Who Owns Moses?

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go

Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.

So Moses went to Egypt’s land
Let my people go
To make old Pharaoh understand
Let my people go

Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh,let my people go.

Thus spake the Lord, bold Moses said,
“Let my people go,
If not, I’ll strike your first born dead
“Let my people go”

Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.

Hailing from the time of southern slavery and shrouded in folk legend, this greatest of African American spirituals has rightly broken and mended the hearts of millions of  people. We could easily argue that it is the rightful spiritual and moral heritage of every person who loves freedom, who has experienced or witnessed persecution, or who weeps in anguish over slavery and oppression.  The song uses the classic Jewish story of slavery and exodus as a symbolic frame for railing against the Egypt of its time:  the peculiarly brutal institution of  slavery whose racist legacy continues to poison American society.

At the heart of this song – its center of gravity – is the career of Moses as a servant-leader chosen by God to lead the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt.  God is mentioned only once explicitly (“the Lord”) and then only as part of Moses’ reminder to the evil Pharaoh about the divine command to let God’s people go.  The slaves who sang this song were often quite religious, so there is no reason to assume that they believed anyone other than God to be speaking in the commanding refrain:  “Go down Moses/Way down in Egypt’s land/Tell old Pharaoh/Let my people go.”  And yet, the song’s wording suggests a delicious ambiguity:  is it God commanding Moses or is it the endless generations of slaves, past, present and future, singing this song and calling Moses to rise and liberate them in every generation?

This ambiguity, along with the fact that African American slaves used a Jewish Bible story to talk about their own Egypt, suggests that Moses the historical leader belongs to the Jews, while Moses the timeless symbol and inspiration belongs to everyone.  The Bible implies Moses’ simultaneous role as Jewish liberator and universal symbol of liberation.  The child of Israelite slaves, Moses is saved from her father’s genocidal ambitions by Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopts him and raises him as royalty in the royal palace – the primary locus of the oppressor class.  Exacerbating what could have been his identity confusion, the princess knowingly assigns Moses’ nursing to a slave woman, who just happens to be his biological mother. This prince of Egypt gradually wakes up and realizes that his true place is with the Israelites, the people his adopted grandfather and nation have been brutalizing.

Only when he achieves this consciousness can Moses properly channel his heartbroken solidarity with his people into an act of violent defense against the oppressor state:  he kills an Ish Mitzri, an Egyptian man identified by commentators as a vicious slave driver, who is mercilessly beating a Hebrew slave.

At this point, we might assume that Moses’ loyalties have moved entirely inward toward an exclusive commitment to ameliorating Israelite suffering.  Who would blame him if they had, considering our ancestors’ miseries at Pharaoh’s hands? Yet the Bible then offers us an interesting clue as to the breadth of Moses’ concerns about fighting oppression, whether against his own people or any people. Recall that Moses becomes a fugitive after realizing that his crime against the state has become public knowledge. Finding himself in Midian, he defends Reuel’s daughters from rival shepherds, then assists the women in watering their flocks.  When their father, a prominent local priest, asks them why they’ve returned home so quickly, they respond:

Ish Mitzri hitzilanu mi-yad ha-ro-im.

“An Egyptian man delivered us from the shepherds.”  (Exodus 2:19)

Once again, this phrase Ish Mitzri, “an Egyptian man,” is used by the Bible, only now it is a description of Moses the savior of the oppressed, not of the oppressive task master whom he killed.  The simplest explanation for this second use of the phrase is that Moses the runaway fugitive is still dressed as an Egyptian, so the women identify him as one.  Yet perhaps a more nuanced explanation is that the Bible has Moses play two different but overlapping roles: the Israelite savior of his own people and, as it were, a non-Israelite savior of any and all oppressed people.

The 19th century Bible commentator, Malbim, (Meir Leibush Weisser, Russia, 1800-1879) addresses this dual role.  Commenting on the women’s account to their father of how Moses the Egyptian saved them and helped them water the flocks, he writes:

The women praised Moses for three things. 

First, he was an Egyptian, a newcomer whose intervention in their behalf would have been entirely unmotivated by their status as the daughters of a powerful local leader.

Second, despite being from another ethnic group, he rose up in their defense.

Finally, besides saving them, he helped them water the sheep out of pure love and kindness.

All of these things that Moses did indicate his greatness.  Besides defending his own people, he stood up for all oppressed people, Jewish or non-Jewish.

(Malbim on Exodus 2:19)

Moses belongs to us the Jews, because he saw our suffering as his suffering and did something about it when God called him to his mission.  He refused to deny his Jewish identity and solidarity.

Yet Moses also belongs to all people who suffer persecution as well, because he saw all people’s suffering as his suffering and did something about it.  He refused to deny his human identity and solidarity.

The forced, polarizing choice between Jewish concerns and general concerns, Jewish activism and general activism presents a false and dangerous dichotomy.  Certainly, there are times when we Jews need to care for ourselves first, because no one else will take care of us. Like Moses our savior, we just have to help ourselves. Yet there are other times when we Jews need to take care of others first precisely because we are Jews, and like Moses our teacher, we just have to help our fellow human beings who are in trouble.  Moses, the man and the symbol, belongs to us and to all people who suffer and struggle against evil.  That is his legacy.  That is our honor.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.
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