Lines 1–2: The opening lines tell Moses, leader of the Jews who were held as slaves by the Egyptians, to go deep into Egypt, the land of the oppressors. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, God chooses Moses to lead his people out of slavery. In this song, Egypt may stand for the “slave states” in the American South. This assumption is reinforced by use of the word “down” since slave-holding states were referred to as being “down south.” In this interpretation, Moses would be thought of as an abolitionist, one who helps slaves escape from the South, or as a political leader who fights for the abolition of slavery altogether.
Lines 3–4: The lyrics instruct Moses to speak to the Egyptian Pharaoh, demanding freedom for the Jews. In Exodus God commanded Moses to say “Let my people go” to the Pharaoh. God also told Moses to warn the Pharaoh ten times of ten different plagues that were sent by God to force the Egyptians to grant the Jews freedom. Because the Pharaoh failed to release the Jews from slavery after each plague except the last, Moses had to return to him repeatedly with the message, “Let my people go.” In this first stanza, the assonance of long o and the o sounds ow and oo that occur in the words “go,” “Moses,” “ole,” “Pharaoh,” “down,” and “to” creates a sustained melodic effect.
Lines 5–8: Lines five and seven elaborate on the story of Moses by describing the condition of the Jews. “Israel” refers to the Jews who are destined to live in the promised land of Israel, but are instead being kept as slaves by the Egyptian Pharaoh. They are oppressed, that is, burdened, to such an extent that they cannot stand, a condition that implies more than literally being on the point of collapse; it may also refer to the inability to stand up for...
(The entire section is 754 words.)
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