Thursday, April 9, 2009

Moses, Jesus, and the Buddha Walk Into a Bar...

As luck would have it, I threw off yesterday's infestation of brain worms in time to enjoy a delightful Passover Seder with the Abigail's family. There was a lot too much food, a little too much wine, good company (including two adorable one and a quarter year old twins), and the retelling of one of my favorite stories.

Say what you want to about religion in general, but you can't beat the story of Exodus. A nation of wanderers is enslaved by the most powerful empire of their time. One man is charged by a being from beyond space and time with freeing them. There's blood and death, love and sex, the danger of the divine and the iniquity of evil men. Nobody's perfect - not even the hero, and especially not the people he's come to save - but things will change by the end of it. It's great.

[Thank you, Wikipedia, for the links we are about to recieve]

A lot of literary headspace is given to the Jesus myth. Fantasy is full of magic destiny babies, chosen heroes, and great men doomed to die. Rand Al'Thor of The Wheel of Time is Jesus, with wounds that will not heal inflicted by a villain's spear and a destiny to die fighting the Dark One. To his dismay, Thomas Covenant of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever turns out to be Jesus, too; he's an asshole leper Jesus, but Jesus nonetheless. The Buddha has Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (the only fantasy - science fiction, actually - interpretation of the Buddha myth). However, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever taken a stab at a fantastic version of the story of Moses and the Exodus.

I'm not entirely sure why. The best explanation I've come up with so far is that there just aren't very many Jews out there. Those Jews who do right science fiction and fantasy might not be interested in basing a story on a myth that they fear won't make a huge impression on the greater part of their audience. However, even if there aren't many Jews in the world, there are tons of Christians, and the story of the Exodus is a part of their mythology, too. For that matter, as far as I (and Wikipedia) know, Roger Zelazny wasn't a Buddhist. Maybe there's no good reason no one has written a fantastic version of the Moses myth. Maybe the world is waiting for me to write it.

Or maybe I'm just waiting for one of you to recommend it to me. That'll work, too.

That being said, what is it about the story of Moses and the Exodus that does it for me, other than a long association with one of my favorite Jewish holidays?

First and foremost is the character of Moses. A lot of people try to gloss him over, make him into a bland and uninteresting hero, but there's actually quite a lot of depth there. We have a man who murders an Egyptian overseer - ignore what the cartoon version tells you, it was no accident; Moses killed him, loooked around to make sure no one saw what he'd done, then buried the body in the sand - and only runs away when it becomes apparent that people know about his crime. Yet, he then helps some women draw water for their sheep and is rewarded with a wife and a new life as a shepherd. Just when he thinks he's left his old life - and his old crime - behind, a voice out of a burning bush tells him that he has to go back and free his people from bondage?

Him? Him of all people? A shy, possibly stuttering, short-tempered nobody, wanted for a crime he did commit?

The rightness of the choice only becomes apparent later on. Once dedicated to the cause, Moses refuses to give up. He reveals himself as a talented leader, so obsessed with doing the job right that his father-in-law has to invent delegation. Moses deals with a nation that has been enslaved for so long it has forgotten how to be free. Moses has to teach them how to think for themselves, how to follow orders that aren't backed with violence, and how to be worthy of the covenant they are going to sign into.

Then there's the character of God. God as cranky and insecure - at one point, when the Israelites have seriously offended him, God offers to kill them all and make Moses the origin of a new bloodline and Moses has to talk him down - and God as dedicated to his people, but also dedicated to making an impression on them that they'll never forget. The midrash (stories that fill in the gaps - basically rabbinic fanfiction) gives us God as a reluctant destroyer, regretting the fate of the Egyptian warriors even as he sends the waters of the Reed Sea in to drown them. Like Moses, God isn't nearly as unambiguous a character as MGM Paramount and Disney Dreamworks would have you believe he is.

Finally, there's the enormity of it. Over the course of this story, Moses cons, connives, and intimidates Pharoah into letting his people escape, and a whole nation up and leaves another nation, making for freedom. It's epic! It's huge! If it had kung-fu, it could be Exalted.

As a second finally, there are some fun, little-known details that start the gears in my head turning. Did you know that God claims to have "executed" the gods of Egypt? No, it's not what modern theologians would have you belive, that the gods of Egypt never existed at all. God killed them. That's a scene I'd love to write. Did you know that at one point God arrives - in person! - to kill Moses? Moses is only saved when his wife, Zipporah, circumsizes their son with a knife right there and presses the bloody foreskin to Moses's thigh. What the hell is up with that?

I don't know if I want to do it in science fiction or fantasy, I don't know what other motifs I want to cut it with but I want to do it. And if it's been done, I want to read it. And then I want to do it anyway.

Who's with me?

* * *

  • The first question is obvious: is there a fantastic retelling of the Moses myth that no one's bothered to tell me about?
  • Next up, how would you do it? What choices would you make if you were going to write a fantastic take on Exodus?
* * *

And finally, once more, from a non-brain-worms-infested blogger: Happy Passover!

7 comments:

Alan said...

I have been reading your blog and I often don't have any great ideas for you or experience with which to answer your questions. However, as it is Passover and I am the youngest Jew I know of reading, I feel I should ask a question.

