Bruce Feiler, America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story (New York: William Morrow, 2009). $26.99, 368 pages.
What do the Puritans, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty, Cecil B. DeMille, and Martin Luther King Jr. have in common?
In America’s Prophet, Bruce Feiler reveals the Mosaic thread that weaves its way through the tapestry of American history. Along the way, we see a Jewish history becoming the American story becoming a universal narrative of hope. The book is utterly engrossing, and I recommend it highly.
The American appropriation of Moses begins with the Puritans. They viewed King James as Pharaoh, themselves as the Children of Israel, and the New World as the Promised Land. But if the sailing of the Mayflower was their exodus, the signing of the Mayflower Compact was their Sinai. Moses was not only a liberator, he was a lawgiver. The twin Mosaic themes of freedom and responsibility recur again and again in the American story. George Washington, for example, both led his people out of British tyranny and into constitutional responsibility. Martin Luther King Jr. both led African Americans out of Jim Crow segregation and into the “beloved community.”
The Moses narrative has spoken powerfully to the American people because, historically speaking, they have been nominally Christian and biblically literate. The Civil War was, in some ways, a theological dispute. Would Moses side with the abolitionists and lead the slaves in an Exodus toward freedom? Or would he side with the slaveholders, since the Sinai law accommodated slavery? Debates couldn’t settle the question; only war could. And at the end of it, Abraham Lincoln was acclaimed as yet another Moses.
So was Martin Luther King Jr. who led the way for the full integration of African Americans into American society that the Civil War only inaugurated. And like Moses, who went only as far as Nebo and never made it into the Promised Land, King himself would never experience the substantial progress made on his dream after his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. But on the eve of his death, speaking at Mason Temple, he nevertheless said: “I have seen the promised land. And 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.”
America was not just a Promised Land for African Americans. It was also a Promised Land for immigrants, many of them Jews fleeing eastern European pogroms, who sailed into New York Harbor under the watchful eye of Lady Liberty. Feiler points out the substantial Mosaic influence on even the architecture of this icon, but also through the words of Emma Lazarus’ poem, “New Colossus.”
In addition to the influence of the Mosaic narrative on politics, Feiler considers its influence in popular culture. Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston, was a Cold War battle cry, calling America to submit itself to God’s will rather than Communist tyranny. Paramount studios even financed the placement of granite 10 Commandments monuments on courthouse lawns throughout America. One of them, in Austin, Texas, became the focus of a Supreme Court lawsuit. Two Jewish boys, Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, incorporated Mosaic themes into their best-known superhero: Superman. And even earlier, at the start of the 20th Century, Bruce Barton turned both Jesus and Moses into a model entrepreneur and executive, respectively. The Metropolitan Casual Life Insurance Company published Moses, Persuader of Men, which described Moses as “one of the greatest salesmen and real-estate promotes that ever lived.”
Why does Moses keep cropping up in American history (in ways both sublime and ridiculous)? In his conclusion, Feiler points to three factors. As already mentioned, the Moses narrative is one of both liberation and responsibility, of freedom from and freedom for. It is also a narrative of inclusion. As Feiler writes, “the Israelites’ experience with oppression becomes the foundation for a host of Mosaic laws that mandate that God’s people care for the poor, tend the sick, comfort the grieving, and welcome the hurting into their arms.”
America is perpetually roiled by the place of religion in public culture. Feiler’s book shows how the use of the biblical narrative of Moses has been put to use for good and bad in American history (or both at the same time, in the case of the Civil War)—but mostly for good. As our culture becomes more religiously diverse, one wonders whether the Moses narrative can accomplish some good still.
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