my head. What if instead of telling the story of the Exodus through Moses’ eyes, we told it through Pharaoh’s? I’d never seen that before. Every way I’d ever heard this story, it was always about Moses and everyone else was the supporting cast. What if it was flipped around?
While listening to the songs on repeat for hours—a pad of paper sitting on top of my backpack-sized case of CDs—I wrote out the story, the cuts from the songs which could be spliced together, and some general ideas as to how we could create it on stage. It all happened at once, as if it was beamed into me at warp speed. This is floofy writer-talk—Elizabeth Gilbert calls it “big magic” and wrote a super great book about it—but all I know is that one moment I was sitting on the bus listening to Hans Zimmer’s orchestrations and the next, I was feverishly writing down and charting out the barrage of ricocheting ideas in my head. I believe that “magic” moment of inspiration comes from God and on that day, God filled my brain with a magical idea I’m still writing about 15 years later.
Over the next year, Pharaoh felt like he was riding in the chariot alongside me as I brainstormed, built, choreographed, rehearsed and then released this story with my team of teenagers. It was met with a standing ovation at the district level and again at Nationals, but beyond any acclaim we may have received over the course of that year, I began to consider things from Pharaoh’s perspective. As the director of the group, I spent more time with this story than anyone and as such, I began to empathize with this world leader who today serves as nothing more than a one dimensional foil for the Old Testament’s big hero, Moses. We often forget about the fact that when something great happened to our Bible heroes, something awful happened to someone else (or an entire generation of someones).
Pharaoh’s story arc really begins when Moses returns to Egypt post-burning bush. To get an idea of the setup from the Pharaoh’s perspective, imagine you’re the king of the biggest empire in the world. Your father, someone revered by millions as a great leader, has died and you’ve taken up his mantle to not only maintain his empire of abundance but to enlarge it for the sake of your own expected legacy. Then, in the middle of launching that expansion, your adopted brother who you haven’t seen in years comes marching through your front door.
(It’s important to note here that nothing in the Bible actually says this Pharaoh was raised alongside Moses. It makes sense that would be the case because of the importance of lineage in ancient hierarchical structures, but nothing states either biblically or historically this was true.)
Regardless, Moses walked in and Pharaoh found himself in a state of complete shock. The man he knew from his time in Egypt, the man he ate with, drank with and trusted, had returned from exile. While the Bible presents a fairly bare bones version of their interaction, the reality was definitely more human. Two men with a shared history, seeing each other for the first time in years. It’s a lot to take in.
Now, go back to imagining you’re Pharaoh. You’re in shock over seeing your long lost friend/brother but before you’ve even had a chance to process his return, he tells you he’s not there to be welcomed back into the fold. Rather, he’s there because a God you’ve never heard of has told him you’re to release millions of people from your workforce—just because he said so. Awkward pause.
It’s no wonder Moses’ request sent Pharaoh into a reactionary tailspin; it didn’t make any rational sense. Release millions of people from his workforce just because? “Who cares that we share a history? How dare you come in here and boss me, the leader of all things, around?” In what was an overreaction by a long shot, Pharaoh told his men to stop giving the Hebrews straw for making clay bricks. “Moses, you’re here for 20 minutes and you’re already annoying me so your people can go get the straw themselves,” he said. “Oh, and I expect the same level of output regardless of having doubled their workload.” This was impossible and in response to Pharaoh’s petty reaction to Moses’ left field request, the Hebrews turned their frustration toward Moses for causing them such grief.
“May the Lord look upon you and judge you. For you have caused us to be hated by Pharaoh and his servants. You have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” [Exodus 5:21] We know that wasn’t Moses’ intention but it’s impossible to blame the Hebrew people for being angry at their doubled workload. To them Moses was, in that moment at least, a politician with a great slogan but no follow-through.
