Amer­i­ca’s Prophet: Moses and the Amer­i­can Story

Bruce Feil­er
  • Review
By – August 24, 2011
In the course of trav­el­ing around the Unit­ed States, Bruce Feil­er, the author of sev­er­al books and host of the pop­u­lar PBS series Walk­ing the Bible,” began to notice a sur­pris­ing recur­rence: at crit­i­cal points in their his­to­ry, Amer­i­cans con­sis­tent­ly point­ed to the Exo­dus and Moses as their guid­ing inspi­ra­tion. Moses, in Feiler’s words, is America’s true found­ing father.” 

Over two years, Feil­er trav­eled to some of the land­marks of Amer­i­can his­to­ry — Inde­pen­dence Hall, a way sta­tion on the Under­ground Rail­road, the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty, among oth­ers— to explore the way the Bible and, more specif­i­cal­ly, the Exo­dus and Moses him­self, have informed America’s his­to­ry. In every gen­er­a­tion, from William Brad­ford through Barack Oba­ma, Amer­i­cans have seen Moses as their prophet, the leader who gives them direc­tion. Based on wide-rang­ing research, America’s Prophet is an infor­ma­tive and acces­si­ble, if selec­tive, view of Amer­i­can his­to­ry as a reë­n­act­ment of the Exo­dus.

The notes for each chap­ter indi­cate Feiler’s sources, in addi­tion to exten­sive per­son­al inter­views, but the read­er might have ben­e­fit­ed from spe­cif­ic ref­er­ences for his sta­tis­ti­cal stud­ies. With Feil­er as a guide, the peo­ple he inter­views at each stop on his jour­ney show how Moses influ­enced Amer­i­can his­to­ry. This leads to a cer­tain degree of rep­e­ti­tion and, per­haps, con­trivance, and does not always allow for fuller devel­op­ment of some of the intrigu­ing ques­tions Feil­er rais­es: Why is Moses, not Jesus, America’s prophet? How did 19th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Protes­tants, who saw them­selves as the suc­ces­sors to the chil­dren of Israel, respond to real Jews — and Catholics and now Mus­lims, Bud­dhists, and Hin­dus — in their effort to reach the promised land? But Feiler’s instinct for a com­pelling sto­ry and his promis­ing mes­sage — that the sto­ry of Amer­i­ca, like that of Moses, is an ongo­ing nar­ra­tive of hope” — keep the read­er engaged in the unfin­ished sto­ry that every Amer­i­can helps to write.


By Maron Waxman

Maron Wax­man: Your books cov­er a great vari­ety of sub­jects— Japan, Eng­lish acad­e­mia, the cir­cus, coun­try music, the Bible. Is there a com­mon thread that runs through them?
Bruce Feil­er: If you look at all my books, what they have in com­mon is that they’re all about being Jew­ish in the South. There are two South­ern tra­di­tions — the South is a place of fam­i­lies stick­ing togeth­er, and it’s a sto­ry-telling place. Jews are out­siders in the South, but they’re also sto­ry­tellers. In my books I enter a dif­fer­ent world. I’m part of it, but I’m observ­ing it. There’s the ten­sion of belong­ing to a place and being apart from it. 

MW: What world did you enter in writ­ing America’s Prophet?

BF: Writ­ing and research­ing this book led to a whole new way to see the Unit­ed States. When I first went back to the Bible as part of the research for Walk­ing the Bible, I had only my child­hood con­struc­tion of it — sim­ple black and white sto­ries with no gray. Read­ing it many years lat­er, I saw lots of gray, and it was excit­ing because that invit­ed me in as an adult. Some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pened with my expe­ri­ence of Amer­i­ca. Look­ing at Amer­i­can his­to­ry through the prism of the Bible opened a whole new way to look at it. It was like going through a new door into an old house. 

The Bible is not a book on a shelf; it’s liv­ing and breath­ing. It’s the same with Amer­i­can his­to­ry. It’s not just Plimoth Plan­ta­tion or Civ­il War reen­act­ments or descrip­tions of slav­ery; Amer­i­can his­to­ry is still alive and churning.

MW: How does the Moses sto­ry influ­ence Amer­i­can his­to­ry?

