Springing up Moses

“Springsteen’s work and person invite analysis in terms of the biblical themes of exodus and promised land,” so wrote Kate McCarthy in “Deliver Me from Nowhere: Bruce Springsteen and the Myth of the American Promised Land” (conveniently in a Routledge title, God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture, second edition, 2011). Having just finished Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet (not Routledge), I am attuned to the exodus theme at the moment. Feeling an unaccountable, personal connection to the other Bruce (Springsteen), I have felt the sense of exile in his songs since I was a teenager. I had no idea who Springsteen was when “Born to Run” made it to the charts. Living in a nowhere town at the time (population less than 1000), I felt the burning need for a personal exodus that eventually landed me in the largest city in the country. But still the sense of exile remains.

Lest readers be too confused, it might be politic to point out that the biblical concept of exodus likely had its origins in the Exile. Without rehearsing too much history, the Babylonian Empire, under Nebuchadrezzar, conquered Jerusalem in either 587 or 586 BCE, leading to the deportation of a significant number of Judahites who would become, over a generation, the “Jews.” These people were exiles, forced to live under the watchful eye of a political overlord with whom they shared only the most basic of heritages. Their religions had grown apart over the centuries, and as the Jews began to think back on their homeland, the exodus came to mind. Archaeological evidence for an exodus of biblical proportions (literally) does not exist. Why, then, the story of the exodus? Did not the desire to return home involve crossing the desert, with a divinely appointed leader? One who carried the law (Torah) with him? When Ezra led returnees home in the fifth/fourth century, he had the Torah in hand. Like Moses, he led the people out of bondage under the Persian plan. Exile and exodus are twin children of oppressive regimes.

So, how do ancient desert wanderers come into the orbit of a very damp New Jersey, and in particular, it’s arguably most famous resident? Alienation is home. Very few teenagers don’t understand this. As we attempt to integrate them into adult life, something vital, essential, is left behind. Consider all the long-haired artists of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s who still perform, now shorn to conservative acceptability and sometimes churning out very conventional songs. The fire has gone out. It is difficult to escape exile when you carry it with you. That’s something I think Bruce understands. His look may have changed, but his message has not. America has always been a haven for exiles. Simply because an exile moves into a new setting, however, does not mean that the promised land has been reached. As McCarthy seems to be saying, and as I have often felt, the promised land disappoints. The seeking is what must persist. America may have its Moeses, but it will find, from atop Nebo, that the path is where your feet already are.

Look carefully at your prophets!

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.

Moses and the Problem of Torah

Podcast 19 concerns the dilemma of Moses as the bringer of Torah and how the historical record suggests Israel received the “law” from Ezra several centuries later.

Let Us Make Moses in Our Own Image

This week’s Time magazine contains an article entitled “How Moses Shaped America” by Bruce Feiler (actually it is an abstract from his book, America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story). Feiler points out how Moses has been manipulated and utilized by various factions of American society from the earliest pilgrims up through President Obama’s campaign. There’s some interesting stuff here, from the proposal of the Great Seal that depicts the parting of the Red Sea to the Mosaic elements in the Statue of Liberty. No doubt about it, America loves Moses.

As intriguing as I found Feiler’s thesis, I couldn’t help but be a little bit disturbed by it. Serious biblical scholars are early taught to avoid prooftexting like a plague of frogs. Prooftexting is part of a Fundamentalist’s daily spiritual calisthenics, right after chapter-and-verse-presses. Prooftexting is pulling random Bible verses out of context to support a confessional position on any issue. You can always tell it’s coming when someone opens with “the Bible says…” Then you get a chapter-and-verse punctuation mark. What Feiler is describing in his article is just that, a use of Moses that fits the crisis of the moment. While there is nothing wrong about looking to a great leader in time of need, whether that leader be mythical or historical, I wonder how different this is than marching into battle with “Gott und Ich” inscribed on your belt-buckle.

One statement Feiler makes, however, I must take exception to: “With the rise of secularism and the declining influence of the Bible in the 20th century, Moses might have melted away as a role model.” No doubt secularism was in the ascendant during the twentieth century, but the influence of the Bible was never stronger. The twentieth century saw the Bible co-opted as part of a powerful political agenda that drove this nation to the brink of destruction. Never before had the Bible been used to deceive many thousands of untrained religious believers in the ways of war and greed and inhumanity. Bible-thumping had become more effective than rational thinking or coherent speech in the political debates we all so painfully watched. No, the Bible’s influence has not been shrinking. What is needed is a Moses to wrestle it back to its proper place. Even the Bible can be a golden calf.

Moses gets down

Moses gets down