Egypt’s Last Pharaoh? Exodus and American Democracy

During the last few weeks that we have been reading Exodus, another ongoing revolution is occurring in present-day Egypt.  Egypt’s citizens have taken to the streets and rioted in demonstration against the rule of Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak, who has been referred to by the media as “Egypt’s last Pharaoh.” The protests have accomplished a goal, as Mubarak has stepped down, or “let his people go.”

The Western world has long been angry with the political situation in Egypt.  Mubarak has held office since 1981, and he has upheld office each year with sham elections in which he wins an overwhelming percentage of the vote.

The events in Egypt seem to have little to do with what takes place in the United States. However, what seems to be at stake is the question of democracy, and once again we’ve seen a familiar, and all-too convenient turn toward the rhetoric of deliverance in the biblical account of Exodus.  As it turns out, this innuendo and reference has been ongoing for some time, even before the recent tumult has escalated.  Mubarak has been called “Egypt’s last Pharaoh,” and countless other political pundits have drawn an analogy between what appears to be happening in Egypt (i.e., a frustrated people who will not stand for authoritarian rule any longer) and what many people believe to be the founding narrative of American Democracy and Freedom:  a refusal to be subjected to tyrannical rulers.

In my research essay, I plan to explore the long history of America’s adaptation of the Exodus narrative as a biblical justification of American democracy as a divine right.  In The Jewish Study Bible, introductory essay claims that Exodus has been integral to the American experience.  Early Puritans adapted the text as they spoke about freedom from an ideological oppressor.

Exodus was an ur-text in Cold War America as well.  Our national leaders created a divide between communist and democratic societies, and this tension manifested in one of the 1950s most popular films, The Ten Commandments.  Alan Nadel says of the film:

The Ten Commandments can be read as a product of American Cold War ideology, one that highlights and localizes the foci of America’s political, theological, and economic conflicts.  In the film, the apparatus of wide screen technology resolves these conflicts visually by mediating a series of gazes in an economy that equates God’s perspective with American interests. (416)

I’ll focus on the long debates between Pharaoh and Moses in the opening chapters of Exodus.  One of the questions I hope to explore is why the Exodus narrative has been interpreted as a justification of American democracy.  I can also focus on the recent uprising in Egypt as an interesting example of the American obsession with democracy, which has justified, among other things, the Iraq war.

There are several sources that will help my cause.  A review from the Society of Biblical Literature profiles the use of Exodus in American political rhetoric.  I’m also interested in James Turner Johnson’s The Bible in American Law, Politics, and Political Rhetoric. I’m wondering if the recent turn toward Exodus rhetoric is in fact a justification of American political ideology, and if so, how?

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About Andrew Battista

Andrew Battista is Librarian for Geospatial Information Systems at New York University
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