mosesZora Neale Hurston is, of course, the gifted daughter of the Harlem Renaissance, author, most famously, of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel which still echoes in the pages of, say, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. So when I got my hands on her Moses, Man of the Mountain, I settled myself in for a treat. It’s certainly a thought-provoking book, and utterly ambitious in scope – melding the Moses of black folklore with the often-cryptic narrative of Genesis, with Neale Hurston’s imagination filling in the details. In my opinion the book sparkles at the beginning, sags a little in the middle (particularly with the rather laborious narrative of the plagues of Egypt, where Neale Hurston seems reluctant to edit), and then picks up again at the end.

What intrigues me most, though, is the deeply ambiguous relationship between Moses and God in the novel. On the one hand Moses unequivocally interacts with God, who has speaking lines – in the burning bush scene, in particular. But Neale Hurston attributes most of the miracles – including the ten plagues, the manna, and the leprosy visited on Miriam, to Moses’ powers – a sort of magic he gains from observing Egyptian priests in the palace as a boy, then from the pursuit of a magical book guarded by a snake in a river as told to him by his old, beloved servant, learned from Jethro while shepherding among the Midianites – all perhaps a reflection of Neale Hurston’s own studies in voodoo in New Orleans and the West Indies. In Neale Hurston’s novel, Moses wins his legitimacy largely through a combination of trickery and real knowledge – sweetening bitter water with a kind of branch he had seen someone sweeten water with before, cunningly entering the tabernacle and frightening the people by falling to the floor when he senses that the mob is on the verge of spilling his blood.In this way he is the archetypal “wise man” or “trickster” of fables or legends, relying on a blend of cunning, political acumen, real spirituality and sleight of hand to win the day.

Aaron and Miriam are also cast in an unflattering light as petty leaders with grandiose ambitions swept along for the ride, manipulated by Moses for their street cred as leaders among the former slaves (Neale Hurston never has Moses find out they are his actual brother and sister, or, for that matter, realizing unequivocally that he is a Hebrew). Her most daring departure from the Biblical story is to have Moses kill Aaron on the mountain after making him strip off his robes, and Moses staging his death and disappearance before the crossing into Jordan, for fear of either Aaron or himself setting a precedent of being a king over Israel.

In a sense, this cunning Moses, using every device he can to keep the people mesmerized, rings true – after all, God spoke directly to him in roughly 40 year intervals, and Moses must have handled the Israelites with his own brand of intelligence and political skill in the interim. And Neale Hurston dramatizes what we are only told only sketchily in Genesis (in that rather obfuscating style Genesis tends to go on in – the terse report with little mention of emotions or motivations) – including Miriam’s punishment. But the conflation of Moses’ powers and God’s makes for a curiously absent God, despite His awesome presence on Sinai at the very heart of the novel. The divine call of Moses seems simultaneously acknowledged and hurriedly buried, a little like Moses’ origin as a Hebrew boy – introduced at the beginning, its motivational force pushing the protagonist to fulfill his terrible mission, and yet opaque to even himself.

It is inevitable that this Moses cuts a deeply ambivalent figure by the end of the book. On the one hand deeply autocratic, and possibly a study of exteme power and is abuse – this is, after all, a man who murders his brother and then tells his people to build a tomb for him and mourn him – who abdicates it all for the sake of “Israel’s greatness”, or its freedom. I know this is just Neale Hurston’s fictionalized version of Moses, but it does bring up interesting questions about how we consider “Biblical giants”, of whom Moses is only one. Other figures who have been treated by Christian and non-Christian writers alike, both researched as historical figures and fictionalized, include David, Solomon (not to mention the various kings of Israel whose miraculous battles historians often like to explain away as propoganda), as well as my personal thorn-in-the-side, Paul. Often our impressions of these figures elevate them into a kind of super-human territory (the sort of intermediate slot between us and Jesus that Catholics used to populate with saints), which I’m convinced is false – they were, after all, as utterly human as any one of us. I strongly suspect this might be the effect of Sunday School stories (replete with fabric cut-out figures on a blue felt board) that made them loom as large as King Arthur or Sun Wukong (sorry if my cultural reference points are different :p). But could we question, for example, whether Moses had more faults than we might think because they’d been glossed over in Genesis, and that they could have been behind the signs of power struggle between him and other leaders in Israel? How much space do we open up for speculation?