Fusion Magazine: The Patron Saint of Hope

How the Story of Moses Shaped America

 

By Bruce Feiler

Is there a more empty word in political rhetoric than hope? A third of American presidents have used the word in an inaugural address. In William Safire’s collection of the “great speeches in history,” Lend Me Your Ears, the language maven gathered more than 200 orations from Cicero to Margaret Thatcher. The word hope appears in 100 of them. In American politics of late, the word has become so overused it’s almost, well, hopeless.

And yet, few ideas have had more power in creating the United States than hope. Few concepts have stitched together the sometimes conflicting tensions among our religious, secular, and entrepreneurial impulses than hope. And few ideas are more central to our future than hope.

Even more surprising: These disparate strands of the American character have often found an expression in a most unlikely source. He is the figure who inspired more Americans than any other. He is the figure who shaped more iconic American symbols of opportunity – from the Statue of Liberty to Superman – than any other. He is the patron saint of hope.

His name is Moses.


America's Prophet


by Bruce Feiler

Five years ago, after spending years retracing the Bible through the deserts of the Middle East and writing such books as Walking the Bible and Abraham, I began spending more time at home. One day, while visiting Plymouth, Massachusetts, with my family, I boarded a replica of the Mayflower. A re-enactor was reading from the Bible. “Exodus 14,” he stated, “[the] Israelites are trapped in front of the Red Sea and Moses declares, ‘The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.’ Our leader read us that passage while we were crossing the Atlantic.” Hmmm, I thought. Moses, on board the Mayflower.

On a trip to my hometown of Savannah, I saw a letter from George Washington in which he credits his success in the Revolution to the “same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors.” Exodus, on Washington’s pen.

On a trip to Philadelphia, I discovered that the quote on the side of the Liberty Bell is from Moses. “PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF. The law of Sinai in the middle of July 4th.

In coming weeks, I found a similar story over and over again. Columbus comparing himself to Moses when he sailed in 1492. George Whitefield quoting Moses as he traveled the colonies in the 1730’s forging the Great Awakening. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, in the summer of 1776, proposing that Moses be on the seal of the United States. Harriet Tubman adopting Moses’ name on the Underground Railroad. Abraham Lincoln being eulogized as Moses’ incarnation. The spikes of light and tablet on the Statue of Liberty being molded in Moses’ honor. Cecil B. De- Mille recasting Moses as a hero for the Cold War. Martin Luther King likening himself to Moses on the night before he was killed. The sheer ubiquity was staggering, and, for me, completely unknown.

For two years, I traveled to touchstones in American history and explored the role of the Bible, the Exodus, and Moses in inspiring generation after generation of Americans. Discovering how much the biblical narrative of the Israelites has colored the vision and informed the values of 20 generations of Americans and their leaders was like discovering an entirely new window into a house I thought I knew. You can’t understand American history, I now believe, without understanding Moses. He is a looking glass into our soul. But why?

The answer comes back to the profound connection between the story of Moses and the idea of hope. As theologian Walter Brueggemann has written, the role of the prophet is “to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” That is Moses’ gift and his legacy: He proposes an alternative reality to the one we face at any given moment. He suggests there is something better than the mundane, the enslaved, the second-best, the compromised. He encourages people to be revolutionary. Perhaps Americans’ chief debt to Moses is his message that we should never settle for the status quo, and always aspire to what Thoreau termed the “true America.” In the words of W.E.B. DuBois, “Not America, but what America might be.”

This, I believe, is the chief lesson to take from the story of Moses, and why his 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai have had such a profound effect on the American dream. The years I worked on my book about Moses overlapped with the earliest years of my daughters’ lives, and because of that a moment in the Moses story took on special meaning. The passage comes in Exodus, on the eve of the 10th plague and the first Seder, when Moses says, “When in time your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ What will you tell them?” I began to wonder how I would answer that question. What will I tell my children about the meaning of Moses?

