Birch Trees, Harvest Moons and A Little Boy With A Big Temper

Two things you should know about me: I have always been moved to talk to God when sitting or walking beneath willow trees, and also when I see a Harvest Moon hanging low and orange in the sky. I have also been moved to commune with God by certain birch trees whose white bark makes them stand out noticeably from the trees that surround them.

So that’s three things.

None of which is to say that I pray to trees or to the moon. Rather, there is something about particular trees and Harvest moons that catches my attention and moves me to want to connect with the Divine.

This week, somewhat against my better judgement, I went to see the new Exodus movie. It’s been getting a lot of press, mostly bad, focused on the inaccuracies, the dialogue, and the British accents.

But one of most discussed topics relating the movie is Ridley Scott’s choice to depict God as a young boy.

This is a big departure from other Hollywood renditions of the story of the Exodus. Kim Masters, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, reminds us that, “Choosing a voice of God is (a) tricky proposition. When DreamWorks Animation made The Prince of Egypt in 1998, some at the studio considered (using) a voice that would morph from man to woman to child, but they abandoned the idea as likely to generate backlash. The job went (instead) to Val Kilmer, who also played Moses.”

DreamWorks was taking a page out of DeMille’s book, as Charlton Heston, who played Moses in The Ten Commandments, also voiced God in the movie’s Burning Bush sequence.

In other movies, God has been played by a dignified Morgan Freeman, a motorcycle-riding George Burns, and a screaming Alanis Morissette. But, as one article in the NY Times points out, “none of those films were as ambitious or rooted in overall biblical narrative” as Ridley Scott’s current film.

The Times remarks that, “Mr. Scott uses an 11-year-old British actor…to give voice and visage to his Almighty, rather than concealing the deity behind a pillar of fire, too terrible for the eye of man, as Cecil B. DeMille chose to do”.

Scott told The Hollywood Reporter that, “sacred texts give no specific depiction of God, so for centuries artists and filmmakers have had to choose their own visual depiction,” and he was also quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I want to avoid the clichés…a voice from the clouds was never an option.”

In an interview with Jonathan Merritt, a reporter for religionnews.com, Scott was asked: Why did you use a child for the figure of God? To which he replied: “Not figure of God. “Malak” means messenger. So “Malak,” to begin with, is the messenger of God. If you’re going to represent God in many shapes and forms…the biggest form of all is probably nature.That’s his power, that’s his base, that’s his beauty, that’s his threat. And occasionally when you want to communicate with someone, it’s very easy with His power to chose a messenger. Or some more popular word might be “angel.” But I didn’t like the idea of an angel associated with wings. I wanted everything to be reality based….Of course…[Moses] also could be talking to his conscience. So Malak could also be his conscience.”

Ridley Scott also told The Hollywood Reporter that “Malak exudes innocence and purity, and those two qualities are extremely powerful.”

During the interview with ReligionNews, Christian Bale, the actor who plays Moses, jumps to Scott’s defense and asks, “How would you have represented God, if you were in Ridley’s position? ‘Cause it is very easy to pick apart someone’s choice for a depiction of God, you know, but if you’re actually in Ridley’s shoes, it’s an immensely difficult thing. How on earth do you do that?”

Of all the things Christian Bale has been quoted as saying in relation to this movie, this statement is by far the most profound. His questions are important ones to consider. How do we decide how to envision God? And why are we so quick to pick-apart someone else’s depiction?

My initial response to the little boy depiction of God, or rather, God’s messenger, was that it was bizarre. But the more I think about it, the more it starts to make sense.

One the one hand, as another online reviewer points out, “no depiction of God could be more wrong. God in the Old Testament is like an invisible, all fire, all power, all violent… stormbringing (kind of God). He is anything but humble and childlike. The Old Testament God of brutality and might is exactly the kind of entity that the humbled, degraded, shackled Hebrews need on their side. Who else could help them defeat the greatest empire on Earth at the time?”

And yet, as another reviewer pointed out, in the Torah, particularly in the Exodus narrative, “God IS (acting like) a petulant child…whacking people left and right for not worshiping him, or for “disobeying” him.”

Even our rabbinic sages acknowledged this behaviour, teaching that God often manifests in the ways in which we most need. For a fledgling nation, quick to rebel against authority, God needs to present Godself as easily angered and vengeful – not the kind of God you’d want to cross.

For the Israelite generation, God used fear to motivate their adherence and devotion. Over the course of human history, our tradition teaches, the tactics have changed, just as a parent changes their parenting tactics as their child ages from toddler to child to teenager to adult.

So there is some merit to Scott’s choice to depict God’s messenger as a child. Even more so, if we consider the point made by Gary Rendsberg, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers, who was interviewed for the New York Times review. In it, Rendsberg said, “that he could immediately think of only one (biblical) reference that might support the notion of God as a young innocent. (A) very brief reference in the first Book of Kings, Chapter 19, in which God speaks to Elijah in what is described as a “still small voice.”

A third possibility, is that Moses is seeking God in a way that makes sense given the context of his life. Just prior to the episode with the Burning Bush, we learn that Moses has become a father. Is it so surprising then, that what would seem most miraculous and divine to Moses is children, specifically a young boy reminiscent of his own son?

Each of us relates to the Divine differently. I imagine most parents can relate to seeing God’s presence in their children. Some of us see God in art, or hear God in music or laughter. Others sense God when they are in nature. Some, like Reb Nachman,  feel God’s presence when out among the trees. Others, like Muhammad and Abraham, are moved to connect to the divine when they see, or are on top of, a mountain. For Moses, there was also a connection between God and mountains, and indeed, Moses also saw God in fire, and arguably, also experienced God through water, as did his sister Miriam.

The context of our lives, and our skill-sets and talents often affect where we seek out and see divinity. Doctors may find God through the miracles of medicine and scientists might find God in the order and structure of the world. An artist might see God in a painting or a sunset, and a musician might hear God in a symphony or a soft song. Someone who is sick might see divinity in someone who is a picture of health, and someone who is lonely might see divinity in the loving gaze of two people, who themselves might be experiencing love as something divine.

I’d like to take Ridley Scott to task for the inconsistencies in his depiction of the Exodus, and yes, perhaps for the British accents, but not for his depiction of God.

I see God in harvest moons and willow trees and in the faces of my best-friend’s children. I feel God when I hear certain pieces of music and in my dreams and in the mountains, and in moments of intense connections with other people. Who am I to say that Ridley Scott should not depict God or God’s messenger as a child? Isn’t the important thing that he sees God at all and wanted to engaged other people in a conversation about what it might be like to see and experience God?

In my humble opinion, the vehicle we take to connect with God, is not nearly as important as the destination, or as the journey.

This week, may each of us see or feel God manifest in our lives; may we each connect with God in ways that are comforting, challenging and meaningful for us as unique individuals; and may we each affirm God’s presence in our lives by naming God when God is seen, or heard, or otherwise experienced.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.