Zora 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.