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The First Love Story

Adam, Eve, and Us

flsfinal3dFrom the New York Times bestselling author of Walking the Bible and Abraham comes a revelatory journey across four continents and 4,000 years exploring how Adam and Eve introduced the idea of love into the world, and how they continue to shape our deepest feelings about relationships, family, and togetherness. READ MORE


The Secrets of Happy Families

Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More

The Secrets of Happy Families book coverBest-selling author and New York Times family columnist Bruce Feiler found himself squeezed between aging parents and rising children. He set out on a three-year journey to find the smartest ideas, cutting-edge research, and novel solutions to make his family happier. READ MORE


The Council of Dads

A Story of Family, Friendship & Learning How to Live

The Council of Dads book coverWhen bestselling author Bruce Feiler was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in his leg, he could only imagine all the walks he might not take with his daughters, the ballet recitals he would miss, the art projects left undone, and the aisles he might not walk down. READ MORE

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Archive for the ‘This Week in Moses’ Category

My Moses Talk: Now Online!

Monday, December 7th, 2009

The Atlanta History Center has posted a video of my talk about AMERICA’S PROPHET. It lasts about an hour.

Do the Ten Commandments Support Gays in the Military?

Monday, September 14th, 2009

THIS WEEK IN MOSES: Gays in the military.

In Ted Kennedy’s new memoir, being published today, the Senator describes his first meeting with Bill Clinton in the White House. The new president had stumbled into a firestorm about gays in the military and invited the Democratic members of the Armed Services Committee to a meeting. All of the senators went around the room giving their opinions, so much so that the meeting lasted a whopping two hours, costing Kennedy a seat at the ballet that night. Kennedy spoke in favor of lifting the ban; Robert Byrd spoke against. Finally, the president spoke up. Here is Kennedy’s telling:

President Clinton stood up. His response was short and sweet. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘Moses went up to the mountain, and he came back with the tablets and there were ten commandments on those tablets. I’ve read those commandments. I know what they say, just like I know you do. And nowhere in those ten commandments will you find anything about homosexuality. Thank y’all for coming.’ He ended the meeting and walked out of the room.”

Clinton was technically correct. The Ten Commandments do not mention homosexuality. But the Five Books of Moses do, in ways that have plagued homosexuals for centuries. Leviticus 18:22 says, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman.” Leviticus 20:13 says this “abomination” is punishable by death. Conservative Jews and Christians have long cited these two verses in their condemnation of homosexuality, though more liberal-minded believers have claimed these verses occur in the context of idol-worship or other passages that render them irrelevant to current conventions. In any event, many offenses for which the Bible calls for the death penalty have not been punished in that way for millennia, if ever.

Clinton’s quoting Moses to support his softening of the ban of gays in the military recalls another use of the Hebrew prophet. In 1948, Harry Truman issued an executive order integrating the U.S. military. Noting that polls showed 82 percent of American were against the policy, Truman wrote in his diary: “How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?”

From the pilgrims to the founding fathers, the civil war to the civil rights movement, American leaders have used Moses in the face of staunch opposition to advance the cause of justice. Obama, though, might have a trouble quoting Moses to support his policy toward gays in the military. Just last month he cited Moses in support of his health care plan.

Choose Life: Was Moses Really Pro-Life or Pro-Abortion?

Monday, September 7th, 2009

THIS WEEK IN MOSES: Moses has entered the abortion wars.

From the “Baby Moses Law” in Texas to a pitched battle over “Choose Life” on license plates, the Bible’s leading prophet has become the latest touchstone in America’s hottest hot-button issue.

This week, synagogues across the country consider Moses’s farewell speech on Mount Nebo in which he gives the Israelites a choice as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.

“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live.”

This passage has a storied history in America. John Winthrop quoted it at the end of his speech in Boston Harbor in 1630 in which he called America a “shining city upon a hill.” Ronald Reagan quoted it at the centennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Al Gore quoted it in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in 2007.

Now this speech has become ground zero in the abortion wars in America. Twenty-four states have approved specialized license plates with the tag line “Choose Life” sponsored by anti-abortion groups. New Jersey denied the license plate and was sued by a New York based pro-adoption agency, Children’s First. The state argued before the 3rd U.S. Circuit court that it rejected “Choose Life” because the law limits designs to group names and logos, like the Sierra Club or Rutgers football, and does not permit slogans. A decision is pending.

In Texas, pro-adoption groups latched onto Moses for a different reason. A law passed in 2000, called the “Baby Moses Law,” allows that a parent may leave any baby up to 60 days old at any hospital or fire station with no questions asked. The reference comes from the opening of Exodus in which the pharaoh orders the slaughter of all newborn Israelite males, and the mother of Moses wraps him in a small basket (the Bible uses the term “ark”) and floats him down the Nile. About 100 babies in Texas are said to be saved by the “Baby Moses Law.”

So what did Moses really think?

The Bible doesn’t say. Of the 613 laws of Moses, none comments on abortion. Exodus 21:22 – 25 says that if a woman has a fight with a man and suffers a miscarriage, the man should be fined. “If other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” As the closest mention of a terminated pregnancy, this phrase was the centerpiece of rabbinical arguments about abortion. Most commentators agree that “other damages” refers to harm of the mother.

Jewish law generally asserts that an unborn fetus does not become a person (or a “soul”) until it is born, thereby excluding a fetus from the Ninth Commandment against killing. Still, many Jewish commentators denounce abortion as a serious moral offense, though the great Jewish commentator Maimonides did explicitly support abortion if the life of the mother was endangered. (For a fuller discussion of Jewish law and abortion, click here.)

Given this controversy, perhaps all sides can get behind another use of the phrase “choose life.” The Scottish government has adopted it as the name of a program to reduce suicides by twenty percent. It’s the name of an HIV campaign in Africa. And the Ewan McGregor character in Trainspotting uses it as an ode to a drug-free life. “Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family … But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life.”

