Saturday, May 7, 2011

Moses: Ex-Offender in a Grand Narrative

Cecil B. Demille's  film The Ten Commandments is still a grand cinematic event, even on the small screen, 55 years after its first release.

To ironic, postmodern senibilities, suspicious of any attempt at "grand narrative," the film's sweeping historical claims are not sustainable. And indeed, one cannot help but detect Cold War influences in Demille's grandiose presentation.

This is especially the case, for example, when the off-screen narrator asserts in a booming, not-be-questioned voice that the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt marked the Birth of Freedom into the world. I interpret this as Demille's response to the climate of McCarthyism that pervaded the 1950s, when fears of godless communism were irrationally strong. At such a time, the Judeo-Christian tradition seemed to offered a bulwark of defense against the officially atheist Soviet Union and its competing grand narrative of Marism-Leninism.

What I was most struck by, however, as I watched the film on Saturday in Holy Week, was its depiction of the story of Moses as the story of the rehabilitation of an ex-offender. This is an aspect of Moses' weighty historical persona that is not as widely known as it should be. But it is a timely one, because ex-offender reentry is one of the major issues our society faces in this age of mass incarceration.

The Book of Exodus, Chapter 2, mentions Moses' killing of an Egyptian overseer and his flight from Pharoah's wrath into the land of Midian. In Chapter 3, God appears in the Burning Bush. After some complicated, heart-to-heart negotiations with God, Moses returns to Egypt in a new role: not the privileged prince, not the wanted felon, but spokesman for an emerging people seeking justice.

Charlton Heston, who plays Moses in an iconic role, was widely known later in life as the face of the National Rifle Assocation. But I suggest that Heston's image could be recast. His Moses is an inspiring example of an ex-offender who turned his life around and built community.

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