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A Netflix Series: The Story of Moses in the Covenant

The stories of the prophets have always been a fertile and appealing subject for cinema. Overall, it is evident that films related to Jesus Christ and Christianity are in the forefront. The number of films in cinema archives that feature Jesus Christ as the subject is over 300. At least half of these focus solely on Jesus himself. A similar magnitude applies to Moses. When considering personal narratives, we see that Moses is directly the focus of nearly 100 films, and indirectly in over 200.

The same numerical significance holds for Christianity and Judaism. Naturally, the Jewish genocide during and before World War II has led to a boom in dramas and documentaries featuring Judaism: more than 2,000…

Tables are as follows:

The number of films related to Hinduism and Buddhism is not as many, of course. However, the number of films specifically about Buddha is also not insignificant: 168. That table is as follows:

When it comes to Islam and our prophet Muhammad, the matter shifts slightly. Indeed, the number of films related to Islam is quite large (1001 relating to Islam, 1600 relating to Muslims)

At first glance, we also see significant numbers in films about the Islamic religion and its prophet. However, the vast majority of these films are against Islam and portray the Prophet in a negative light. As you know, there are only one or two films about Islam and the prophet that a Muslim can watch comfortably. (Films by Mustafa Akkad and Majid Majidi)

Moses is considered one of the Ulul-Azm prophets in Islamic terminology.

What is Ulul-Azm?

The term is explicitly mentioned in the Quran. In the Ahqaf Surah, Verse 35, it is commanded: “So be patient, O Prophet, as were those of resolve among the messengers.” And elsewhere (Ahzab:7), “Once, We took a firm promise from the Prophets: from you, from Noah, from Abraham, from Moses, and from Jesus, son of Mary. We took from them a solemn promise, to question the truthful about their loyalty, and prepare a painful torment for the disbelievers.” The late Abdulkadir Gölpinarlı translates this verse saying: “The five prophets mentioned here, known as ‘Ulul-Azm,’ are said to be prophets to all humanity.”

Also, Beyzavi notes: “The reason only five prophets are mentioned is due to each being the bearer of both a book and a law, hence they are the great prophets.”

So, being Ulul-Azm has two conditions: having one’s own law and having a revealed book…

Without deviating from the topic, let’s continue. In our previous series, while discussing Prophet Joseph, we noted that the Quran and other heavenly scriptures (though altered) narrate similar tales in different ways. According to Islam, the primary source is, of course, the Quran. If similar accounts exist in older scriptures, they are essentially the same. If there is a discrepancy, Muslims believe the earlier scriptures were corrupted. If not, a new law would not have been necessary. If there are details and stories in the older scriptures that are not found in the Quran, Muslims take a cautious yet attentive approach to them, but cannot base judgments solely on them.

Producers and Directors Emre Şahin and his father, Professor Haluk Şahin

The series “Testament: The Story of Moses—Ahit: Musa’nın Hikayesi” begins with such an emphasis:

“This series is a dramatic examination of Moses and the story of the Exodus, incorporating views from theologians and historians from various faiths and cultures. Their contributions aim to enrich the narrative, but should not be taken as a consensus.”

In other words, the series discusses the perspectives on Moses’ story from various cultures and religions, including Islam, but the narrative is primarily based on the Old Testament. This has even prompted some objections from the Christian community on social media, urging people to stay away from the series.

The project belongs to Emre Şahin, a director who has made a significant impact with 40 films, remembered by the newer generation for his work on Netflix’s “Rise of Empires Ottoman”. The director named in the series is Benjamin Ross, although Şahin does not heavily promote this name. If it is the Benjamin Ross we know, he is a graduate of Oxford and Columbia University NY Graduate Film School and is known for “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook”, a film that garnered significant acclaim at festivals.

In a docu-drama, the director’s name might not be as prominent, perhaps due to other significant elements being in focus.

