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On a trip to visit my in-laws on Cape Cod, we stopped off in Plymouth and I took a tour of the Mayflower II. A reenactor was reading from the Bible. “Exodus fourteen,” he explained. “The Israelites are trapped in front of the Red Sea, and the Egyptians are about to catch them. The people complain, and Moses declares, ‘Hold your peace! The Lord shall fight for you.’ Our leader read us that passage during our crossing.” Moses, on board the Mayflower.
On a trip to visit my parents in Savannah, I stopped off at my childhood synagogue. A letter from George Washington hangs in the lobby, sent after his election to the presidency: “May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in the promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven.” Exodus, on Washington’s pen in the first weeks of the presidency. On a trip to visit my sister in Philadelphia, we went to see the Liberty Bell. The quotation on its face is from Leviticus 25, which God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai: proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. The law of Sinai, in the bell tower where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
In coming weeks, I found a similar story over and over again. Columbus comparing himself to Moses when he sailed in 1492. George Whitefield quoting Moses as he traveled the colonies in the 1730s forging the Great Awakening. Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, comparing King George to the pharaoh. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, in the summer of 1776, proposing that Moses be on the seal of the United States. And the references didn’t stop. Harriet Tubman adopting Moses’ name on the Underground Railroad. Abraham Lincoln being eulogized as Moses’ incarnation. The Statue of Liberty being molded in Moses’ honor. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson tapping into Moses during wartime. Cecil B. DeMille recasting Moses as a hero for the Cold War. Martin Luther King likening himself to Moses on the night before he was killed. The sheer ubiquity was staggering and, for me, had been completely unknown.
For four hundred years, one figure stands out as the surprising symbol of America. One person has inspired more Americans than any other. One man is America’s true founding father. His name is Moses.
For two years, I traveled to touchstones in American history and explored the role of the Bible, the Exodus, and Moses in inspiring generation after generation of Americans. I examined how American icons of different eras—from the slave girl Eliza carrying her son to freedom across the Ohio River in Uncle Tom’s Cabin to an orphaned Superman being drawn out of a spaceship from Krypton— were etched in the image of Moses. And I probed the ongoing role of Moses today, from the Ten Commandments in public places to the role of the United States as a beacon for immigrants. Even a cursory review of American history indicates that Moses has emboldened leaders of all stripes—patriot and loyalist, slave and master, Jew and Christian, fat cat and communist. Could the persistence of his story serve as a reminder of our shared national values? Could he serve as a unifying force in a disunifying time? If Moses could split the Red Sea, could he unsplit America?
Just as I was completing my journey, the 2008 presidential election was reaching its historic climax. Once again, Moses played a prominent role. Hillary Clinton compared herself to the Hebrew prophet. With “every bit of progress you try to make,” she said, “there’s always gonna be somebody to say, ‘You know, I think we should go back to Egypt.’” She asked, “Do we really need to move forward on transformative social change?” before answering: “Yes, we do.” Barack Obama also placed himself in the Mosaic tradition, though he claimed the role of Moses’ successor. “We are in the presence of a lot of Moseses,” he said in Selma, Alabama, in 2007. “I thank the Moses generation; but we’ve got to remember that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was . . . he didn’t cross over the river to see the Promised Land.” He concluded: “Today we’re called to be the Joshuas of our time, to be the generation that finds our way across this river.”
Obama’s use of the Exodus story became so prominent that his rival, John McCain, issued a video in which he mocked Obama for anointing himself “The One.” The video concluded with a clip of Charlton Heston splitting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. But the echoes of the Exodus only continued. On the day before the election, the African Methodist Episcopal Church bishop for Ohio stood up before 60,000 people in Columbus and thanked God for “having given us a Moses and a Martin called Barack Obama.” As civil rights pioneer Andrew Young said to me days later, “We are living in biblical time. The amount of time that passed between Martin’s assassination and Obama’s election—forty years—is the same amount of time the Israelites spent in the desert.”
Four centuries after the earliest colonists in North America likened themselves to their Israelite forebears, Americans once again found meaning by drawing parallels between their ongoing struggles and those of the central figures of the Hebrew Bible. The analogy took on added poignance as Americans again confronted challenging times, with economic turmoil at home and a shifting role in the world. As with every hard time in American life—from the frozen cliffs of early New England to the snowy camps of Valley Forge; from the fractured fields of the Civil War to the bloody streets of the civil rights era—Americans turned to the Exodus for direction, inspiration, and hope. And so they did in another moment of national anxiety, when the country was asking, What is the meaning of America? What are our values? Will we rise again? As he had for generations, one figure held the answers and pointed the way. And I couldn’t help wondering if our ability to repair our damaged sense of purpose and reclaim our national unity might depend on our ability to recall the centuries-old interplay between the Thanksgiving and Passover narratives and remember the central figure in both stories and why he had proven so inspirational all along.
