Exodus and the American Revolution

Creating Lively Passover Seders includes a short reading on the influence of the Exodus story on the ethos of the American Revolution. So powerful was this influence in 1776 that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams suggested that the Great Seal of the United States should include an image of Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea. A different committee subsequently chose another image–a pyramid! You can find it on the one-dollar bill.

Contrasting the two images makes for a fascinating Seder discussion.

John Adams’ 1776 description of the seal: “Pharaoh sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head and a sword in his hand passing through the Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites: rays from a pillar of fire in the cloud, expression of the divine presence… Moses stands on the shore and extending his hand over the sea, causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh. Motto: Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” An image of this seal was not produced until 1856 when it appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in an article by Benson J. Lossing (1813–1891).

View Adams’ Original Description

View the Page from Lossing’s Article Containing This Image

A Tale of Two Images: The Great Seal of the United States of America

The Great Seal of the United States of America

The story of the Exodus from Egypt has inspired hope among Jews for millennia. And for centuries, the saga has echoed thunderously through American history. When the Stamp Act was repealed in 1776, Pastor Charles Chauncey preached: “Nor were the Jews more pleased with the royal provision in their day, which, under God, delivered them from their bondage in Egypt, than were the colonists with the repeal of that act.” A century later, freed slaves bound for Kansas from the South became known as “Exodusters.” When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, ‘Let my people go.’”

But surely one of the most poignant connections between the Exodus story and American history lies in the tale of the two images above.

(Right) After declaring independence on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress charged Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin with recommending a design for the new nation’s seal. For the reverse of the Great Seal, they agreed on a scene from the Exodus–Moses’ arm outstretched over the Red Sea, the Israelites crossing through the parted waters protected by a divine pillar of fire, and Pharaoh’s drowning army. They also chose the motto which Jefferson believed was associated with one of the regicides during the English Civil Wars. Their recommendation was tabled.

(Left) As the Revolutionary War drew to a close in 1782, a new committee endorsed a different image associated with Egypt: the pyramid. The image now appears on the one-dollar bill. According to the artist who designed the seal, the “pyramid signifies strength and duration.” Both Latin inscriptions paraphrase verses by the Roman poet Virgil: Annuit Coeptis, “He (God) has favored our undertakings”; Novus Ordo Seclorum, “A new order of the ages (is born).” The “all-seeing eye” represents the eye of providence.

What are the principal values that underlie these two images?
Which do you prefer and why?
What do you make of the fact that one image uses English, the other Latin?

(Note: Many have suggested that the seal on the left contains Masonic symbols. Indeed, many of the founders of this country were associated with Freemasonry. Even so, the question is why that influence would have found expression in the image from 1782 and not in the earlier proposal.)