A shorter version of this post was published at The Gospel Coalition website.
Moses is about ready to die. Our mediator, the man of God, will never step foot in the Promised Land. His sin disqualifies him. Yet here I stand at the Plains of Moab, awaiting his final words and the fulfilment of a centuries-old promise made to father Abraham. The Promised Land is before us. We’re ready for milk and honey! Or are we?
These past forty years have been a school of faith for us. God thrust us out of the house of slavery. He drowned our enemies. He led us in fire and smoke. He fed us with miraculous manna from the sky. He gave us his law—a reflection of his holiness, a declaration of how to love him back. He renewed his covenant with us after we rebelled.
But if our repeated rebellion has taught me anything, it’s that the blessing ahead might not meet our deepest issue: the seed of sin in our hearts. I’m afraid the prosperity of the Promised Land might prove more perilous than the thirst and tents of our wilderness weaknesses.
My name is Adinah, and I’m an Israelite woman of thirty years. I was born in the wilderness.
My mother—Ima, as I call her—crossed the Red Sea when she was just a girl. This, of course, was my favorite bedtime story growing up. Each night, Ima would recount how she and my grandmother crossed through the sea on dry land. She would always recall how her mother gripped her hand so tightly she couldn’t feel it.
Then my Ima would sing the same sweet chorus over me every night—that song Miriam sang with the women as they danced on the beach: “Sing to the LORD for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea,” (Ex. 15:21).
We were ready for milk and honey right then and there! Instead, forty years of wilderness wandering awaited us.
My people have been incredibly rebellious these past forty years. But God has been unbelievably faithful, discipline and all. He has proven the land before us is good, flowing with milk and honey. Indeed, he is abundantly good. But will we keep our end of this precious covenant? Will we obey his voice? Will we listen and live?
Purpose of the Short Film
This is the urgent question on the mind of Adinah, our short film’s protagonist.
Mary Willson, TGC’s director of women’s initiatives, asked me in January to creatively and clearly summarize the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers for the women who would attend The Gospel Coalition Women’s 2018 conference. The video would introduce the conference theme out of Deuteronomy: “Listen and Live: Promised Grace for Rebel Hearts.” We wanted to catch everyone up on the narrative of the first four books of the Bible before jumping into Deuteronomy.
Mary asked me to highlight a few key themes in Israel’s journey up to the Plains of Moab: God’s covenant promise to Abraham, God’s redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt, Israel’s wavering faith, God’s amazing faithfulness and provision, and Moses’ role as mediator for Israel. We wanted the viewers to feel that they had entered into Israel’s narrative. We wanted them to feel the urgency of the moment: will we listen to God’s law and live? Will we live for him in the promised land?
Writing the Script
I wrestled with lots of doubt and fear approaching this project. How can I summarize such long and detailed books into one video? I don’t have any biblical or theological degrees or certificates. Why didn’t they asked someone more qualified? Thanks to the prayers and encouragement of my husband and my small group, I moved forward in (imperfect) faith.
Mary Willson and Ann Westrate patiently and thoroughly answered my many questions as I wrote the script. My pastors’ preaching through the book of Genesis for the past few years was a massive help as I thought through the narrative of Genesis. I was also very helped by Nancy Guthrie’s podcast Help Me Teach the Bible, especially the episodes with Ligon Duncan on the book of Numbers, and Kevin DeYoung on the book of Exodus. The Bible Project’s YouTube video on the Law helped me to see the big-picture story of the Pentateuch. Various articles and sermons from John Piper and Tony Reinke were also very helpful as I sought to understand the significance of God’s covenant with Abraham.
Creatively, I drew inspiration from Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical. You can probably hear his hip-hop influence in the line: “Ready for milk and honey! Ready for milk and honey! We were promised land ready. Get ready cuz here we comin’!” I love how Hamilton masterfully develops lyrical motifs. I sought to do the same thing by repeating and developing words and phrases like, “But God,” “seed,” “promise,” “generations,” and, “forty years.”
I also drew inspiration from Shai Linne’s album Storiez, particularly his songs “Passover” and “Greatest Story Ever Told.” It encouraged me to know that Shai somehow summarized redemptive history in a worshipful, five-minute song.
The request was for a five-minute video, but I ended up writing a script that took twenty minutes to perform. After lots of painful editing, we settled on an eleven-minute script. Act 1 of the script covers everything from the garden of Eden to slavery in Egypt. Act 2 takes us from Egypt to Mount Sinai. Act 3 brings us from Mount Sinai to the Plains of Moab.
Developing the Score
As I wrote the script, I imagined the styles of music and sound effects I wanted to include. I reached out to Alex Hitchens, a Grammy award-winning music producer, to score the film. We’ve worked together on a couple of projects, and I’m always blown away at how he is able to take my non-technical explanations of my musical vision and turn them into musical masterpieces.
I told Alex that I wanted the music to sound like The Prince of Egypt soundtrack meets the Inception soundtrack, meets the Black Panther score, meets The Dark Knight soundtrack. He did just that and more. You’ll hear inspiration from all of these scores in our film.
It was important for the music to match the emotion of the narrative. For example, you’ll hear the music crescendo from the introduction of Moses up to the chorus, “Sing to the LORD for he has triumphed gloriously!” and the rap, “Ready for milk and honey!” Then you’ll hear the music completely cut off as Adinah says, “But he led us through the wilderness…”
This is because when you read the book of Exodus, you feel the despair of ruthless slavery, then the rising hope of redemption through Moses, then the explosion of praise after crossing the Red Sea. Then very abruptly, the celebration stops. We’re in the wilderness and we’re hungry. Is this Yahweh the real deal? Or did he bring us out here to die of hunger and thirst?