BF: The Moses sto­ry has been used by almost every great Amer­i­can leader in almost every defin­ing time, from the Colonies through today. It’s a uni­ver­sal sto­ry that tran­scends time. Repub­li­cans use it, Democ­rats use it, Com­mu­nists and cap­i­tal­ists use it, Jews and Chris­tians use it. It’s often said that Amer­i­ca is a Chris­t­ian coun­try, but that miss­es the point. It was Chris­tians who made Moses a found­ing father. Jews were wel­comed here because the Exo­dus sto­ry was so inter­twined with the Amer­i­can dream. The Pil­grims knew the Bible; they had a copy of the Gene­va Bible, whose title page shows a pic­ture of Moses and the Israelites camped at the Red Sea. 

We have to remem­ber that the Protes­tants were the first peo­ple in eigh­teen cen­turies to read the Moses sto­ry, to read the Bible, for them­selves. Roman Catholics could be put to death for read­ing the Bible. Only the priests could read it, in Latin, and also, before the print­ing press, there were very few books. So it took a cer­tain set of cir­cum­stances — from tech­nol­o­gy to geog­ra­phy — to make the Exo­dus sto­ry the sto­ry of America. 

First was the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion and with it the trans­la­tion of the Bible into sec­u­lar lan­guages so that every­one could read it. Then came the print­ing press, mak­ing the Bible wide­ly avail­able. The Pil­grims rec­og­nized them­selves in the Exo­dus sto­ry; in Eng­land they were an oppressed minor­i­ty, and so they under­took their own Exo­dus. Their phys­i­cal jour­ney has incred­i­ble par­al­lels with Exo­dus — they took a per­ilous sea jour­ney to a wilder­ness to build a new land. The Pil­grims read the prophe­cy of the Old Tes­ta­ment as truth, and they believed it. They were ful­fill­ing the future [the prophets predicted/​foresaw].

And we see this in the think­ing of the found­ing fathers, too, and of the slaves. The Exo­dus sto­ry is their story. 

We as Jews are not taught the Moses sto­ry this way. Moses is not the dom­i­nant fig­ure of the Torah and is men­tioned only once in the hag­gadah. The Torah and Tal­mud steer us away from the wor­ship of Moses to keep us focused on God. And so the Moses sto­ry means more to Amer­i­can his­to­ry than to Jew­ish his­to­ry. White Protes­tants made Moses cen­tral to the Amer­i­can sto­ry, and who ben­e­fit­ed? Blacks and Jews.

MW: When Jew­ish immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States began in earnest, in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, you men­tion that Protes­tants were ambiva­lent about them. Do you think they felt a lit­tle usurped by real Israelites, that the Jews’ pres­ence in some way under­mined the mes­sage of the New Tes­ta­ment as a ful­fill­ment of Old Tes­ta­ment prophe­cy?
BF: The Protes­tants didn’t espe­cial­ly like Jews, but they liked the Exo­dus sto­ry, and that helped the inte­gra­tion of the Jews. The Exo­dus sto­ry wasn’t a call to open their arms, but because the Protes­tants had used the sto­ry so pow­er­ful­ly, they couldn’t stop the Jews from using it. They were uncom­fort­able with Jews, but Jews knew the impor­tance of the Exo­dus sto­ry to the Amer­i­can sto­ry, so it became our sto­ry, too. In 1889, the hun­dredth anniver­sary of George Washington’s inau­gu­ra­tion, you got a free pic­ture of George Wash­ing­ton with every ten pounds of mat­zoh. Moses was already liv­ing in Amer­i­ca, so that made it eas­i­er for us to live here.

MW: I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly tak­en by your state­ment If out­siders want to legit­imize their place in Amer­i­ca, they have to make their cause fit the most Amer­i­can of tem­plates— the Exo­dus” (p. 277). How does that work for today’s diverse immi­grants, some from non-Chris­t­ian back­grounds?
BF: There are still oppressed minori­ties — gays, women — and His­pan­ics are con­ver­sant with the Exo­dus sto­ry. For Asians there’s still the gen­er­al sense that Amer­i­ca wel­comes every­body, that we’re a plu­ral­is­tic nation of Give me your tired, your poor”— lines writ­ten by a Jew. And Amer­i­cans are still touched by polit­i­cal oppres­sion, by who are moan­ing under oppres­sion” and who want to be free. Amer­i­ca is still the land of milk and hon­ey.”

MW: Why did Moses, not Jesus, become the country’s prophet?
BF: Jesus’ sto­ry is a per­son­al sto­ry — indi­vid­ual sal­va­tion, good works, help­ing the poor. Moses’ sto­ry is a sto­ry of build­ing a nation, and the geog­ra­phy is part of it — leav­ing a nar­row place (mitzraim, Hebrew for Egypt, means nar­row place”), cross­ing water, com­ing to a new land. No one had used the Exo­dus sto­ry this way before. No one could because before the Ref­or­ma­tion because no lay peo­ple were allowed to read the Bible.

