On-Screen Black-Out: Racism In Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments (1956)”

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Moses is soon to die, says goodbye to Joshua (left) and wife (right). Credit: Cecile B. DeMille, The Ten Commandments (1956).

Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 movie, “The Ten Commandments”, is still a favorite of mine to this day. I watched it on TV growing up as a child. About a year or two ago, I finally decided to purchase the movie after renting it a few more times for 99 cents and loving it as much as I had growing up. I figure someday, the movie may become ancient in the eyes of many, and I want my niece and nephew to see what a good biblical movie is all about.

As good a movie as it is, however, DeMille’s production isn’t without its flaws. I’m not talking about the 3-hour-and-40-minute movie length. I absolutely love that it’s a long movie. I put it on when I’m writing a detailed post for this site and I know it’s gonna be a while. But I’m talking about things in the movie that the Bible doesn’t mention. Unfortunately, the Bible mentions Moses’ multiple marriages, and DeMille’s movie just “brushes” over the additional 2 while keeping the first one throughout Moses’ entire journey to the Jordan River.

The Case of Moses’ Wives

The one wife the movie does emphasize is that of Zipporah (Biblical name) or “Sephora,” as she is called in the movie (the role of Sephora is played by Yvonne De Carlo). Of course, “Sephora” is an Egyptian/Greek name, so there’s no problem with it. But what few movie lovers realize is that Sephora remains throughout the entire movie. This happens to conflict with the biblical record about Zipporah as well as Moses’ other wives.

One clue in Scripture that we get arrives in Numbers 12. We read these words there:

“Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman” (Numbers 12:1, NKJV).

The emphasis in Numbers 12:1 is on the woman being Ethiopian (it’s mentioned twice). “Whom he had married” and “he had married” are two phrases that emphasize Moses married a black woman. She was Ethiopian, and skin pigmentation in Ethiopia is predominantly black. And we’re also told that Miriam and Aaron were against Moses because of his decision to marry a black woman. It might seem hard to fathom, but racism was actually alive and well among God’s people, the Jews. We also see this when Jesus is talking with the Samaritan woman in John 4, but we also see it here in Numbers 12:1.

Moses’ Wives and Fathers-In-Law In Scripture

Keep in mind that Moses takes Sephora/Zipporah to be his wife back in Exodus 2:21. Sephora’s father, Jethro, priest of Midian (Midianites), gives his daughter to Moses to take as his wife. So when we get to Numbers 12, we read that Moses marries again. Apparently, Sephora must have died for Moses to marry again because we read nothing after Numbers 12 about Sephora or their son, Gershom. Then, in Judges 4:11, we read of “Hobab the father-in-law of Moses.”

Jethro was a Midianite, a close cousin to the Israelites. In DeMille’s movie, Jethro introduces himself to Moses and mentions that the Midianites come from Ishmael. Ishmael is the half-brother of Isaac, and he and Isaac share Abraham as their father (Genesis 16). Ishmael is the son of Hagar, Sarah’s servant whom Sarah gives to Abraham to conceive a child. Sarah, being impatient, can’t wait for the Lord’s promise to give her and Abraham a son of their own (Isaac).

So, with that said, Hobab the Kenite and Jethro the Midianite, two fathers-in-law of Moses, must be two different people. The Midianites and the Kenites must be two different nations of people. So, with that said, it appears as though Moses married Sephora, a Midianite, the Ethiopian woman, and then a Kenite. So Moses married at least three times, according to what Scripture reveals. It’s likely Moses was a widower at least twice in his life.

What’s wrong with DeMille’s “Ten Commandments” Movie?

So, with these three wives ironed out, the next question becomes, “What’s wrong with DeMille’s movie?” Well, the problem with the movie is that it only mentions Sephora, the first wife, and gives her an extended on-screen life that goes past the biblical record. When Moses dies, he is 120 years old. The Scriptures reveal that “His eyes were not dim nor his natural vigor diminished” (Deuteronomy 34:7), a testament to the fact that he was quite blessed to be so old and in such good health at the time of his death.

In this context, it seems unlikely that Sephora was still living at the time of Moses’ death. He was in his eighties when God calls him to lead the Exodus out of Egypt (Exodus 7:7). Sephora could’ve been in her 80s, though we’re not told how old she was at the time. He had been with the Israelites for 40 years when he died. Aaron was slightly older than Moses when he was called to join him (83).

