Being a devout and practicing Catholic, the analogy of Harriet Tubman being the American slaves’ equivalent of Moses was not only interesting to me, but it was apparent that this analogous relationship did not end with these two inspiring individuals. The existence of slavery in both Egypt during the times of Moses and industrial America leads to several interesting connections between people, events, and attitudes that encompass these periods in history. In this blog post I am attempting to name and explain several significant similarities between our class experience and learning of the Civil War and my knowledge and belief in the story of Moses and his people.
“And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt… for I know their sorrows; And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land… a land flowing with milk and honey…” (Exodus 3:7-10)
Moses’s and Tubman’s Early Lives: In the Bible, Moses is infamously born to an Israelite in a time when their enslavement to the Pharaoh calls for the throwing of baby boys into the Nile. However, Moses’s mother refuses for her child to have this fate, and instead trusts God to keep her baby safe as she sends him floating down the river to be raised by none other than the daughter of the Pharaoh (Exodus 2).
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery, and although she did not suffer the same deadly fate as an infant, her life was bound to be one of difficulty and struggles. The death of countless Israeli children is nearly comparable to the separation of families in the United States due to the slave trade. Similar to Moses’s mother being aware of the life her baby should live, Harriet Tubman’s mother took measures to ensure her family was not separated to a crippling degree, even though her masters had already sold 3 of her other daughters (“Harriet Tubman Biography”). These strong maternal figures show the origin of the strength of these noteworthy individuals, and I think the importance of the unsung heroes such as these mothers is rarely proclaimed to the extent it should be.
Moses’ Flight to Midian, Tubman’s Flight to Pennsylvania: After Moses is grown and realizes his Israeli lineage, he murders an Egyptian he sees abusing a slave and is exiled from Egypt. Alone and without much of a chance of survival, he stumbles upon a family in Midian where he is treated well, marries, and has a son. He names this son Gershom, which translates to “a foreign person.” He did this to remember that he was not at home but instead a stranger in a land where they treated him well (Exodus 2). This recognition perhaps was reason for God to trust in Moses’s dedication to his people.
Harriet Tubman fled to Pennsylvania at the age of about 30, and similarly to Moses was without family after her brothers turned and went back to Maryland. She herself was aided by the Underground Railroad to freedom, but she never forgot the people and difficulties she left behind. Similar to Moses, this remembrance perhaps foreshadows her future sacrifice for her family and later a few hundred other weary souls escaping slavery. Soon after her flight to Pennsylvania she joined the Underground Railroad in the hopes she would be to others what they were to her in her time of need (McNamara).
Moses’s gift of Aaron and Tubman’s gifts of fellow abolitionists: When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, he had a mission for him to go back to Egypt and free his people who were enslaved there. This vision was demanding, and Moses was not sure he could be so bold due to his timidity and his being “slow of speech and tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Although he is first admonished for his doubts, God promises Moses he will grant him a partner, his brother Aaron, to be a spokesman of sorts for Moses as he performs the tasks assigned him (Exodus 4:14-17). Aaron proves to be very effective, and he and Moses are linked throughout the process of freeing the slaves from Egypt.
While Moses had Aaron to help him do God’s will, Harriet Tubman had other friends that were related to the cause of abolition and freedom in the United States. These individuals included notable men such as Frederick Douglass. Douglass was an admirer of Tubman, and they were both born in similar parts of Maryland. He himself was a famous writer and no doubt an impressively literate and intelligent man, however Harriet Tubman could neither read nor write. Nevertheless Douglass was strongly impressed by her efforts to support the cause they both were intensely passionate about. He wrote in a letter, “Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you” (Carroll) (ancestry.com).
The 10 plagues of Egypt and Pre-Civil War stands against slavery: Some of the most shocking and notable events in the book of Exodus or perhaps the Bible itself are the 10 plagues God sets against Egypt in response to the Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites go free. Despite the first 9 being horrid, including turning water to blood, swarms of flies, and locusts, the Pharaoh did not yield to Moses’s warnings (Gill). Finally, with the Passover, or the killing of all first born sons, the Israelites were desperately released and begged to leave Egypt (Exodus 7-10).
Although Harriet Tubman did not have the direct connection to God that Moses did in the Bible, and could not call upon horrors to come to the South to help release the slaves, there are several events that made for great warning signs to slaveholders that it was not going to be acceptable for much longer to treat these humans as property. Three of these main events were Nat Turner’s rebellion, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and the international publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. They are most notable, in my opinion, not only because they showed a strong abolitionist call to action, but they made more of the general public aware and opinionated on slavery, which undeniably is the main long-term cause of the Civil War. Nat Turner felt divine influence as he led a short but bloody rebellion with several other slaves, and really caused a panic in the hearts of many Southerners, perhaps foreshadowing the horrible war with the most American casualties (Larson). Much to the same effect, Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was a popular event that both stirred abolitionist thoughts in many Northerners and ended up making John Brown a martyr for the cause of eradicating American slavery (“The raid on Harper’s Ferry”). Finally Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed the attitude towards slavery from indifferent to sympathetic, and even Abraham Lincoln greeted Beecher Stowe with, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war” (“Impact”). This novel changed a lot of popular opinion on slavery, and is one of the most influential American books of all time. These events and the plagues made the plight against slavery a public one, affecting all people and changing many hearts.
The Passover and the American Civil War: Like mentioned above, the Israelites were not freed until the Passover of the angel of death which claimed all of Egypt’s firstborn sons except for those of the Israelite slaves. After this great but terrible sign of His power, God made a point of asking this event to be commemorated every year, which Judaism faithfully practices. Although this measure is extreme and violent, God felt a commitment to the people he claimed as his own years before with Abraham and was willing to do this terrible deed to ensure their freedom (Exodus 11-12).
Besides the obvious bloody parallel that can be drawn here between the young Jews who died on the first Passover and the 600,000 men who lost their lives fighting in the Civil War, there is a more sentimental connection I feel between these two events. Not only did they lead to the end of the enslavement of a tortured people, but the memory of these events is preserved even today, as one of deadly but necessary violence. More importantly, I think the aftermath of these two events is notable in that neither the Israelites nor African Americans lived easy lives after their freedom. The entire Old Testament and modern history of the United States can attest to the struggle of these oppressed people. The violent freeing of slaves in the United States and Egypt, although thousands of years apart, can be drawn together by at least two things: the loss of many lives to ensure a historical change, and the continued struggle of these former slaves (“Consequences of the War”).
Although the exodus of the slaves from the South was the culmination of political argument, public difference of opinion, and severe violence and war, the movement against slavery would not have been as effective or noteworthy without noble individuals such as Harriet Tubman. To be named the Moses of your people, the one who led so many to freedom is an honor, and Ms. Tubman undoubtedly deserves this title. Connecting an infamous biblical story with a historical movement for freedom was extremely interesting to me, and these parallels came more easily than I would have thought. The struggle of these two groups of slaves, although slightly alleviated by emancipation, were not completely eradicated or even significantly lessened by this change. The words of Harriet Tubman have been brought to an even more meaningful status for me after learning about Gershom and having applied them to this analogy and the many hardships endured for these people before, during, and after their freeing:
“I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land” (Brainy Quote).
Link to image of Harriet Tubman intended for post: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harriet_Tubman_1895.jpg
Link to image of Moses intended for post: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:VictoryOLord.JPG