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Book Review: America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story by Bruce Feiler

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Ask the average American for the most influential person in the Bible and you'll likely hear "Jesus." Not so, says Bruce Feiler, who has made a career of bringing new life to old (but beloved) texts. Feiler keeps his wandering closer to home this time (he has traveled religious lands extensively) as he explores in America's Prophet the importance of Moses in American history. Actually, importance is an understatement. According to Feiler, "you can't understand American history … without understanding Moses." He misses little ground in laying out his case, tracing the role of Moses in the Pilgrims, the Revolution, George Washington, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, the Statue of Liberty, Hollywood, Superman, and the Civil Rights Movement.

One of Feiler's strengths as a writer is seeking out new perspectives and discounting no one. He learns as much from scholars as he does from random conversations in part because he is interested in how issues impact people. Some of his ground here is well trodden, such as the United States founders interpreting their story as that of Moses, or seeing how the slaves found inspiration in the Moses story. But Feiler notes the slave owners used the same story for inspiration, especially as the Civil War approached.

Therein lies a crucial argument for Feiler to address. Just because people have taken on the Moses story does not mean they were inspired by it. Indeed, some of what we see here is one of most common misuses of the Bible, where we appropriate scripture to justify whatever issue we wish to address. There is no doubt some of this is occurring with some of these examples, but that does not lessen the overall argument. But it is what makes Feiler's unusual subjects all the more interesting. His discussion of Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments  shows how this was not just another movie for the famed director, but a chance to use the story of Moses to move American forward (as he felt it should). Even more interesting is the too short section on the creation of Superman as a modern-day Moses, a connection not missed by Hitler who banned the "Jewish" comic book.

By the end of America's Prophet the natural question is, so what? What do all these connections mean? Feiler anticipates the questions and summarizes his argument with three main themes. First, the story arises again and again because it tells of "the courage to escape oppression and seek the Promised Land." This aspect of the Exodus story is why so many people around the world can relate to the story. Anywhere and any time people are oppressed, the story of a people who break free from that oppression against all odds is inspiring.

Feiler's second theme is "the tension between freedom and law." Throughout the book this comes forth as one of Feiler's most interesting points. Moses realizes that freedom without law is chaos and receives the Ten Commandments. As the Pilgrims prepare to land they create their own set of laws, and during the Civil Rights movement adherents seek to overturn unjust laws but not escape the responsibility which comes with freedom. In the end the concept which best captures this is that of covenant, an agreement between individuals and their community, and for many, between their community and God. Current society clearly focuses on the idea of freedom over responsibility, and a reminder of this needed balance is important.

Finally, Feiler says a third theme is "the building of a society that welcomes the outsider and uplifts the downtrodden." This is not simply some left-wing interpretation of the Moses story. Instead, Feiler focuses on God's compassion to the Israelite s throughout the Exodus story; if God shows such compassion, it is expected from the people as well.

So where is Moses today? Feiler and others offer no current models (Martin Luther King Jr. being the clearest, recent example). But then Moses is not meant to be around at all times. Instead, a Moses arises out of oppression when people need to be led forward, so it is certain that another Moses will appear at some point in the future. In the meantime, the Passover tradition is one which calls on people to remember the Exodus story, and now Feiler has given us the American Passover version of remembering this story and this person so we can be prepared for the next Moses.

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About Derek Emerson

  • Barb Paulson

    Interesting concepts Maybe we have seen the next Moses