The next-to-last order of business of the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, was to form a committee to design a new seal for the United States. Pendant seals were widely used in the eighteenth century, and the new Congress must have craved one desperately to form a committee just minutes after they had adopted the Declaration. As further proof of the seal’s importance, the committee consisted of three members, “Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams, and Mr. Jefferson.” No records of their deliberations remain, but correspondence indicates that each member submitted a proposal to the others. Franklin’s proposal reads as follows (the words in brackets appear on his original description but were struck out):
Moses [in the Dress of High Priest] standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by [the] Command of the Deity.
Franklin also included a motto: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson’s proposal for the Great Seal of the United States, as drawn by Benson J. Lossing for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, July 1856.
(Courtesy of The Library of Congress.)
An intriguing feature of Franklin’s suggestion is that he doesn’t focus on the moment of triumph for the Israelites, when they cross through the Red Sea on dry ground. Instead, he homes in on the moment of defeat for the pharaoh, when the waters come crashing down on him. But that moment does not actually appear in the Bible. The pivotal scene in which the Israelites escape Egypt begins in Exodus 13. God, fearing that the Israelites will lose the stomach for their escape if they encounter resistance, leads them away from the obvious route, along the Mediterranean, where the main trading route of the region passed. He leads them instead on what the Bible calls the “roundabout” way, via the Sea of Reeds.
The pharaoh, meanwhile, having recently approved the Israelites’ departure, suddenly changes his mind and decides to pursue them with the full vigor of his armed forces. Fearing certain death, the Israelites panic, and God responds by shifting the pillar of cloud from in front of them to behind him. “Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split.” Israel’s moment of birth bears striking similarities to the opening sentence in Genesis in which a strong wind also sweeps over an expanse of seas and land emerges from a watery chaos.
But what happens next is more confusing. The Egyptians come plunging into the sea after the Israelites, including “all of the pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and horsemen.” But God locks the wheels of their chariots so that they can’t move. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Hold out your arm over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians and upon their chariots and upon their horsemen.’” The sea returns to its normal state and “Pharaoh’s entire army that had followed after them into the sea; not one of them re mained.” But the Bible offers not a word about what happens to the pharaoh.
Did he lead his army into the sea, or let them proceed alone?
Jewish commentators have suggested various interpretations over the years. Some say the pharaoh was spared so he could repent to God; others suggest he was tortured underwater; still more propose that he was sent to the portal of hell so he could mock other kings when they arrived. Franklin’s design seems to suggest a slightly different interpretation: The tyrant, sword in hand, goes down fighting, while Moses, the obedient rebel, is bathed in God’s embrace.
Jefferson, meanwhile, proposed another scene from the Exodus story. The Israelites, having passed through the waters, are marching across the desert. As Adams describes it: “Mr. Jefferson proposed, The children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night.” Jefferson also suggested an image for the back of the seal, the semilegendary Saxon rulers Hengist and Horsa, “whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.” Adams proposed Hercules as depicted in an allegorical painting from the time but dismissed his own idea as “too complicated” and “not original.”
Clearly close to a compromise, the committee sought out Pierre Eugène du Simitière, an expert in heraldry who had designed the seals of Delaware and Virginia. In keeping with the needs of wax pendant seals, which were hung from ribbons and thus double-faced, the final version had two sides. One side was an original shield divided into six quarters for the countries that had populated the United States, surrounded by the initials of the thirteen states, flanked by the goddesses of liberty and peace. Above the crest is the eye of Providence in a pyramid, and below is the slogan e pluribus unum, meaning “Out of many, one,” which had been taken from a magazine company that used the phrase to advertise a year-end compendium of four issues. The other side (for which no depiction remains) was Jefferson’s edited version of Franklin’s proposal:
Pharaoh sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his head and a Sword in his hand, passing through the divided Waters of the Red Sea in Pursuit of the Israelites: Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Cloud, expressive of the divine Presence and Command, beaming on Moses who stands on the shore and extending his hand over the Sea causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh.
The echo of the Exodus language widely used in America at the time is haunting. The committee’s report, submitted to Congress on August 20, 1776, offers vivid, behind-the-scenes evidence that the founders of the United States viewed themselves as acting in the image of Moses. Three of the five drafters of the Declaration of Independence and three of the defining faces of the Revolution— Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams—proposed that Moses be the face of the United States of America. In their eyes, Moses was America’s true founding father.
Lincoln’s greatest act of transformation was the Emancipation Proclamation, and not surprisingly, it’s the first time Lincoln’s personal relationship with God appears to have crept into his decision making. Initially Lincoln resisted freeing the slaves, deeming such an act unnecessary. But as the war proceeded, Lincoln focused increasingly on the moral dimension of slavery and eventually cast his decision to free the slaves as an outgrowth of his relationship with God. On September 22, 1862, following the battle of Antietam, Lincoln called a special session of his cabinet and announced, “I made a solemn vow before God,” that if the Confederates were driven out of Maryland, “I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.” The head of the navy wrote in his diary that the move was Lincoln’s vow, a “covenant” with God.
