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Moses as symbol in American history

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The symbolism of the biblical prophet Moses has inspired generations of American leaders from the Puritans up to recent presidents. The story of Moses gave meaning and hope to the lives of Pilgrims seeking religious and personal freedom, and later inspired America’s founding fathers during the American Revolution and when they created the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. The story of Moses was quoted by Abraham Lincoln to help justify the Civil War, and in modern times has helped unify the civil rights movement.[1]

During the 20th century up until the present, American presidents such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barak Obama, have used the story of Moses to help explain their ideologies and present their messages. In earlier periods, leaders such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, have even been called a "Moses of their people," with the story of Moses used as a "metaphor for liberation."[2] Swedish historian Hugo Valentin states that Moses "was the first to proclaim the rights of man." [3]:35

The founding fathers inscribed the words of Moses on the Liberty Bell, and both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson wanted the official seal of the United States to depict Moses leading the Israelites in their Exodus from Egypt. The Ten Commandments, which Moses received from God, along with the Five Books of Moses, have been described by theologian William Barclay as "the law without which nationhood is impossible." Others have credited the Ten Commandments as the basis of America's Constitution, with Barclay noting that "From Israel we Christian peoples inherit that wise and holy code of laws. Our society is founded upon it."[4] John Adams, America’s 2nd president, compared Moses to the Greek philosophers: "As much as I love, esteem, and admire the Greeks, I believe the Hebrews have done more to enlighten and civilize the world. Moses did more than all their legislators and philosophers."[5]:40

In popular culture, the 1956 film The Ten Commandments is said to parallel "the narrative of America’s own nationhood under God," with "patriotic allegories about the struggle for democratic freedom."[6] At the end of the film, the final pose of Moses, played by Charlton Heston, is said to mimic that of The Statue of Liberty.[7] The childhood of the comic book hero Superman is similar to that of Moses, "set adrift to become his people’s savior." [8][9] Author Bruce Feiler concludes, "For four hundred years, one figure inspired more Americans than any other. His name is Moses."[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Feiler, Bruce. America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story, William Morrow (2009)
  2. Dever, William G. Who Were the Early Israelites, and Where Did They Come From?, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co. (2003) p. 234
  3. Shuldiner, David Philip. Of Moses and Marx, Greenwood Publishing (1999)
  4. Barclay, William. The Ten Commandments, Westminster John Knox Press (1973, 1998) p. 4
  5. Meacham, Jon. American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, Random House (2006)
  6. Cohan, Steven. Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties, Indiana Univ. Press (1997) p. 127
  7. Wood, Michael. America in the Movies, or, "Santa Maria, it had Slipped my Mind", Columbia Univ. Press (1975) p. 187
  8. Daniels, Les. Superman: The Complete History, Chronicle Books (2004) p. 19
  9. Savage, William W. Commies, Cowboys, and Jungle Queens: Comic Books and America, 1945–1954, Wesleyan Univ. Press (1990) p. 122

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