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Moses is America's prophet

By Bruce Feiler, Special to CNN
  • Bruce Feiler calls this week, from Passover to Easter, Moses week in America.
  • Feiler says U.S. and its leaders have referred to narrative of Moses for over 400 years
  • Pilgrims, Jefferson, Statue of Liberty, spirituals, Superman refer to Moses, he says
  • Moses represents courage, balance of freedom and law, ideal of justice, he says

Editor's note: Bruce Feiler is the author of "Walking the Bible," "Abraham" and "America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story." His new book, "The Council of Dads," will be published in April.

(CNN) -- This Saturday, millions of Americans will watch the annual spectacle of Charlton Heston acting the part of a Cold War hero in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments." The TV air date is no accident.

This week, beginning with Passover and ending with Easter, is "Moses week" in America. It's the one time of year when the biblical hero steps to the forefront of religious ritual, renewing the special bond that has existed between the great prophet and the United States for over 400 years.

Moses was an American icon long before there was an America. When the Pilgrims 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.

By the time of the Revolution, Moses had become the go-to narrative of American freedom. In 1751, the Pennsylvania Assembly chose a quote from the Five Books of Moses for its State House bell, "Proclaim Liberty thro' all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof -- Levit. XXV 10."

The future Liberty Bell was hanging above the room where the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Congress' last order of business that day was to form a committee of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to design a seal for the new United States. The committee submitted its recommendation that August: Moses, leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. In their eyes, Moses was America's true Founding Father.

Two-thirds of the eulogies at George Washington's death compared him to Moses.
--Bruce Feiler

But escaping bondage proved to be only half the story. After the Israelites arrived in the desert, they faced a period of lawlessness, which prompted the Ten Commandments. The message: Freedom depends on law.

Americans faced a similar moment of chaos after the Revolution. Just as a reluctant Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and then handed down the Ten Commandments, a reluctant George Washington led the colonists to victory and then presided over the drafting of the Constitution. The parallel was not lost. Two-thirds of the eulogies at Washington's death compared him to Moses.

Although Moses was a unifying presence during the founding era, a generation later, he got dragged into the issue that most divided the country. The Israelites' escape from slavery was the dominant motif of slave spirituals, including "Turn Back Pharaoh's Army," "I Am Bound for the Promised Land" and the most famous, "Go Down, Moses," which was called the national anthem of slaves.

Yet as abolitionists used the exodus to attack slavery, Southerners used it to defend the institution. The War Between the States became the War Between the Moseses. It took America's most Bible-quoting president to reunite the country. Abraham Lincoln talked about the exodus at Gettysburg, and, when he died, he too was compared to Moses.

"There is no historic figure more noble than that of the Jewish lawgiver," Henry Ward Beecher eulogized. "There is scarcely another event in history more touching than his death." Until now. "Again a great leader of the people has passed through toil, sorrow, battle and war, and come near to the promised land of peace, into which he might not pass over."

The country's greatest icon, the Statue of Liberty ... even Superman [were] modeled partly on Moses.
--Bruce Feiler

Political figures weren't the only ones compared to Moses; national icons were, as well, including Uncle Sam and Old Glory. The country's greatest icon, the Statue of Liberty, was designed with spikes of light around her head and a tablet in her arms to mimic Moses' pose when he climbed down Sinai with shafts of light around his head and tablets of law in his hands.

Even Superman was modeled partly on Moses. The comic-book hero's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, modeled their superhero on the superhero of the Torah. Just as baby Moses is floated down the Nile in a basket to escape annihilation, baby Superman is launched into space in a rocket ship to avoid extinction. Both Moses and Superman were picked up by aliens and raised in strange environments before being summoned to aid humanity. Superman's birth name was Kal-el, which is Hebrew for "swift god."

But it was Cecil B. DeMille who turned Moses into a symbol of American power in the Cold War. The 1956 epic "The Ten Commandments," the fifth highest-grossing movie of all time, opened with DeMille appearing onscreen.

Forty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. compared himself to Moses, the Hebrew prophet is as resonant as ever.
--Bruce Feiler

"The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God's law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator," he said. "The same battle continues throughout the world today."

To drive home his point, DeMille cast mostly Americans as Israelites and Europeans as Egyptians. And in the film's final shot, Charlton Heston quotes the Liberty Bell (even though it comes from three books earlier in the Bible) and recreates the pose of the Statue of Liberty, forever securing America's place as the new Promised Land.

Today, 40 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. compared himself to Moses on the night before his assassination, the Hebrew prophet is as resonant as ever.

George W. Bush said in an Oval Office interview that he was inspired to run for the presidency by a sermon in Texas in which his preacher said Moses was not a man of words but still led his people to freedom. Barack Obama said in 2007 that the civil rights pioneers were the "Moses generation," and he was part of the "Joshua generation" that would "find our way across the river." And this week, Obama holds the second White House seder.

What explains this ongoing appeal?

First, Moses embodies the courage to escape hardship and seek a better world. He keeps alive the ministry of hope. "Not America," as W.E.B. DuBois put it, "but what America will be." Moses is the figurehead of "America will be."

Second, Moses encapsulates the American juggling act between freedom and law. "Since the exodus," German poet Heinrich Heine said, "freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent."

Finally, Moses is a reminder that a moral society is one that embraces the outsider and uplifts the downtrodden. "You shall not oppress a stranger," God says in Exodus 23, "for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt." Moses represents the ideals of American justice.

Yet he reminds us that we often fall short of our dreams. As King said, "I've been to the mountaintop. And I've looked over. I've seen the promised land. And I may not get there with you, but I want you to know that we as a people will get to the promised land."

These words capture what may be the most enduring lesson of Moses: The true destination of a journey of hope is not this year at all but next.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Feiler.