The Exodus Decoded Chizfilm Jewish Movie Reviews
May 30, 2010


Jonathan and Natasha Disagree on “The Exodus Decoded”

by Jonathan Chisdes


Many of you will remember a conversation I had with my girlfriend, Natasha Agee, about the movie “Liberty Heights;” although we came from different backgrounds, we found much to agree on. However we were quite divided over a film we saw recently, “The Exodus Decoded.”

Made for the History Channel in 2006, this documentary by investigative filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici looks at the biblical book of Exodus from the point of view of scientific archeology and geology to prove its historical accuracy.

Now, there are basically three different ways of looking at the Bible. Some people say that the Bible accurately describes historical events as they actually happened; that God did in fact intervene, supernaturally, on behalf of the Jews. Others say the entire thing is completely made up; they are fun stories and may teach moral lessons, but they have no basis in truth.

The third view is between these two extremes. The belief is that there is some truth to the Bible; supernatural elements may be exaggerated for dramatic or religious effect, but the people and places actually did exist. And this can be proven through modern science. Popular magazines such as Biblical Archeology Review advance this idea. It seems this is the view that Jacobovici subscribes to.

Jacobovici teams up with producer James Cameron (“Titanic,” “Avatar”), who makes a few brief appearances in the film, to advance some very interesting theories, which he backs up with archeological and geographical evidence, about how and when the Exodus actually occurred. However, he must first challenge several traditional interpretations on basic points, such as in what century it happened, where the waters were parted, where Mt. Sinai is located, and how much contact the ancient Hebrews might have had with the ancient Minoan civilization which flourished in Greece, a thousand miles away.

The first thing Jacobovici must address is the date of the Exodus. Traditionally, scholars place it around 1200 BCE; but Jacobovici contends it actually occurred 300 years earlier, around 1500 BCE.

At first, one might say, so what? What difference can 300 years make when dealing with things that happened three-and-a-half millennia ago? But to confuse a period of 300 years would be the equivalent of confusing contemporary American society with the pre-Revolutionary War colonial era. Can the scholars really be that far off? Maybe. But in order for the rest of the evidence to fall into place, one must first accept this.

Jacobovici then goes on to declare that the historic Hyksos Expulsion, in which a Semitic people was driven out of Egypt around 1500, is actually the same thing as the Hebrew Exodus. He then concludes that the Pharaoh of the biblical story, who is never named in the book of Exodus, is not Ramses II but rather Ahmose. Jacobovici points out that Ahmose can be translated as “Brother of Moses.” And also that Ahmose had a son who died about age twelve, consistent with the biblical claim that Pharaoh’s son was killed during the tenth plague.

To prove his theories, Jacobovici’s investigations take him to some very interesting places, including an old tomb dating to 1700 BCE, about the time Joseph and his father Jacob would have come to Egypt, according to the Bible. There he finds a fragment of a signet ring inscribed with the name “Yakov” (Hebrew for Jacob); proof, he says, that Jacob and Joseph were there and had high political power.

Jacobovici also takes a close look at the explosion of the Santorini Volcano which occurred sometime around 1500 BCE, give or take. Although it erupted a thousand miles away, near Greece, its force was huge, with the power of several hundred atomic bombs. Probably the greatest geological catastrophe in human history, which completely destroyed the Minoan civilization, its effects would have been felt in Egypt. Jacobovici theorizes that the natural subsequent events of the explosion, such as underground gas leaks, lack of potable water, clouds of volcanic ash, and the shifting of tectonic plates, would have caused each of the ten plagues as well as the parting of the sea.

Now as to that, Jacobovici again posits that the place where the Hebrews crossed the waters to safety was not the traditional Rea Sea, but a lake referred to as the Sea of Reeds, today called El Balah, near the present-day Suez Canal.

Jacobovici also goes on to find a new, non-traditional location of Mt. Sinai, based on descriptions of its location in the Bible. And then he concludes the film with perhaps his wildest theory, regarding the Ark of the Covenant and its designers who might have ended up in Mycenae, Greece.

Although I find Jacobovici’s theories fascinating, I have a lot of problems with this movie. For one, its style is a bit too sensationalized for my taste. I also dislike the use of computerized graphics. The filmmakers went way overboard for a documentary. The whole narration is filmed in a complex, animated museum with digital scaffolding, water floating in air, and a rotating timeline. I found it distracting and annoying.

But my real criticism is that Jacobovici skips important steps and makes far too many leaps of logic, assumptions, and conjectures. He speaks with a tone of absolute certainty, ignoring other possible interpretations of the evidence. He treats his theories as if they were facts; too many times he says, “We now know…” when he should say, “One possibility is…” I’m not saying he’s wrong, but he has to do a lot more to convince me that his theories are right.

Yet my girlfriend Natasha, as I mentioned before, had a very different reaction. She found the evidence that Jacobovici presented to be very convincing. She was particularly impressed by the ring fragment with Jacob’s name on it, and hieroglyphic descriptions of the waters parting.

When I spoke of the missing gaps, she reminded me a quote she was fond of: “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” She’s right, of course.

As our discussion reached its culmination, Natasha brought up a very important question. “Assuming this is true, what about God? Is Jacobovici saying there is no God? Or trying to prove there is?”

Hmmm… Natasha made me think. I suppose that the question of God’s existence may be somewhat irrelevant to Jacobovici; its not that he doesn’t care, but he’s far more obsessed in proving there was a Moses than in proving there is a God. I think it’s very important to him, as it is to many Jews, to believe that their ancestors were once enslaved but they escaped to form the basis of a new religion and a new morality. The miraculous events which led to this liberation may have been natural, but that nature may have been manipulated by a force that we know as God.

Despite the fact that Natasha and I came to very different conclusions about this film, we both agreed that it was very interesting and worth seeing; certainly our resulting conversation was valuable. I think Jacobovici’s theories are definitely worth considering. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether or not you agree with him.