Just as watching Mustafa Akkad’s “The Message” during Ramadan and other holy days has become a tradition for Muslims, watching Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film “The Ten Commandments” nearly every Easter and Passover season has become a tradition for many Americans (especially those who are Christian). Additionally, films about the Ulul-Azm prophets (excluding Prophet Muhammad, of course) are occasionally produced by churches.

I’ve mentioned before in various contexts, including during an interview with the late Mustafa Akkad, who when asked why he made “The Message,” responded, “There was no film to teach my children about their prophet!” Of course, he could not have known at that time that no other film on this subject would be made for a very long time.

Now let’s discuss the content of Emre Şahin and Benjamin Ross’s docu-drama. Let’s be clear from the start; there’s nothing new here! I know you probably smiled reading this, but it’s true. From the first second, the documentary meticulously follows the classic Old Testament narrative, leaving us with only the strong performances of the actors and the impressive scenes of the flood. Beyond that, there’s neither a fresh interpretation nor a captivating scene… Unfortunately. I’m not even sure if the producers and director had an intention to pursue such an angle. Therefore, let me conclude here: Ahit: Musa’nın Hikayesi, especially seems like a chapter from an illustrated history of prophets, designed for Christian children.

Let’s delve deeper now.

Ahit: Musa’nın Öyküsü oscillates interestingly between a surreal drama and a dry religious seminar on Netflix’s thumbnails. The prologue’s warning of “enriching the narrative… should not be construed as consensus” seriously covers up matters, allowing us to say: This docu-drama tries to reconstruct the life of Moses with balanced contributions from the three monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and ends up narrating the most bland but simultaneously the simplest version of a well-known story.

A recent trend among Jews goes like this: Why go to the synagogue when you can just watch Netflix!

For example, the producers make no effort to retell the stories of the Bible and the Quran with nuances, new perspectives, or challenges to fundamental ideas. Although the character of Moses, especially in the Quran, contains incredibly rich material and detail, instead, the portrayal here reduces Moses to a mere common man’s projection, something all of us are supposed to relate to, even though in all three aforementioned religions, Moses is seen differently.

Perhaps this is something that co-writer and director Benjamin Ross considered, but after all, we’re talking about a Netflix documentary. It’s not a big-budget or ambitious production.

Looking at the acting, I regret to write that perhaps the most “off” character portrayal is that of Moses himself. Meanwhile, the actor playing Pharaoh, Mehmet Kurtulmuş, truly excels. Similarly, many other characters are also quite successful.

The Story of Moses is surprisingly short, consisting of just three episodes: The Prophet, The Plagues, and The Promised Land. It covers Moses’s entire life, from his birth as an Egyptian prince, through exile, and ultimately his return, detailing his dealings with the Hebrews, various divine calamities, the crossing of the Red Sea, to Mount Sinai, all while incorporating exceedingly polite comments from commentators into the story.

Now, let me get to my most critical critique that will probably disappoint the producers the most.

Despite its successful effects, generally good acting, and fidelity to the Old Testament, there’s an insincerity and commercial intent seeping through every frame of the work.

The biggest issue is with the character of Moses!

The major problem with The Story of Moses documentary seems to be the construction of the character of Moses. I will explain shortly; Moses holds a significant place in Islam and naturally, in the Quran. Thus, it is natural for a Muslim to feel uncomfortable with the portrayal of Moses in this documentary. Moreover, the protagonist Moses painted here strays outside an acceptable frame even for the old and new Testaments.

Imagine not knowing the difference between breaking up a fight by stepping between two people, causing one’s death, and creeping up behind a disliked slave to smash his head with a stone. Such a perspective might pass in a drama as “interpretation,” but when it claims to be documentary, we need to pause. An irritable, impulsive prophet who shatters the commandment tablets he received from God on the rocks in anger at his people almost portrays a mentally disturbed prophet! Sure, a plain narrative might have been chosen with Wikipedia-like text. The perception level of a middle school being the audience is not an issue in my opinion, but when you are constructing a character who has a historical reality and is a prophet with a significant spiritual aspect, you need to tread more carefully.

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