(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain is a novel about greatness, taking as one of its main themes the sacrifices that are required for a people to become great. The novel, despite some excellent passages, falls short of this goal. The conceptual problems Hurston had in putting this work together are summarized in the character of Moses himself. On one hand, she sees him as a hereditary Egyptian, and thus as an African. On the other hand, within the metaphor with which she begins and which allows the Hebrews to talk like African Americans, the Egyptians represent white plantation owners. Thus, Moses’s speech becomes an inconsistent mixture of black dialect and grand biblical rhetoric.

He is, at any rate, a very interesting character. Though there is a story in this novel that Moses is Hebrew, it is not given any credence by Moses himself. This Moses grows up the grandson of a pharaoh and becomes a military leader before he starts to plead for more humane treatment for the Hebrews. When he kills an Egyptian guard for senselessly beating a Hebrew worker, rumors about his birthright start to spread, and he chooses to exile himself to Midian, across the Red Sea.

In Midian, he becomes a student of Jethro, a monotheist priest who teaches Moses magic for twenty years, and whose daughter Zipporah he weds. After learning all he can from Jethro, he travels to Koptos, where he battles and defeats a deathless serpent to consult the Book of Thoth, which teaches him even greater secrets. Afterward, he is ready to return to Egypt to teach the Hebrews Jethro’s religion and demand their release from Pharaoh.

As the leader he becomes in Egypt, Moses is a shrewd politician who is careful not to intimidate Pharaoh too quickly with his series of plagues. He needs the stage that his confrontation with Pharaoh provides in order to establish his credibility with the Hebrews. When he finally does win the Hebrews’ freedom, his job as lawmaker has barely begun, as has his task of making the freed slaves understand how perilous a thing...

(The entire section is 841 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel’s central action is based on the Old Testament tale of Moses leading the enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. In order to trace Moses’ development as a leader, Hurston begins her version with his childhood. As a boy, Moses is first influenced by Mentu, the Pharaoh’s Hebrew stableman, who teaches him about nature and the languages of animals. Moses next turns to the Egyptian priests for instruction in the magic and voodoo used “to distract the minds of unthinking people from their real troubles.”

Although Moses is not interested in acquiring power and prestige, as the son of the Pharoah’s daughter he poses a threat to the position of Ta-Phar, the Pharoah’s son and heir. He defeats Ta-Phar in ceremonial war games and consequently becomes a favorite of the Pharaoh. He is called on to lead the army, and as a result of his skill, Egyptian rule extends over the Middle East. As a result, Egypt gains glory, and for political reasons Moses gains an Ethiopian princess for his wife.

Soon palace intrigue and the rumors spread by Ta-Phar threaten Moses. Ta-Phar capitalizes on Moses’ well-known sympathy for the oppressed Hebrews, claiming that Moses himself is a Hebrew. In addition, Ta-Phar encourages the acceptance of a Hebrew legend that Moses, as a baby, was discovered in the bullrushes by the Pharaoh’s daughter and adopted by her. The legend arose out of the Hebrews’ reaction to the Pharaoh’s policy of slaying all Hebrew male babies. In order to provide their son with a chance for a future, Amram and Jochebed placed their three-month-old boy in a basket on the Nile. Then they charged their daughter Miriam to watch and report what happened. Miriam fell asleep, however, and, afraid to tell her parents the truth, she claimed that the Pharaoh’s daughter found him. The tale quickly gained acceptance because the Hebrews were pleased with the irony that one of them was in the palace, accepted by the Pharaoh as a family member.

Though the legend is false, Moses chooses exile instead of...

(The entire section is 846 words.)