First, the power of story. Exodus 1:8 features this memorable phrase: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The story begins with forgetting. The rest of the Five Books of Moses becomes an antidote to this state of forgetfulness. God hears the groaning of Israel and “remembers his covenant” (Ex. 2:24). Moses leads the Israelites from Egypt and urges them to “remember this day” (Ex. 13:3). The Israelites are ordered to “remember the Sabbath day” (Ex. 20:8). Moses’ goal is to build a counter-Egypt. He must construct a society that offers an alternative to ignorance and unknowingness. He must devise a community that remembers.

Moses’ success in this regard may be his most underappreciated accomplishment: The Five Books of Moses are a memory device. In slavery, the Israelites made bricks; in freedom, they make stories. As historian Jonathan Sacks put it, “By telling the Israelites to become a nation of educators, Moses turned a group of slaves into a people of eternity.” So my first message to my daughters: Remember. Keep the story, as Moses says in Deuteronomy 30, “in your mouth and in your heart.”

Second, the story is a narrative of hope. “This year we are slaves,” the Passover service says, “but next year ...” History is not set in stone. It is not an immovable pyramid. It can be remade. The pyramid can be flipped. When you despair, when you hurt, when you fear – and especially when you encounter those feelings in others – remember the slaves who first groaned under bondage. In America, the pilgrims, the founders, the enslaved, the ghettoized, and the segregated, all read the Israelites’ story and believed that they, too, might be free. You should read the Israelites’ story, too, and remember this lesson: There is a moral dimension to the universe. Right can prevail over might; justice can triumph over evil. As Princeton Professor Michael Walzer writes, “Anger and hope, not resignation, are the appropriate responses to the Egyptian house of bondage.” You should read the story of Moses and remember to flip a few pyramids yourselves along the way. And as long as it’s not your parents (remember that fifth commandment!), you should question authority. Overturn injustice. Befriend the stranger, for you, yourselves, were strangers once in a land with no hope.

Which leads to my third point: Act. One reason Moses has inspired so many Americans over the centuries is that he evangelizes action; he justifies risk. He gives ordinary people the courage to live with uncertainty. As I found in my own travels in the Sinai desert over the years, no matter how full of hope the Israelites were when they departed Egypt, they were still leaving the most civilized place on Earth for the most barren, based only on the word of a God they’d never actually seen and a leader they barely knew. Moses is the enemy of caution, which is one reason so many visionaries have been inspired by him – Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King. And these people were not born to greatness. They became great by tapping into the anger and hope within themselves. The moral of their lives, like that of Moses, is that each of us must become our own agitator, our own entrepreneur, our own freedom fighter. Our own Moses.

The Bible suggests a similar ending in Deuteronomy 34 when it says that Moses’ successor “was filled with the spirit of wisdom” because Moses had laid his hands on him. Moses’ farewell gesture is also an act of love: He teaches. He may not achieve the Promised Land, but he transfers his wisdom to those who shall. The man becomes a book. Born on the lip of the Nile, he dies on the brink of the Jordan. The boy who was given life by being floated on the water becomes the prophet who yields to death at water’s edge. And in doing so, he leaves the crossing to each of us, who must hear his words and heed his story. Left with only his telling and his wisdom, we must split the sea ourselves now. We must run our own errand into the wilderness.

I will tell my daughters that this is the meaning of the Moses story and why it has reverberated through the American story. America, it has been said, is a synonym for human possibility. I dream for you, girls, the privilege of that possibility. Imagine your own promised land, perform your own liberation, plunge into the waters, persevere through the dryness, and don’t be surprised – or saddened – if you’re stopped just short of your dream. Because the ultimate lesson of Moses’ life is that the dream does not die with the dreamer, the journey does not end on the mountaintop, and the true destination in a narrative of hope is not this year at all.

But next.

Bruce Feiler is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, including  Walking the Bible, Abraham, and The Council of Dads. The article is adapted from  his book America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America, which Glenn Beck called “the best book of narrative history I have ever read... I cannot recommend it highly enough.” For more information, please visit www.brucefeiler.com



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Would Glenn make a better bounty hunter or a Jedi? You'll have to find out in a new episode of the Beltway Banthas Podcast, where Glenn goes deep on Star Wars with host Stephen Kent. In this 45 minute discussion, Stephen and Glenn explore the political themes of the Star Wars franchise, Darth Vader's redemption from Return of the Jedi, Glenn's earliest memories of seeing the films and even debate elements of the latest Star Wars films.

