In the Stage Musical The Ten Commandments, Val Kilmer stars as – or as the poster would have it – actually “is” Moses. According to The L.A. Weekly, the production was originally “launched” in France, and “…was the most successful show ever produced there.” This is hardly surprising and should not have influenced the decision to buy a ticket. In Hollywood, grandiose claims are par for the course. The fast food joint up the street from where I lived had a marquee out front that read: “In L.A. everyone eats at Rick’s.”
The real surprise in the article, was the reference to the play’s director Robert Iscove in which he characterized his production as “…an important story about mankind’s quest for a more peaceful existence.”
The quest for peace is unquestionably a noble enterprise, but “mankind” suggests a universal idea. In light of Moses’ career, it’s a claim that’s difficult to reconcile with the facts, and even harder to visualize in terms of finding something to sing about. I didn’t see the musical, but I have read the book.
The very notion of transposing Biblical text, i.e. the purported actual word of God, into song and dance seems both questionable and problematic. Words spoken by God Himself may be open to interpretation, but surely, by no means can they be subject to change, much less for the sake of making them rhyme. “Taking my name in vain” was one of His touchier directives.
Biblical events cannot be altered, to do so undermines the fundamental premise of the Book. This is history as declared by God himself, not a John Grisham novel. If the show strays from the facts, then both it and its precedent are invalidated in terms of essential truth. In that regard, as a musical production, the story of Moses would have had to come to terms with one incontrovertible difficulty right up front. Alluded to in the Bible, and later confirmed by Midrashic scholars is the fact that…
Moses had a stutter.
Which is why Aaron did most of the talking. The reason for this impediment is not revealed in Biblical scripture, but is nevertheless – according to Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in her hefty Reflections on Exodus – amatter of accepted fact “according to a famous legend.” To whit:
The Egyptian high priest Balaam (later famous for his talking ass) tried to convince Pharaoh, that the three-year old Moses spelled trouble, and that he should kill him. The angel Gabriel, disguised as one of the priests, interceded and suggested a test. He placed a burning coal and an onyx stone in front of him proposing that if he were a normal child, he’d go for the “shiny” one – the coal. If he were tricky, he’d go for the valuable one. Moses who is “indeed precociously wise” naturally reached for the stone, but at the last moment, Gabriel, “supernaturally” forced his hand toward the coal. Which Moses picked up, and, just like babies do (apparently) stuck in his mouth; saving his life but causing him to talk funny thereafter.
The sum result as far as the show is concerned, is that in order to remain true to the facts, Kilmer’s musical rendition of Moses could only amount to a two hour version of The Who’s “M-m-my G-g-generation.”
As Cecil B. De Mille pointed out in his unprecedented on stage/on screen introduction to his movie of the same name: “Nothing is known of the life of Moses, from the days of his infancy until his early thirties or thereabouts.” Even so, he was able to construct an entire film – or as he proposed it, “a documentary” – around this discrepancy, complete with dialogue. Based, he informed us, on the writings of Philo and Eusebius, who based their writings in turn, on books “that have since been lost or destroyed.” An explanation, right up there with the d-d-dog ate the homework.
What the Bible tells us is that the infant Moses was spotted by Pharoah’s daughter Bathia, as he floated down the river in a basket. (Just like Hindu Krishna, Babylonian king Sargon and Romulus and Remus) Her father, had just ordered the murder of all newborn Hebrew boy children, and Bathia realizing that the child must have been placed in the river to escape such a fate, decided to save his life and adopt him as her own. An absurdly suspicious arrangement under the circumstances, that nevertheless went unheeded by the rest of the family – compounded by the fact that she also gave the child a Hebrew name. (The same implausible scenario would be reprised centuries later when king Herod, who had also just pulled the ‘kill all the baby boys’ routine, is informed by certain “Wise-men” that a star, no less, has led them to the one child who has escaped… which is at that moment pointing at the stable where he’s at!)
When the Israelites were first invited to Egypt (to escape famine) there were 70 of them – a recurring number in Israelite history. 70 scholars translated the first five books of the Bible and the Torah has 70 faces etc. The original group comprised the father and relatives of Joseph – at that time a financial muck-a-muck and top adviser to the Pharaoh. Through his influence, which was clearly significant, they were given the lush territory of Goshen as their own in which to settle. Rather like a bunch of hungry folks showing up in America and being given the state of California.
Five generations later there were around 2 million of them, in the course of which supernatural reproductive behavior, (A song opportunity if ever there was one) they’d stopped being ‘guests’ and become ‘slaves.’ How and why this happened is not specified. They were clearly healthy slaves, however, with a lot of spare time on their hands, and based on their later laments in the desert, not so badly off:
NUMBERS 11:v.5. We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely: the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic.
NUMBERS 16:v.13. Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land of milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness…?
And when they were leaving:
EXODUS 12:v.38. And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks and herds, even very much cattle.
This would be their own cattle. Yahweh in His exuberance had specifically killed all the Egyptian cattle twice during His unholy onslaught of afflictions. Once with the Murain, a kind of foot and mouth presumably, and then when they were already dead, again with a hail of brimstone. Redundancy aside, the fact that He was able to pinpoint only the Egyptian cattle is noteworthy. If He was that discriminating with cows, why was it necessary to go through the elaborate rigmarole of identifying the Egyptian firstborn during Passover?
