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Moses in popular culture

Schoenberg's Moses und Aron is just the tip of the iceberg, with the prophet referenced in pop songs, epic films and... Superman!?

By Elizabeth Davis (Former Editorial Assistant)

25 July 2014 at 4.28pm | Comment on this article

The biblical figure of Moses has inspired works of art down the centuries, not least Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron. But Moses is by no means restricted to the highbrow – he looms large in popular culture, from cartoons to pop songs. Here are some of our favourites.

The Ten Commandments
Probably the most famous portrayal of Moses on film, The Ten Commandments was directed by Cecil B. DeMille and released in 1956. Charlton Heston plays Moses opposite Yul Brynner as Rameses in what became one of the most successful biblical epics ever made. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls the film ‘Simultaneously ludicrous and splendid’, but whatever your view, there's no question that DeMille helped define Moses in the popular imagination. The film won an Oscar for its pioneering use of special effects, which include Moses’s staff turning into a viper.

You don’t have to spend long on the internet to discover an ongoing debate about whether Superman is more Messiah or Moses. But David S. Goyer, screenwriter for 2013's Man of Steel, recently said in an interview: ‘Obviously the idea of Superman’s parents casting him off into the stars is a blatant reference to Moses in the bulrushes. And while Superman’s adoptive earth parents are not pharaohs, Superman is a being from one race raised by members of another race; he has to come to grips with his own heritage, just as Moses did.’

Exodus: Gods and Kings
There have been many films about Moses since The Ten Commandments, but no real blockbusters. Ridley Scott (of Alien, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven fame) is hoping to change that with his big-budget film Exodus: Gods and Kings, following on from Darren Aronofsky’s biblical bonanza, Noah. Christian Bale plays Moses, leading a starry cast that also includes Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.

'All You Zombies' by The Hooters
There's been an opera by Rossini (Mosè in Egitto), an oratorio by Max Bruch, even a musical (The Ten Commandments: The Musical, with music by Patrick Leonard and book by Maribeth Derry). But you can also find Moses in the world of pop music. 1980s rock band The Hooters invoked the prophet in their hit-song ‘All You Zombies’: he 'went to get the Ten Commandments – Yeah, he’s just gonna break them in half.’

History of the World: Part I
Mel Brooks’s 1981 film flits lightly through human history from the Stone Age to the French Revolution stopping off at the Roman Empire and The Spanish Inquisition along the way. A brief visit with Moses reveals why we only have ten commandments.

Welsh National Opera performs Moses und Aron on the Royal Opera House's main stage 25–26 July 2014. Tickets are now limited to returns.

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