It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Moses!
Superman was based on him, Charlton Heston played him, and politicians quote him—Moses is as American as apple pie, Bruce Feiler writes in his new book, America’s Prophet.
He may not have been faster than a speeding bullet. He wasn’t more powerful than a locomotive. But he did part the Red Sea! And in America he became the inspiration for the country’s leading superhero, the star of Hollywood’s fifth-highest-grossing movie, and a model for the nation’s preeminent symbol, the Statue of Liberty.
America’s most enduring pop-culture icon may be its least known: Moses.
Americans may or may not have noticed Superman’s Jewish identity, but Hitler sure did. In 1940, Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, denounced Superman as a Jew.
Artists weren’t the first Americans to be influenced by the hero of the Five Books of Moses, the prophet who was born into slavery in ancient Egypt, raised in the pharaoh’s palace, then fled to the desert, where God summoned him in a burning bush to lead his people out of bondage into freedom.
The pilgrims quoted his story on The Mayflower. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams proposed that he be on the seal of the United States in 1776. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were eulogized as his incarnation. Slaves and civil rights marchers chanted his story. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all cited him as inspiration.
But the influence of Moses reached beyond politics into the heart of the American dream. In the 1860s, Americaphiles in France wanted to pay tribute to the American experience of freedom by building a Statue of Liberty. Sculptor Frederic Bartholdi chose a Roman goddess as his model, but he imported two icons from Moses to bring her to life: first, the rays of sun around her head; and second, the tablet in her arms, both of which come from the moment Moses descends Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.
Fifty years later, two bookish Jews in Cleveland, Ohio, channeled their religious anxieties into a cartoon character modeled partly on the superhero of the torah. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster drew on numerous sources for Superman, including Greek mythology, Arthurian legend, and the science fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But many of its principal themes are drawn from the Hebrew Bible, and its backstory was taken almost point by point from Moses.
Just as Moses was floated down the Nile in a basket to escape a people facing annihilation, Superman is floated into space in a spaceship to escape a planet facing extinction. Just as Moses is rescued by the pharaoh’s daughter and raised in an alien environment where he conceals his true identity, Superman is rescued by the Kents and raised in an alien environment where he conceals his true identity. Just as Moses is called to liberate a people from tyranny, Superman is called to liberate humanity from evil.
Even Superman’s name reflects his creators’ biblical knowledge. Moses is the leader of Israel, or Yisra-el in Hebrew, commonly translated as “one who strives with God.” Superman’s original was Kal-El, or Swift God. His father’s name was Jor-El. Superman was clearly drawn as a modern-day god.
And like Moses, Superman was a great defender of Jews. In Superman #1, published in 1939, Clark and Lois Lane travel to a thinly disguised Nazi Germany, where Lois ends up in front of a firing squad, until Superman rescues her. In Superman #2, Clark Kent visits faux Germany again and meets Adolphus Runyan, a scientist clearly modeled on Adolf Hitler, who has discovered a gas so powerful “it is capable of penetrating any type of gas-mask.”
Americans may or may not have noticed Superman’s Jewish identity, but Hitler sure did. In 1940, Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, denounced Superman as a Jew and called Jerry Siegel “an intellectually and physically circumcised chap.” “Woe to the American youth who must live in such a poisoned atmosphere and don’t even notice the poison they swallow daily.” And swallow they did: One in four American soldiers carried a comic book in World War II.
After the war, Cecil B. DeMille turned Moses into a full-throated symbol of the American century. Released on October 5, 1956, at the height of the Cold War, The Ten Commandments became the fifth-highest-grossing movie of all time. And it was designed from the very beginning to reflect DeMille’s anti-Communist views. “When the pharaoh enslaves his people, that’s communism,” Ceci Presley, DeMille’s granddaughter, told me. “When he punishes at will, that’s communism. You don’t have to spell it out.”
But just to be sure, DeMille did spell it out. When the movie opened, a curtain parted and DeMille appeared on the screen. “Ladies and gentlemen, this may seem unusual,” he said. “The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator. The same battle continues throughout the world today.” His message was clear: Moses represented the United States; the pharaoh the Soviet Union. To drive home his point, DeMille cast mostly Americans as the Israelites and mostly Europeans as the Egyptians.
(One exception was Moses’ love interest, Nefretiri. DeMille auditioned Audrey Hepburn for the role, but his never-before-seen private notes reveal that he thought her breasts were too small, so he gave the part to American Anne Baxter. The hero could not cavort with the enemy. The same notes show that DeMille found Heston overbearingly serious. “You believe him,” the director of 70 films wrote. “But he’s not attractive. Find out if he has some humor. Everything I’ve seen him in he’s dour.”)
Politics even entered the 10 plagues. DeMille showed three plagues—turning the Nile into blood, hail, and killing the firstborn sons. For the blood, he stationed his prop master, William Sapp, under a fake river with a garden hose and dyed water. For the hail, he used popcorn. For the infestation of frogs, Sapp actually handmade 100 latex frogs with mechanical feet, and they taped Baxter’s reaction, but her feigned horror was too over the top and DeMille managed to do what the pharaoh couldn’t: stop at least one infestation.
The 10th plague was often portrayed in art as an angel with a bloody knife, but DeMille thought the image wasn’t scary enough. “The most frightening thing in the 1950s was the atom bomb,” film scholar Katherine Orrison explained. “Everybody was told that radiation could permeate every nook and cranny of every house or shelter. You couldn’t see it, you couldn’t smell it, you couldn’t feel it. But it could kill you.” So DeMille came up with the idea of a green fog that swooped down from the sky in the shape of a claw to simulate a nuclear cloud.
But DeMille’s most political act was having Paramount pay for 4,000 replicas of the Ten Commandments to be placed on courthouse lawns across the U.S. One of these monuments, in Austin, Texas, later became the basis for the Supreme Court decision in 2005 that allowed the display of the Ten Commandments if they were used for secular purposes. A publicity stunt for Paramount became the basis of landmark U.S. law.
The most influential film of the 1950s, The Ten Commandments reflected the union of Americans and Moses. In the final scene, Charlton Heston blesses his successor, Joshua, then proceeds toward the summit of Mount Nebo, where he will die, having been prevented from entering the Promised Land after a dispute with God. Heston turns and quotes the words on the Liberty Bell: “Go, proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” These words do not come from this moment in Deuteronomy, but from Leviticus 25, yet DeMille understood their significance in American history.
Moses then continues to the top of mountain, where Heston pivots toward the camera and raises his right arm in a perfect tableau of the Statue of Liberty. In the final shot of his valedictory film, DeMille crowns his paean to the greatest prophet who ever lived by parading him through the medley of American icons to which he had been compared over the years—the Liberty Bell, Lady Liberty—until he becomes the embodiment of America enlightening the world.