An interesting op-ed by Bruce Feiler recently appeared on CNN talking about the role of Moses in American politics. It seems that Moses as a deliverer in the Exodus and a lawgiver on Mount Sinai finds an integral significance in the history of America.
As Feiler notes,
By the time of the Revolution, Moses had become the go-to narrative of American freedom. In 1751, the Pennsylvania Assembly chose a quote from the Five Books of Moses for its State House bell, “Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof — Levit. XXV 10.” The future Liberty Bell was hanging above the room where the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Congress’ last order of business that day was to form a committee of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to design a seal for the new United States. The committee submitted its recommendation that August: Moses, leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. In their eyes, Moses was America’s true Founding Father.
George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. have all been compared to Moses in their role as a savior and lawgiver. Washington delivered America from the oppressive British and presided over the drafting of the Constitution. Lincoln ended slavery through military force and the Emancipation Proclamation. MLK spoke of leading African Americans into the Promised Land. Even the Statue of Liberty (of all things!) is modeled after Moses. The spikes on her head and the tablet in her arms mimic Moses’ iconic pose as he was walking down the mountain with a radiant face and carrying two tablets. In every instance the message is clear: Freedom depends on the law.
Yet every American reference to Moses ignores the fact that the law Moses brought did not bring life and freedom, but it instead brought condemnation and death. St. Paul says “Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died” (Romans 7:9) or “The letter kills” (1 Cor. 3:6). Moses (and the Law) did not bring the way of freedom, but rather he brings the way of death! In these passages, Paul refers to a concrete event in the history of Israel – the giving of the law at Sinai. This Pauline reading of the Old Testament understands that after the giving of the law nearly every Israelite that was delivered from the slavery of Egypt was killed by God in the wilderness (see Numbers 26:63-65!). The advent of the law is also the advent of God’s judgment upon his chosen people. Indeed, the giving of the law at Sinai is the dividing-line of the entire Torah between the salvation of the Exodus and the demise in the wilderness.
The law promises that it will bring order, peace and prosperity yet in actual fact it proved to be a ministry of death. As Francis Watson has suggested “the law that brings with it the conditional offer of life is overtaken by the realities of sin and death, so that those who are under law are under its curse” (277). With the conditional promise of life also comes the equal threat of death to the transgressor. For Israel and all who are under law this conditionality is only ever experienced as judgment and death.
The link between the law and freedom may be foundational to the American identity, whether conservative or liberal. But this link does not find its origin in either Moses or Christianity.