Go Down Moses

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Exodus, Moses and History

By David J. Ware

A review of American history indicates that “Moses has emboldened leaders of all stripes: patriot and loyalist, slave and master, Jew and Christian,” writes historian Bruce Feiler. The pilgrims quoted the story of Exodus as they set sail, and it inspired the Puritans in their battle with an overbearing king. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson proposed that Moses appear on the U.S. seal. Harriet Tubman used the lyrics of “Go Down, Moses” to guide fugitives on the Underground Railroad. The Statue of Liberty and comic book hero Superman are molded in his image. Twentieth century presidents have quoted him from the Pentagon to Congress, one quipping in the 80’s that he doubted the Ten Commandments would make it through today’s legislative process! Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked his name in his final speech on the night before he died. Feiler calls Moses “America’s Prophet.” As a people still too often divided, perhaps the persistence of his story could help direct us toward common ground?

The book of Exodus is the West’s meta-narrative of hope, says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The tale of a group of slaves who were liberated from the mightiest power of the ancient world, Exodus is about justice, freedom, and the rule of law…politics, society, and the principles on which people form associations…the sanctity of human life and dignity…the use and misuse of power. For Feiler, realizing “how much the biblical narrative of the Israelites has colored the vision and informed the values” of Americans for twenty generations “was like discovering a new front door to a house I’d lived in all my life.”

As Moses is born, Egypt’s Pharaoh is threatened by a minority group whose race and religion are different from his own. The Hebrew people have been forced by economic circumstance into slavery and required to build garrisons to protect the empire if attacked, but ironically this hardship has made them strong, both physically and spiritually. Not surprisingly, Pharaoh worries that in the event of war, the slaves will support the outsiders and fight against their Egyptian taskmasters. In a cynical move, he issues a command, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile.” Moses’ mother is able to hide him for three months, but fearing for his life, she gambles on a crazy scheme: if she can fool her captors into believing that her son is an Egyptian, then he will be safe.

So she weaves a basket from the reeds that grow along the Nile, covers it with tar to make it waterproof, and sets off the little boat in the direction of an area where women from the royal household often bathe. The Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket and takes him home, and through another ruse perpetrated by Moses’ sister, his mother is enlisted as the adopted boy’s wet nurse.

So Moses grows up as an Egyptian prince, in the court of the king, all the while being tutored by his Hebrew mother, who is a slave. Potentially divided internally, likely to be at war with the disparate parts of himself, Moses instead marries his two origin stories, combining a passion for justice and the courage to speak truth to power.  Long before he notices the bush which “burns but is not consumed,” and turns aside to make sense of it, Moses has the makings of a hero. We love the idea of a leader rising up from humble beginnings and of a person with privilege giving up his position for the good of the whole, and Moses gives us both.

Moses’ legacy is to propose “an alternative reality to the one we face at any given moment. He suggests that there is something better than the mundane, the enslaved, the second-best, the compromised.” (Feiler) Oppression is not inevitable, and neither is being stuck. No matter what Egypt we might find ourselves in, there can be a better place, another kind of society, a different way of living.

What bondage is God calling us to liberate?