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Why Moses Is the Patron Saint of Thanksgiving

Hollywood is rediscovering the Bible.

Two competing movies about Moses – both by well-known producers – are making a play to become the next chapter of the century-long love affair between the merchants of sin in Tinsletown and the prophet of hope in Israel. But no matter how far the film-makers extend their story, there are unlikely to reach the least known but arguably the most influential impact of Moses today.

He is the Patron Saint of American Thanksgiving.

The real story of Thanksgiving has deep biblical roots. A few years ago, I set out on a 10,000-mile journey through the hidden symbols of American life that became the basis for my book, "America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America." 

My journey began on a visit to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where I boarded The Mayflower II. A re-enactor was reading from the Bible. “Exodus 14,” he explained. “The Israelites are trapped in front of the Red Sea, and the Egyptians are about to catch them. ‘Hold your peace!’ Moses says. The Lord shall fight for you.’ Our leader read us that passage during our crossing.”

I had never associated the biblical prophet with this most American of holidays, but his fingerprints are all over our turkeys. How did this happen?

The answer begins with the Protestant Reformation. All through the Middle Ages, Catholics were not allowed to read the Bible directly, but the Reformation, coupled with the printing press, brought vernacular Bibles into the hands of everyday believers. Many of those believers were Protestants who felt oppressed by the Church. They related to the story of the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham who were enslaved in Egypt around 1200 B.C., were set free by Moses, then set out for the Promised Land.

The Pilgrims, a band of Protestant outcasts, saw themselves as fulfilling this biblical story. After all, in coming to the New World, they, too, had to cross a tumultuous sea, arrive in an untested wilderness, and build a new “Promised Land.” When they embarked on The Mayflower in 1620, 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.

The pilgrims were so enamored of Moses, the Bibles they brought with them were emblazoned on their title pages with pictures of Moses. They even named their children biblical virtues like Fear, Patience, and Wrestling, as in “Wrestling with God,” the English translation of Israel.

As Peter Gomes, the preacher of Harvard told me, "They weren't trying to recreate the biblical narrative. They were trying to fulfill it." Because of them, the story of Moses became the story of America.

And because of the biblical roots of this secular American holidays, if your gathering threatens to descend into a familiar fracas among different faiths, factions, and political persuasions, Moses, because he has been used by believers and non-believers alike, Republicans and Democrats, Jews, Catholics and Protestants, may be the one figure who can unite the family and allow them all to enjoy their pumpkin pie.

For more information Bruce Feiler’s biblical books, please visit www.brucefeiler.com or follow Bruce at facebook.com/brucefeilerpage or twitter.com/brucefeiler.