Slavery. Freedom. Covenant.
Egypt. Red Sea. Sinai.
Despite his initial resistance, Lincoln had become a Moses, though he got there not by being born a slave who was raised in the pharaoh’s house but by being born in poverty and working his way out.
“I think Lincoln always related to slaves,” Allen Guelzo said. “He made a comment once: ‘I have seen a great deal of the backside of the world.’ What he’s saying is, ‘I came from dirt.’ And that helps him believe he understands what slavery is. Frederick Douglass makes a comment the first time they met in 1863 that Lincoln was the first white man he ever met who didn’t think about race, ‘who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself.’ And Douglass explains why: because of the way they both had risen from humble origins. I read that and I thought, ‘Aha! Abraham Lincoln as a slave.’”
“Could this be one reason he felt so attached to the Bible?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. It’s also the reason he had difficulty with it. The Bible offers him hope, and snatches it away. It encourages him in his quest for transformation, and yet it tells him that the ultimate saving transformation he cannot accomplish himself. It must come from God.”
I asked Professor Guelzo whether Lincoln was more interested in the Old or New Testament.
“It’s the Old Testament that fascinates him. Constantly. Constantly. It’s a God who’s remote and hands down ways of doing things. It’s a God who promises deliverance. And deliverance, of course, is the message of Gettysburg.”
Lincoln was an afterthought as a speaker at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery, having been added to the program only a few weeks earlier. Still, late on the morning of November 18, 1863, a dense crowd of thousands gathered on Cemetery Hill, where around thirty-five hundred Union dead were already being reburied. The Confederate dead remained haphazardly interred in the fields. Methodist chaplain Thomas Stockton gave the invocation: “Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Moses.” Edward Everett, the most famous orator in the country and a onetime U.S. congressman, senator, and vice-presidential candidate, gave a two-hour recapitulation of the battle. Finally, President Lincoln rose. He was wearing a black suit and white gauntlets and carrying a hat with a mourning band in memory of his son Willie, who had died that February at age eleven. He wore reading glasses and held his speech. He had been invited to give remarks that would console “the many widows and orphans.” His address contained a sparse nine sentences and around 271 words. Counting the five interruptions for applause, it lasted about three minutes (or for all time, depending on how you count).
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Lincoln drew on many inspirations for his remarks, including Pericles’ ode to the dead and the Declaration of Independence. And from the opening phrase, he drew deeply from the Bible. “Four score and seven years” echoes the phrase in Psalm 90: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years . . . it is soon cut off.” He especially drew from Exodus. The phrase “brought forth” appears throughout the Bible, including a line from Luke that Mary “brought forth” the baby Jesus. But of the sixty-three times the expression appears in the King James translation, only nine are from the New Testament, compared with fifty-four from the Old Testament. Thirteen times “brought forth” refers to Israel leaving Egypt, including a reference that Moses “brought forth” the people to meet God at Mount Sinai.
Elsewhere, Lincoln evoked biblical themes. After opening with images of birth—“fathers,” “brought forth,” “a new nation,” “conceived”—he moved on to images of death—“dedicate,” “a final resting place,” “those who here gave their lives.” “In a larger sense,” he said, “we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground.” Again, the language is pure Old Testament. Dedicate, consecrate, and hallow appear a collective twenty-six times in the Old Testament and none in the New. Hallow is used in the phrase immediately before the passage of Leviticus 25 that appears on the Liberty Bell: “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Oh, to have been able to ask Lincoln that morning if he knew the connection to the bell that was widely believed in 1863 to have rung on that fateful July 4, “four score and seven years ago.”
Finally he came to his conclusion: the rebirth of liberty. “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” The phrase “new birth” was first popularized by George Whitefield and was widely used during the Second Great Awakening of Lincoln’s youth. By linking the new birth of the Civil War with the bringing forth of 1776, Lincoln was connecting the current struggle to the moral foundation of the Declaration of Independence. On a deeper level, he was presenting a vision for God’s American Israel that reconnected it to God’s original Israel. In the Creation story, the world begins as a watery chaos, God “divides the waters from the waters,” and “dry land” appears. In the Exodus, the Israelites also face a watery chaos in the Red Sea, God “divides the waters,” and the Israelites cross on “dry ground.” Creation is the Bible’s original birth. The Exodus— from the breaking of the water, to the easing through a narrow passageway, to the deliverance—is the Bible’s rebirth. Lincoln understood this cycle, and the Gettysburg Address forever seared this biblical pattern—the birth, death, and rebirth of a nation—into America’s consciousness. Maybe that’s why one newspaper compared Lincoln that day to Moses on Sinai, saying the ruler of the nation “never stood higher, or grander, or more prophetic.”