In the middle of angering the people he claimed he was there to liberate, there’s an interesting episode between Moses, his brother Aaron, and Pharaoh. Aaron served as Moses’ mouthpiece and stayed at his side wherever he went. When Moses told Pharaoh, yet again, to let their people go, Pharaoh flipped it back to them, telling them to prove this God of theirs actually existed by doing something powerful. Aaron threw down his walking stick in front of Pharaoh and the stick turned into a snake. See, I think that’s interesting. Gross, but interesting. I would think a piece of wood turning into a snake constituted “something powerful” as requested but in response, Pharaoh’s mystics and magicians were able to do the same thing. Each of them threw down their sticks and upon doing so, theirs also turned into snakes. This is a much overlooked plot point. In Sunday School, we focused on the fact that Aaron’s snake ate the others—which is also gross but still interesting—but the “something powerful” was the transformation and Pharaoh’s people were able to do the same thing. So again, why would Pharaoh listen to Moses when his people were able to pull off the same stunt? Needless to say, he did not let the Hebrews go.
The next part is the part most people know: the plagues. First, the water in the Nile turned to blood and all the fish died. Then the Nile filled with frogs, which is, again, gross. As a matter of fact, there were so many frogs that they hopped into the houses of the Egyptians and right into their beds. Super gross. After that, everyone got lice before swarms of flies showed up. As a result, disease killed all of the livestock. It was pretty nonstop and each time gross things happened to Egypt, Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron and told them if they made it go away, he’d let the Hebrews go. Each time, Moses and Aaron prayed the deluge of grossness away and in return, Pharaoh went against his word and refused to let the Hebrews leave. Hail and fire fell from the sky, locusts flew in, darkness covered the land, and still, Pharaoh wouldn’t let the Hebrews go. At that point, his obstinacy was based on his pride, not on his need for bodies to build temples. There couldn’t have been that much work going on at that point anyway. How can someone focus on raising the perfect obelisk with bugs and frogs and fire falling from the sky?
Thanks mostly to movie adaptations of the Exodus story, Ramesses is the name most commonly used for the pharaoh in Moses’ story though there’s no historical or archaeological evidence to prove it. A quick internet search will provide you with evidence that any number of Egyptian pharaohs could be the prideful pharaoh on the receiving end of the plagues. The explanation I like the best comes from Alfred Edersheim. In his book, Old Testament Bible History, he posits that Thutmose II is the most qualified to have been the pharaoh of the Exodus because he is said to have had a brief but prosperous reign before it suddenly collapsed. He also had no son to succeed him. Thutmose II is also the only pharaoh’s mummy to be found with cysts on it, possible evidence of the plagues that spread through the Egyptian empire during his reign. Of course there are just as many reasons why he wasn’t Moses’ Pharaoh, but that’s not the point. The point is that a man in charge of an empire couldn’t or wouldn’t see what was right in front of his face.
It’s only at the point when the first-born in Egypt die that the Pharaoh’s pride breaks. The Bible says, “And there was a loud cry in Egypt. For there was no home where there was not someone dead.” [Exodus 12:30] That very night, Pharaoh told Moses and Aaron to take their people and get the hell out of there. The Bible goes so far as to say the Egyptians were hurrying the Hebrews out of the land because they were so tired of the pain and death they now associated with them and their God.
But it didn’t take long before Pharaoh changed his mind. A few million workers just took off? And I let them? Me? The Pharaoh? Naw. Marshaling the power of the Egyptian army, he commanded they go after the Hebrews.
This is the setup for the grandest moment in Moses’ story: the moment where the sea splits in two and all those Hebrews walk across on dry land. Pharaoh’s army was charging and prepared to either take them back or kill them so Moses lifted his staff into the air, the waters split in two and the Hebrews began their trek across. The Bible says, “And the Lord moved the sea all night by a strong east wind.” [Exodus 14:21] I love this. I love it so much. It’s skipped over so often and it shouldn’t be. Why? Because it’s a practical explanation as to how the sea was miraculously moved.
I’ve had conversations with Christians who’ve become very nervous when I bring up the practical explanation of the Bible’s miracles. They tell me to stop trying to explain it and just have faith in the miracle as it’s written. But why is the timing of those east winds not a miracle?
Even if that’s the natural explanation of a supernatural event, does that diminish the miracle of their evading capture? Yes, it probably means this event didn’t look like it did on the big screen in The Prince of Egypt. There probably weren’t walls of water that stood hundreds of feet tall and the likelihood of the carefully placed silhouette of a whale being illuminated by the light of a stormy sky is super slim, but that doesn’t change the fact that “the Lord moved the sea all night by a strong east wind.” That’s amazing. That’s astonishing. That’s a miracle.
