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Moses and Multiculturalism

Barbara Johnson (Author), Barbara Rietveld (Foreword)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 126 pages
ISBN: 9780520262546
February 2010
$34.95, £27.00
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Countering impressions of Moses reinforced by Sigmund Freud in his epoch-making Moses and Monotheism, this concise, engaging work begins with the perception that the story of Moses is at once the most nationalist and the most multicultural of all foundation narratives. Weaving together various texts—biblical passages, philosophy, poems, novels, opera, and movies—Barbara Johnson explores how the story of Moses has been appropriated, reimagined, and transmitted across cultures and historical moments. But she finds that already in the Bible, the story of Moses is a multicultural story, the story of someone who functions well in a world to which he, unbeknownst to the casual observer, does not belong. Using the Moses story as a lens through which to view questions at the heart of contemporary literary, philosophical, and ethical debates, Johnson shows how, through a close analysis of this figure's recurrence through time, we might understand something of the paradoxes, if not the impasses of contemporary multiculturalism.

Chapter 1. The Biblical Moses
Chapter 2. Moses and the Law
Chapter 3. Flavius Josephus
Chapter 4. Frances E. W. Harper
Chapter 5. Moses, the Egyptian
Chapter 6. Freud's Moses
Chapter 7. Hurston's Moses
Chapter 8. The German Moses
Chapter 9. Moses, the Movie

Barbara Johnson was Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature and the Frederic Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society at Harvard University. Among her books are Persons and Things, The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading, and The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race, and Gender.
"A strong book."—Gyula Somogyi Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies



Ever since Sigmund Freud published his epoch-making Moses and Monotheism at the height of the Nazi Holocaust, the impression of Moses' mono-ness and his role as founder of the Jewish faith has been reinforced. But this book begins with the perception that the story of Moses is at once the most nationalist and the most multiculturalist of all foundation narratives. This does not simply mean that many different nations and liberation movements have adopted the story as their own, although the outlines of the story do seem to have compelling and enduring narrative shape. John Hope Franklin could thus call his classic study of Afro-American history From Slavery to Freedom (first published in 1947) and set the pitch to which most subsequent histories would be tuned. Jews every year reenact the story of liberation from Egypt at Passover, and Moses as original lawgiver and divine intercessor forms the heart of the Jewish tradition. And when Dante, in one of the basic texts of the European canon, wants to explain allegory in his letter to Con Grande, he uses the story of Moses as a paradigmatic example:

"When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people, Judea was made his sanctuary, Israel his dominion." Now if we look at the letter alone, what is signified to us is the departure of the sons of Israel from Egypt during the time of Moses; if at the allegory, what is signified to us is our redemption through Christ; if at the moral sense, what is signified to us is the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to the state of grace; if at the anagogical, what is signified to us is the departure of the sanctified soul from bondage to the corruption of this world into the freedom of eternal glory. And although these mystical senses are called by various names, they may all be called allegorical.

Thus, by doing a certain figurative reading of the story of Moses, Dante produces both allegory and Christianity. Starting out from the "new" testament, the Bible becomes "old," and the "old testament," a reservoir of typologies and foreshadowing of the story of Christ.

But already in the Bible, the story of Moses is a multicultural story, a passing narrative, the story of someone who functions well in a world to which he, unbeknownst to the casual observer, does not belong. All the time he is in the Egyptian palace, Moses performs military exploits and has such a noble character that Pharaoh treats him as he wishes to treat his own flesh and blood, which indicates that for Pharaoh, at least, he is not. Whether Moses is cognizant of his own birth and identity is less clear: the Bible is not explicit about it, and later versions have to decide when, and with what consequences, Moses finds out. According to the biblical story, though, there is little doubt that from an outside view Moses was born a Hebrew, raised as an Egyptian, and married as a Midianite and only then goes back to Egypt to liberate the slaves. While he therefore seems to be liberating "his" people from bondage, why does the Bible make such a point of estranging him from them? Why do they so often grumble against him?

The beautiful bass voices that have sung "Go Down, Moses" have not entirely obscured the ambiguity of who is saying what to whom. It is not Moses who tells old Pharaoh to "let my people go" but rather God. Moses is thus God's spokesman, and the people he leads out of slavery are God's people. But the well-known refrain that shouts out "Let my people go!" cannot really represent quotation marks: one of the cruxes in the biblical story and others is thus the extent to which Moses transmits God's message or his own, and who "my" people refers to. When Zora Neale Hurston titles a chapter of her autobiography "My People," she alludes to the affectionate rejection of members of a group to which one belongs. This is one expression that brings up the question of Afro-American ethnicity, along with the story of freeing the slaves, which, as we have seen, fits the story of American slavery almost too well. There are always some family members who reveal precisely those traits one has learned to squelch. If "my people" manifests what I least want observers to think I am (and very likely their ready stereotypes, which I have worked so hard to combat), what are God's people? Is there some fundamental ambivalence in the claim of possession for God, too? Are his "chosen people" a block to the possibility of idealization?

