Time Magazine has an excellent article by Bruce Feiler on “How Moses Shaped America.” This article is an adaptation of a section of Feiler’s book, America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story. The article shows how Moses, his story, his person, and the Mosaic struggle to bring freedom to a group of Egyptian slaves has inspired American politics and the ideals that shaped American history.
The following is an excerpt from the article:
The Moses story opens in the 13th century B.C.E. with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. After the pharaoh orders the slaughter of all Israelite male babies, Moses is floated down the Nile, picked up by the pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the palace. An adult Moses murders an Egyptian for beating “one of his kinsmen,” then flees to the desert, where, later, a voice in a burning bush recruits him to free the Israelites. This moment represents Moses’ first leadership test: Will he cling to his unburdened life or attempt to free a people enslaved for centuries?
The plight of the Israelites resonated with the earliest American settlers. For centuries, the Catholic Church had banned the direct reading of Scripture. But the Protestant Reformation, combined with the printing press, brought vernacular Bibles to everyday readers. What Protestants discovered was a narrative that reminded them of their sense of subjugation by the church and appealed to their dreams of a Utopian New World. The Pilgrims stressed this aspect of Moses. When the band of Protestant breakaways left England in 1620, they described themselves as the chosen people fleeing their pharaoh, King James. On the Atlantic, they proclaimed their journey to be as vital as “Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt.” And when they got to Cape Cod, they thanked God for letting them pass through their fiery Red Sea. (See 10 surprising facts about the world’s oldest Bible.)
By the time of the Revolution, the theme of beleaguered people standing up to a superpower had become the go-to narrative of American identity. The two best-selling books of 1776 featured Moses. Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, called King George the “hardened, sullen tempered pharaoh.” Samuel Sherwood, in The Church’s Flight into the Wilderness, said God would deliver the colonies from Egyptian bondage. The Moses image was so pervasive that on July 4, after signing the Declaration of Independence, the Congress asked Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to propose a seal for the United States. Their recommendation: Moses, leading the Israelites through the Red Sea as the water overwhelms the pharaoh. In their eyes, Moses was America’s true Founding Father.
But escaping bondage proved to be only half the story. After the Israelites arrive in the desert, they face a period of lawlessness, which prompts the Ten Commandments. Only by rallying around the new order can the people become a nation. Freedom depends on law.
Americans faced a similar moment of chaos after the Revolution. One Connecticut preacher noted that Moses took 40 years to quell the Israelites’ grumbling: Now “we are acting the same stupid part.” And so just as a reluctant Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, then handed down the Ten Commandments, a reluctant George Washington led the colonists to victory, then presided over the drafting of the Constitution. The parallel was not lost. Two-thirds of the eulogies at Washington’s death compared the “leader and father of the American nation” to the “first conductor of the Jewish nation.”
Feiler concludes his article by encouraging President Obama to learn “from a figure that nearly every one of his predecessors has invoked.”
NOTE: For a complete list of studies on Moses, read my post Studies on Moses.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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