Seeing the walkway within the water, the Egyptians followed after the Hebrews, but all of Pharaoh’s horses and all of Pharaoh’s men couldn’t put the Hebrews back in Egypt again. At some point, they realized they were surrounded by the sea and right around the time they got scared, the winds stopped and the water returned to the way it was before, thus wiping out the entire Egyptian army. As dead Egyptians washed up onto the shore, I wish we knew what Pharaoh was thinking. We never get the tail end of his story. The Bible moves on to follow the protagonist Moses and that’s the last we hear of Pharaoh’s tale. I imagine he was emotionally desiccated; drained to the point of collapse.
Pharaoh’s story is a lesson against allowing pride and tradition to dictate your decision making. I actually don’t believe he was inherently evil but I do think he succumbed to the weight placed on his shoulders by his empire and himself. He reached the point where he was so bent on being right he couldn’t see the forest for the trees. There was no reasoning with him even though it couldn’t be more clear he could stop this problem. He was wrong, but he was human. It makes me think, would I listen to Moses and do the crazy unknown thing or would I stick with what I know? As a church, do we stick with the way things have been, with the weight of empire we’ve built on our shoulders, or do we take the road that’s different?
The modern Evangelical church is an empire. That may be an uncomfortable pill to swallow but it carries with it all the gravitas and influence of any of the earth’s great empires. It also mobilizes its people in a way political campaigns envy. When I was at the Bible School for Super-Christians, we were told from the chapel pulpit that voting for George W. Bush was what God wanted us to do. I vividly remember hearing, “Voting Republican is a vote for God and if you don’t, then I guess I will have to pray for you,” spoken by the president of the university in an address to the student body. The crowd cheered and laughed at anyone silly enough to vote differently. Not much has changed today. In 2016, the Evangelical church followed blindly as their leaders and pastors implored them to vote Republican regardless of how openly decrepit the candidate.
The church in which I was a member during college is one of the great castles within that Evangelical empire and the pastor, its infallible ruler. Though it’d been years since I’d attended a service due to my now living 1500 miles away, I was taken aback to see that pastor among the group of white men praying for Trump in the Oval Office. He tweeted and posted those photos, claiming it was an honor to pray for the president in the White House, but I knew better. He wasn’t there out of charity or out of calling, he was there to fortify the walls of the empire by kissing the ring of a moral-less leader who’d tricked the faithful into supporting him.
But Ryan, the Bible says to pray for our leaders.
Yes it does, but you also didn’t see Jesus go kiss the ring of King Herod and Obadiah didn’t pray any goodwill for Jezebel either. Herod and Jezebel, in very blatant and obvious ways, stood diametrically opposed to the faith and ideals of Jesus and Obadiah. In the same way, Trump’s words and actions should’ve excluded him from being considered for endorsement from any pastor’s church yet that’s not what happened. Also, you can pray from home. It doesn’t require a photo op.
When I vented my frustrations specifically tied to the priggish Evangelical vote in favor of a electing a brazen bigot to the highest office in the country, those who voted for him were the quickest to tell me to get over it. They punctuated their statements with frothy taglines like, “We have to believe God will bring unity,” or “God is still in control.” Nevermind the fact most of that disunity was fostered by the man they voted into office, God was going to repair the brokenness they themselves abetted. What they meant by “unity” was “you’ll see things our way.”
Around that time, while searching online for something non-election related to read, I happened upon one of the leading thought leaders of the Christian community, Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and now, a Trump apologist. After the election, he tweeted: “I believe God’s hand intervened Tuesday night to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control.” So there’s that. Later that same day, a woman on my Facebook feed wrote, “God’s hand was definitely in this election.” Another said, “To God be the glory, the right man won.”
Well, I didn’t vote for him and I’m not an atheist—I’m a Christ-centric, Christian man—and it made me sick in my spirit to know the dots these people were publicly connecting to Jesus now intersected with someone who openly stood for racism and xenophobia.
Graham later said to the Washington Post, “I could sense going across the country that God was going to do something this year, and I believe that at this election, God showed up.” Interesting. Clarify for me if you will, which god showed up exactly? The one who mocks people with disabilities? The one who builds walls to keep immigrants out? The one who mocks women who’ve been sexually abused? The one who won’t associate with people who believe differently than you? According to Graham, that’s the god who showed up and that’s the god Christians were encouraged to vote for.
