American Immigrant Literature & World / Multicultural Literature: American Immigrant, University of Houston-Clear Lake

What connections between the Jewish Exodus & the Pilgrims' Story? Why do they matter?

These parallels or extended comparisons are often broad and speculative. Only occasionally do the Pilgrims themselves consciously make these parallels. (Later Puritans, like Cotton Mather, make this "typology" more explicit.) Sometimes, as with the comparison of American Indians or Palestinians with Canaanites, readers make the comparison only much later.

The purpose is not to make a perfect fit between scripture and history but to explore how narratives shape national behavior, consciously or unconsciously.

Besides narrative, the main interest for literary studies is how command of language & literacy allows certain groups to "write themselves into history." By not only repeating but building on the Exodus narrative, the Pilgrims maintain continuity with the past, yet the past also evolves into the future. Thus scripture or literature is not the dead past but part of a living continuum. (Contrast fundamentalist religion, which potentially imprisons the present and future in the past.)

Broad parallels between stories / narratives:


Land from which group departs & why

Migrating / Conquering group

"Promised Land"

Displaced People

Ancient Egypt & Holy Land

Egypt, slavery

Ancient Jews



17th-century Massachusetts

England (& Holland), religious differences

Pilgrims, Puritans

North America Native American Indians

20th-Century Palestine / Israel

Mostly Europe after Holocaust

Modern Jews, Israelis

Palestine / Israel; Jerusalem


Slave South / Free North

Southern USA, slavery or continuing oppression

African American fugitives, migrants

Northern United States

Labor competition?

More specific typologies or parallels

The Jews are God’s “chosen people”; Bradford implies the Pilgrims are “special” within "God's Plan"

  • Exodus 11: a difference between Egyptians and Israel

  • Deut 7.6 . . . chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people

  • Bradford 61 providence of God working for their good beyond man’s expectation

  • Bradford 9.2 (66) a special work of God’s providence (death of profane young man)

Bradford identified with Moses

Cotton Mather (3rd-generation New England Puritan, 1663-1728), from Magnalia Christii Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England [1702] writes of Bradford leading the Pilgrims: "The leader of a people in a wilderness had need be a Moses; and if a Moses had not led the people of Plymouth Colony, when this worthy person [Bradford] was their governour, the people had never with so much unanimity and importunity still called him to lead them. . . . "

Bradford as Moses were both lawmakers and writers

  • Civilizations depend on literacy and record-keeping. Political leadership depends on force of arms and command of language. (Religious leaders use scripture to advocate religious traditions.)

  • Moses inscribes the Ten Commandments and other laws (Exodus 20) and is often shown writing (e. g., Numbers 33.2 "Moses wrote their goings out").

  • Bradford as a writer is the primary historian and record-keeper of Plymouth Plantation.

  • Of Plymouth Plantation records the "Mayflower Compact" (ch. 11), often described as a forerunner to the U.S. Constitution. This Compact, the Pilgrims' first constitution or set of laws, is styled as a "covenant" (p. 84 "in presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic")—a term the Bible uses repeatedly for the relationship between Israel and God (e. g., Exodus 2.24, 31.16).

  • Mather comments on Bradford’s knowledge of languages: "9. He was a person for study as well as action; and hence, not withstanding the difficulties through which he had passed in his youth, he attained unto a notable skill in languages." (Bradford was mostly self-taught.)

Ancient Jews cross Red Sea and Jordan River / Pilgrims cross Atlantic Ocean

  • Joshua 24.2 Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood [river] in old time . . . 8. And I brought you into the land of the Amorites, which dwelt on the other side Jordan . . . 11. And ye went over Jordan
  • Bradford 7.2 (49) So being ready to depart, they had a day of solemn humiliation, their pastor taking his text from Ezra viii.21: “And there at the river, by Ahava, I proclaimed a fast, that we might humble ourselves before our God, and seek of him a right way for us, and for our children, and for all our substance."“ [river / sea]
  • Bradford 9.5 (69) Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean
  • Bradford 9.9 (70) the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue.  If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world

Joshua 24.2 Your fathers dwelt on other side of the flood [river] in old times . . . .

  • Bradford 9.11 (71) What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace?  May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord . . . .” [blending of scripture and modern history / language; Bradford, relating Pilgrims' present to biblical past, attempts to write the Pilgrims into future history.]

Ancient Jews and Pilgrims find themselves in “the Wilderness”

  • Moses asks Pharaoh for permission to leave Egypt for the Wilderness.

  • Exodus 5.1 Let my people go > feast in the wilderness

  • Numbers 33.12 wilderness of Sin

  • Bradford 9.11 (70) quotes Psalm cvii.1-5, 8: . . . they wandered in the desert wilderness . . . and found no city to dwell in, both hungry and thirsty . . . "

Discontent, "murmurings," yearning for "the fleshpots of Egypt" (compare stage 5 of immigrant narrative re nostalgia or rediscovery of earlier identity)

  • Exodus 14.12 For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.

  • Exodus 16.2 And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.

  • Exodus 16.3 Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, and when we did eat bread to the full

  • Bradford 11.1 (83) [Mayflower Compact] was "[o]ccasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall . . ."

  • Bradford 11.4 (84) In these hard and difficult beginnings they found some discontents and murmurings arise amongst some, and mutinous speeches and carriages in other; but they were soon quelled and overcome by the wisdom, patience, and just and equal carriage of things, by the Governor and better part, which clave faithfully together in the main.