If you enjoy the pop culture and nerdy discussions that Glenn, Pat and Stu get into on the radio show, you'll love this! After you're through, you can also check out Stu Burguiere's appearance on Beltway Banthas to talk Star Wars. You can find that here.


It's never too early to start your Christmas, Hanukah, or Kwanzaa shopping. Or even birthday gift shopping. Especially if that special someone in your life is a Democrat. Because at last count, pretty much all the Democrats are now running for president. And that means there has never been a wider selection of official candidate merchandise to choose from. Whether you're into environmentalism, feminism, classism, socialism, or just plain love, there is a smorgasbord of classy items that you and yours will treasure forever... or at least until the next presidential election.

We have browsed each of the candidates' online stores, so you don't have to (it only took us three months). We have curated only the finest items from each of the Democrats running for president of the United States of America. Without further ado, here is your handy progressive gift guide – or maybe your what-not-to-gift guide.

First, the bargain basement options. Hurry! Time is running out to grab your Beto bandana, or your Delaney pack of golf balls, because at this point Stu has as much of a chance as these guys of getting the nomination.

Tom Steyer, for example – is he still in the race?


https://shop.tomsteyer.com/collections/frontpage/products/tom-2020-pattern-tee


There's way too much Tom here. That shirt's got more Toms than a Caucasian dentists' convention.

For the slightly more moderate Democrat in your life, perhaps they'd like to join the "Yang Gang"…

https://shop.yang2020.com/collections/bumper-stickers/products/yanggang-decal


Andrew Yang is a lock for Math Club president…


https://shop.yang2020.com/collections/apparel/products/math-hat


But for actual president? Well, I wouldn't make plans for how you're going to spend your $1,000-per-month Yang allowance just yet.

If you happen to be shopping for your dog, may I suggest this lovely "Dogs for Delaney" dog collar…


https://store.johndelaney.com/products/dogs-for-delaney-collar


John Delaney's definitely going to secure the canine vote with this kind of outreach. As for any human votes, that's another question entirely.

How 'bout this tastefully understated "Natural Canvas" Michael Bennet tote to remind you he's also still here?...


https://store.michaelbennet.com/michael-bennet-for-america-natural-canvas-tote/


Then again, it's a tote. So, it'll end up on the floor of your closet and you won't have it with you until that one random moment when you're out somewhere and you really need a tote bag. Just like Democrats will really wish they had a moderate when we're in the middle of the socialist nightmare of their creation.

Captain Planet himself, Jay Inslee recently dropped out of the race, but don't let that stop you from picking up what may be the greatest single item sold by anyone in this race…


https://store.jayinslee.com/elvis-the-elves-the-mystery-of-the-melting-snow-by-jay-inslee/


A children's book called Elvis & the Elves: the Mystery of the Melting Snow. Written and illustrated by Governor Jay Inslee. Talk about a whodunnit – how could that snow possibly be melting? Spoiler alert: it's because of evil, white, patriarchal capitalism. And Donald Trump.

Then there's the candidate who thinks you're a moron that can't pronounce his last name: Steve Bullock...


https://shop.stevebullock.com/collections/apparel/products/emoji-t-shirt


Get it? Bull. Lock. Oh, so that's how you say the name that sounds exactly how it's spelled.

There's another candidate who also thinks you need help pronouncing his last name…


https://store.peteforamerica.com/collections/apparel/products/boot-edge-edge-t-shirt


And he is definitely right about that. So, thank you, Pete "Boot Edge Edge." That helps.

Just outside the bargain bin section, but just barely, are candidates like Julian Castro and his "El Presidente" t-shirt…


https://store.julianforthefuture.com/julian-castro-loteria-card-white-tee/


When your last name's Castro, do you really want to go with a weird drawing of yourself as if you're a classic Latin American dictator on a postage stamp?

