Reflections on Dr. Marbury’s Lecture about Moses in the African American Tradition

Guest blog-post by Katya Tsvirko (CAS ’21), an International Relations major and currently a student in CASRN101/JS120 The Bible with Professor Zank.

Dr. Marbury’s lecture left me reflecting on the power of biblical interpretation; his presentation answered one of the biggest questions I had since I first started reading the Bible this September: how do these chapters and verses impact their readers? In answering this question, Dr. Marbury looked at the cyclical interpretations of the Bible and biblical figures through the lens of racism, feminism, patriarchy, and oppression.

One part of the presentation that strikes me is the story of Gronniosaw, an enslaved man on the boat who encountered the Bible for the first time. Through Dr. Marbury’s summary, I understand the story this way.  Gronniosaw sees his white captain reading a book (the Bible) aloud and decides to attempt to hear the book on his own; however, when he puts his ear on the book, it doesn’t speak. His conclusion is that the book, like everything else in his world, hates him because he is Black. To give context to Gronniosaw’s actions and deep hurt, Dr. Marbury explains that in traditional African religions, spiritual objects such as talismans often speak to people and believers. It is for this reason that the main character in this story feels so defeated and rejected that the book which spoke to the white man chose not to speak to him. What was particularly striking in Dr. Marbury’s retelling of this story is his analysis that, naturally, the book was silent to both men, but their separate politics is what fills that silence— “the vanquished versus the conqueror.”

In extending this story to the larger history of African Americans in the United States, Dr. Marbury introduced a conceptual framework for looking at the African American interpretation of the Bible: mythic cycles. He proposed the idea that during slavery, the promised land meant emancipation; from the mid 19th to the early 20th century, the promised land meant self-development, and during the Civil Rights era, the promised land meant equal civil standing. This idea of a mythic cycle also extended to the time of the Harlem Renaissance, in which the promised land now equaled the product of self-improvement, rather than self-improvement by itself. Dr. Marbury gave an extensive outline of the African American experience in WWI, from the creation of a new urban Black working class, to the recruitment and authoritative experience of Black men serving in the U.S. army during their deployment in Europe, and then the desire for authentic Black representation in art; this was the context to Zora Neale Hurston’s book Moses, Man on the Mountain.

Dr. Marbury’s clear analysis of the book was compelling, and I hope to read the book myself sometime soon. I was fascinated by the feminist lens he adopted in his analysis of Moses’s sister Miriam. His argument that her imagination is what forms the glory and legend of Moses was incredibly thought-provoking. Perhaps it even ties into recent discussion during a RN101 lecture in which it was pointed out that much of the backbone of religion is human fantasy; although it is powerful and incredibly significant for its followers, the fantasy is what drives the religion. Thus, Dr. Marbury posits that it is a woman’s fantasy/imagination that establishes, for an entire community, this idea of Moses and his glory. The woman, Miriam, is able to enjoy community leadership and authority, until Moses returns and can’t accept female leadership. Then, she is made powerless against him and even feels that he controls the power of life and death. In essence, this relationship compels the readers of Hurston’s book to consider the odd fact that Moses, a figure whose glory is owed to Miriam, ends up overpowering her.

With this message, Dr. Marbury concluded his lecture, saying that Hurston’s biblical interpretation attempted to give the power of religion back to the people; it was people that could lead themselves to transcendence, they didn’t necessarily need to wait around for an individual, a messiah, to lead them.

All in all, Dr. Marbury’s presentation was thought-provoking, compelling, and clarifying for a student who began reading the Bible only three months ago. Entering a sphere as complex as religion is a difficult and rewarding task, but understanding how people interpret religious texts makes it easier to read the Bible as literature. The authors of the Bible were driven by their political and social issues, and readers are also susceptible to interpret it according to their socio-political needs. I wonder what religious texts would look like if they hadn’t been written with an angle? Would people still have felt drawn to them? As Dr. Marbury quoted, “‘Gods always love the people that create them,’” and with this in mind, I hope to continue neutrally analyzing religious literature while exploring its social and political interpretations.

If you missed Dr. Marbury’s lecture, you can watch it on our YouTube channel at

Finding Moses. The Search Continues

Last Monday night, about 100 viewers joined our webinar with Professor Shari Lowin (Stonehill College), a specialist in comparative early Islamic and Jewish intellectual history and literature.

