Declining Prophets

Prophets aren’t what they used to be. Was a time when you had to be real to make an impression on the world. The historical evidence for Moses is slim. So slim, in fact, that it can’t be seen. As a child learning that the Bible contained no mistakes (it does) and no contradictions (too many to count), there was never any doubt of Moses’ historicity. Charlton Heston’s iconic portrayal of the man who wouldn’t be king left little room for doubt in pliable young minds. Not bad for a man who probably never lived.

I finally got around to reading Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America. Initially I found the book difficult because I started it the day after finishing Kent Nerburn’s The Wolf at Twilight. There seemed a disingenuousness to America’s development that had been built on oppression. The retelling of sacred histories can be quite diverse. Nevertheless, Feiler’s book is well researched and compellingly written. Beginning with Columbus and coming up through the first years of the twenty-first century, Feiler shows again and again how Moses is lurking in the shadows of some of America’s grandest monuments to self.

Moses is the liberator who lays down the law. As such, nearly all the great political leaders in America’s Bible-saturated history have been compared to him. The funny thing about the actual Moses is that history’s chroniclers somehow failed to mention him. He does not appear in the annals of Egypt, where, according to Exodus, he was the near equal of Ramesses II. He is not mentioned by the political watchers among the other great powers of ancient western Asia. The Bible is all he’s got. Political commentators in early America, however, were not worried about whether he existed or not. The Bible says he did and that’s good enough.

Feiler builds a compelling case for Moses standing behind American figures and institutions. He also seems to be aware that Moses may never have walked the earth. An avenue he doesn’t explore is how entire national identities can be built on myths. Mythology gives us the meaning by which we live. Some times that mythology will include historical personages. Other times the myth must stand on its own. Moses may be one of the latter. Does it matter that Moses does not appear in history? No. He has already left his imprint, as Feiler ably demonstrates, on Columbus, the Pilgrims, George Washington, the Liberty Bell, Abraham Lincoln, the Underground Railroad, the Statue of Liberty, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even—God help us!—George W. Bush. Anyone capable of pounding a Bible loudly enough will eventually make the ranks, it seems. Ahistorical Moses has accomplished in his sleep more than historical people can ever attain. Amazing what you can achieve, real or not, with mythology on your side.

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