Watching Paramount's The Ten Commandments is, for many, an annual part of the spring holidays. While there have been other film versions of the story of the exodus, none have the epic staying power of the 1956 classic. Indeed, many have now grown up with the image of Charlton Heston irreparably set as the image of Moses.
Bringing a bible story to the big screen often warrants certain liberties. In the case of The Ten Commandments, this meant the introduction of a love story between Moses and Nefretiri, a power struggle between Moses and the young Ramses and the creation of Lilia, the love interest of Joshua.
Surprisingly, many of the places Cecil B. DeMille appears to have gotten creative are actually based on extra-Biblical Jewish sources:
1 ) Moses, Conquerer of Ethiopia
The grown-up Moses is introduced in The Ten Commandments when he returns to Pharoah after bringing Ethiopia into alliance with Egypt. There is no record of Moses conquering Ethiopia on behalf of Pharaoh. However, there is a Midrash (narrative from the Oral Torah) that details how, after fleeing Egypt, Moses went to Ethiopia and was named king. This occurred before he came to the tent of Jethro, where he married and became a shepherd.
2) The Day of Moses
In trying to instigate trouble for Moses, Prince Ramses tells his father (Pharaoh Sethi) that Moses not only gave the Hebrew slaves extra grain, but one day in seven to rest, a day that the Hebrews now called "the Day of Moses." While the reference to the "Day of Moses" is a little over the top on drama, it is true, according to the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 1:28), that Moses convinced Pharoah to give the Jews a day of rest each week. He did so by noting that Pharoah gave his horses time to rest, so why not his slaves.
3) The Evil Dathan
The vile Dathan, played by Edward G. Robinson, is one of the most memorable and unlikable characters in the movie. Dathan and his brother Aviram, who is mostly a silent presence in the movie, appear repeatedly in the Torah as troublemakers. In Egypt, Dathan was an Israelite overseer. Rather than Joshua being the Israelite whose life Moses saves by killing the Egyptian taskmaster, as presented in the movie, there is a Midrash that implies that this was Dathan's story (in the Midrash he is referred to only as the Hebrew). One night, Dathan's Egyptian boss sent him out on assignment and went into his home. In the dark, the Egyptian pretended to be the man and had relations with his beautiful wife (Shelomit). When the man let the taskmaster know that he knew what had happened, the Egyptian began to strike him.
The next day, Moses tried to intercede when Dathan and Aviram are fighting. Dathan is the one whom the Torah quotes as saying: "Will you kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" (Exodus 1:29).
4) The Known Redeemer
In the movie, Prince Ramses is set on finding the foretold redeemer of the Hebrew slaves. With information from Dathan, he is led to Moses, whom he presents to Pharoah Sethi as the one whom they have sought. Unable to kill Moses, who is like a son to him, Pharoah Sethi commands that Moses' name be stricken from all records and that he be sent into exile. In fact, Exodus 2:15 clearly states that "When Pharaoh heard this thing [Moses killed an Egyptian], he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled..."
5) Muslims in Midian
Jethro and his seven daughters are subtly presented as followers of an Islam-like faith. They claim Ishmael as their forefather and state that Ishmael was the son brought to the mountain as a sacrifice to God. While Jethro is portrayed in the Midrash as a man who tried a wide variety of religions and who was serving as a priest in Midian when Moses met him, he is never associated with Islam -- perhaps because Islam developed hundreds of years later. Even if one were to assume that he was part of a pre-Islamic tribe descended from Ishmael, this would be false because the Midianites were descendants of Abraham and Keturah (his wife after Sarah) and not from Ishmael.
6) Joshua Makes Moses Move
Throughout the movie, Joshua is a bigger-than-life, hunky hero. He's a stonecutter in Egypt who stands up to Dathan, a protector of the elderly Joshabel (meant to be Jochebed) and, most significantly, the man who spurs Moses forward on his search to understand who he is. Alas, none of these instances have any foundation. There is no record of Joshua suddenly appearing in Midian and pushing Moses to go seek God on the mountain. Perhaps this was meant to reflect the biblical account of Aharon coming from Egypt to meet Moses in the wilderness. However, this took place only after Moses had agreed to go and lead the Israelites out of slavery.
7) Hey, That Bush is on Fire
Speaking of the mountain, it appears that everyone in the region can see something special about it. A dark cloud hovers over it at all times, and it is referred to as God's mountain. Additionally, Tzipporah and Joshua tell Moses about the bush that is on fire but does not burn. According to Jewish tradition, Moses did not deliberately go to find God on a known holy mountain with a burning bush visible to others. The biblical text states "Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb" (Exodus 3:1). According to the Midrash, he found the burning bush when he was following one stray sheep to make certain it was returned to its flock.
8) Korach the High Priest
By the end of the movie it appears that the film-makers just wanted to include as many Bible stories as possible. Once the golden calf is made, Dathan takes charge. He declares Korach the high-priest and debauchery and chaos ensue. It is true that Korach was a Levite who wished to be the High Priest and led a rebellion against Moses and Aharon. It is also true that Dathan was one of Korach's prime supporters in the rebellion. However, the events of Korach's rebellion are recorded in the Book of Numbers and took place elsewhere. The story of Korach is additionally misapproprated when the ground opens up and swallows the unrepentant worshippers of the golden calf. This is actually another piece of the story of Korach. The Torah clearly relates that those who chose the calf over God were slain by the swords of the Levites.
9) One Man Struck Down
In a small but fascinatingly accurate incident in the movie, one man cries out against the licentious worship of the golden calf. Another man comes from behind and strikes him down, presumably killing him. This was not added as random violence but is a reference to the death of Hur, the son of Miriam and Caleb, that is presented in Talmud Sanhedrin 7a: "Rabbi Benjamin ben Japhet says, reporting Rabbi Eleazar: He [Aharon] saw Hur lying slain before him and said [to himself]: If I do not obey them, they will now do unto me as they did unto Hur... Better let them worship the golden calf, for which offence they may yet find forgiveness through repentance."
10) Moses Final Words
The final scene of The Ten Commandments has Moses saying goodbye to a small group of significant characters. After commanding Joshua to be strong leader and to have faith, he presents a copy of the Torah to Eleazar to place in the ark and than tells all those gathered (and perhaps the crowd far below) "Go, proclaim liberty throughout all the lands, unto all the inhabitants thereof!" Beautiful as this verse is, it is actually a reference to the celebration of the jubilee year and comes from the 25th chapter of Leviticus. If it is a quote that you recognize, it is also inscribed on the Liberty Bell.