Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston

It’s best to read this review while listening to Louis Armstrong’s song “Go Down Moses,” which I randomly hummed the whole two weeks Biscuit and I were reading Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston.

Hurston’s rewrite of the religious story of Exodus was not popular when it was published, nor is it widely read today. However, I would argue that Moses, Man of the Mountain is a great place to start if you’re interested in Hurston but feeling hesitant. You get Hurston’s classic voice, full of idioms and humor. You’ll see parallels to folk tales that come out of the African American south that make Hurston’s writing so engaging. But, you’ll do all that without the oftentimes confusing dialect she uses in novels like Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is where most readers start (and finish) with Hurston.

In case you aren’t familiar with the Exodus story (I only knew bits and pieces), let me give you a brief summary of Moses, Man of the Mountain. The pharaoh of Egypt claims that 300 years ago Hebrews came to Egypt to help another (unnamed) group oppress Egyptians. The Egyptians freed themselves, and instead of killing the Hebrews like they should, they kept them on as slaves, who should be grateful. As a method of population control, the pharaoh’s guards start killing all babies born male. When Moses is born, his parents hide his birth and eventually decide to send the baby down river in a basket for a chance to avoid horrible death. The pharaoh’s daughter, whose husband and child recently died, finds the basket, keeps the baby, and raises Moses as her own, not knowing he’s Hebrew.

After becoming a war leader and living a life of luxury as a prince of Egypt, Moses’s heritage is outed by his birth sister, Miriam, when she goes to the palace asking for “her brother.” Fleeing Egypt, Moses ends up in Midian, where he befriends a chief and marries the chief’s daughter. If only Moses could live happily there. God speaks to Moses through a burning bush, telling Moses that he has chosen the Hebrews to become new worshipers. All they need to do is escape Egypt, end up in the promised land, and worship their new God. Sounds easy enough.

You may have heard the story of Moses and Exodus in totality or parts. The pharaoh, the burning bush, ten plagues, parting the Red Sea, wandering for forty years — pop culture has made certain that you’ve at least heard allusions to these stories. Because Moses leading God’s chosen people out of Egypt is so well know, Zora Neale Hurston was able to reconfigure Exodus in her own unique way.

I’m not a person of faith and yet I enjoyed Moses, Man of the Mountain. Hurston’s talent for constructing an enjoyable tale is unparalleled. If you’re like me and avoid Christian fiction because it doesn’t speak to you, you’ll still have a good time with Moses. For instance, when God surprises Moses by speaking through a burning bush, God tells Moses to take off his shoes. Didn’t Moses know he’s on holy ground? But instead of reading like a demand for holy reverence, Hurston’s God reads more like a grandma scolding her grandbaby for being careless and wearing shoes on the floor she just mopped.

More than a simple parable, Hurston’s novel seems to ask readers across time to reflect on the present. As Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, they complain incessantly, saying that slavery was better than whatever Moses talked them into. The Hebrew’s feelings reminded me of Reconstruction-era activist Booker T. Washington’s notion that while slaves in the U.S. were first happy to learn of the Emancipation Proclamation, their second thought was how much they would miss their Master and Missus and weren’t sure they wanted to leave the plantation if the future was unknown (Up From Slavery). Similarly, Moses argues that all newly-freed slaves needed to do was pull themselves up by their bootstraps (another Washington idea behind his entrepreneurial spirit) and quit complaining, saying they did not leave slavery to be happy, but to be free. And freedom isn’t just the leaving part; it’s an action:

“This freedom is a funny thing,” he told them. “It ain’t something permanent like rocks and hills. It’s like manna; you just got to keep on gathering it fresh every day. If you don’t, one day you’re going to find you ain’t got none no more.”

And across the years I’m reminded of the January 6th attack on the United States capitol building. Were we complacent in our freedom, assuming it was there without doing the work of maintaining decency and democracy?

