If the Founding Fathers Really Read Moses

Last Fall, the Texas State Board of Education decided that Moses should be given pride of place in history textbooks as a substantial influence on the Constitution of the United States. Recently, discussion of this amusing incident has resurfaced on Facebook. This development is particularly entertaining in light of the fact that most historians who are not bound to a conservative religious tradition doubt that a historical Moses ever existed; if he did, they are quite certain he did not write the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (which are traditionally attributed to him and are called the Pentateuch or Torah). However, if you have actually read the Pentateuch, and payed attention to what you were reading, you know that the authors of the US Constitution would never read such a thing. If they had taken it to heart, it would have tempered the inhumanity that seems to have guided their collective pen. Yes, it was good that they didn't include anything about female rape victims having to marry their rapists if those rapists payed off the victims' fathers, but there are plenty of ideas in the Torah that would have made the foundation of US law less (rather than more) barbaric.

Mandatory Provision for the Poor and Vulnerable

If you have read Leviticus, Deuteronomy, or even Ruth, you know that the Mosaic law made special provision for those who were in need. Owners of fields were forbidden from harvesting the margins of the fields, and harvesting other agricultural produce to the fullest possible extent, expressly so that the poor and needy could glean what remained and have a means of livelihood. (Lev 19:9–10, Deu 24:19-22). There was even a requirement that land be allowed to lie fallow every seventh year and that the produce that came of its own accord be reserved for the poor (Ex 23:10–11). Deuteronomy also prescribes that a tax, the tithe or tenth part, be stored every third year for the support of the Levites (members of a priestly class with no distinct “land of inheritance”), resident aliens, orphans, and widows. If the Founders were actually influenced by the writings attributed to Moses, one might expect them to have granted the government powers of redistributive taxation. Ask any conservative and you will learn that they definitely did not do this.

Bans against Mistreating Employees

Laborers who work for wages are also protected by the Mosaic law. Among other things, there is an explicit prohibition against withholding wages from them (Deu 24:14). Fortunately, the passages relating to this topic do not go into any detail regarding what kind of payment is an acceptable wage. Otherwise, destructive minimum wage laws would be right there in the Law of Moses.

Legal Protections for Resident Aliens

One of the most frequent commandments repeated in the Torah is the legal requirement that resident aliens (rendered as “strangers” in some older Bible translations) be treated with justice and kindness. Often, this is paired with the reminder that the children of Israel were aliens in the land of Egypt (Ex 22:21, Ex 23:9, Num 15:15, Deu 1:16, Deu 24:17). Particularly interesting is the degree to which these laws establish a legal equality between residents and aliens. I am certain, however, that Moses would have made an exception for immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

Ban against Usury

One of the laws in the Torah that gentiles have actually attempted to live from time to time is the ban against usury. In Exodus and Leviticus, this prohibition seems to be general (Ex 22:25, Lev 25:35–36). However, in Deuteronomy, it is restricted to loans from an Israelite to an Israelite (Deu 23:19). I do not mean to suggest that a modern economy could function without finance and loans at interest, but I am pretty sure that usurious payday lenders are economically unnecessary. If the Founders were really influenced by Moses, we might have a stronger legal basis for relegating them to the barbarous past.

Periodic Debt Forgiveness

Not only does the Torah contain restrictions against charging interest, it also grants periodic debt forgiveness—every seventh year (Deu 15:1). Of course, it is somehow essential to our current economic system that citizens hobbled by student loan debt never be granted relief (even by bankruptcy) so it is probably for the best that the Founding Fathers never bothered to read Deuteronomy.

Limits on Accumulation of Instruments of War by Political Leaders

Finally, the Mosaic Law places restrictions on the military prerogatives of the king. Specifically, it limits accumulations of armaments. To understand this proscription, it is necessary to understand that horses were important in Biblical times primarily as tools of war. Rather than being ridden directly, horses were used to pull chariots and this combination was primarily used in battle (though it was occasionally used in hunting and sporting as well). Deuteronomy forbids Israelite Kings from accumulating many horses, particularly from Egypt (which was known for having quality horses in quantity) This law is explained in Deu 17:15–16. One function of this law may have been to discourage contact with Egypt. However, another function seems to have been to discourage a reliance, on the part of Israelite kings and their subjects, on arms. Israel was to let its God, Yahweh, fight its battles. It would have been interesting, indeed, if the authors of our Constitution had written into its text legal limits that would prevent the explosion of a military-industrial complex like the one that currently undermines our security. However, since they were clearly uninterested in what the Mosaic Law had to say, it is unsurprising that this—rather radical—idea was never considered for inclusion in the US Constitution.

If the Founding Fathers ignored so many of the important ideas in the five books traditionally attributed to Moses, it seems unlikely that they were particularly influenced by him, which (to be perfectly frank) is a loss for America and the world. I cannot really say on what basis the Texas Board of Education arrived at a contrary opinion, but I suspect it has something to do with a compulsive desire to litter the nation's courtrooms with poorly designed Ten Commandments monuments. When their ilk comes for my state, I'll be ready for them.

David R. Mortensen

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

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