Few would dispute that Charlton Heston set the bar for the pop culture portrayal of Moses. A steady gaze, that powerful arm-span, the obligatory pair of leather sandals–all the key elements were there in the classic epic “The Ten Commandments.” But a new breed of Moses has recently appeared on the small screen, a Moses that is a bit more, well, animated. The great leader of the Israelites from slavery to the edge of the Promised Land, as it turns out, is also something of a cartoon celebrity.
Four programs (South Park, Family Guy, The Simpsons, and Robot Chicken) have depicted this biblical leader, each on their own terms, each with a unique spin on his role and that of his followers. Besides their sheer entertainment value, these portrayals offer interesting glimpses into pop culture “readings” of the Bible, and perhaps into our own self-understanding.
The Comedy Central hit South Park, to the chagrin of its foes and the delight of its fans, is persistently crass, crude, and at some point generally offensive to just about every type of person. While its detractors might decry the show’s moral fiber, or lack thereof, there is some genuine political and social satire in the misadventures of the show’s flatly animated characters.
For example, in a season 3 episode called “Jewbilee” (which can be viewed here), Kyle (the Jewish member of the South Park crew) invites Kenny to a meeting of a strange Jewish summer camp in which the biblical Moses, having been called upon by the camp’s elders, rises like a gleaming dreidel from the campfire. This bizarre, radiating Moses figure demands sacrifices from his Boyscout-like followers (in the form of arts and crafts projects), and there may be an allusion to the golden calf incident when the boys offer up their animal soap sculptures.
This is South Park doing what it does best: satire. After all, Moses is not worshipped in Judaism. On the contrary, he is considered the most humble man of all time, and denies any accolades. To turn him into an idolatrous figure is the ultimate irony.
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