If you prefer a little "dark psychic forces" battling in your candidates, you'll love Marianne Williamson's "Turn Love Into a Political Force" rally sign…


https://store.marianne2020.com/collections/signs/products/love-rally-sign


"Turn Love Into a Political Force" would be an even better title for a Marianne Williamson album of 80s cover songs. And if you think I'm joking, then you haven't heard Bernie Sanders' classic 1987 folk album, We Shall Overcome. That's not a joke. Well, it is a joke, but it's also a very real thing.

Now, just a quick pause to consider the peculiar baby-wear that way too many candidates are selling…

…including Elizabeth Warren's trans-pride flag onesie. Let me get this straight – we can't force any gender on a child, because that's just cruel. But we can force a political advertisement on a baby? How do we know that baby is actually a Biden or Warren fan? The child may not even be a Democrat or a Socialist at all. That baby might self-identify as a Libertarian, or Republican, or even worse – a moderate Democrat.

Now to the premium items from the premium candidates. Elizabeth Warren – the candidate with the most honesty in her advertising…


https://shop.elizabethwarren.com/collections/apparel/products/impolite-arrogant-women-make-history-unisex-t-shirt

-AND-

https://shop.elizabethwarren.com/collections/drinkware/products/strong-american-unions-mug


Warren's merchandise reflects the woman herself – cold and humorless (watch her "This isn't funny" clip from the last debate here at the 4:27 mark). I'm sure she's really fun once you get to know her. Then again, maybe not.

Speaking of serious women, Kamala Harris wants to be president very badly for you, the people, as you can tell from her "For the People" poster…


https://store.kamalaharris.org/poster-for-the-people/


At $29.99 though, she's sure not charging "people's" prices. Of course, she might be having to pay royalties to a certain someone for riffing on their poster. Just saying.

For the race's number one socialist, there's a whole lot of capitalism going on in Bernie Sanders' campaign. He sells so many delightful items that it's hard to choose. But we did anyway. The most random item is this hundred-dollar, black, "Art of a Political Revolution – Artists for Bernie Sanders Coaches Jacket"…


https://store.berniesanders.com/collections/apparel/products/artists-for-bernie-coaches-jacket


Coaches across the land will be clamoring for this one. You know, since coaches are such a strong Bernie-socialist demographic.

If that's a little over your budget you might consider a "Feel the Bern" fanny pack, to help store all those government freebies you'll get from Bernie…


https://store.berniesanders.com/collections/apparel/products/feel-the-bern-fanny-pack


This is the only context in which you'll ever want to hear "feel the burn" and "fanny" in the same sentence.

And finally, from front-runner Joe Biden, we have this fine "Women's Fitted Biden Polo." Which is just about the best polo description ever…


https://store.joebiden.com/collections/apparel/products/biden-polo-womens-fit


It promises the kind of snug approach that Biden loves to provide women. Even when they don't ask.

This was one of the first homesteads in the area in the 1880's and was just begging to be brought back to its original glory — with a touch of modern. When we first purchased the property, it was full of old stuff without any running water, central heat or AC, so needless to say, we had a huge project ahead of us. It took some vision and a whole lot of trust, but the mess we started with seven years ago is now a place we hope the original owners would be proud of.

To restore something like this is really does take a village. It doesn't take much money to make it cozy inside, if like me you are willing to take time and gather things here and there from thrift shops and little antique shops in the middle of nowhere.

But finding the right craftsman is a different story.

Matt Jensen and his assistant Rob did this entire job from sketches I made. Because he built this in his off hours it took just over a year, but so worth the wait. It wasn't easy as it was 18"out of square. He had to build around that as the entire thing we felt would collapse. Matt just reinforced the structure and we love its imperfections.

Here are a few pictures of the process and the transformation from where we started to where we are now:

​How it was

It doesn't look like much yet, but just you wait and see!

By request a photo tour of the restored cabin. I start doing the interior design in earnest tomorrow after the show, but all of the construction guys are now done. So I mopped the floors, washed the sheets, some friends helped by washing the windows. And now the unofficial / official tour.

The Property

The views are absolutely stunning and completely peaceful.