MW: In the course of research­ing and writ­ing your books, you meet a lot of tremen­dous­ly inter­est­ing peo­ple and go to a lot of tremen­dous­ly inter­est­ing places. Is this one of the plea­sures of under­tak­ing a new project?
BF: It’s a priv­i­lege to do this and a won­der­ful way to live life. I enjoy all the parts — the research year, the trav­el year, the writ­ing year. There’s the phys­i­cal side of trav­el plus it’s also excit­ing intel­lec­tu­al­ly, meet­ing some­one in his or her own place. Trav­el builds bridges. It takes you out of your com­fort zone. Jews, a minor­i­ty, can offer a great les­son: It’s pos­si­ble to live in a world where we’re a minority.

MW: What is the final point you’d like to leave with your read­ers?
BF: The final point I’d like to leave with my read­ers and my twin daugh­ters is that the Moses tra­di­tion is still alive. Just look at white pres­i­dents using the Moses sto­ry, at a black pres­i­dent using the sto­ry in his cam­paign. Women, blacks, minori­ties, any­one com­ing from a place of restric­tion to a new place, to a bet­ter place, is using the Moses sto­ry. Some Amer­i­cans today, says Rab­bi Harold Kush­n­er, can’t be bet­ter off eco­nom­i­cal­ly than their par­ents, so a bet­ter” place for them may mean being bet­ter fathers, mak­ing more time for their fam­i­lies, hav­ing more bal­ance in their lives. 

Ulti­mate­ly, the Moses sto­ry is the sto­ry of mak­ing dreams come true, of tak­ing risks. Some­times dreams don’t come true, and that’s okay, too. This year we’re slaves; next year we’ll be free. The Moses sto­ry is the sto­ry of keep­ing hope alive.

Read­er’s Guide for Amer­i­ca’s Prophet

from http://​bruce​feil​er​.com

1. After hav­ing read the book, do you agree with Buce Feil­er that Moses is America’s true found­ing father?

2. What does the phrase “ the Promised Land” mean? Would you call Amer­i­can the Promised Land? Why? What makes it so? If you could cre­ate you own ide­al promised land, what would it look like?

3. America’s Prophet takes us from the Pil­grims to the Rev­o­lu­tion, the Civ­il War to the Civ­il Rights move­ment. Where you sur­prised to dis­cov­er Moses’ influ­ence on some of the most deci­sive events in our nation’s his­to­ry? What amzed you most?

4. Do you have a favorite Exo­dus Sto­ry from our his­to­ry? Explain. When Bruce Feil­er met Pres­i­dent Bush, he asked him if there were any moments when Moses inspired him. Have there been any moments when Moses inspired you?

5. Can you think of some oth­er exam­ples — not just lim­it­ed to Amer­i­ca — of where Moses and the Exo­dus sto­ry has been an influ­ence, whether his­tor­i­cal­ly or in pop­u­lar culture?

6. Often when we hear reli­gion and pol­i­tics being dis­cussed it is in a neg­a­tive light. How can pol­i­tics and reli­gion be a pos­i­tive force for each oth­er? How does Feil­er make this argu­ment? Use exam­ples from the book. Can you think of oth­er exam­ples to sup­port your point?

7. At the end of America’s Prophet, the author asks if Moses is still rel­e­vant today. What do you think? Do you agree with his con­clu­sions? How might the Exo­dus sto­ry help us even now?

8. Take any exam­ple from the book. Describe how Moses inspired George Wash­ing­ton and Ben­jamin Franklin or Abra­ham Lin­coln or Barack Obama.

9. Think about the Emma Lazarus poem, The New Colos­sus. When you read her words, what do they mean to you? What do you think they might mean to today’s immi­grants? Is their promised land” dif­fer­ent from the promised land of those who came before?

10. Who in your life or your com­mu­ni­ty would you liken to Moses? How have they embod­ied the Moses ideal?

11. At the end of the book, Feil­er asks his rel­a­tive to define free­dom. What does free­dom mean to you?

12. If you have read Bruce Feiler’s oth­er books — Where God Was Born, Abra­ham, Walk­ing the Bible — how does America’s Prophet fit in with those oth­er works? Would you call it a con­tin­u­a­tion of the author’s journey?

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions