Moses supposes his toeses are roses

(title courtesy of Singin’ in the Rain)
Bruce Feiller’s America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story is an interesting look at something that’s long fascinated me, the way symbols change, go out of fashion or endure (past blog posts on this topic available here, here and here).
Feiler’s book shows how Moses has been a recurrent symbol throughout American history. The Puritans saw themselves as fleeing Egyptian bondage under the Church of England to build a new Israel in the wilderness. The Founding Fathers invoked the image of Moses vs. Pharaoh when they decided to throw off the British yoke (even Tom Paine, an utter skeptic about Christianity and religion in general, used that metaphor); Jefferson and Franklin both proposed a Great Seal for the country that showed Moses triumphant at the Red Sea.
Later on, of course, the slaves saw themselves as laboring in Egyptian bondage, even as their owners invoked the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, traditionally credited to Moses) as proof that God approved of slavery. Later the Civil Rights movement would make the same connection, with Martin Luther King as the Moses figure. Among presidents both Lincoln and Eisenhower (for leading our troops against the Axis in WW II) have been the subject of Moses analogies.
I find it fascinating that Moses can serve as a symbol for so many people in so many situtations, but as Feiler points out, it makes sense. Time and again, we find ourselves in bondage. Time and again we have to set our eyes on a far-off promised land. And the Moses story emphasizes that freedom by itself isn’t enough: Once we’re out of our old bondage, we have to find a new set of laws to live by instead of worshiping the first convenient golden calf.
And unlike Jesus, Moses is, after all, completely human. A guy who screws up, makes tough decisions, confronts Pharaoh as a man, albeit one backed up by God. In the end, he dies without ever entering the Promised Land.
The book is good, though it makes me wonder if there are counter examples out there. What did the Black Muslims or the Black Panthers think of the Moses vs. Pharaoh imagery, for instance: Did they see themselves as Moses? If not, what did they make of the whole idea? Did the Confederacy ever see itself as escaping bondage under Lincoln?
Despite that lack, America’s Prophet remains a fascinating read.

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Filed under Politics, Reading

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