How Netflix’s Moses Docudrama Managed To Offend Both Egyptians And Israelis

how netflix’s moses docudrama managed to offend both egyptians and israelis

​Moses in Netflix's docudrama.

CAIRO — In late March, Netflix released a docudrama series titled: The Testament: The Story of the Prophet Moses. With 13.5 million views in the first five days, the series found fast and wide popularity on the streaming platform in countries around the world.

But the series, from the very start, has also faced a rash of criticism, on both religious and historical grounds.

A joint American-Turkish production, directed by Benjamin Ross, the three-part docudrama tells the story of the Prophet Moses based on the narratives of the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), through interviews with clerics and historians of all backgrounds.

On its website, Netflix describes it as an “illuminating” docudrama that “chronicles Moses’ remarkable life as a prince, prophet and more with insights from theologians and historians.” The series includes a cast headed by three Israelis: Avi Azulay/Moses; Ishai Golan/Aaron; Reymonde Amsellem/Miriam. Turkish actor Mehmet Kurtulus appeared as the Pharaoh.

The series has stirred up controversy in Egypt related to its historical accuracy, reviving debates about the religion-science dialectic. Prominent Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, former minister of antiquities in Egypt, was blasted after he said there is no historical or archaeological evidence supporting the biblical story and the presence of Jews in Egypt.

He tried to walk back his comments after the uproar, saying that the amount of unearthed antiquities did not exceed 30%, while 70% were still buried underground. Evidence, he said, could be found among those unearthed antiquities.

The attack on Hawass by Muslims is rooted in the fact that the Koranic narrative also adopts a story close to the Biblical narrative of the Jewish exodus. Yet even if Moses’ story is central in the three Abrahamic religions, it is not supported by conclusive archaeological and historical evidence, archaeologists tell Al-Manassa.

Religion-Science dialectic

The Book of Exodus in the Old Testament is one of the holy texts in the Jewish and Christian religions, recounting the story of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, then the birth of Moses and his confrontation with the Pharaoh, the Egyptian monarch. The same story is also mentioned numerous times in the Koran.

Although the religious narrative asserts that these events had taken place, historiography offers no confirmation. Historiography adopts a methodology based on collecting antiquities, records and documents, and then confronting the information to reach the most accurate conclusions about a certain historical period.

Currently, there is still no archaeological evidence that "confirms the Jewish presence in ancient Egypt,” said Hawass in an interview with Al-Manassa, adding that the Merneptah Stele is the sole antiquity that potentially bears a reference to the Israelites in Egyptian history. The Stele mentions the word “Isrir” which some experts translated into “Israel,” a translation that has been contested by other experts, he said.

The Merneptah Stele was discovered by French Egyptologist Flinders Petrie in 1896 in the first court of Merneptah mortuary temple in ancient Thebes. The object, which tells the war victories of Pharaoh Merneptah, is known as the Israel Stele.

No historian provided any evidence to prove or refute the dramatic narrative

Archaeologists claimed that the word "Isrir" in line 27 of the stele means Israel. Petrie translated the line as: “Israel is wasted, bare of seed.” American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted translated the line as: “Israel has been annihilated and eradicated.” Others, meanwhile. Said “Isrir” refers to a tribe defeated by Pharaoh Merneptah, not the Israelite according to the biblical conception.

how netflix’s moses docudrama managed to offend both egyptians and israelis

Israeli right-wing activists block the Nitzana Border Crossing between Israel and Egypt.

Egyptologists' drama

Hawass said he rejected an offer to be interviewed in the docudrama. He was concerned that his scientific comments could be manipulated to serve the dramatic context, which aims to market the Jewish presence in Egypt.

He denounced fellow Egyptologist Monica Hanna, Dean of the Faculty of Archeology and Cultural Heritage at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, for participating in the series.

Hanna rejected the criticism that her participation in the docudrama undermines scientific research or serves religious purposes. “The historians’ comments tried to help fill out the picture of the drama, and no historian provided any evidence to prove or refute the dramatic narrative,” she told Al Manassa.

The role of historians, including Hanna, was limited to explaining the ancient Egyptian context during this period, as well as correcting the prevailing ideas that slaves were the builders of the pyramids. “I clearly said that there were no slaves in Egypt, but they were prisoners of war,” she said.

www.youtube.com

​Exodus hypothesis

Among the historical issues that have always stirred up controversy in the story of Moses is the link between the Book of Exodus and Pharaoh Ramesses II. The Book of Exodus indicates that the Jews were forced to build the city of Pi-Ramesses (House of Ramesses), in Egypt’s Nile Delta, about 120 kilometers northeast of Cairo. The docudrama series adopted this hypothesis.

Hanna views the series as a dramatic work adopted from the religious story. It’s a kind of literature known as “Modal Realism,” or “Realistic Fiction,” she explained. It's a type of fiction whose events and characters are realistic and influential, with some fictional additions to make the story more interesting. Hanna repeated that there is no archaeological evidence to prove the authenticity of the story.

“Unlike religious books, archaeological evidence is considered a source of history,” she said. “Science and religion must be separated, and each of them must be looked at from a different perspective.”

Was it a deliberate attempt to erase the rich historical connection of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland?

She also disputed the idea that two-thirds of antiquities have yet to be unearthed, and that the religious narrative could be proved. “This is a completely unscientific proposal, as there is no estimate of the size of what was discovered and what remains underground,” she said.

​Jewish rage

Hanna also sparked a backlash inside Israel. The use of “Syria and Palestine” in her commentary in the series prompted several Israelis figures to tweet on the X platform that her comments amounted to “historical distortion,” and “a deliberate attempt to erase the rich historical connection of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland.”

Hanna insisted that she used the term without any political connotations. It is unfortunate that the course of modern politics affects the scientific approach, she said, adding that Jewish scholars, in the academic context, also call the Levant region “Syria and Palestine.”

Aside from the Israeli nationalist criticism of the series, Jewish criticism also took a religious turn. Rabbi Shlomo Litvin, director of the Jewish Student Center at the University of Kentucky, blasted the series, saying that he counted 430 inaccuracies, “many blatantly countering the words of the Torah.”

Litvin said: “it was the negative portrayal of the prophets Moses, Aaron and Miriam that were the most damaging to the story.”

Among the inaccuracies that the Rabbi noted is dressing Midas in Joseph’s coat, which he said “brought dismay.” And the series missed the fourth plague (the wild beats) of the 10 plagues that God inflicted on Egypt, according to the Torah.

Like our content? Follow us for more. This article first appeared on Worldcrunch.com It was translated and adapted by Worldcrunch in partnership with AL MANASSA . For the latest news & views from every corner of the world, Worldcrunch Today is the only truly international newsletter.Sign up here.

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