Bruce Feiler -- Moses: Biblical Prophet, American Icon

By Bruce Feiler
Sunday, October 18, 2009; B01

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.

The American promised land, however, featured an element of Egypt: slavery. Here again, Moses proved influential. Forced to adopt Christianity, African slaves across the South found kinship in the story of an enslaved people who escaped their masters. Harriet Tubman sang slave spirituals about Moses as coded messages when she led people to freedom on the Underground Railroad. As her fame grew, she adopted the alias Moses, triggering a wave of posters: "Wanted Moses: Dead or Alive."

On Thanksgiving in 1862, as the Civil War raged, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who used the Exodus as a major theme in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," visited the Washington barracks of fugitive slaves who had joined the Union army. After the blessing, the room sang the most famed spiritual of all, "Go Down, Moses," which Stowe's sister dubbed the "negro Marseillaise."

And when Abraham Lincoln died on the threshold of the promised land of victory, he, too, was compared to Moses in many eulogies. "What was the work which Moses was called to do?" asked a Connecticut preacher. "It was nothing less than to deliver his race from slavery. The work before our late beloved president was the same. God called him to free the nation."

Political figures weren't the only ones likened to Moses -- so were national icons. Uncle Sam was compared to the prophet for leading immigrants across the Atlantic; Old Glory for going into the wilderness during the Civil War. And the country's greatest symbol, the Statue of Liberty, was designed to mimic Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai with shafts of light around his head and tablets of law in his hands. On the statue's opening day, Cuban patriot Jose Martí described her as walking "as if to enter the Promised Land."

The presence of Moses in American iconography grew in the 20th century, even as the Bible declined in influence. Woodrow Wilson was compared to Moses for creating the League of Nations, and Franklin Roosevelt for defeating Hitler. Lincoln Steffens's 1926 book, "Moses in Red," called the prophet the founder of communism, while Bruce Barton published a book calling him the greatest capitalist who ever lived. And the builders of the Supreme Court in the 1930s used Moses as the ultimate exemplar of the rule of law.

But it was Cecil B. DeMille who truly elevated Moses to his status as a hero of the American century. His film "The Ten Commandments," released this month in 1956, turned Moses into a Cold Warrior. The Israelites were mostly played by Americans; the Egyptians by Europeans. DeMille himself appeared at the opening of the film to denounce Soviet-style tyranny. And he persuaded Paramount to place 4,000 stone Ten Commandments monuments on courthouse lawns around the country. The publicity stunt became the basis for a 2005 Supreme Court case that approved such displays as long as they had secular purposes.

Today, the Hebrew prophet is as resonant as ever. Early in his presidency, Bill Clinton explained his support of "don't ask, don't tell" by informing a group of senators that Moses went up Mount Sinai and came back with "God's top 10 list." "I've read those commandments," he said. "And nowhere in those Ten Commandments will you find anything about homosexuality."

George W. Bush said in an Oval Office interview that he was inspired to run for the presidency by a sermon in Texas in which his preacher said Moses was not a man of words but still led his people to freedom.

And Barack Obama said in 2007 that while the civil rights pioneers were the "Moses generation," he was part of the "Joshua generation" that would "find our way across the river."

Most striking about Moses's enduring appeal is that a figure introduced into America by white Protestants proved equally appealing for blacks as well as whites, immigrants as well as the native-born. Moses fits the American story because he embodies the courage to escape hardship and seek a better world. He keeps alive the ministry of hope.

He also encapsulates the American juggling act between freedom and law. Moses represents independence, but as the deliverer of the Ten Commandments, he also represents the discipline of being a people of laws. From the Mayflower's "covenantal people" to Bill Clinton's campaign promise to build a "new covenant," American leaders have invoked the Mosaic covenant to project a sense of cohesion and common purpose.

Finally, Moses is a reminder that a moral society is one that embraces the outsider and uplifts the downtrodden. "You shall not oppress a stranger," God says in Exodus 23, "for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt." In that sense, the prophet represents the ideals of American justice.

Yet while leaders often invoke Moses, they, like him, may not see their hopes come to pass. When the Pilgrims' dream of creating God's kingdom failed, for example, their leader, William Bradford, retired and wrote mournful poems comparing himself to Moses. And the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on the night before his assassination, invoked Moses's heartbreaking death in the wilderness. "I've been to the mountaintop. . . . And I've looked over. I've seen the promised land. 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."

King's message reminds all the justices, lawmakers and presidents who come to work amidst the Moses images in Washington today: The ultimate goal for a leader is not to reach the land of milk and honey yourself, but to make it possible for others to get there.

Bruce Feiler is the author of "Abraham" and "Walking the Bible," which was made into a PBS miniseries. This essay is adapted from his new book "America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company