Part of the democratic process is electing leaders rather than figureheads. Moses must reiterate to Miriam, a prophetess Hebrew to whom Hebrews turned in Egypt, and Aaron, who helped Moses speak to the pharaoh, that their actions do not justify titles, riches, and a higher seat. God does not speak to them, and they are not ready to be leaders, for they know not what one is:

The question before the house is, how much are you going to be worth to the people on this journey, not how much the people are going to be worth to you. And leaders have to be people who give things up. They ain’t made out of people who grab things.

Compare Moses’s advice to Ted Cruz leaving his freezing constituents. And Donald Trump’s demand for unquestioning loyalty. And Marcus Garvey turning himself into the “Provisional President of Africa.”

Overall, I really enjoyed my experience reading Moses, Man of the Mountain. I talked to several people, including a rabbi and a minister, about Exodus, gabbed about portrayals in film, like the famous Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston, and reflected a great deal on history and society. Hurston’s novel would make an excellent book club pick, too, for all the conversation it provides. While writing this review, I argued a good deal with myself and can hear the counterarguments already — likely the reason it took my so long to write all this.

21 comments

  1. This is a well-times review for me as I just finished reading Deuteronomy this morning! (It’s the last of the Books of Moses in the Bible and ends with his death.) I think I will have to read this one. Moses is the ultimate in reluctant leaders and is such an odd choice in many ways, being raised outside of his Hebrew family and then marrying a Midianite woman. He seems so unfamiliar with Hebrew tradition that his wife has to do an emergency circumcision of their sons to save Moses from God’s wrath. And then the Israelites spend 40 years complaining in the desert and not listening to God! I’m really curious to read Hurston’s take on it all and the way it addresses slavery and freedom.

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  2. I didn’t know what to expect when I started this review, Americans are so religious compared with the rest of us. But first you sidetracked me into YouTube where I lost half an hour or so, and then you diverted me back into US politics. Hurston seems to have created a very clever metaphor, not that I think we’ll ever stop being complacent every time we win the illusion of freedom.
    I like that you got back to Charlton Heston. The Ten Commandments was the first two movies I ever saw (as it and I moved from one country town to another in 1956 and 7).
    Karissa obviously knows the story better than I do, she had me wincing there along with Moses’s sons.

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    • That Armstrong song will really get struck in your head, that’s for sure. Makes me wonder where else you headed on YouTube after you listened to the song. Religion is really tied up in conservative America, to the point where their slogan is often “Gods, Guns, and Country.” Which is bizarre. New studies are showing that the number of people who identify with a religion in the U.S. is dropping, and whether that is because they feel less afraid of admitting they don’t believe in a deity, or if they are anti-religion, or if they associate religion with the far right and want to disassociate, I don’t know. But Moses definitely reads like a parable and not a moral-driven tale with Christian themes.

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      • I was really impressed with my first Hurston and must get on to Their Eyes Were Watching God asap.
        The music got pretty random after Louis – Suzanne Boyle, Paul Robeson, The Animals, Blondie, obscure versions of popular songs ..

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        • Oooooh, Paul Robeson is lovely. Their Eyes Were Watching God has a LOT of Southern dialect, so I typically recommend people who aren’t familiar with that dialect to get the audiobook, which is masterfully read by the famous Ruby Dee.

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    • Jonah’s Gourd Vine is coming soon on my TBR. I don’t to read all of my Zora back-to-back and run out, but, then again, much like Tupac, Zora’s been coming out with new books since her death.