The catalogue of plagues is too well known to itemize – though difficult to imagine singing along to. Suffice to say that once the firstborn Egyptian children are all murdered the Israelites are free to leave; an opportunity for an all-out looting spree during which the Egyptians – who are busy mourning over their children – are relieved of all their valuables.
Practical concerns like food or tents etc, are ignored in the text, but with “600,000” of their men fully armed, and carts loaded to the hilt with swag, the Israelites set off in search of the Promised land: a choice piece of property up the coast, that God has picked out Himself for them as compensation for the difficulties experienced in Egypt. Oddly enough the same land they’d abandoned in the first place, which is now also “flowing with milk and honey.” The snag of course was that it happened to be someone else’s milk and honey, namely the people who were living there, a mere technicality, which God assured His folks would easily be overcome, once they arrived, At that time, He’d help them slaughter everyone in sight, and the milk and honey and everything else would be theirs. The man to lead them and organize this surprise carnage was Moses, to whom God conveyed His instructions directly:
DEUTERONOMY 7:v.1. When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hitites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites…
2. And…thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt show no mercy unto them…
Gaza is less than 300 miles from Goshen (closer than LA is to San Francisco) but with God in charge, Moses leading the way and a pillar of smoke and tower of flame up ahead to guide them, it takes the Israelites forty years to get there. Instead of going directly east, the whole kit and caboodle unaccountably went south – into the desert. God moves in mysterious ways indeed, a song and dance number without question.
The Arabian Peninsula was densely populated at this time apparently, and in the course of the forty years of wandering, there were many encounters with local folk along the way. One of the first was with the Midianites, a nostalgic moment one would think for Moses who’d fallen in love in Midian and married his Midianite wife there. His only son had also been born there – certainly a cue for a poignant melody one would think, but not so. Moses uses the occasion instead to thoroughly demonstrate his “quest for peace” methodology.
NUMBERS 31:v.7. And they warred against the Midianites … and they slew all the males.
9. And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and all their little ones, and took the spoil of their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.
10. And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire.
14. And Moses was wroth with the officers …which came from the battle.
15. And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
17. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
18. But all women children, that have not known man, by lying with him, keep for yourselves.
As slaves that is. Little girl slaves. “Have yourselves a b-b-ball”
This was early on in the proceedings, only a couple of months after the “Thou shalt not kill” directive. There were still thirty-nine more years to go…
DEUTERONOMY 2: v.34. And we took all his cities (Sihon) at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain.
35. Only the cattle we took for a prey unto ourselves, and the spoils of the cities which we took.
DEUTERONOMY 3:v. 3. So the Lord our God delivered into our hands Og also, the king of Bashan and all his people; and we smote him until none was left to him remaining
4. And we took all his cities at that time there was not a city which we took not from them…
6. And we utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon…utterly destroying the men, women and children of every city.
(N-n-next time you’re out shopping, look at the families around you and p-p-picture this idea. And maybe sing while you’re at it.)
JOSHUA 6:v. 21. And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, (Jericho) both man and woman, young and old and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.
24. And they burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein; only the silver and the gold and the vessels of brass and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord.
JOSHUA 8:v.24. And it came to pass when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Aiin in the field, and in the wilderness where they chased them and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword…
25. And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Aiin.
JOSHUA 10:v.20. And it came to pass, when Joshua and the children of Israel had made an end of slaying them (the Amorites) with a very great slaughter, till they were consumed…
26. And afterward Joshua smote them, and slew them and hanged them (kings of the Amorites) on five trees…
28. And that day Joshua took Makkedah and smote it with the edge of the sword. and the king thereof he utterly destroyed, them and all the souls that were therein; he let none remain.
And so on and so on. A relentless catalogue of premeditated carnage, fairly well summarized at the end of the chapter, but not confined to it.
JOSHUA 10: v.40. So Joshua smote all of the country of the hills, and of the south and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.
“Utterly” it seems, would be the show’s defining number. Chapters 11 and 12 of Joshua read like a warehouse inventory, listing countless kings “utterly” smitten, cities “utterly” destroyed, and men, women and children “utterly” slaughtered – and of course, swag “utterly” taken.
A number one hit, undoubtedly.
In any other military context it could be argued that all this violence may have occurred in self-defense. But God’s original directive to the Israelites ahead of time, about smiting everyone they run into and destroying them without mercy, clearly determines that the outcome of any and all encounters was a foregone conclusion. Contrary to director Iscove’s grandiose claims, “mankind’s quest for a more peaceful existence” just isn’t in the script.
As with all popular accounts of Moses, the forty-year rampage in the desert is left out entirely. Neither the Musical Ten Commandments, De Mille’s Ten Commandments, Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s Reflections on Exodus, Eli Wiesel’s The Story of Moses nor the countless storybooks and animated cartoons mention it at all.
Only the Bible – the “indisputable word of God” Himself – does that.
An Inc-c-convenient Truth if ever there was one.
Malcolm Mc Neill’s first project out of art school was a seven-year collaboration with writer William S. Burroughs. His two books about the experience were published at the end of 2012.
His most recent exhibition of paintings was in August 2013 in New York.