Moses’ Journey in American Literature

Metaphors and motives of the Bible transcend the boundaries of worship and impact literature, even if the motive of the story is not religious in nature. Numbers are common in Bible stories, including Moses and the Israelites. The number 40 itself in Bible stories is synonymous with struggle. Jesus fasts for 40 days, Moses spends 40 days on mount Sinai to receive the word of god, and Moses and the freed slaves must spend 40 years in a desert, surviving for generations in a hostile environment. “In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai” (Exodus 19:1). Theirs is a constant struggle, the theme of which can be traced in contemporary literary works. Freedom and struggle are prevalent themes in American literature, and a difficult trial often reveals a character who is in the process of forging their own path, just as Moses became a leader to the Israelites.


Moses Leading the Israelites Out of Egypt, Jozsef Molnar, 1861

  • Huck Finn of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn grapples with the

    Huck Finn

    morals of slavery, and this drives him to help aid Jim. They do not wander the Mississippi for 40 years, but the idea of freedom drives the plot forward. There is a second perspective to Moses’ 40 years in the desert. He and the Israelites must adjust to life in a new land, one that is very harsh and unwelcoming. Huck essentially becomes a Moses figure in this sense, which is ironic because he declares a strong dislike for Moses as he “don’t take no stock in dead people.” Against slavery, Huck becomes a leader in his era.

  • Hester Pyrnne of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter does not enter a new world, but like a desert, her surroundings suddenly become hostile. After the birth of her daughter Pearl, a symbol of the sins she committed, Hester is the bane of a small Puritan town and banished to the outskirts. She has a new environment to adjust to, like the Israelites.
  • Antonia of Willa Cather’s My Antonia and her family have, like the Israelites, a literal migration as they immigrate to Nebraska. It is no desert, but life there is still


    difficult. Like the Israelites, they are relocated and create a new life for themselves to hopefully thrive in the future. It did not take Antonia 40 years to fully adjust to her new environment, but she still experienced a great struggle


sources: Huck FinnMy AntoniaMoses

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