How the exodus story created America

Narrative of the ancient Israelites influenced the Pilgrims; A bond that remains a "godsend".

Red Sea A Happy Passover Haggadah_ 521 (photo credit: Monicka Clio Rafaeli)
Red Sea A Happy Passover Haggadah_ 521
(photo credit: Monicka Clio Rafaeli)
OF ALL the festivals on the Jewish calendar, it is Passover which contains some of the boldest and most powerful imagery.
The departure of our ancestors from Egypt, their pursuit by Pharaoh and his chariots, and the climactic splitting of the Red Sea, are just some of the themes that we continue to celebrate more than 3,300 years later.
Indeed, it is a testimony to the power of Jewish memory as well as the potency of the Passover saga that even after so many generations, we continue to retell and relive this crucial part of our ancient past.
After all, how many other nations on earth go to such great lengths to reenact the experience of their forebears, discussing it in detail late into the night while also trying to instill the next generation with a sense of historical continuity? Clearly, the deliverance of our forefathers from bondage left a deep imprint on the collective psyche of the Jewish people. Our experience with slavery and the yearning for freedom led many Jews of later generations to place themselves at the forefront of various struggles for human liberty and progress.
Not surprisingly, though, the Exodus tale has also ignited the imagination of others throughout history, encouraging them to stand up to tyrants and seek their own liberation.
Perhaps the most resounding instance is to be found in the annals of America and the men who helped to bring it into being, many of whom looked to the story of the exodus for inspiration.
Take, for example, the Pilgrims, who set sail on the Mayflower in September 1620 from the port of Plymouth in southern England in search of a haven where they could practice their religion free of persecution.
As Bruce Feiler, the author of America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America, has noted, the Pilgrims viewed themselves as reliving the exodus saga.
“When they embarked on the Mayflower in 1620,” Feiler writes, “they described themselves as the chosen people fleeing their pharaoh, King James. On the Atlantic, their leader, William Bradford, proclaimed their journey to be as vital as ‘Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt.’ And when they arrived in Cape Cod, they thanked God for letting them pass through their fiery Red Sea.”
Subsequently, when Bradford wrote Of Plymouth Plantation, his historical account of the Pilgrims’ settling of America, he suggested that there were compelling parallels between the experiences of his own community and that of the ancient Israelites.
A decade later, in 1630, a second wave of Pilgrims made their way across the Atlantic on board the Arbella  While en route to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop delivered a sermon to the passengers entitled “A Model of Christian Charity,” in which he too invoked comparisons with the Children of Israel.
“We shall find,” he said, “that the God of Israel is among us, when 10 of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when He shall make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: ‘The Lord make it like that of New England.’” As if to underline the point, Winthrop concluded his sermon by quoting from “Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel.”
By all accounts, the Pilgrims were driven by a deep-seated belief that they had a divinely-appointed mission. The early settlers were known to refer to Plymouth colony as “Little Israel,” and many spoke of Bradford, who became its governor, as “Moses.”
THE MASSACHUSETTS Bay Colony, which was located north of Plymouth, was equally imbued with a strong sense of biblical consciousness and identification.
As Dr. Gabriel Sivan wrote in his monumental work, The Bible and Civilization, “No Christian community in history identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the biblical drama of the Hebrew nation.”
The Pilgrims, argues Sivan, saw themselves as “the children of Israel; America was their Promised Land; the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea; the Kings of England were the Egyptian pharaohs; the American Indians the Canaanites...”
Moreover, he suggests, they “saw themselves as instruments of Divine Providence, a people chosen to build their new commonwealth on the Covenant entered into at Mount Sinai.”
It was this vision and sense of purpose which eventually served as one of the foundations of what came to be known as American Exceptionalism – the belief that the United States is a unique nation blessed by the Creator with a special role to play in the world.
More than a century and a half after the Pilgrims’ arrival, the American colonies went to war against their British colonial masters in a struggle for independence, and the revolutionaries were also very much stirred by the story of the Israelites.
In his pamphlet Common Sense, which was published in January 1776 and had a galvanizing effect on American public opinion, Thomas Paine described King George III as the “sullen tempered pharaoh of England.”
On July 4, 1776, just moments after formally adopting the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress appointed a committee consisting of three illustrious people – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin – to create “a seal for the United States of America.”
On August 20 of that year, the committee members presented their recommendations to the Congress, with Franklin proposing that the seal depict, “Moses standing on the shore, and extending his hand over the sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm pharaoh who is sitting in an open chariot.”
Jefferson suggested a similar theme for the seal, which would portray “The children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.”
Though neither of these ideas was accepted, the very fact that they were even considered demonstrates the pervasive influence of the biblical exodus on America’s Founding Fathers as well as their strong affinity with the story of the Israelites.
Even after the war was over and America gained its independence, this linkage continued to predominate. On March 4, 1805, in his second inaugural address, President Thomas Jefferson said, “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”
The fact that America’s Founding Fathers were so deeply influenced by the narrative of the ancient Israelites should serve as a source of pride to us all. It is a tangible example of how the saga of the Jewish people in Egypt influenced the course of world history, thousands of years after the events themselves.
To be sure, America, perhaps more than any other Diaspora country, has been a source of great blessing to Jews, providing unprecedented freedom and opportunity.
But in light of the prominent part played by the story of the Jewish people’s forebears in shaping the beginnings of America, it seems fair to say that the bond between Israel and the United States is one that has been a godsend for all concerned.