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  3. Although I tend to give religious fiction a wide berth (it seems incredibly boring to me for some reason) this sounds really entertaining. Is it sort of funny? It seems like it may be funny based on your review but i could be way off…

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    • Whenever Zora Neale Hurston has the pen, you know it’s going to be funny for a lot of the story. It’s stranger, but I’m not even convinced this is Christian fiction? It reads more like a parable, but starts with a story from the Bible (and other texts; Moses wasn’t only in Christianity). Hurston writes a lot of parables that have a Christian background but are designed to teach you something, such as why a snake has a rattle on its tail. In the story, the snake originally didn’t have teeth or a rattle, so the snake went to God and complained that everyone was stepping on him. So God gave the snake teeth to defend itself. The snake started biting everyone, and God was like, “hol’ up.” So then God puts a bell on the snake’s tail to give fair warning to anything that gets too close that doesn’t want to get bitten. Stuff like that. It’s not really Christian in tone, but has God in the story.

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  4. I usually avoid religious fiction like the plague, but Zora is always tempting, and now you’ve added your 2 cents worth, I may actually check this one out one day.

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    • Brona, it reads more like Zora than it does anything religious. If you’ve read her before, you’ve seen the way she takes Biblical stories and turns them into oral storytelling/parables. Moses is a book-length version of that.

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  5. It’s truly impressive how much you’ve gotten out of this book, especially as someone who tends to avoid Christian fiction. It sounds like Hurston does a great job of storytelling here, and refraining from moralizing in the way Christian fiction typically does. That’s a plus in my book, although I’ve had enough of the Bible throughout childhood to be left with absolutely no interest in Moses as a moral or a character or anything else at the moment, unfortunately. I’m also suspecting the humor may not be quite right for me, though I’ve long wanted to try something from Hurston’s list and hope to find something more to my taste. She seems to be such a staple. And even if this title doesn’t particularly interest me, the sheer amount of thought it inspired for you and the comparisons you were able to draw even to relevant current affairs are definitely encouraging, and a compliment to Hurston’s writing. Great review!

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    • I think I mentioned this to you before, but now I’m doubting myself. The story of author Angela Flournoy and how she went through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop? In the writing program the lit professor taught an Old and then New Testament course because so many of the story arcs, motifs, themes, and allusions in contemporary fiction build off of that foundation? I can truly see how those courses would make a writer further appreciate Hurston’s novel. I did’t realize you have a strong background in religion, but I should have guess given what you’ve said about your family and your location. I wonder if you would really like Chavisa Woods’s books. She grew up in a strict Christian family in Illinois, but she was a punk lesbian. Watching her characters, who sound similar to herself, it always amazing. I’ve got another review of her work coming up soon. If I were to recommend a Zora Neale Hurston to you, based on your personality and reading style, I might choose Mules and Men. It’s a collection of folk lore and stories that Zora gathered when she was studying to be an anthropologist. It’s excellent and funny, too.

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      • You have mentioned the Old and New Testament course at Iowa! And I remember seeing the course info for something similar I could have taken as an undergrad but didn’t end up having room in my schedule for it. It does sound like an interesting way to look at the Bible- probably the only sort of way I’d be interested in looking at the Bible at present. My family is less religious now than they were, but my mom was the organist at our local church and my dad was the treasurer so when I say I was dragged to every church function all through my childhood I mean *every* function. I’m not sure I’d say I’m totally atheist now, but getting out into the world and realizing how much evil has been done in the name of Christianity has changed my perspective on it. And I thank you for the recommendations- I really need to read some of Woods’s work, and I hadn’t even heard of Hurston’s Mules and Men so I likely wouldn’t have come across that one on my own. Much appreciated!

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  6. If it were any other author, I’m fairly sure this theme would put me off, but knowing her passion for anthropology and cultural storytelling, I’m all in. We’ve chatted about ZNH before and we both aim to read through all her stuff eventually; this is one I might have let languish until the end of the project but now that you’ve enjoyed it so much I won’t hesitate!

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    • Some readers seem hesitant to read a folk tale from Hurston because it does have that connection to Biblical stories, but I try to remind readers that those same exact stories exist in all kinds of cultures and religions, and so Hurston taking some of what she knows and adding some flavor actually takes away the religious element for me, even if she has a character called “God” in her book. I never feel like I’m reading something religious.

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