Film and Religion

This site contains studies and comments by professors Robert Torry and Paul Flesher about the portrayal and use of religion in film. See their new book, Film and Religion: An Introduction (Abingdon, 2007) for a textbook on this topic.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Melito of Sardis and The Ten Commandments (1956)

In the book’s chapter about The Ten Commandments, we drew upon the Pilgrims’ use of typology exegesis that presented the Jews’ Exodus and crossing of the Re(e)d Sea as a type for the Pilgrims’ own anti-typal action of crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

The Pilgrims were not the first to use typological interpretation on the Old Testament. Indeed, typology was used by some of the earliest Christian writers. Melito of Sardis and other writers were already using typology in their exegeses of the Jewish Scriptures in the second century. Indeed, Melito’s Paschal Homily (=”Sermon on the Passover”) makes extensive use of typology. Moreover, it seems that The Ten Commandments made use of the interpretation found in that work. (While the film’s introduction explicitly cites its use of Jewish sources for authority, it also drew from Christian sources.)

Whereas the Pilgrims’ emphasized the Jews’ journey through water and into the wilderness, Melito’s typological interpretation emphasizes the final plague, in which God killed all the first-born sons of the Egyptians. Melito’s characterization of the killing is picked up by the film. His physical description of the “darkness” that moves across Egypt and kills the firstborn as they come into contact with it (##22-27) becomes Ten Commandments’ mode of representing the way this wide-scale killing was accomplished. Other descriptions, such the angel of Death or even Exodus’ reference to God Himself, are not used.

Melito also makes a big point concerning the blood of the sacrificial lamb (in Melito’s terminology, “lamb” is stated in the singular) that was placed on the lintel of each Jew’s doorway to differentiate them from the Egyptians. (See Exodus 12.) Melito argues that the sacrifice of the lamb is the type which foreshadows Jesus own anti-typal death on the cross (##30-33). Just as the lamb died to save the Israelites from death, so Jesus died to save all people from death as sinners. More profoundly, Jesus suffers as the Passover sacrifice; Melito links the two through a Greek pun indicating that the verb meaning “to celebrate the Passover” echoes the verb “to suffer” (##46-47). Christ suffered for the peoples’ salvation as the lamb suffered for the Jews’ deliverance.

The Ten Commandments picks up on this link between Jesus and the Passover and transforms Moses into a Christ figure. Before Moses can lead the Israelites from Egypt, he is arrested, tried, and bound to a cross-bar, which he carries to the execution of his sentence in a manner that renders his body into a cross. Banished into the desert wilderness, the film emphasizes how Moses suffers and is purified. In this way he is prepared, suffering in a Christ-like manner, to lead his people to salvation from slavery.


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