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.
In addition, South Park makes Moses appear like the Master Control Program (MCP)–an evil artificial intelligence being, bent on enslaving others in the movie Tron–which effectively turns Moses into Pharaoh. In fact, Tron‘s hero Kevin Flynn is more akin to the biblical Moses. But this role confusion contributes to the episode’s comedic value.
In season 5, episode 17 of Fox’s Family Guy, Peter Griffin tells his wife and children the Griffin family history. Somehow a Griffin (who always looks and acts just like Peter, Rhode Island accent and all) has been deeply involved in many of the most important moments in human history–including the exodus from Egypt. The biblical Moses, according to Peter, was in fact a Griffin. Naturally.
Moses is shown at various stages of leaving Egyptian enslavement, including the giving of the Ten Commandments. These commandments, however, bear little resemblance to the biblical list. They are as follows (Moses only gets through four before moving on):
1) Shut the hell up.
2) There’s nothing I can do about the sun.
3) There are no more Jolly Ranchers, they’re all gone.
4) When we pass a billboard, please don’t read it out loud.
Immediately after this scene, the shot cuts to the people doing exactly what they were just told not to do–much like the Israelites in the Bible.
Family Guy sees the Exodus as not only the birth of a nation, but prime joke material. The Israelites are a bunch of tired, whiny ex-slaves traipsing blindly through the desert with only one leader to which they can lodge their many, many complaints. Moses is frustrated with his people, and with good reason. They are impossible to work with.
The sketch, in context of the rest of the family history portrayed in the episode, illustrates the indefatigable stubbornness of human nature.
In season 10 of the now legendary animated series The Simpsons, an episode called “Simpsons Bible Stories” depicts the respective characters’ dreams while sleeping in church. In each of the dreams, the main character becomes a biblical figure and the narrative is re-imagined from his or her personal point of view. Lisa, consistent with her character’s penchant for social justice, dreams of being present at the time of the plagues in Egypt and subsequent freeing of the Israelite slaves.
Moses is portrayed by Bart’s wimpy, ever-present sidekick Milhouse. Lisa becomes Milhouse’s Aaron, guiding him and speaking for him. Naturally, Principal Skinner plays Pharaoh, and the Israelites are portrayed by classmates from school (the children are slaves…to education).
Lisa, ever intelligent and logical, is uncomfortable with the idea of miracles. Even in her dream the Sea of Reeds does not part on its own–it happens after the characters simultaneously flush all the toilets in the city (she is apparently more comfortable with anachronism than miracles). This segment, and really the entire episode, confronts literal readings of the Bible, which may be the only option offered in Springfield by Pastor Lovejoy. But in Lisa’s dream, nothing is taken for granted; everything is explained, even if the explanation is just as improbable as the miracle.
Robot Chicken is an unusual animated series, done in claymation and stop-motion photography. There is no thematic thread among, or even within, the episodes, making it feel more like a twisted variety show than a typical animation. Each episode is often crude, violent, offensive, or just plain bizarre–surely points of pride for the creators.
Like on Family Guy, Moses on Robot Chicken is captured at the moment of bringing down and announcing the Ten Commandments. He is portrayed fairly stereotypically, perhaps by an actual “Moses” doll, and proudly declares to the people what he thinks are the commandments God has handed down. One anonymous young character at the foot of the mountain interrupts Moses, asking if there was “anything on there about not forcing your religion on other people.” When Moses replies with a forceful “no,” the character mutters, “Didn’t think so.”
Moses begins his recitation of the commandments, the first (and the only one he gets through, being “He who smelt it, dealt it.” There is an instant reaction from the group below, and a befuddled Moses wonders what’s going on as the segment reveals that this statement has no divine source, it was rather the work of “Dicks – With Time Machines.”
This sketch has a couple things to say to its viewers. First of all, it introduces a modern American value of the freedom of, and from, religion to this pivotal, deeply religious moment. The irreverent combination may simultaneously make the viewer laugh and stop to think about how much choice the band of Israelites actually had in accepting the commandments. Secondly, the sketch focuses on a scene that may feel familiar, when a spiritual leader makes everyone else laugh saying something he or she doesn’t realize is funny.
When it comes right down to it, each of these episodes has little to do with the Bible. The shows are all aiming to illustrate larger points about human nature, and the familiar imagery of the Exodus is the perfect vehicle for making their respective points.
South Park invokes Moses not only to be goofy and satirical, but to take a jab at organized religion. Family Guy emphasizes that people never change. We whine, we complain, and we don’t listen to directions. On top of that, no leader can really make us happy. Not even Moses Griffin.
The Simpsons criticizes people’s willingness to take unexplainable phenomena at face value, demanding that we question our society and our education more often and more thoroughly. Robot Chicken reminds us that while in the Bible reverence seems to come naturally, today nothing is sacred, and an elevated state can easily be swept away with some juvenile humor.