Graham went on to attribute the red state win to “the God-factor,” which is a slap in the face to any Believer who has put their faith in the God of Love. Giving God any sort of glory for a man who embodies the antithesis of what Jesus stood for is the height of hypocrisy. Still, pastors all over the country encouraged their congregations to support each other, to support the president and to let God be God. Yet, before the election, did they implore their churches to fight the bigotry, hatred and separation encouraged by their candidate? Most did not.
Knowing I wasn’t alone in my frustration, I felt compelled to articulate myself, even if in a small way. On Facebook, I posted: “To my friends who are not straight, not white, not male or not Christian: I will never stop standing with you and never stop fighting alongside you.” Now, I never expect anyone to actually read what I post, much less comment on it—I don’t think that highly of myself—but someone did and his response read, “God calls us to love all people but not to support their agenda.”
That agenda he referenced included only one bullet point: Equality for all Americans. So, if that’s the agenda he wasn’t supporting, good to know. In the lead-up and aftermath of the 2016 election, people brought their most animal selves out of hiding and rather than being a wave of hope, of optimism, and of love, the empire of the Evangelical Church stood silent and stalwart against every plague that the Republican candidate inflicted upon the country. As such, they allowed him to sully and expose their empire.
What happened in 2016 wasn’t simply a political disagreement and no one will ever be able to convince me it was. It was the desecration of the Evangelical witness. They stood firm in the belief that no matter what, their vote was preserving the empire, just as Pharaoh stood firm to protect his.
Just as I looked at Moses’ story from the perspective of Pharaoh—the opposite viewpoint of how we’re “supposed to” read it—I know how jarring it is to posit the Evangelical church as Pharaoh, the hinderer. But Pharaoh was calloused, he was comfortable, and he had the power to remain that way. The church doesn’t need fire to rain down from Heaven and it doesn’t need locusts swarming the pews, but it does need to acknowledge the way their prideful defense of “Republican” ideals enabled a man who never should’ve stepped foot on the White House property, much less been employed within it, to wreak havoc on their ability to share the love of Jesus. Because that’s what it boils down to. If people outside of your faith now associate Jesus with the bile spewed from the president’s mouth and you put him there, then you’ve presented a god that’s as false as any of Pharaoh’s statues.
You don’t believe me. There’s a chance you’re incredibly offended I’m coming for you so hard, Evangelical Christian and 2016 red voter. I get it. I know what I’m saying flies in the face of what your pastor more than likely told you. But you should also know that the view of Christianity, Inc. from outside of the Bible Belt Bubble is this: None of the hateful, harmful and heinous things Trump said and did during his campaign were deal-breakers for your faith. Nothing made you consider you’d been duped and needed to change the direction you were allowing the church to go. That’s the stain that remains on you and your witness.
The truth is, the months on either side of the 2016 election marked the first time I was embarrassed to be known as a Christian. I’ve defended my faith in gay bars to people who thought I was crazy for being a believer—people who had no qualms with loudly telling me how foolish I was and openly mocking me for it—but after watching how the church turned a blind eye to everything Trump said and did, I felt left without a leg to stand on. Despite his best efforts to show his ugliest self, a charlatan conned the church and the entire world watched as Christians embraced him. That’s indefensible.
Most of God’s people are good people and no, they’re not all racists despite the way they aligned themselves with someone who is, thus making themselves complicit in every horrible thing the president has said or done, but the pride has to fall and repentance must take place. Public, loud repentance with bullet-pointed action plans. The church allowed a cancerous king of self to warp their faith into what appears to be a money-hungry, self-serving, power-crazy empire that stands contradictory to the God they espouse. The way to the Promised Land is not by sticking with what you’ve always known or by taking the handouts Pharaoh wants to give, but by leaving into what might be the unknown and trusting God will lead you there. We’ll never know if Pharaoh came to his senses in the end. Hopefully it won’t take 40 years of being lost for the church to come to theirs.
Pharaoh and Moses’ story can be found in the book of Exodus.
So what’s this all about? Read my introduction to the Sunday School for Sinners and Saints project here.
Illustrations by freepik.com
Edersheim, A., Old Testament Bible History, originally published 1876-1887, ISBN 156563165X, p. 134