Could Moses be the next face of “Your Brain on Drugs”?

Which Kennedy Was Moses? John or Ted?

Monday, August 31st, 2009

THIS WEEK IN MOSES: The Kennedys and the Promised Land.

In The Making of the President 1964, Theodore White compared the death of John F. Kennedy to the death of Moses on Mount Nebo. Moses had led the Israelites out of slavery into freedom, put up with their kvetching and complaining for 40 years, only to be stopped short of the Promised Land, following a cryptic incident in which he drew water from a stone. With Kennedy stopped short of his dream, Johnson would be his Joshua.

“It was as if Kennedy, a younger Moses, had led an elder Joshua to the heights of Mount Nebo and there shown him the promised land which he himself would never enter but which Joshua would make his own.”

This week a similar analogy was tossed about following the death of John’s younger brother. Ted Kennedy was called the Moses of Health Care.

“Sen. Ted Kennedy and Moses had a shared destiny,” wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Like the flawed patriarch who led his people to the Promised Land but never set foot inside it, Mr. Kennedy died last week having led the nation toward universal health-care coverage that he would not live to see.”

The Kennedys were not alone. This analogy with Moses was used frequently on the death of George Washington in 1799, in which two-thirds of the eulogies compared the “first conductor of the Jewish nation” to the “leader and father of the American nation.” It was the single-most commonly cited comparison on the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. As Henry Ward Beecher said, “Again a great leader of the people has passed through toil, sorrow, battle, and war, and come near to the promised land of peace, into which he might not pass over.”

And of course Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted the same passage in his speech the night before he was assassinated. “I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over. I’ve seen the promised land. And I may not get there with you, but I want you to know that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

For Barack Obama, who has compared himself to Joshua, the consistency of this analogy from Washington to Bush, is a stark reminder that he picks up the fight that Ted Kennedy pioneered that failure is, indeed, an option. Even the greatest leaders often fall short of their dreams.

Moses vs. the Death Panels. Obama Quotes the Ninth Commandment

Monday, August 24th, 2009

THIS WEEK IN MOSES: Harry and Louise meet Moses.

In a conversation with religious leaders last week, Barack Obama hit back against some of the more outlandish attacks against his health care proposals. Responding to rumors of “death panels” that would “decide whether elderly people would live or die,” he referred to the “Great Words of Sinai,” the Ten Commandments. “There are some folks out there who are frankly bearing false witness,” he said.

The dictate against “bearing false witness” first appears in Exodus 20:16, when Moses climbs to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments after leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. The line reads: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

Obama deftly didn’t mention which of the Ten Commandments this is, as different traditions count the commandments differently. In the Jewish, Protestant, and Orthodox tradition, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor” is commandment number nine. In the Catholic and Lutheran traditions, it’s number eight.

Despite harsh criticism that Obama is injecting religion where it doesn’t belong, “bearing false witness” has a long presence in American jurisprudence, as do most of the Ten Commandments. A Connecticut law from 1642 promised death “if any man rise by false witness.” Similar laws appeared in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. As recently as 1988, the Supreme Court of Mississippi cited the Ninth Commandment in reproaching prosecutorial misconduct:

When the State or any party states or suggests the existence of certain damaging facts and offers no proof whatever to substantiate the allegations, a golden opportunity is afforded the opposing counsel in closing argument to appeal to the Ninth Commandment. “Thou shalt not bear false witness . . . ”

More striking: Obama’s use of the Ninth Commandment echoes Kay Hagan’s use of the same line to hit back against claims by Liddy Dole in last year’s Senate campaign in North Carolina. That Democrats are now using the Ten Commandments as a weapon against Republicans continues a longstanding tradition that has been appalling absent in recent years: The Bible can be used by used by both sides in the culture wars.

Specifically, Moses, wielded by presidents from Washington to Reagan, Lincoln to Obama, may be the one figure in American history who transcends Red and Blue. The question of the moment is whether he’s strong enough to take on the forces that include Blue Cross & Blue Shield.

Charlton Heston the Face of the U.S.A.? How Moses Was Chosen for the Great Seal

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

THIS WEEK IN MOSES: The biblical hero becomes the face of America.

Immediately after approving the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress formed a committee to design a new seal for the United States. As proof of its importance, the committee had three members, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Franklin and Jefferson independently proposed that Moses appear as the public face of the new country. (Adams proposed Hercules, but declared his own selection unoriginal.)

The parallels between a small beleaguered band colonists fighting for freedom against the greatest empire in the world and the small, beleaguered community of Israelite slaves fighting against the greatest empire in the world was widely popular in 1776. Thomas Paine, in the best-selling book of the year, Common Sense, made the connection explicitly. He called King George “a pharaoh.”

On August 20th, the seal committee submitted its official recommendation:

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 committee’s report 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.

This Week in Moses: Pilgrims Set Sail for New World

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

The 400-year love affair between America and Moses began this week in 1620. On August 15, the Mayflower set sail set from Southampton with 102 passengers on board. Their leader, John Robinson, described them as the chosen people, casting off the yoke of their pharaoh, King James. William Bradford, their first governor, proclaimed their mission to be as vital as that of “Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt.”

“The leader of a people in a wilderness had need be a Moses,” Cotton Mather said. “And if a Moses had not led the people of Plymouth Colony,” he wrote of Bradford, then the colony would not have survived.

Yet these leaders did have a choice. For centuries, European explorers had set out for new lands without using expressions like pharaoh and promised land, Exodus and Moses. By choosing these evocative lyrics, the founders of America introduced the themes of oppression and redemption, freedom and law, that would carry through the next four centuries. Because of them, the story of Moses became the story of America.