During Seder dinners, participants repeat the story of Moses and generalize God's goodness in the freeing of all unfree peoples. Haggadot differ in how explicit they are about Auschwitz or Darfur. But all of them function as both a commemoration and a lesson, complete with questions for the uninitiated and explanations of what is being celebrated. The story is often told as if it happens to the addressee. The following are examples from two different Haggadot:

Remember the day on which you went forth from Egypt, from the house of bondage, and how God freed you with a mighty hand. (Union Haggadah, Central Council of American Rabbis, 1982)

Let us raise our cups in gratitude to God that this call can still be heard in the land. Let us give thanks that the love of freedom still burns in the heart of our fellowmen. Let us pray that the time be not distant when all the world will be liberated from cruelty, tyranny, oppression and war. (Reconstructionist Haggadah, 1942)

The service ends with the Zionists' hope, "Next year in Jerusalem," which can be literal or figurative. The Passover ritual, which announces itself as a repetition, is thus often a commentary on current events. Far from being the same every time, its point inheres in what it talks about, not in what it says.

But nevertheless, its forms of address are designed to call and inform the Jews about their historical position. Moses is merely the means of bringing about Divine history. The relationship celebrated at Passover is between God and Israel.

In both the Koran and the Torah, God is often directly quoted. In the Bible, he is often speaking to Moses. Many chapters of the Book of Exodus begin, "Then the Lord said unto Moses." In the Koran, God often speaks to the believer directly, saying either "We" or "I." The Koran and some Jewish prayers insert "Praised be he" or "praise be unto him" when mentioning someone whose Word is God's. The mysterious name of God-"I am who am"-in the Bible is also a way to turn the third person into a first person. The Omnipotent Subject cannot be an object of speech.

The Koran makes a point of celebrating God, not Moses, or even Mohammed. It takes very seriously its monotheistic strictures and condemns as polytheistic Christianity for divinizing Christ. Its name for the other of Islam is "idolatry." It explains that God the creator has only to say "be," and something is brought into being, whereas idols are not makers but made things. God creates by willing; he does not beget: unlike his creatures he has no need for sexual reproduction. God is that to which man should worshipfully submit. An "idol" is not just a forbidden "graven image" but a hated version of the polytheism that is being left behind. Unquestioning faith earns one a pleasant afterlife, while unbelievers will burn in hell. Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus are alike in being mere prophets, to whom God reveals his Scriptures, the Torah, the Gospel, and the Koran. They coexist and complement each other, and the Koran repeatedly mentions with respect the lineage it wants to emphasize: Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Noah, Lot, Jacob, Jonah, Moses, Jesus, David, and Solomon. The emphasis on Noah is interesting: not only does it show God's impulse to destroy his creation, but the saving ark he tells Noah to build is the only other place in the Bible where the word for baby Moses' aquatic vehicle of escape is used. God shows his holiness through "signs" like the magic of the staff turning into a serpent or the parting of the sea. The Koran emphasizes the opposition between Moses and Pharaoh, not Moses the lawgiver, and equates with divinity the magic that Judaism is embarrassed by. For Islam, then, what is rejected is "form," and the observance of the second commandment is tantamount to avoiding idolatry per se. Koranic "monotheism" is anti-idolatry, like Judaism, but not anti-magic, and it is even more strict than Judaism in equating sin with form. Writing and Revelation are a communication from God, not man, and God shows repeatedly the Paradise reserved for believers, and the eternal Fire that awaits the evildoers on the Day of Judgment. Islam is like Christianity in its belief in the afterlife and the resurrection of the body; it is like Judaism in its respect for laws.

For all Islam's respect for "the book," however, it repeatedly refers to the Koran as "recited," and thus the vehicle of God's truth is a voice, not a scripture. Therefore, it is very fitting that the story of Moses, as told in the Koran, begins with God's voice speaking out of the Burning Bush. When Moses tries to go around the bush in order to detect why it burns without being consumed, God stops him and tells him to take off his shoes in awe. What sets Moses on his mission is a voice.

