"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The American Moseses

"The persistence of Mosaic imagery at nearly every major turning point in the country's formative century shows how clearly the themes of chosenness, liberation from slavery, freedom from authority, and collective moral responsibility had become the tent poles of American public life." (pg. 173)

In America's Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America author Bruce Feiler, well, gives a lot of coverage to how the biblical story of Moses has played out in American history. I've still got about one hundred twenty five pages to go, but I've been keeping track of who all is compared to Moses.  Here's the list I've collected thus far.

President George Washington

"'Kind Heaven...pitying the servile condition of our American Israel, gave us a second Moses, who should (under God) be our future deliverer from the bondage and tyranny of haughty Britain.'"  (pg. 102)

Harriet Tubman "the Moses of Her People"

"The Founding Fathers chose the Exodus as their theme in an attempt to make their lives better.  The slaves needed it to make their lives worth living."  (pg. 107)

Uncle Tom, the character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's book

"On the page he may have been a Christian symbol of martyrdom, but once he entered the culture as the face of American slavery, Uncle Tom became a Mosaic call to action."  (pg. 152)

President Abraham Lincoln

For his part in freeing America of that "peculiar institution" of slavery.

Daniel Boone, the "Moses of the West"

Lead people further into the country so they could settle "the Promised Land" (pg. 148)

Lady Liberty

"'The Moses story is about the tension between freedom and law,' ... 'between the exhilaration of the Exodus moment followed by the constriction of the Sinai moment.  And it seems to me that you can see this tension in the Statue of Liberty, from the broken chain at her feet to the tablet in her right arm to the light around her head. She perfectly embodies the American story - and the Mosaic story.'" (pg. 187)

Emma Lazarus

A nonreligious aristocratic New York City Jew, she became interested in her faith when Jews from Eastern Europe fled persecution for the United States.  She penned The New Colossus as an expression of what the Statue of Liberty, what America should mean to oppressed people from other lands.

"A society must gauge its worth not by power, the statue insists, but by how it treats its strangers." (pg. 191)

You may find this next addition out-of-place on the list since he's not typically thought of as a religious figure.

Recognize the 'Moses' in this picture?

Jews "began converting Moses into a pillar of American identity" perhaps because their "'greatest fear was that America would become a Christian nation. ... By emphasizing Moses, they showed that Jews belonged here as well. Jews were fortunate that so many American Protestants were Old Testament-focused.'"

Some left-wing Jews even suggested Judaism change its name to Mosaism, "in part because Moses was perceived to be a more appealing figure to Christians.  Many Jews had a sense that the words Jew and Judaism had negative connotations.'"

Yep, it's Uncle Sam!

"Exactly when the United States was becoming more religiously diverse, Jews subtly redefined what it meant to be American. Instead of a Christian country, they insisted, America was a biblical country. Moses played a key role because he resonated with Protestants and Jews. Jews belonged to the United States, they said, because America and Judaism had the same source: Moses." (pg. 200)

Any surprises?  Which is your favorite?  Do you agree with these choices?  Which is most interesting to you? Who would you take off the list? Add to it? Any other thoughts or observations?


Amber said...

I actually find it funny that everyone keeps scrambling to compare some beloved historical figure to Moses. He wasn't a really great guy by modern standards, you know? Moses owned slaves, he advocated and participated in slaughter. I'm not faulting him, historical context, etc. I just find it funny.

Also, maybe the plural of Moses should be Mosii? j/k :D

*handwave* Whatever. It's all a part of the desire to find patterns in reality. To make the struggle that one is in have greater meaning by tying it to some epic historic struggle, thus making your side the side of right - because who would argue that the Jews deserved to be enslaved to the Egyptians? So anyone who is metaphorically tied to the Jews in the story of Moses automatically gets that 'bump' of righteousness.

Which is not to say that some fights aren't righteous, of course.

Lat said...

Interesting how events are constantly compared with Moses experience.When I was young,on Christmas day the tv will telecast the very famous movie,The Ten Commandments,time and time again.No doubt I love that movie,not exactly for the hero but for the villain :) Yul Bryner was a very handsome bald villain!

At the beginning,I was constantly looing for Jesus to appear afterall it's Christmas day right? But he never came.Even English cartoons were portraying Moses not Jesus.Jesus came in figurines and of course the nativity stories and in plenty of songs.But what I was expecting was to see the impact like that of the Ten Commandments.And I don't think the tv has satisfied me so far and I've given up.Maybe the author does make some sense on how American is very Moses like.Looking for his archetypical roles he played in their own making of history.It's not wrong but America has her own historical personalities to lookout for which she can choose to follow herself.She didn't need to borrow from another.God provides for everyone.But who am I kidding.The stronger and more powerful get to choose the role model for everyone in the country.

Susanne said...

Amber, I used your plural of Moseses on my June book list. Thanks for the Mosii suggestion! :)

I enjoyed your thoughts on this post and the whole Moses thing. Makes sense!

Thank you.

Susanne said...

Lat, I think people "back then" got a lot of inspiration from the Bible so they went looking for direction and heroes there. Moses fit the bill in many ways. The author covers that pretty well in the book.

He also talks about Moses in movies and discusses The Ten Commandments. I agree about Yul Brenner. :D

Thanks for your feedback! I may discuss the book a bit more in an upcoming post so stay tuned. Maybe it will clear a few things up. :)