Is ‘Dune’ a Retelling of the Passover Story?

And does that mean Paul Atreides is basically Moses?

This article contains some spoilers for “Dune,” both the novel and the movies.

What if I were to tell you a story about a young man who was raised in power and privilege? Who but for his mother’s love would not have survived infancy? Where the ruling power feared that his people would become too powerful? Who discovered something shocking about himself? Who lost everything he knew and loved? Who fled into the desert? Who sought refuge with a tribe indigenous to the desert? Who fell in love with a woman from the tribe? Who achieved prophet-like capabilities? Who returned to the place from where he had fled? And who sought to free people from oppression? What story would you say I was telling, and about whom?

If you were to guess I was telling the story of Passover and its hero Moses, you would be… wrong. Instead, I am telling the story of “Dune” and its hero (or anti-hero) Paul Atreides. “Dune” is a classic science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. It was made into a not-so-hit movie in the 1980s, starring Sting in a speedo, but has since been made into a very-much-a-hit movie franchise. “Dune: Part One” came out in 2021, starring everyone’s favorite NJB Timothee Chalamet. “Dune: Part Two” hits theaters tomorrow on March 1, 2024 and “Dune: Part Three” is allegedly in the works.

In “Dune,” Paul Atreides is not a Prince of Egypt, but the son of a powerful and honorable duke. The threat to his life as an infant did not come from a genocidal plot from a pharaoh, but from a draconian breeding program spearheaded by the mysterious Bene Gesserit order. The Bene Gesserit are women (think sexually active nuns) who through centuries of “shidduchim” (that is, matchmaking) are trying to create the Kwisatz Haderach – a man who can see into the past, present and future. As part of this breeding program, the Bene Gesserit told Paul’s mother that she should not bear a son; she should bear only daughters (yes, in this world, a child’s gender can be chosen). But the duke desperately wanted a son to follow in his footsteps, and Paul’s mother obliged her husband.

The “Dune” ruling power – not a pharaoh, but an emperor – did not fear an ethnic group becoming too numerous, but feared that Paul’s family was becoming too powerful and popular such that the emperor’s power and influence might be weakened. The emperor decided that the Atreides line must end.

Paul’s shocking discovery about himself was not that he was humbly born, but that he had the gift (the curse) of prescience: the ability to see into the future. He did not lose everything he knew and loved because he ran away, but due to a centuries old blood feud between his family and a rival family, egged on by the emperor. He did not flee into the desert to run away from what he knew, but to save himself from being killed in this blood feud. He did not seek refuge with the Midianites, a tribe indigenous to the desert outside of Egypt, but with the Fremen, a tribe indigenous to a desert planet. He did not fall in love with a Midianite woman named Tzipporah, but with a Fremen woman named Chani.

While Moses hit up the burning bush and was revealed as a prophet, Paul took a whole lot of drugs and was then seen as a prophet. Paul did not return to the place from where he had fled to make demands, but to seek revenge. Finally, Paul did not seek to free his people from slavery, but to win the blood feud and to free the Fremen people from their occupiers who had oppressed them and stripped their planet of its precious natural resources.

The most important distinction between Moses and Paul Atreides is the perceived legitimacy of their prophethood. Moses was deemed a prophet because, well, he just was. God commanded him to act, and he did. But in “Dune,” much more complicated and sinister forces were at play. The Bene Gesserit, to prepare other peoples for its breeding program and to receive the Kwisatz Haderach that they would produce, had met with the Fremen people centuries before Paul Atreides had. The Bene Gesserit told the Fremen of a prophecy — that a chosen one would come from outside their tribe and free them from oppression. By the time Paul arrived, the Fremen had been waiting for a “chosen one” — a “messiah” — for generations. And Paul, an outsider with prescient abilities, seemed to fit that description.

“Dune” is about the dangers of following a charismatic leader (in this case, Paul). Herbert writes in his novel: “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero[.]” That doesn’t quite seem to be the theme of the Passover story — after all, the Jewish people wouldn’t have survived Egypt if not for Moses.

Why are these similarities and distinctions important? After all, “Dune” is fiction. And the Book of Exodus, the Torah, is… well, what is it? Is it the word of God? Is it a collection of valuable stories put together to teach us how to live ethical lives? Is it proof that certain themes are universal? Is it just another fictional hero’s journey, no different from “The Odyssey,” “Star Wars” or “Dune?” Or, is it something else?

With this in mind, I’m forced to wonder if the distinctions are so important after all. “Dune” author Herbert was greatly inspired by world religions and was at the same time deeply critical of them. He saw how spirituality could be manipulated to achieve political and personal aims. The role of fiction is often to force us to examine the truths in our own society. Could the implications of Herbert’s story reflect what happens with real life world religions, when people in power manipulate faith to meet their own ends? And is this not what the Passover story is also about?

Considering what this means for us in 2024 is part of what makes watching “Dune” in theaters, and retelling the Exodus story at our seders, so compelling today.

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