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This Month in Moses: How the Superhero of the Bible Became an American Pop Icon

09/22/2010 07:43 pm 19:43:15 | Updated May 25, 2011

He may not have been faster than a speeding bullet. He wasn't more powerful than a locomotive. But he did split the Red Sea!

And in America, he became an inspiration for the country's leading superhero and the star of the Hollywood's fifth-highest-grossing movie.

This month proved pivotal to the influence of Moses on American pop culture. (For an overview of how the story of Moses shaped American politics, from George Washington to Barack Obama, read the first entry in this series here.) Moses helped shape many of the defining symbols of America. The Liberty Bell has a quotation from Moses on its side, even the Statue of Liberty was cast in his image. Sculptor Frederic Bartholdi modeled the statue on a Roman goddess, but he imported two icons from Moses: 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 Edgar Rice Burroughs. But its backstory is 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 a 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, "one who strives with God." Superman's original name 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 Superman saves Lois from a firing squad. In Superman #2, Clark visits faux Germany again and meets Adolphus Runyan, a scientist clearly modeled on Adolph Hitler. (By the time the television show debuted this month in 1951, these themes were downplayed.)

Americans may or may not have noticed Superman's Jewish identity, but Hitler sure did. In 1940, Hitler's chief propagandist, Josef Goebbels, denounced Superman as a Jew and called Jerry Siegel "an intellectually and physically circumcised chap."

After the war, it was Cecil B. DeMille who turned Moses into a full-throated symbol of the American century. Released 54 years ago next week, The Ten Commandments became the fifth-highest-grossing movie of all time. And it was designed to reflect DeMille's anti-Communist views. When the movie opened, DeMille appeared on the screen. "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," he said. "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.

Politics even entered the ten plagues. DeMille showed three plagues. For turning the Nile into blood, he used a garden hose with dyed water. For the hail, he used popcorn. The tenth plague was often portrayed as an angel with a bloody knife, but DeMille thought the image wasn't scary enough. He used a green fog that swooped down out of the sky in the shape of a claw to simulate nuclear fog.

But DeMille's most political act was having Parmount pay for 4,000 replicas of the Ten Commandments 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 Ten Commandments if they were used for secular purposes. A publicity stunt for Paramount became the basis of landmark U.S. law.

In the final scene, Moses blesses his successor, Joshua, then proceeds toward the summit of Mount Nebo. He turns and quotes the words on the Liberty Bell, even though they come from Leviticus, not the end of Deuteronomy.

Moses then continues to the top of mountain, where he turns 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.

This entry is part of a series, "This Month in Moses," chronicling the 400-year relationship between the United States and "America's Prophet." For more information, and to read the entire series, visit www.brucefeiler.com, or sign up at twitter.com/brucefeiler.