The most studious of Christians probably wouldn’t make a connection between the tablets held by the Statue of Liberty and the comic book hero Superman, but it exists nonetheless, and it’s distinctly Judeo-Christian in character.
That connection is a historical figure, a man whose legacy is so inextricably woven into the fabric of American society that it’s become nearly invisible.
For more than two centuries the Old Testament prophet Moses has influenced American life and, as author Bruce Feiler points out in his new book “America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story,” the extent of that influence reaches father than we might think.
When they were asked to create a seal for the newly formed United States, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams chose the image of Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea.
The reason for their choice of symbolism was clear. Just as the patriarch led God’s chosen people out of bondage and into a religious and cultural awakening, so the pilgrims left England under religious persecution and landed on the shores of their own Promised Land.
“This is very Mosaic. The Puritans believed they were the new Israel,” said James Bowley, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Millsaps College in Jackson.
“They were entering into a special covenant with God.”
That sense of divine selection was later expressed in Americans’ widespread belief in Manifest Destiny, the idea that the country’s expansion took place under the protective hand of God.
The foundation for this experiment in liberty and progress was grounded in the rule of law, another bequest from the Old Testament patriarch.
In Exodus 20: 1-17 Moses received from Yahweh the laws that formed the basis of Israelite society. The Ten Commandments outlined Yahweh’s relationship with his people and created a context in which authentic freedom could flourish.
“The people didn’t receive the law as a burden, but as a grace,” said the Rev. David Eldridge, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Tupelo.
The language of the Constitution of the United States, emphasizing “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” echoed this sentiment. The inalienable rights of American citizens were seen as having their parallel in the fidelity and trust that formed the basic tenets of the Sinai covenant.
“The principle is that law given by God leads us out of bondage,” said Eldridge. “It resists chaos, it creates the environment in which freedom is possible.”
In New York Harbor “Lady Liberty” holds a stone tablet, just as Moses often does in illustrations of the giving of the law at Sinai.
The Book of Exodus recounts that Moses was born a slave. After seeing his Hebrew brethren mistreated he picked up the banner of liberation.
Perhaps no group throughout history has taken ownership of this part of Moses’ story more than blacks in the United States. They’ve made the Exodus story the central metaphor of the civil rights struggle.
“Every now and then there’s a need for these types of people, people like Moses, these clarions of justice,” said the Rev. Bernard Wilson, pastor of New Dimensions Full Gospel Baptist Church in Tupelo.
Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist who secretly led dozens of slaves to freedom during the Civil War, was referred to as the “Black Moses.”
“Abraham Lincoln was a type of Moses, FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King,” said Wilson.
The night before King was assassinated he evoked the Moses story. At the Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis, the civil rights leader spoke about the accomplishments of black people during his lifetime and about the arduous task that lay ahead. He spoke of the repeated threats against his own life in terms of Moses leading the people to the threshold but never actually crossing over.
“I’ve been to the mountain top … and I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land,” King said. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know, tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
On the way
According to Feiler’s book, Moses embodies several issues relating to justice, such as social mobility.
In order to save him from death as a baby, Moses’ mother sent him down the Nile in a basket, a theme that has reverberated in American pop culture myths, like Superman.
After being adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter Moses experienced an ethnic awakening and eventually became a great leader.
That sense of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps pervades the American psyche.
“Dr. King looked to people like Gandhi, and certainly Jesus, of whom Moses was a ‘type,’” said Wilson. “These people inspire us. They’re the best of our best.”
Wilson sees President Barack Obama, who spoke frequently of Moses during his campaign, as one who has brought “a kind of deliverance in the psyche for African-Americans.”
“These are people who find something in themselves that allows them to rise above their circumstances,” said the Rev. Jimmy Barnes, pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Tupelo.
“They didn’t allow themselves to be overwhelmed by obstacles. When they asked Harriet Tubman where she got her courage, she pulled out her Bible.”
Moses also represents the open horizon of the American experiment, particularly when seen through the lens of Judaism.
The first five books of the Christian Bible are known to Jews as the Torah, which means “for living of life,” in Hebrew. They’re also called the “Five Books of Moses,” and the patriarch is considered the religion’s ultimate teacher.
The cycle of readings in the Torah, and therefore the Jewish liturgical year, ends with Moses’ death, before the Israelites reached the Promised Land. It’s not until the Book of Joshua that the story reaches its proper end.
“Jews are constantly rehearsing the story of liberation and instructions for good living, but they’re also always in transit, always traveling, never arriving,” said Millsaps’ Bowley, who is Jewish.
“So the American story, which actually makes it to the Promised Land, emphasizes an aspect of the grand narrative that has not received prominence in much of Judaism,” he added.
“In a sense, this is life. We are always traveling, always on the way. We have not yet arrived.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal