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Literature / Moses, Man of the Mountain

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Moses, Man of the Mountain is a 1939 novel by Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God. It's the story of the life of Moses from the Pentateuch, but a somewhat different Moses from what most people know. This is the Moses of African folklore: a wizard, a voodoo man, a man of Nature.

Suten-Rech Moses, son of Pharaoh Rameses I's daughter, is bright, compassionate, and a decorated war hero by the age of twenty-five. However, he is disturbed by the plight of the enslaved Hebrews, which no one else in the palace seems concerned about. One day he is forced to take matters into his own hands and kills an abusive Egyptian overseer. In an attempt to give the Hebrews some degree of self-government he appoints a Hebrew in his place, which the other Hebrews are none to happy about. Bitter and disillusioned by this ingratitude, Moses flees Egypt.

In the land of Midian he meets a man named Jethro, a local chief with mysterious powers who claims to have found the one true God, who lives on nearby Mount Sinai. Moses settles down in Midian, becoming Jethro's apprentice in magic and marrying his oldest daughter. After many years he goes up to meet the god on Mount Sinai, who tells him to go back to Egypt and bring the Hebrews out of slavery. Moses is reluctant, but agrees.

Moses returns to Egypt and confronts the current pharaoh, his uncle Ta-Phar. Ta-Phar refuses to free the Hebrews, but Moses is able to wear him down with disastrous plagues. Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt and gives them a new God and new laws, but as they approach the Promised Land he discovers that in their hearts they are still slaves. He therefore keeps them in the wilderness for forty years, teaching what it truly means to be free, and what they must do if they want to remain a free people.

Highly allegorical, the story deals with themes of oppression, its effects on a people's psyche, freedom, and the cost of freedom.

Moses, Man of the Mountain contains the following tropes:

  • Adaptation Name Change: For some unfathomable reason Seti I, Ramses I's son and successor, is renamed Ta-Phar.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Several of the "miracles" Moses performs in the wilderness are based on things he learned on his first trip to Midian. Under Jethro's tutelage Moses becomes particularly skilled at summoning plagues of vermin, which he once does to drive off an annoying relative of Jethro's.
  • Complaining About Rescues They Don't Like: The Hebrews are pretty ungrateful about Moses freeing them from slavery, and at several points they demand to be returned to Egypt.
  • Demythification: Some elements, such as Moses parting the Red Sea and striking water from a stone, are shown as demonstrations of practical natural knowledge.
  • Driven by Envy: Ta-Phar, Moses's uncle, plots against Moses because Moses took his place as commander of Egypt's armies.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The oppression of the Hebrews is written to be very reminiscent of African-Americans under Jim Crow.
    • Given the 1939 publication date, it's also quite reminiscent of Nazi Germany. The double comparison is almost certainly intentional (and draws some convincing and unflattering parallels between Nazi Germany and the US).
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The Hebrews expect God to hand them the Promised Land on a silver platter. Moses then must spend forty years in the desert teaching a new generation that to have a country you must be willing to fight for it, with much suffering along the way.
  • Evil Uncle: Even before he leaves Egypt, Ta-Phar plots against Moses due to being overshadowed by his military genius.
  • Gainax Ending: The last few pages of the book are Moses talking to a lizard.
  • God-Emperor: Naturally, for a story featuring ancient Egypt. Moses himself is eventually seen as one by the Hebrews, much to his chagrin.
  • Great Big Book of Everything: The book of Koptos teaches Moses how to command pretty much everything in nature, from the heavens to the abyss.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Miriam is so jealous of Moses's wife Zipporah she organizes a mob of Hebrew women to get Moses to drive her out, and is smote with leprosy for her troubles.
  • Inter Generational Friendship: Moses's two closest friends are Jethro, his father-in-law, who is at least twenty years his senior, and Joshua, who is forty-odd years his junior.
  • I Will Fight No More Forever: After killing the overseer Moses vows to never resort to violence again. He does help Jethro fight off bandits soon after, but while liberating the Hebrews he prefers to stick to his magic rather than get involved directly in combat.
  • Just a Kid: The Hebrew elders are not pleased with taking orders from the teenage Joshua.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Moses knows that the Hebrews won't appreciate his help, but he's going to make them a free people and bring them to the Promised Land, whether they like it or not.
  • Malicious Slander: When Ta-Phar hears of Miriam's story that Moses is her brother (and therefore a Hebrew) he spreads the rumor through the Egyptian court, which leads to Moses's eventual exile.
  • Metaphorgotten: The Hebrews are an allegory for African-Americans, down to Hebrew characters speaking in black dialect, which makes Miriam's racism towards Zipporah, who explicitly is black, somewhat strange to read.
  • Methuselah Syndrome: Mild version of this, in agreement with the Biblical account. If you pay attention to the numbers, Moses was in his nineties and Aaron over a hundred at their respective deaths. Moses's death is entirely because he chose to die at that time, and he estimates that he could have lived another ten or twenty years if he felt like it. Aaron was killed on Mount Sinai by Moses, and again there was an implication that he still had a good many years left in him.
  • Putting on the Reich: The Egyptians have shades of this, with vaguely German-sounding titles and nationalist/racial supremacist rhetoric.
  • Resigned to the Call: Moses had given up on the Hebrews after first leaving Egypt, and would rather spend his life tending to Jethro's flocks. He stands in strong contrast with Aaron and Miriam, who crave power.
  • Screaming Birth: Jochebed, Moses's mother (maybe) wants to scream, but her husband Amram must stop her, lest the secret police hear.
  • Secret Police: the first chapter mentions that they go around taking away newborn Hebrew boys.
  • Shoot the Dog: Moses is forced to kill Aaron because of Aaron's poisonous influence on the Hebrews.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: One of Moses's powers is the ability to talk to animals, which he demonstrates in the last chapter.
  • Twice-Told Tale: The story would not be near as powerful if the basic plot wasn't one most people are familiar with.
  • Unwanted False Faith / Stop Worshipping Me: Moses is certainly something above normal humans, but he is still just a human. But he doesn't want to be worshiped, both because of his devotion to the true God and because he knows the Hebrews cannot truly be free if they have an earthly god-king.
  • Warrior Prince: Moses is Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian armies before his exile.
  • You Are Not Ready: Jethro prohibits Moses from ascending Mount Sinai until he has taught him everything he knows. After realizing they are too afraid to fight for the Promised Land Moses keeps the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years to allow for a new generation that will be willing to fight.