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.
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.
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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