The bush that burns without being consumed reminds me of the most memorable use of a terminal adverb in the English language. In Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, there are three metaphors for approaching death: autumn, evening, and a dying fire. The end of the sight of almost-extinguished embers is "Consumed with that which it was nourished by." But precisely, this fire is neither nourished nor consumed. God tells Moses that he is no longer in the domain of scientific explanation and mortality but in the domain of the holy, the eternal.

As one might expect, by far the largest number of books that attempt to retell the story of Moses are in the Jewish tradition, and unabashedly rely exclusively on the Bible. Their effort is not at all to showcase the tale's multiplicity but to transmit pedagogically the "real meaning" of the first five books of the Bible (the Books of Moses)-to make sense of Judaism itself (no small task!).

A book by the great authority in matters religious and philosophical, Martin Buber, is called Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant, a title that indicates where the author's emphasis lies. On the one hand, he tries to get at what can be learned about God; on the other, what is expected of God's "chosen people." The story of Balaam told in Numbers gives a good picture of the kind of soothsayer Moses was not. Yahweh was a new kind of god, and Moses was a new kind of messenger, neither priest nor prophet. The person of Moses has much less interest for Buber than the nature of God's relation to Israel. His preoccupation with that leads him to explore seminomadic tribal behavior and the exact function of a portable holy Tabernacle, which can become fixed if the tribe reaches its destination (and is destroyed when that place is destroyed). Although he is not in search of a "historical Moses," he does often call something "the oldest layer" and uses his knowledge of Hebrew, literary forms, and the rest of the Bible to make his points. The book consists of many little chapters that zoom in on subsidiary details, to which he brings immense and sometimes sententious erudition: "And at an unknown hour they pass out of our ken. The Word alone endures" (140). Impatient with biblical scholarship ("It may be enough to mention at this point that I regard the prevailing view of the Biblical text, namely as largely composed of 'source materials' ['Yahwist', 'Elohist', etc.] as incorrect" [8]), he dispenses unargued intuitions from the height of his authority, so that his Moses reads like a series of random thoughts from a master teacher.

Michael Walzer's Exodus and Revolution studies the ways in which the Moses story has functioned as an inspiration for social change all over the world. But his main politicoreligious analysis is reserved for the way in which the Bible cools the optimism of the initial liberation and depicts the inevitable "backsliding," "chiding," and "murmuring" of a people liberated from external-but not internal-oppression. His analysis of internalized second-class citizenship (the longing to return to "the fleshpots of Egypt") plus his remarks about the renewal of the Covenant turn his "revolution" into a much tamer kind of social contract, the father's murder into an agreement among brothers. The paternal principle is no longer the defeated Pharaoh or Old Regime but the Lord of the fathers of Israel who continues to guide and promise. In other words, the theory of government in Exodus is not at all opposed to there being a father, as long as he is both omnipotent and infallible. Moses, too, has to learn to submit to the might of this jealous god, but Moses does not become a founding "father." He has a role to play as God's intermediary, but the people worship the God of Gods. Walzer ends up theorizing a very active "consent of the governed"-really a "participation of the governed." His summary of Exodus politics runs as follows:

First, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;

Second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;

And third, that "the way to the land is through the wilderness." There us no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.

The best-selling American novel by Leon Uris, Exodus, makes use of the melodramatic aspects already in the story. Against a backdrop of human pettiness versus a great cause, he foregrounds human complexity and heroism, using just enough characters to tell the outlines of history through individuals. He sets up and counts on erotic tensions that declare themselves in the end while making his novel a tragedy in which every character ends up suffering a great loss. There are many delays in the Scriptures that can easily be transformed into suspense, and he knows how to use suspense: the ten plagues, the Ten Commandments, the murmurings in the wilderness, the night of the Passover when the children of Israel waited to leave with their shoes on, the impatience of the people when Moses tarried on the mountain, which led them to make a golden calf... At the same time, there is no doubt as to where his sympathies lie. The Arabs surrounding Israel are often depicted as greedy, lazy, and cowardly: "The leader of the dreaded El Husseinis was the most vile, underhanded schemer in a part of the world known for vile, underhanded schemers" (253). Arabs, "with murder, rape, and plunder in their hearts" (466), "wantonly violated every concept of honor" (516). When the novel was first published in 1958, the founding of the state of Israel was still a miracle, and memories of the Holocaust were fresh. Gas chambers, concentration camps, the Final Solution-one didn't need to make up the drama inherent in the history of the Jews. The idealism of the early settlers was untarnished; the unending persecution of the Jews goaded them into superhuman action; the whole drama of Israeli independence seemed like a replay of the story of David and Goliath. According to Uris, the sleazy Arab nations surrounding Israel could have easily integrated the Palestinian refugees, but they chose to keep them in easily inflammable refugee camps they could use for political purposes. The Jewish settlers had redeemed land the Arabs hadn't wanted for centuries, made it productive, and in the process raised the living standards of both Jews and Arabs.

As for the remains of Western Imperialism, it is the Jews, not the Arabs, who suffer from it, and not from the Zionists but from the British. While dividing up the "free" world, the Western powers saw a danger in Jews overrunning Palestine after World War II, and the British, who at that time controlled Palestine, set up detention camps in Western Europe and ringed Palestine with a blockade. Our entry into the novel takes place in the detention camps in Cypress, focalized by two non-Jewish Americans, Mark Parker, who soon drops out of the book, and Kitty Fremont, who wants to go back to America but is always impelled to stay because of her attachment to two Jews, one a substitute for her dead daughter and the other (unavowed) a gigantic and enigmatic but indefatigable freedom fighter. We enter the story on the eve of an illegal departure by the aptly named ship Exodus, which is allowed to make the trip thanks to a hunger strike of those on board, as the British replay the refrain of Moses to Pharaoh, "Let my people go" (188). I think this gliding focalization helps the novel grip its American readership. The spectacle of good versus evil is played out for American eyes, and with biblical resonance. Indeed, the map of Israel reads like an Advent calendar in finding a biblical story behind every spot. There is no ambivalence to mar the absoluteness of this fight: this is Israeli politics of 1958, not 2009. Human complexity inheres in individual characters, not world politics.

There have been two notable recent popular/scholarly books about Moses: Jonathan Kirsch's Moses: A Life and Joel Cohen's Moses: A Memoir. Kirsch collates the considerable body of scholarship that has grown up around the biblical Moses and makes it into an interesting character study. Cohen tries to imagine from the inside what it felt like to be Moses; again the basic source is the Bible, and the goal, the coherence of a person's inner life. And finally, Exploring Exodus by Nahum Sarna is the only text about Moses that devotes as much attention as the original text to the Tabernacle (complete with drawings).

The aim of coherent unity, which may not even be possible in the biblical version, collapses with the multiple sources I shall read here. In this book, there can be no search for the "real Moses." Anomalous elements will not fit into some larger picture, and each version will have a center of gravity different from the others while still taking off from something actually in the Bible. The texts have in common only the prestige of the story they are part of, and perhaps a desire to liberate it to make sense in a new way.

Every rewriting of the Moses story has, among other things, to interpret the expression "chosen people." Freud, for example, sees the "chosen people" as a trigger for sibling rivalry. But perhaps until "blood" and "choice" are conflated, until their differences are not the basis of democracy, until a truly democratic regime is not grounded in blood and soil, it is not common blood that unites the "chosen people." At first Moses goes about his task with somewhat the same resignation as that depicted by Robert Frost: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in." But to form an equally unbreakable bond through arbitrary will-to have not families we're stuck with but families we choose (as the title of a book on gay families has it)-puts the "chosen people" in a different light. That Moses is a Hebrew may be both a nationalist sop and a false lead; the biblical story is as long as it is because the Hebrews have to learn to treat Moses as not one of their own. Perhaps Moses has to have been acculturated precisely in the household of the enemy in order to lead the enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt. In any case, each of the many versions of the Moses story we will read here has something to say about the sense of the two cultures that go into his formation.

The Bible turns out not to be alone in positing foreignness as somehow necessary for nation building. It itself says many times that one must respect the strangers in one's midst: "But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Lev. 19:34). The political theorist Bonnie Honig sums up the recurring importance of foreigners in foundation narratives as follows:

Sometimes, the figure of the foreigner serves as a device that allows regimes to import from the outside (and then, often, to export back to outside) some specific and much-needed but also potentially dangerous value, talent, perspective, practice, gift, or quality that they cannot provide for themselves (or that they cannot admit they have). This supplement of foreignness gives receiving regimes something different from the novelty, cultural breadth, and depth identified by theorists of immigration and multiculturalism.

One of the recurring revelations in the various versions of the Moses story from Sigmund Freud to the Egyptologist Jan Assmann is the claim that, far from being a Hebrew, Moses is in actuality an Egyptian. Exactly what, then, is foreign, and to what? Is this story about an individual (Moses) or about a historical process (Exodus)? Does the story begin in Egypt or in Goshen? And is there some Oedipal drama of respect or murder being acted out with each retelling?


One of the most surprising threads that tie all dimensions of this project together is the importance and role of Freemasonry within it, the leadership of brothers tied together not by a covenant but by a secret rite. The fraternal order claims descendency from ancient Egypt and maintains the idea of a secret initiation for the Elect. Faced with the diminished entity that the Masonic order has become in the United States, it is hard for us to imagine its prestige and prominence in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. The fact that Freemasonry might have derived in part from the medieval guilds of masons, who had to move from place to place and be housed each time near their work site in a lodge, emphasizes the literal importance of architecture in the history of Freemasonry, but its figurative meanings were just as important. From the arts of memory to the rebuilding of Solomon's Temple, the Masons always looked forward to many years of their apocalyptic Craft. Yet the so-called wisdom of the Egyptians that underlay those initiation rites, and into which Moses himself had been initiated according to Acts 7:22, can be textually shown to come at least in part from an eighteenth-century French novel, Sethos, by Jean Terrasson. Wolfgang Mozart, for instance, even while being a devoted Mason, initiated in 1784 into the Austrian Lodge Beneficence, unknowingly cites Terrasson when, with his fellow Mason and libretticist, Brother Emmanuel Schikaneder, he depicts a Masonic initiation in his opera The Magic Flute.

The U.S. founding fathers were very often Freemasons, which is why they put an unfinished pyramid-one of Freemasonry's occult symbols-on the great seal of the United States. When the early black nationalist Martin Delany was invited to speak in 1853 by the St. Cyprian Lodge #13 of Pittsburgh on the topic of the legitimacy of black masonry, his listeners thought he could simply help straighten out the status of their lodge with the Mother Country, but instead they were told about the origins of Freemasonry itself in ancient Egypt, an African culture. Black Freemasonry, even though forced into existence by white racism, had more right to claim legitimacy than did white Freemasonry.

Those who came to the "wilderness" of the New World to seek religious freedom often drew inspiration from the Exodus story. This was particularly true of Puritans, who established a "holy commonwealth" in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and tried to combine God's rule with human rule. John Winthrop (whom Cotton Mather called "the American Moses," soon to be Massachusetts's governor) addressed his congregation aboard the Arbella just before landing in 1630 by alluding to Moses ("Thus stands the case between God and us, we are entered into covenant with Him for this work") and ends by quoting what Moses said to the people when he saw the promised land he was never to enter:

And to shut up this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel, Deuteronomy 30 [not the King James version], "Beloved, there is now set before us life and good, death and evil, in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep His commandments and His ordinance and His laws, and the articles of our covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it."

As the doyen of Puritan studies in early America, Perry Miller, writes, "'God sifted a whole nation to bring choice grain into the wilderness,' said the Puritan historian." But the Exodus story in fact stands behind a wide variety of pronouncements in the New World: Thomas Morton, an anti-Puritan, who was indeed punished by the Puritans for "bacchanalias" and corruption, could still call his book about America The New English Canaan. And later Mary Antin called her book about immigration The Promised Land.

But nothing about claiming that land was held to be easy. As a preacher put it in New Haven in 1777, "How soon does our faith fail us, and we begin to murmur against Moses and Aaron and wish ourselves back again in Egypt." Yet often the wish was secretly to be delivered from history: from divine guidance to Messianism is but a short step, and Canaan begins to look a lot like Eden.

To say one has God on one's side can justify almost anything; it is an eminently American claim to make. As James Dana put it in a sermon of 1779, "the manifest interposition of the Almighty in humbling tyrants for their sakes" is used by all sides to justify what they are doing. In the fight for American independence from Great Britain, it was all too easy to see Pharaoh in the English crown, Moses in the colonies; tyranny versus freedom. Indeed, the American Declaration of Independence owes a great deal to this underlying myth: "A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."

This was all very well for colonists to say, but they were forgetting the existence of an even greater evil in their midst. As Phillis Wheatley, a slave in Boston, put it in a letter to Samson Occam, an Indian minister raising funds for what would turn out to be Dartmouth College:

By the leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle [Love of Freedom] lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the Calamities of their fellow Creatures. This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree,-I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine.

The "free" in "Freemason" was a kind of labor not confined within a guild. But the concept of freedom was very much in fashion: in Kant, it was freedom from natural law; in Locke, it was freedom from inherited privilege; and in political self-justification of all sorts, it was freedom from tyranny and oppression. The French word for Freemason, franc-maçon, is a direct translation of the English, but rather than refer to liberty, it somehow brings up the Franks, the Germanic tribes that conquered France. It is no accident that the Barbarians who put an end to the Roman Empire should sound similar to what opposed the church of Rome, condemned by the Protestant Reformation as a return to idolatry.