  • Bradford 14.8 (143) Some wished themselves in England again; others fell a-weeping

Decline of later generations, worshipping of heathen gods, etc. (compare to betrayal of Old World by assimilation)

  • Judges, 2.6 Every man went to inheritance to possess the land

  • Judges 2.10 And there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord

  • Judges 2.12 the children of Israel followed other gods . . . of the people that were round about them

  • Bradford 23.2 (281-283) Also the people of the Plantation began to grow in their outward estates . . . . by which many were much enriched and commodities grew plentiful. And yet in other regards this benefit turned to their hurt, and this accession of strength to their weakness. For now as their stocks increased and the increase vendible, there was no longer any holding them together . . . .  By which means they were scattered all over the Bay quickly and the town in which they lived compactly till now was left very thin and in a short time almost desolate.

And if this had been all, it had been less, though too much, but the church must also be divided. . . .

And this I fear will be the ruin of New England, at least of the churches of God there, and will provoke the Lord's displeasure against them.

Note: Later Puritan generations were sensitive of having "fallen off" or "declined from" the heroic "Pilgrim Fathers" and anticipated God’s punishment. The Salem Witch Trials of the 1690smay be seen as an event in this narrative.

Compare Canaanites and Native American Indians (status as "God's chosen people" carries a heavy price for other peoples)

  • Exodus 15.14 sorrow . . . on the inhabitants of Palestine

  • Exodus 15.15 inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away

  • Exodus 15.26 no Egyptian diseases on Israel

  • Numbers 33.52 drive out all inhabitants [of Canaan] > your families

  • Numbers 33.53 dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and all therein; for I have given you the land to possess it

  • Numbers 33.55 those remain shall be pricks [i.e. thorns, obstructions]

  • Deuteronomy, 7.1-6 no covenant, no marriages [with Canaanites]


  • Bradford 12.5 (97) the late great mortality, which fell in all these parts about three years before the coming of the English, wherein thousands of them died

  • Bradford 19.8 (227) [Morton's people condemned for] inviting the Indian women for their consorts

  • Bradford 19.9 (228) So they [Morton & men] or others now changed the name of their place again and called it Mount Dagon (note: after the God of the Philistines, Judges xvi. 23)


Treat, James, ed.  Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada.  New York: Routledge, 1996.

Warrior, Robert Allen.  "Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians: Deliverance, Conquest, and Liberation Theology Today."  93-100.

95 Most of the liberation theologies that have emerged in the last twenty years are preoccupied with the Exodus story, using it as the fundamental model for liberation. I believe that the story of the Exodus is an inappropriate way for Native Americans to think about liberation.

95 Yahweh the deliverer became Yahweh the conqueror.

            The obvious characters in the story for Native Americans to identify with are the Canaanites, the people who already lived in the promised land.  As a member of the Osage Nation of American Indians who stands in solidarity with other tribal people around the world, I read the Exodus stories with Canaanite eyes.

98 the Canaanites should be at the center of Christian theological reflection and political action.  They are the last remaining ignored voice in the text, except perhaps for the land itself.


Other specific references to the Exodus texts in Bradford:

·        Bradford 3.4 (20) . . . some of their adversaries did, upon the rumor of their removal, cast out slanders against them, as if that state had been weary of them, and had rather driven them out (as the heathen historians did feign of Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt) than that it was their own free choice . . . .

·        Deuteronomy 3.25 [Moses:] I pray thee [Yahweh], let me go over and see the good land that is beyond Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon. . . . .27 [But Yahweh said,] Get thee up into the top of Pisgah . . . and behold it with thine eyes: for thou shalt not go over this Jordan

·        Bradford 9.8 (70) Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Mt Pisgah to view from this wilderness a more goodly country

·        Bradford 10.5 (74) And so, like the men from Eshcol, carried with them of the fruits of the land and showed their brethren . . . .  [note: Numbers XIII. 23-6]

Notes on the Exodus story and African American Experience

Dr. Martin Luther King (1929-1968) sometimes styled himself or was styled as a "Moses of his people," owing to speeches such as the one he delivered at Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis on the eve of his assassination on 4 April 1968, titled "I See the Promised Land":

I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. [But] I wouldn't stop there . . . .

You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh's court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that's the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity. . . .

I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will, and he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. . . .

--from A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (Harper & Row, 1986), pp. 279-286.

At least two other African American leaders have been associated with Moses.

A title for the autobiography of Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), the "conductor of the Underground Railroad" during the Abolition movement, is Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (1869).

A biography by E. D. Cronon and J. H. Franklin of the Jamaican-born leader Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), director of the United Negro Improvement Association of the 1920s and 30s in Harlem, is titled Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey.

Claude Brown, Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) concerns a young man growing up in the Harlem ghetto, the child of migrants from the southern USA.

The implicit themes of the American South as Egypt, the African Americans as slaves like the Hebrews in Egypt, and the North as the Promised Land, may also involve the Ohio River, which separated slave territory from free territory, as the Jordan River.  In chapter 7 of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), the great Abolitionist novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a slave mother escaping with her child to keep him from being sold reaches the Ohio River: "Her first glance was at the river, which lay, like Jordan, between her and the Canaan of liberty on the other side."

Purposes, advantages, or insights of this exercise:

1. A dominant culture often operates with the authority of religion or myth: a transcendent story or narrative authorizes action, character, values.

2. A distinguishing characteristic of “national migration” (e. g., the Jews to Canaan, the English to America, the Mormons to Utah) may be a compelling, over-arching religious story (compared to normal immigrants’ economic story).

3. Studying biblical backgrounds and models for Puritan settlement has no evangelical or political purpose. Instead, this exercise has students read and gain knowledge of foundational texts while practicing a standard form of literary interpretation (typology)—in a hurry!