For hundreds of years, the Biblical story of Moses has resonated with the African-American community. An abandoned son, born of a downtrodden and despised people, raised among the ruling class, before he is called by God to save his people and to lead them out of the land of slavery to the promised land flowing with milk and honey – there are so many parallels to American slavery that tellings and retellings of the Exodus tale quickly became a staple of African-American sermons. In some quarters, particularly those who practice syncretic religious practices such as voodoo (also called vodun and hoodoo), Moses has been elevated to a status similar to that reserved for Jesus and the Virgin Mary. For some, Moses knew the mind of God and he utilized ten words taught by God to launch the plagues that infested Egypt, not to mention the ability to part the Red Sea and to make water flow from a desert rock.
Zora Neale Hurston, building upon the information she recorded in her 1935 non-fiction book, Mules and Men, utilizes these alternate views of the biblical Moses in Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939). Those who are familiar with the biblical story will know the main events (Moses raised among the Egyptians, his flight to Midian, his return, the plagues, the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf, and the forty years of wandering in the desert), yet Hurston recasts each of these events to fit in with how certain African-American communities, particularly those in the New Orleans area, interpreted Moses and the Exodus. Take for instance the scene at the Burning Bush:
The voice came again.
“Moses, I want you to go down into Egypt.”
“Into Egypt? How come, Lord? Egypt is no place for me to go.”
“I said Egypt, Moses. I heard my people, the Hebrews, when they cried, when they kept on groaning to me to help. I want you to go down and tell that Pharaoh I say to let my people go.”
“He won’t pay me no attention, Lord. I know he won’t.”
“Go ahead, like I told you, Moses. I am tired of hearing the groaning in my ear. I mean to overcome Pharaoh this time. Go on down there and I”ll go with you.” …
The Voice was hushed. The bush no longer burned. In fact, it looked just like it had yesterday and the day before and the day before that. The mountain was just as usual with the wind yelling “Whoo-youuu” against its rocky knots.
This passage alters slightly but in a key way the biblical version, which goes:
But the Lord said, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the country of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. So indeed the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have truly noted that the Egyptians are oppressing them. Come, now! I will send you to Pharoah to lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.
The tone is more plain-spoken, less grandiose. God is not commanding Moses as much as he is saying, “Hey, pal. I need you to do this for me. I’ll help, but you’ll be the face of my divine intervention.” There is also a pleading element to this piece that is not present in the biblical version. Hurston’s Moses is not as much of an abject servant here as he is a junior partner in a story of liberation. This passage is representative of the novel as a whole, as Moses is seen to be more the leader and God the patron that supplies (and occasionally chastises) his client with divine aid. Take for instance the plague of flies:
Next day at the palace Moses told Pharaoh, “The Lord told me to tell you He said, ‘Let my people go.'”
Pharaoh said, “We here in Egypt have known gods for thousands of years. I can’t see why I should pay this new voice you talk about any mind at all. Who is He anyhow?”
“Why should I lose time talking to deaf ears?” Moses retorted. “The question before the house is will you let the Israelites go?”
“Well, it’s mighty bad news for you, because if you don’t, you’re going to be plagued with flies.”
With no more talk than that Moses lifted his rod with his right hand and flies seemed to pour out of the sleeves of his garments. The hum from their wings filled the room. The number of them darkened the rooms and Pharaoh and priests fought to flee the place. But it was no better outside. The city of the Pharaohs was smothered with flies. Moses changed his rod to his left hand and walked on out of the palace. All around him and Aaron was a space free from flies. So they went on back to Goshen and the people heard about it and hoped.
Earlier, Moses had been shown to have an ability to master matter, especially animate beings such as insects and frogs, long before God spoke to him on Mount Sinai. Here, Moses isn’t as much acting as a conduit for God as he is using his own innate powers to perform “hoodoo” in a similar fashion (albeit on a much vaster scale) to how vodun was practiced in New Orleans or Haiti (both places Hurston had conducted anthropological fieldwork a few years prior to writing Moses, Man of the Mountain). Moses as a hoodoo-practicing vodun priest can jar readers whose expectations arise from their familiarity with the biblical account. Yet despite these occasional dissonances between reader expectation and narrative account, Hurston’s Moses (and the other characters, especially Aaron, Miriam, and Joshua) feel vibrant in places.
Yet despite Hurston’s attempt to faithfully reproduce the syncretic religious view of Moses, Moses, Man of the Mountain feels a bit flat and underdeveloped. Although she tries to replicate southern African-American views, there are times where Moses seems to lack that vitality and fire in his belly that is often presented in other African-American literature and religious sermons. There also seems to be a bit of hedging between presenting a full vodun-influenced account of Moses and keeping some of the more traditional Judeo-Christian interpretations of him. Hurston’s Moses straddles the line between a trickster magician and a powerful leader and at times his character feels diminished by her use of idiomatic expression to convey this interpretation of Moses and the Exodus. Despite this, however, Moses, Man of the Mountain is at times fascinating to read because of the sense that what is being read is a metaphor for a very complex set of religious and social beliefs that are alien to those of a different social group and generation. There is the sense that much lies under the surface, waiting to be discovered if only the reader can understand the embedded narrative code. That is what makes Moses, Man of the Mountain, despite its narrative and character flaws, a worthwhile read for those who want to see in novel form how religious beliefs and practices in certain African-American communities differed from surrounding communities.