With that said, it seems as though DeMille simply stretched Sephora’s lifetime beyond real-life terms. But why did DeMille do it? Well, by extending Sephora on-screen, he could “black-out” the Ethiopian woman of Numbers 12 and forgo mentioning her altogether. And by not mentioning her, he did away with the discussion of racism. Miriam and Aaron were racist against their brother’s wife, their sister-in-law, simply because of her race. So Scripture tackles racism head-on and doesn’t shy away from mentioning it, even among the Jews. But DeMille doesn’t cover it.

Ethiopians as servants to Pharaoh’s daughter

But there are Ethiopians that do play in the movie. Except, there’s a problem: the only Ethiopians we see on-screen are those that act as servants for the Pharaoh’s daughter. In one scene while the Jews are headed out of Egypt traveling with their possessions, a child looks at her grandfather (presumably) and says something about Ethiopians coming along with them out of Egypt.

So Ethiopians were good enough to play servants, just not good enough to play in one of the most prominent roles in the movie outside of Moses and Joshua: that is, as the wife of God’s chosen deliverer for His people.

DeMille’s movie dodges the issue of women in church leadership, too

The issue of ethnicity isn’t alone in the list of things DeMille’s movie dodges in his take on Moses and the Israelite Exodus from Egyptian bondage. There’s also the issue of Miriam and women in leadership. Miriam, like Moses, was a prophet, and she also led God’s people, as did Moses and Aaron. And yet, she’s barely even given a paragraph of statements in the movie. Of course, DeMille couldn’t cover everything in the movie itself, but he had plenty of time to use “creative license” with regard to narrative that isn’t found in Scripture.

A good example of movie narrative not found in Scripture is that Memnet is there with Pharoah’s daughter Bithia when Moses is pulled from the Nile. Memnet pledges to keep her mouth shut about Moses’ true ancestry (that he’s the son of Hebrew slaves), but she eventually spills the news to Moses’ flame, Nefretiri. Nefretiri kills Memnet to keep the truth hidden, but she forgets to pick up the Hebrew cloth Memnet shows her as proof of Moses’ ancestral origins. Moses finds out and that’s what begins his investigation into his Hebrew mother and siblings.

So DeMille gets a good amount of creative license to add a little bit of believable creative history, though it’s fantasy as far as we know (didn’t really happen). And yet, he forgoes the Ethiopian woman and Miriam’s prophetic role. Why?

The Ten Commandments (1956) is a product of its time: the 1950s

The 1950s was a time of extreme racism. The movie “Showboat” emerged on the scene in 1927, though the movie was reproduced in color in 1951, just 5 years before DeMille’s “Ten Commandments” (1956) arrived. And, of course, Showboat’s reproduction in 1951  reinforces the same erroneous racial stereotype that dominated American life in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s: that is, blacks are inferior to whites.

Showboat actually deals with the issue of race, as can be seen from the beloved song “Old Man River,” and the Caucasian married woman Julie who is part-black. Back in those days, blacks were not allowed to perform on-stage with whites, so Julie loses her job as a singer solely because of her racial makeup. Even though she’s biracial, she’s only considered to be black. The one-drop rule never entertained racial complexity.

It’s not a surprise to see DeMille’s The Ten Commandments arrive on the market in 1956. It’s not a surprise to see why it is that DeMille never discusses women in spiritual leadership and African ethnicity in the movie as well. Removing those parts of the biblical record from screen life was a way to prevent the movie from controversy. It was the easiest way for the movie to make it to the top and become a favorite for families all across the board in America. And, to be sure, it did just that. It’s one of those timeless movies that everyone still talks about.

But I think DeMille’s movie had a golden opportunity to deal with the issue of race and how God’s people consist of all races and ethnic backgrounds. Perhaps, had DeMille covered the race issue instead of avoiding it, it would’ve educated many Caucasian movie watchers about God’s interracial love for all people. Perhaps it would have turned aside some of the racism prevalent back then and in the 60s when the Civil Rights Movement took off. Perhaps it would have gotten white American Christians to think about how they should love their brown-skinned and dark-skinned Christian brothers and sisters. Instead, the movie reinforced stereotypes so as to not rock any controversial boats.

While it was a hit in some ways, it missed the big issues of gender and race. And that, unfortunately, is also part of this great movie’s enduring legacy.