Filmmaker Tim Mahoney’s new documentary, “Exodus: Patterns of Evidence,” won over an audience at an advance showing at a Union Square theater in Manhattan. Many viewers said that the film was like a wake-up shofar for Jews, church bells for Christians, and an alarm clock for complacent secularists who have benched the Bible as part of intelligent conversation.
To skeptics the movie presents a new way to look at archaeological findings about the Bible. To believers it offers a challenge to think more deeply about a story that they may have long taken for granted and may have even forgotten.
Put together over the course of 12 years, “Exodus: Patterns of Evidence,” released by Thinking Man Films today at select theaters nationwide, investigates the archaeological evidence for the Jewish flight from Egypt written about in the Hebrew Torah. Is there evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt at all or is the Biblical account merely legend?
Although the director hopes that historians will find some interesting updates for new thinking about Exodus, he believes that the film may very well be more important in reminding Jews and Christians that they don’t know much about their own story. The audience, which came with a predisposition to like the movie, picks up this theme.
Dayann Pazmino, a senior at LaGuardia High School, bubbles over with excitement about the film. She encounters many schoolmates who know little about Biblical history but still dismiss Christianity as an anti-intellectual thing. As the founder of Pulse, a Christian club at her school, Pazmino expects now to meet that attitude with an invitation to come see a showing of the movie at her club.
“There’s a lot of ignorance when it comes to these stories,” laments Brooklynite Zalman Friedman, executive director of It’s Good To Know, a Jewish non-profit learning foundation. Friedman’s father, Rabbi Manis Friedman, narrates the Hebrew text in the film.
A Values Research Institute survey, conducted in 2010 of 1,307 Jews in New York City, found that non-Orthodox Jews had lost ground in their Biblical knowledge. While 70% of liberal Jews were familiar with the story of Exodus, 30% of liberal Jews had only “some” or “little” knowledge of the story. For example, most Jews may know the name “Moses” but quite a few don’t recall much detail about his role in history. Perhaps, the few details that they recall are from popular Hollywood movies like “Exodus. Gods and Kings” or the classic “The Ten Commandments.” If you are one of those and are a little curious to update your knowledge, this movie might be for you.
Eric Metaxas, evangelical author of popular books on the anti-slavery movement and Dietrich Boenhoffer’s resistance against the Nazis, sees the movie as going against the flow of a monopolizing secular narrative that insinuates that Sunday school lessons are naïve and child-like. “You take it in and you begin to wonder, ‘I don’t know what I believe. Now that I’m more educated, should I put it aside? Maybe, I can believe pieces of it…’”
Metaxas, who grew up in Astoria, Queens, recalls that he had a similar experience of disbelief when growing up. The culture of his childhood was dismissive of any evidence for the historical veracity of the Exodus story. It took him years to struggle through prevailing preconceptions. The availability of films like “Exodus” are “beginning to force the conversation,” which he didn’t have when growing up.
Mahoney’s documentary is a pretty well-done collation of archaeology and the Biblical story of the exodus of Israel from slavery in ancient Egypt. The filmmaker’s viewpoint is shown through a recounting of recent archaeology which indicates that the beginning of the story might lay in the ancient city of Avaris in Egypt. In 2010 radar imaging revealed an extensive network of streets, houses, a religious site and other features of this city which sits in the Nile River delta. Archaeologists associate the city with the Hyksos, a people that conquered Egypt and ruled it for a hundred years.
The Hyksos were defeated and expelled from Egypt by the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Ahmose. The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, dated to around 1650 BC, recounts that Ahmose started his attack on the Hyksos' capital in Egypt, Avaris, by conquering cities around it. Archaeological studies have found large grain storage depots of the kind needed to provide supplies to large army. Studies of the skeletons with spear and arrow wounds and other materials in the area also indicate that an enormous battle took place.
Combining the story of Exodus, the second book of the Hebrew Torah and the Christian Bible, with archaeological discoveries, Mahoney retells the account of Jews’ liberation from an Egyptian oppression and their establishment as an independent state. The story goes like this: having kicked out the foreign conqueror, the Hyksos, the ruler of Egypt fears that a large and growing immigrant tribe of Israelites might help the Hyksos or some other group retake the nation, so he throws them into slavery. The Israelites cry out to God to save them. God then enlists Moses, one of the Israelites who had been secretly adopted as a member of the Egyptian ruling class.
On God’s marching orders, Moses performs miracles that grow in magnitude until Pharaoh lets the Israelites leave out of fear of national destruction. Moses leads the Israelites out of the land of their captivity and beyond the reach of the Pharaoh’s army. In the desert beyond the boundaries of Egypt, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments to direct people’s interaction with God and each other. God also gives instructions for the construction and servicing of the Tabernacle, a worship center that becomes the Israelites’ emblem as a new nation under God’s protection.
A long history of growing amnesia about the Bible and the Exodus
Orthodox Jews at the movie’s showing like Friedman offer a narrative history of Jewish forgetfulness of the details of the Exodus story. During the Enlightenment period and with the rise of liberal Judaism, some Jews sought to assimilate and leave behind their particular history as recounted in the Bible. They believed that one way to avoid anti-Semitism, Friedman argues, was to leave their Jewish roots in favor of a secularizing Enlightenment culture. “In Germany they didn’t even call themselves Jews. They called themselves Germans of Mosaic Persuasion.”
In America, where the anti-Semitic threat has greatly declined, assimilation became much easier. Friedman praises the beauty of the American melting pot which allows many different groups to “live together not by losing [their] identity but by keeping [their] identity.” But the downside of such a peaceful situation is that younger generation Jews ask themselves, “If I can do anything, why would I be different?”
By introducing the Exodus story to the general public, Friedman believes that “Exodus” brings Jewish heritage back into the culture of assimilated Jews. By rediscovering their history, American Jews can regain their identity in the melting pot. “People respect people who respect themselves,” Friedman says about the working of American identities.
Some Catholic and evangelical Christians at the movie preview also talk about their hope that the evidence in “Patterns” will strike back against the “aggressive” secular mindset that the Bible is a irrelevant and unreliable.
Brooklyn-born conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager celebrates the film as a secure foothold in the face of an “onslaught of contempt” toward religious intellectuals. His “single greatest joy in this is that it may undermine the smugness of the secular activists.”
“My entire life I have wanted our side to be sophisticated and to use their methods,” Prager says of mainstream media, “and we don’t. I hear religious people and I cringe because the intellectual element is so shallow.”
But he sees hope as people like Mahoney document the breakthroughs and debates in the academic sphere more young scholars will pick up the conversation. “Now I think we are in the best sense of the word on the offense because we have something to argue for.”
Metaxas says that the film is not for the closed-minded. “There are people who will never believe,” he tells A Journey. “The more evidence they see the more recalcitrant and angry they become because they’re not open to it.”
However, he believes that most people like the young people in Astoria, Queens, will be receptive. “Most people don’t have a dog in the fight; they just want to know, is this true?”
January 29: Tonight, the movie will show at 7pm at the Union Square Stadium 14 in Manhattan, College Point Multiplex in Flushing, and Edgewater 16 Multiple Cinema in Edgewater, New Jersey. Check the movie’s website to buy tickets and confirm the details: Patterns of Evidence.com.