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The Texas State Board of Education is Wrong: Moses is Not a Founding Father

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So it came to pass in the year 2014 of the Common Era that in Texas, Moses became a Founding Father. This means, thanks to the size of the Texas textbook market, that Moses is now a Founding Father to us all. Alongside George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. It means that a figure of myth is now coequal to figures of history.

The Texas Freedom Network reported on November 21 the results of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) vote on new social studies textbooks, saying that,

[T]he new textbooks also include passages that suggest Moses influenced the writing of the Constitution and that the roots of democracy can be found in the Old Testament. Scholars from across the country have said such claims are inaccurate and mislead students about the historical record.

This is patently ridiculous. If we are looking for mythological inspirations, we would do as well (or better) to add Herakles. At least he is Greek, a place where the idea of democracy did take root. As Gordon S. Wood helpfully points out, “it was the Greeks who had actually invented democracy.”[1]

The Constitution owes nothing to Moses, and the claim that we owe our democratic principles to the Bible is laughably absurd. There is, after all, the rather glaring omission in the Bible of democratic principles. Monarchy and theocracy are the preferred forms of government in the Bible.

Jewish kings were, after all, anointed (the meaning of the word ‘Messiah’) by God. Anointing by God precludes the possibility of them being popularly elected by the people. This was a principle that served Europe’s kings from the time Rome fell to the American Revolution.

To be sure, the Founding Fathers distrusted the “Greek idea of democracy” because of the threat of anarchy discerned by Plato, Aristotle, and others[2] and proven to their own satisfaction in the “excesses of democracy” witnessed by them during period America was governed by the Articles of Confederation.

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But there was inspiration to be had in the republican of ancient Rome. Writes Gordon S. Wood,

If the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was, as Peter Gay has called it, ‘the rise of modern paganism,’ then classical republicanism was its creed…there is no doubt that the thrust of what the ancient world, and particularly Rome, had to say to the eighteenth century was latently and at times manifestly republican.[3]

It was not Moses or other biblical characters who inspired the Founders, but Romans. Thus that hero of the Roman republic, Publius Horatius Cocles, known to history as Horatio, is more worthy of inclusion among our Founding Fathers than Moses. Though written later, Thomas Babington Macauley tells the tale:

And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.

It was, says Wood, “Cicero, Sallust Livy, Virgil, Tacitus [who] set forth republican ideals and values about politics and society that have had a powerful and lasting effect on Western culture.”[4] It was not Moses.

Marie-Jeanne Phlippon Roland, as Madame Roland heroine of the French Revolution and later its victim, though her formal education took place in a convent where one might expect she was exposed to Moses, said that reading Plutarch “had disposed me to become a republican; he had aroused in me that force and pride which give republicanism its character, and he had inspired in me a veritable enthusiasm for public virtues and for liberty.”[5]

Why not Moses? Because there is no spirit of democracy or republicanism to be found coming out of the mouth of Moses. The Old Testament is not about political and religious liberty but about theocracy. Not about things you may do but about things you must not do.

And that is without mentioning the fact that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, for example, are historical figures, while scholar Jan Assmann calls “Moses is a figure of memory but not of history.” As he points out that, “We cannot be sure that Moses ever lived because there are no traces of his earthly existence outside the tradition.”[6]

Indeed, there are problems. As archaeologist William G. Dever points out, in our search for Moses in the Bible we find that “the biblical texts themselves are suspect, for many reasons.” There are not only the vastly inflated and unsupportable multitudes allegedly roaming the Sinai (upwards of two to three million) but the “incredibly complex priestly legislation…that can only reflect the later institutional cult of urban life in the Monarchy, not the experience of desert wanderers.”[7] Besides these problems (and others) there is the absolute lack of evidence that any vast multitude had ever sustained itself for forty years in the desert of the Sinai.

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Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman go further, writing of the biblical account that “Much of what is commonly taken for granted as accurate history – the stories of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and even the saga of the glorious united monarchy of David and Solomon – are, rather, the creative expressions of a powerful religious reform movement that flourished in the kingdom of Judah in the Late Iron Age. Although these stories may have been based on certain historical kernels, they primarily reflect the ideology and world-view of the writers.”[8]

The Founding Fathers did not have access to the findings of modern archaeology but they could read. And the Bible is clear on Israel’s system of government: theocracy and monarchy. If we look to 1 Samuel 8, we find,

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

God had anointed himself as ruler of Israel. Democracy means that power derives from the will of the people. But the people didn’t rule ancient Israel. God did. And in his absence, kings or priests. There were no democratic institutions to be found, and no religious liberty, since the only religion allowed, according to the dictate of what Jan Assmann calls “the Mosaic distinction,”[9] that is, Exodus 20:3, was Judaism.

As Gerd Lüdemann calls this “First Commandment intolerance (“I am Yahweh, your God, you shall have no other gods besides me”) and points out that “the overall thrust of Holy Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, is to promote God and his reign and to silence all dissenting voices.”[10]

The proof is in the pudding: Had the Founding Fathers believed this, we would never have had democracy or a republic or a United States Constitution forbidding religious tests (Article VI, paragraph 3) in the first place, or the First Amendment granting religious liberty to “all alike” in the words of George Washington, in the second.

Nor could have James Madison penned his Memorial & Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785) or Thomas Jefferson his Virginia Act to Establish Religious Freedom, which was the inspiration for the First Amendment and which, in his own words, comprehended “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

If you still, after all this, agree with the inclusion of Moses, consider their words:

Jefferson: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

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Moses: “I am Yahweh, your God, you shall have no other gods besides me.”

Checkmate, Religious Right.

Notes:

[1] Gordon S. Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States (Penguin, 2011), 190.
[2] Wood (2011), 190.
[3] Wood (2011), 59.
[4] Wood (2011), 60.
[5] Wood (2011), 61.
[6] Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Harvard, 1997), 1-2.
[7] William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Eerdmans, 2003), 18-19.
[8] Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and The Origin of its Sacred Texts (Free Press, 2001), 23.
[9] Assmann (1997), 1.
[10] Gerd Lüdemann, Intolerance and the Gospel: Selected Texts from the New Testament (Prometheus,2007), 258-259.
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