So how do you mean your comment about MGM and Disney representing God? I'm sure MGM has, but a quick Google search confirmed my impression that Disney has avoided God in their movies: http://www.buzzle.com/editorials/7-18-2004-56800.asp. That article references The Hunchback of Notre Dame and I know there's the Fantasia 2000 Noah's Ark, but God is not actually depicted in either one of them. If I were you I'd be referencing The Prince of Egypt (a movie I enjoyed), but that was Dreamworks. For that matter if you're thinking The Ten Commandments Wikipedia is telling me that was Paramount.

This is why college graduates don't traditionally ask the four questions.

kindli said...

I can't think of any example of Moses in mainstream pop culture/movies/books.

A quick google search turned up "The Moses Code" which looks creepy, The 10 Commandments (the cartoon & Burt Lancaster & Ben Kingsley versions) - but those are all rather literal takes on the story.

I think Jesus may be more popular b/c the virgin birth/resurrection story is a fairly popular theme in a lot of mythology & literature, a quick google turned up http://englishatheist.org/indexd.shtml - you could easily google more.

Moses on the other hand is pretty limited to the Old Testament in his actions (at least I can't think of any similar figures in history/literature/mythology off the top of my head).

It is still before 8 am, and Oliver wants attention, so that may not be the most coherent answer.

Mark said...

Yes. For MGM, insert Paramount. For Disney, insert Dreamworks. I'll go fix my post now.

joey_jammeson said...

Thomas covenant is not jesus, retard. Not everything is related to religion. There is such a thing as an original idea. You can draw parallels all you like, doesn't make it so. I am sure you could tie every piece of art in existance to religion if you tried hard enough. However, the conclusions you come to are not going to be acurate. Not everyone lives their lives by outdated stories designed to control the masses. God, or at least the idea that was god, is dead. Live life in the real world. Do something meaningful and leave religious belief where it belongs. In the past. And just for calling covenant an asshole, I shall give you the title of... Coverting Jew Rat

Anonymous said...

Thomas covenant is not jesus, retard. Not everything is related to religion. There is such a thing as an original idea. You can draw parallels all you like, doesn't make it so. I am sure you could tie every piece of art in existance to religion if you tried hard enough. However, the conclusions you come to are not going to be acurate. Not everyone lives their lives by outdated stories designed to control the masses. God, or at least the idea that was god, is dead. Live life in the real world. Do something meaningful and leave religious belief where it belongs. In the past. And just for calling covenant an asshole, I shall give you the title of...Covetous Jew Rat. So sue me... For every penny... But remember to invest it wisely. Ha ha ha. And trust me, there is no shortage of Jews. Just to clarify, I hate all religeous people, not just your people. Would be the same if you were a christian asshole

Mark said...

Wow, that's a lot of vitriol for one post, joey jameson. Neat! You can't make an omelete on the internet without making a few asshole enemies. I especially like how you posted twice, once with your real name and once, even more insulting, behind the brave mask of anonymity. Good usage of the internet there, sir.

"Thomas covenant is not jesus, retard. Not everything is related to religion. There is such a thing as an original idea. You can draw parallels all you like, doesn't make it so."

I agree. Thomas Covenant is not actually Jesus. He is, however, in some ways an interesting parallel to the Jesus myth. He's a mere man with a special connection to divinity who dies to save the world. His story is about life, death, innocence, and sin. This seems to me a clear and fascinating parallel.

As far as there being original ideas, I'd challenge you to find one. Or, rather, all ideas are based on the human experience, which I don't feel has significantly changed since we invented written language. We've grown more complex, but we still do the same things and grapple with the same cosmic fears.

"I am sure you could tie every piece of art in existance to religion if you tried hard enough. However, the conclusions you come to are not going to be acurate. Not everyone lives their lives by outdated stories designed to control the masses. God, or at least the idea that was god, is dead. Live life in the real world. Do something meaningful and leave religious belief where it belongs. In the past."

I probably could tie every piece of art to religion if I tried hard enough. Thanks for your faith in my skill at interpretation and critique! Unfortunately, it'd be boring, so I'll let someone else do it.

It's interesting how you try to situate yourself as the future and me as the past because of a belief. However, I reject the idea that religion is the past just because it's old. Chemicals are older than religion, shall we now say that chemists are living in the past?

More seriously, in what way am I living in the past for having a faith commitment? And in what way am I not living in the real world? The future is whatever exists tomorrow. The real world is whatever I perceive and react to.

"And just for calling covenant an asshole, I shall give you the title of...Covetous Jew Rat. So sue me... For every penny... But remember to invest it wisely. Ha ha ha."

Oooh... direct antisemitic slurs. We're moving... down in the world.

What I am going to engage with there is your offense around Covenant. If you read my blog a little more, you'll see that The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are actually one of my favorite fantasy series, period. You can't really argue that Covenant isn't a jerk, though. He's argumentative, insensitive, and abrasive... hey! You probably haven't ever raped anyone, but other than that you two are a lot alike. That might explain why you have so much sympathy for him.

"And trust me, there is no shortage of Jews. Just to clarify, I hate all religeous people, not just your people. Would be the same if you were a christian asshole"

There are approximately 13,155,000 Jews left in a world of more than six billion. I'd call that a shortage.

Hate is a strong word and it leads to strong actions. I tend to avoid hatred as much as possible. We all know hate leads to suffering. What could have happened to you to lead you to hate an entire class of people so poisonously?

Kam said...

Funny picture. I just got to "Tull's Tale" in book 2. Covenant isn't Jesus in any way to me but oh well. Good work on teaching the kids about awesome books though.