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.