Alex is a creative genius and I always marvel that he’s so willing to work with me. His contribution to this film is incalculable.
Shooting the Visuals
From here, our video team took over and absolutely amazed me with their ideas and execution. Our good friends, Juan and Haylee Garcia, are passionate believers in Christ who own a video company called Light Foster. They decided on our shooting location (Death Valley and Red Rock Canyon) and helped develop the storyboard.
My husband, Jon Aragon (aka Jon Doulos), oversaw creative direction. He helped scout exact shooting locations and storyboarded the film with Juan. Juan then directed the shoot as he and Jon shot the film using two cameras.
Haylee was our Director of Photography, and she managed the wardrobe and makeup as well. She was also a calm voice of humor and grace to me as we endured 100+ degree weather in the desert for three straight days of shooting.
Shooting the film with Juan and Haylee was like being on one extremely intense and long double date. They were lighthearted yet professional, and we loved working with them. But the trip was not easy at all. We were extremely fatigued and hungry. There were a million things that could have gone wrong that would have made this film impossible to shoot.
We saw God take care of all of those details, and our faith was truly built up. He allowed me to experience a tiny drop of the hunger, heat, and scariness of the wilderness that I had been studying in the Bible. And he showed me that he was with me through it, even as he was with Israel.
Karen Ellis joined us for the first day of shooting at Red Rock Canyon. Her professionalism and easy-going personality made it so easy to work with her. Not to mention, she delivered her lines beautifully. Her performance was even better than I imagined when I wrote the script. It was incredibly surreal to find myself sitting on a massive rock in the desert playing the daughter of a woman I deeply admire from afar. We kept saying, “I can’t believe we’re running around the desert together!”
The shots and angles that Juan, Haylee, and Jon came up with blew my mind. I only contributed a couple of visual ideas to the film. We drew inspiration from some of the shots of a short film called Birth Pangs, as well as Black Panther and the show The Last Kingdom.
My favorite shots include the drone footage when the chorus, “Sing to the LORD!” breaks out, as well as the last scene of the poem on the sand dunes when the camera draws away from me.
A thirty-year-old Israelite woman named Adinah finds herself at the Plains of Moab awaiting Moses’ final discourses before she enters the promised land.
The opening scene with Adinah (me) and her mom Ima (K.A. Ellis) can be taken as a flashback of a common occurrence between the mother and daughter. Ima recalls God’s redemption of Israel out of Egypt through the Red Sea. Adinah asks her to sing that chorus that Miriam and the women sang on the beach after crossing the Red Sea. Ima obliges, and we then find Adinah waking up in a dreamy landscape recalling creation and the history of Israel.
Adinah recounts the history of her people all the way up to her current status just outside the Promised Land. Suddenly, she is woken up by her husband who informs her that Moses is about to speak. This is when it becomes clear that Adinah’s whole poem was actually a dream.
I drew inspiration from the movie Inception, but I wanted the concept to be way less complicated than Inception. We also needed some creative license for our wardrobes, so a dream concept seemed most appropriate for our budget and timeline.
Watching the Premiere at TGCW18
It’s difficult to describe all the emotions I felt as I sat between my husband and Karen Ellis at the premiere of our short film at TGCW18. Behind us were about 8,000 women watching a creative representation of God’s Word and work.
I held Karen’s hand on my left and Jon’s hand on my right. As the massive screen played our film, Jon kept looking at me with a huge smile. Karen cried as she watched. I had to keep reminding myself to take breaths.
Nancy Guthrie ended up sitting in front of us, and it was such a delight to hear her shouting, “Ya! Uh! Yes!” throughout the film. Little did she know, her podcast had tremendously helped me write the script!
As soon as the film ended, Mary Willson began her beautiful exposition of Deuteronomy 1 entitled “A Faithful God and His Unfaithful People.” Her vision for this opening night of the conference came to fruition, and it was one of the most precious moments of my life.
I have never taken on a creative project of this immensity. I know that I couldn’t have accomplished this without the constant strengthening of the Lord. He allowed me to see his Word in a way I never had before. He walked with me each step of the way. He made me see my deep need for the Messiah. He helped me more deeply appreciate the precious gift of the Holy Spirit who now lives in me through faith in Jesus. God is so faithful and kind. He deserves all the glory.
I want to thank my amazing, supportive, creative-genius-of-a-husband Jon. Thank you for genuinely praying for me and encouraging me throughout this whole process. Your love and creative insight made this possible.
I want to thank the rest of my team: Juan, Haylee, and Alex. Thank you for making my vision come to life. You put in countless hours of hard work to make this happen. I don’t take that lightly, and I truly cherish your partnership.
Thank you to my mom for taking care of our two-year-old daughter as we travelled to shoot this video. We owe you everything.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to this film, including our singers Meeka, Bethsy, and Alethia who helped with the original singing vocals, Derek who recorded my vocals, Ann Westrate with TGC who graciously answered my many Bible questions, and Seth Magnuson who was an amazing and helpful liaison from TGC.
Lastly, thank you to Mary Willson for having a passion to give women of color a compelling voice in the Body of Christ. You have no idea how empowering and humbling this whole experience was for me. Thank you for entrusting this project to me and encouraging me every step of the way. You are a shining example of gospel urgency, biblical literacy, and Christlike love. Let’s have lunch sometime soon, OK?
Enjoy our spoken word short film “Listen & Live” by going to my YouTube channel: YouTube.com/QuinaAragon. Let me know how you were impacted by it and by the amazing teaching from Deuteronomy at The Gospel Coalition 2018 Women’s Conference. Thank you for watching! May God stir your heart to live for him!
A shorter version of this post was published at The Gospel Coalition website.