The Book of Exodus — in fact a passage from last week’s Torah portion — makes an odd appearance in the movie, Marshall (2017 — Netflix subscribers, NOTE: The movie leaves that platform on Jan 1, 2022.) At first, oddities in the way the verses show up broke my willing suspension of disbelief. Eventually, however, I came to appreciate the scene and light it sheds back on the Exodus story.
Marshall and Friedman
The movie is based on a 1941 court case with Civil Rights implications. Here’s a summary of the real-life court case, published years before the movie was released. Here’s information about the movie, from IMDB, starring Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) and Josh Gad (b. 1981).
Early on in the story — in real life as in the movie — Thurgood Marshall, then NAACP’s itinerant attorney, must convince Sam Friedman, a Connecticut attorney specializing in insurance, to take up Joseph Spell’s defense. Friedman, 38, had no experience in criminal cases; Marshall, 32, had the experience but was refused standing as co-counsel by the judge.
Once the lawyers learn that Marshall is forbidden to speak at all at the trial, they have a short, tense conversation — while another lawyer who might take the case waits on the telephone. Without preamble, Marshal intones: “And the Lord commanded Moses to enlist his brother’s help.” Friedman recognizes the reference and joins in, saying along with Marshall: “He shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him.”
Friedman agrees to take the case. Throughout the trial, Marshall directs his colleague’s every move, until eventually — as in the historical case — they win a not-guilty verdict.
Moses and Aaron together pleading with Pharaoh to let the People go is among the most well-known Bible stories. Prior to that, at the close of the Burning Bush scene (Exodus 3:1ff), is a less famous passage: God becomes angry with Moses, promises to be “with the mouth” of both brothers, and tells Moses to be “as God” to Aaron (Ex 4:14-16).
These are not the most mellifluous verses, the most often quoted, or the most likely to land on inspirational household decorations. Still, both lawyers know this passage well enough to quote. And, although translations are quite varied, due in part to awkward phrasing in Hebrew, men from different backgrounds have somehow learned the same English words by heart.
Moreover, Marshall begins with Moses being commanded to enlist Aaron’s help, something not found in the Hebrew or in any translation I could find. Possibly this paraphrase is from a popular culture source of the 1920-30s, although there is no suggestion of that in the scene, or a commonly accepted Sunday-school rendition. Perhaps Marshall KNOWS the quote is not quite right and altered it for a point.
…Or, my best guest: movie-makers were content using not-quite-Bible, even in a scene where the words seem so pivotal; in other words, they were far less obsessed than I with issues of translation and transmission**….
I only found one discussion of the movie mentioning this scene, and its author is entirely unconcerned by what I found anomalous. In fact, Rabbi Elliot Gertel’s piece adds more layers of mismatch: he says that Marshall “quotes” and Friedman “is able to complete the verse,” but then offers a quotation himself that differs substantially from what is actually said in the movie:
…God’s words to Moses in the Book of Exodus (4:16), regarding Aaron: “And he shall be God’s spokesman to the people, that he shall be to you a mouth, and shall be to him in God’s stead.” Impressively, Sam is able to complete the verse.“Marshall” — Civil Rights and Old-Fashioned Shul Jews (November 2017)
TEXT NOTES: R’ Gertel appears to be using a modified version of Old JPS: “And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people; and it shall come to pass, that he shall be to thee a mouth, and thou shalt be to him in God’s stead.” More translations (some would have been similar in 1941; some are newer) at Bible Hub. Bilingual Hebrew/English for Exodus Chapter 4; interactive text with commentary.
Thurgood and Sam
I didn’t see this movie when it was new and don’t know if there was discussion at the time around use of the Bible story. As noted above, the quotation itself snapped me out of believing in the story as it was presented; a side effect of this shift of perspective, for better or worse, was a new look at the Exodus story.
When Thurgood says “God commanded Moses to enlist his brother’s help,” I hear three things:
- asking for Sam’s help in a way that the Bible text itself does not support: God tells Moses to meet Aaron and vice versa (4:27) but never tells Moses to ask for help;
- suggesting divine imperative behind the request: if God told Moses/Thurgood to ask, Aaron/Sam has no choice of response; and
- calling Sam his brother.
When Sam joins in reciting a version of Exodus 4:16, I also hear three sentiments:
- acknowledging brotherhood with Thurgood;
- recognizing that the request is bigger than the individuals involved; and
- agreeing to a role that, like Aaron, only he can play at that point.
If Aaron and Moses ever had a conversation weighing their responsibilities or wondering if/how they could operate as a brother-team, that’s hidden deep inside the white space between the Bible’s letters. But the text suggests that Moses and Aaron were relative strangers, if not entirely unknown to one another, prior to God’s call to each of them. So maybe the two tales — of Sam and Thurgood, Aaron and Moses — can shed mutual light on how individuals with no history or reason for trust can recognize sibling-partners in one another.
Another resonance between the tales is a pattern of objection, frustration, and acquiescence. Moses objects repeatedly to God’s call at the Burning Bush; God gets angry, and then announces the Aaron-mouth Moses-“God” team. Sam raises objection after objection to Joseph Spell as a client: he was dishonorably discharged from the Service, he left behind a wife and two children, he was charged with theft at another job… Thurgood snaps that criminal defendants are not ideal citizens and tells Sam he has no time for “selling” the task, he just needs him to do it, at which point the not-quite-Bible text seals the Sam-mouth Thurgood-“God” team.
R’ Gertel wonders, parenthetically, if Thurgood is being immodest by equating himself with Moses, and through Exodus 4:16, “as God.” The Thurgood of this Marshall film is nothing if not chutzpadik. But that is beside the point for the link between the lawyers’ story and Exodus. The real chutzpah, I think, is on the part of writers Michael and Jacob Koskoff.
Marshall as Midrash
Given that the Koskoffs paraphrased Exodus 4:14 and left out the part about God promising to be with both brothers in 4:15, sticking with the obscure and awkward pronouncement of 4:16, “…you shall be as God to him [וְאַתָּה תִּהְיֶה-לּוֹ לֵאלֹהִים, ve’atah tihyeh-lo le’Elohim],” must have been deliberate. In addition, the clunky language choice is part of a pivotal moment, creating the brother-team. And one effect of bringing this “as God” in at this point is to equate Civil Rights legal maneuvers to the Exodus Story.
Michael Koskoff (1942-2019) was a lawyer who saw parallels between Friedman’s work and his own, in defense of Black Panthers, e.g. But is this lionizing of legal efforts “immodesty” on anyone’s part? Or is it hinting at a kind of Legal Liberation Theology?
R’ Gertel’s piece about “Old Fashioned Shul Jews” closes with a question about whether/how: “…ties to synagogue and Jewish life have brought a precious and irreplaceable quality to social action by Jews.” This is a crucial question to ponder without romanticizing Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement.
And a fictionalized view of real life lawyers battling an inequitable system, in- and outside the courtroom, can illuminate the relationship of Aaron and Moses, two siblings who barely knew one another, taking up a dangerous and uncertain path toward undoing oppression.
**R’ Gertel’s “Old Fashioned Shul Jews” spends a fair amount of ink on the meaning of carrying and exchanging of money on the sabbath in one Marshall scene. As with my obsession with the use of a pseudo-quotation from the bible, I think the best explanation is that no one associated with the movie thought to worry about this being considered a violation of Shabbat by many Jews.
For more: AP story (2017) about Sam Friedman, interviewing daughter and a piece by Friedman’s grand-nephew Paul Friedman. Writer Michael Koskoff talks about his own legal and Jewish backgrounds; obit in NYT.RETURN