Freemasonry was born at the same time as-and through the same forces as-the Enlightenment. It was the intellectuals' answer to Catholicism, the religion of the unenlightened European masses. Freemasonry was anticlerical, even unbelieving, and in Catholic countries an alternative to the Church. Like good French revolutionaries, Masons believed in a Supreme Being and brotherly love. It was the Enlightenment idea of equality that provided the language of the Declaration of Independence and has been the bad conscience of institutions of inequality in the United States ever since. Freemasonry enshrined reason in place of God, but it satisfied the craving for the unexplainable by grounding itself in initiation rites and secrets.

At the time of the Revolutionary War, several blacks were initiated as Masons by an English lodge attached to a military regiment, but, after black men initially fought and died for independence from England, soldiers were eventually segregated into separate regiments by color. Rebuffed by the racism of white lodges, African Lodge #1, under the mastership of Prince Hall, applied to the most worshipful master of Brotherly Love Lodge #55, London, for a charter from the British Mother Lodge and in 1784 became African Lodge #459. England was thus both the opponent of the consent of the governed and the authority to which one turned for it.

Through African Lodge #459, there grew up the Prince Hall Lodges of the United States, the United Supreme Councils Northern Jurisdiction, and the Southern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite. Even the name "Prince Hall" has come to mean "black mason." Manumitted by William Hall, his owner, in 1770, the individual named Prince Hall (if he existed) was able to display his "free" status that made him eligible to become a Mason. Never had the "free" in "Freemason" had so much significance.

Although the ideology of Freemasonry was supposed to be color-blind, the realities were quite different. But whereas the claims of freedom were simultaneous with, and contradicted by, slavery, the segregated lodges grew in importance within their segregated communities. The pillars of those communities often belonged to the Brotherhood, and it was Masonic scruples that kept them exemplary. While Frederick Douglass and many others complained that Freemasonry had "swallow[ed] up the best energies of many of our best men, contenting them with the glittering follies of artificial display," this apparent fondness for fancy dress and elaborate initiations, the signs of an institution of pure prestige, constituted perhaps the price of functioning as responsible members of the community.

Once one has granted that Egyptian culture is African, the door is open for everything else that belongs to African culture to saturate the text. When Zora Neale Hurston rewrites the story of Moses, his ability to converse with animals and his magic powers make him the consummate conjure-man. As Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, writes to an annoying cousin:

P.S. Yes, my son Moses is the finest hoodoo man in the world and my wife says that stopping you from eating somebody else's groceries is his greatest piece of work. But she may be wrong.

Have you ever seen his sendings of snakes and lice?

The religiously embarrassing presence in the Bible of God's magic tricks has always called for some explanation. But Hurston revels in them and celebrates Moses' "MIGHTY HAND." And yet even she is not always sure what she wants Moses' identity to be. When he kills the Egyptian overseer, he feels an unprecedented sympathy for the oppressed: it is not because of identification with the downtrodden that he kills their overseer; it is only after he performs this murder that he identifies with those who struggle under the lash. At times, Hurston makes him sound like a white liberal:

The [Hebrew] foreman approached Moses respectfully and shook his head sadly as he explained, "Some of them want to knock off early to hold a protest meeting, and the others agree with me that it just wouldn't do. It would look bad to my over-boss that just as soon as a Hebrew got to be foreman, the men left work whenever they got ready to hold meetings."

"Your foreman is right," Moses agreed, speaking to the men. "This sort of thing is what I'm working for."

In spite of Hurston's constant mention of the role of linguistic styles, no character can be identified with the consistency of his language.

In each of the retellings of the Moses story, quite different things are emphasized, but even in the biblical version there are imperfectly integrated or unexplained elements that cannot be easily made into a coherent story (When did Moses marry the Ethiopian princess? Why did Zipporah abruptly circumcise his sons?). What I hope to do in this book, then, is acquaint its readers with the truly bizarre aspects of even the versions of the Moses story they know well, and introduce them to some reimaginings they might not be aware of yet.

Because of Freud's title, Moses has been seen as more mono-, more interested in oneness, than he in fact is. It is my hope to be able to account in this book both for the appeal of the mono- and for the ineradicable presence of the diverse in the story that purports to tell the origins of nationalism.

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