Bruce Feiler -- Moses: Biblical Prophet, American Icon

By Bruce Feiler
Sunday, October 18, 2009

When the Supreme Court began its new term this month, the justices went to work in a building overflowing with Moses. The biblical prophet sits at the center of the structure's east pediment; he appears in the gallery of statues leading into the court and in the south frieze of the chamber; the Ten Commandments are displayed on the courtroom's gates and doors.

Similarly, when the House of Representatives gathers, the members meet in a chamber ringed by 23 marble faces, including those of Hammurabi and Napoleon. Eleven look left; 11 look right. They all look toward Moses, who hangs in the middle, the only one facing forward.

Elsewhere in the nation's capital, the prophet is ubiquitous. He stands in the Library of Congress. He appears in front of the Ronald Reagan Building. Images of his tablets are embedded in the floor of the National Archives. And nearly every occupant of the White House, from George Washington to Barack Obama, has invoked the Israelite leader to guide Americans in difficult times.

Moses is the patron saint of Washington -- and a potent spiritual force in nearly every great transformation in American history, from the nation's founding to the Civil War to the civil rights movement.

Why did a 3,000-year-old prophet, played down by Jews and Christians for centuries and portrayed in the Bible as a reluctant leader, become such a presence in American public life?

Because, more than any other figure in the ancient world, Moses embodies the American story. He is the champion of oppressed people; he transforms disparate tribes in a forbidding wilderness into a nation of laws; he is the original proponent of freedom and justice for all.

His part in the American story begins with the Pilgrims. A band of Protestant outcasts who felt oppressed by the Church of England, they saw themselves as fulfilling the biblical story of the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham who were enslaved in Egypt and freed by Moses, then journeyed toward the Promised Land. When the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower in 1620, they carried Bibles emblazoned with Moses leading his people to freedom.

By the time of the Revolution, Moses had become a staple of proponents of American independence. In 1751, the Pennsylvania Assembly chose a quote from the five books of Moses for its statehouse bell: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof -- Levit. XXV 10."

After the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 -- under that future Liberty Bell -- a committee made up of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams set about designing a seal for the new United States. Their recommendation: the Israelites crossing through the parted Red Sea, with, as their proposal described it, a ray of fire "beaming on Moses who stands on the shore and, extending his hand over the Sea, causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh."

To beleaguered colonists seeking freedom from the superpower of the day, the story of another oppressed people achieving freedom was a powerful precedent, especially since it was taken from the ultimate source, the Bible.

When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, though, they quickly descended into lawlessness, with the 12 tribes bickering and complaining about their leader. The solution was to bind them under a new law, a new covenant: the Ten Commandments. (The Bible says the Israelites "re-enslaved" themselves.) Similarly, "God's new Israel," as America was called, entered a period of disarray after the Revolution, and the result was also a commitment to stricter law: the Constitution.

The critical figures in each instance, Moses and George Washington, were warriors as well as lawmakers. Reluctant leaders, both resisted the temptation to turn their nations into monarchies. The analogy was not lost on the new nation. Two-thirds of the eulogies on Washington's death compared him to the biblical prophet. One orator even likened Washington's death before the completion of the District of Columbia to Moses's failure to reach the Promised Land.

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