Moses, Man of the Mountain
(1939), a novel by Zora Neale Hurston, retells the biblical story of Moses from an African American point of view, drawing parallels between the slaves of Egypt and black slaves in the United States; it also contains references to Hitler’s rise to power, criticizing fascist ideology. Huston bases the powerful figure of Moses on her father, John Hurston who was an important civil rights campaigner during Reconstruction. Unlike her father, Moses does not take advantage of his position, and so he is the ideal version of the leader figure.
The Moses of the novel is born to a Hebrew woman who places him in a basket by the river in order to hide him from Egyptian soldiers who have been ordered to kill all male Hebrew children. Moses is rescued by the daughter of the pharaoh and raised in the royal household with no idea of his true parentage. As he grows to adulthood, Moses becomes a respected military leader and is expected to succeed the pharaoh.
Moses begins to lobby for a more humane treatment of the Egyptian slaves, and when he witnesses an Egyptian soldier brutally beating a Hebrew worker, he kills the guard. A rumor that Moses is actually a Hebrew begins to circulate among the workers, and Moses chooses to go into exile in Midian on the opposite side of the Red Sea.
In Midian, Moses meets Jethro, a monotheistic priest. Jethro is also a powerful magician, and Moses becomes his apprentice, learning magic from Jethro and ultimately marrying his daughter Zipporah. Moses completes his studies under Jethro and then travels to Koptos where he fights and slays a dragon. The dragon guards the Book of Thoth, and after killing the dragon, Moses reads from the book and learns even greater truths about the divine and about his own past.
Moses decides to return to Egypt to demand the release of the Hebrews, from whom he now knows he is descended. The Hebrews are slow to accept him, and there are many scenes in which the Chosen People bicker and argue about their destiny and whether or not they should convert to Jethro’s religion as Moses urges them to. Two prominent Hebrews are the brother and sister Aaron and Miriam, the pair who are responsible for originally starting the rumor that Moses is a Hebrew. Only Joshua is a true believer and completely devoted to Moses.
Though Moses is a talented politician and devoted to resisting the pharaoh, the middle section of the book in which he must convince the Hebrews to want their freedom is the longest in the book. Hurston models the common speech of the Hebrew people after African American dialect, recreating the speech and language of small-town black people. Moses adopts this language from time to time, but he also harnesses the profound language of the Bible, nodding to his position as a member of two different cultures.
When pharaoh refuses to bow to Moses’s demands to set the Hebrews free, Moses begins to unleash the Biblical plagues. These are depicted in Hurston’s story as acts of magic that he learned from Jethro and the Book of Thoth rather than as divine intervention. Moses knows that even his great power will cease to be intimidating if he tips his hand, and so he is careful to not unleash the plagues too quickly or to warn the Egyptians ahead of time what he will do. Finally, after the final plague, which kills the firstborn children of all the Egyptian families, Moses and the Hebrews are given leave to flee Egypt.
Moses parts the Red Sea so the Hebrews can cross. During the crossing, the pharaoh abruptly changes his mind and sends his army to pursue the Hebrews. However, Moses allows the sea to sweep back into place, destroying the army.
Having promised the Hebrews a homeland of their own, Moses and his people set out to cross the desert to find it. However, the Hebrews must first wander in the wilderness, facing trials until they are fit to create a state and to govern themselves. Aaron and Miriam, who consider themselves Moses’s equal in terms of the power they wield, eventually challenge him, building a golden idol and attempting to usurp power. Moses destroys the idol and sways the Hebrews back to his side with the display of power.
The group continues to wander in the desert. By the time they reach the River Jordan, on the other side of which is their promised homeland, almost all of the original Hebrews who left Egypt are dead. The newer generation has been born free and is ready to found a state. When he recognizes this, Moses knows that his work as a leader is done. He dies before he can enter Israel.