Shari introduced us to some of the ways the greatest prophet of Jewish tradition appears in the Qu'ran and Hadith. We learned that Moses, Nebi Musa in Arabic, is the most frequently mentioned prophet in the Qur'an, before Abraham and Jesus. Muhammad himself, to whom the Suras that make up the Qur'an were revealed, is not the subject of the Qur'an. Much of the holy book of Islam consists of angelic speeches that remind the prophet and his audience of the antecedent sacred history, which is seen as a continuous  history of divine revelations and admonitions that  culminate in the messages conveyed by this final messenger. The aim is to establish God's rule over humanity, starting with those who submit to his command.

Shari compared stories about the birth of Moses and the role of his divinely inspired mother and stories about the birth of Prophet Muhammad and his divinely inspired parents, showing that the Hadith (stories about the prophet and his companions) casts Muhammad as a new Moses. Moses and Muhammad even meet during the famous "Night Journey" to the "distant sanctuary" (see Sura 17), the only truly miraculous event in the life of the prophet, as recounted by the traditional biographers.

To understand why Moses matters so much to the early Muslims one needs to know that 7th-century Arabia was a world of trade and exchange, not just of goods but of stories and ideas, a world that connected the three ancient continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe, and that was alive with debates between Jews, orthodox and heterodox Christians, Gnostics, Zoroastrians, and others. The choices made by the early Muslims and the messages of Prophet Muhammad himself reflect the outsized role of Moses in the political and religious imagination of late antiquity.  The idea of divine rule on earth had been proclaimed by Byzantine Roman Emperors long before the institution of the Caliphate arose. Since the writings of Philo, whose Life of Moses decisively shaped the Christian understanding of the biblical prophet, Moses was perceived not just as the lawgiver of the Jews but also as king, prophet, and high priest. Moses served as the model by which Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea cast his Life of Constantine. And Moses served as the model of striving for the highest human perfection for Gregory of Nyssa, whose allegorical interpretation of the Moses story harks back to Philo. Gregory, who took on the responsibility of a prince of the Church only grudgingly, emphasized Moses' search for spiritual perfection, deliberately tamping down the political dimension emphasized by others.

It is into, and out of, that world that the Moses of the early Islamic isra'iliyyat is spoken: affirming, correcting, and carrying forward the legacies of Judaism and Christianity as they existed and interacted then and there.

Shari Lowin's lecture reminded us of what scholars have long since come to see, namely, that Islam did not arise from nowhere but in many respects represents the coming together and culmination of late antique culture. Or, more simply put: without Moses, no Muhammad.


The Sense of An Ending. What I learned from Aviva Zornberg

This post is by Tiffany Leigh  (CAS '21)                   Tiffany Leigh pic CU

Dr. Zornberg looks at Moses’ role as a leader, specifically focusing on the end of his life. She refers to the book The Sense of an Ending to demonstrate how humans must imagine and anticipate the end of a story in order to give significance to one’s own life. She mentions how you must imagine the end of your life to help you evaluate its meaning. We know the beginning of our stories, but we have hopes and expectations for the future. Viewing time as a series of events that have not yet occurred helps us to organize our lives by providing a framework for the future. This alludes to the idea of “kairos” which is eventful time, and “chronos” which is undistinguished time. Our desires for the future provide significance to our current life, as seen in the life of Moses.

Moses’ goal was to cross the Jordan River and enter into the promised land. However, there is a deviation to the imagined plot Moses had for his life. Dr. Zornberg recounts the book of Deuteronomy and how Moses essentially begged God to let him enter into the promised land, yet was refused by God. Moses’ persistent prayers for his one main goal in life showed that he expected God to eventually open the gates for him. Moses thought that his personal goals and plans for his life will be brought to fruition by God. Yet, as Avivah Zornberg eloquently stated, the nature of human life is incompleteness. Kafka said Moses was able to see Canaan in the time leading up to his death but could not enter “not because his life is too short, but because it’s a human life.” Part of being human is dying without achieving the goals you spent your whole life dreaming about.

God was angry at Moses for continually praying to cross over into the promised land. God interrupted Moses and refused to listen, differing from their past interactions. Prior to this, God had always listened to Moses, and he was seen as someone who always had access to God. Moses was always heard by God, but his final plea was not heard. Recounting the interaction Moses had with God must have been extraordinarily humiliating and upsetting because he was silenced by the same God that encouraged him to speak up to the Israelites. The disappointment Moses felt after acknowledging that his future aspirations will never be fulfilled didn’t demolish him. Instead he spoke with power and leadership to the Israelites about what had happened. The goal he had for the end of his life, crossing over the Jordan, was now replaced by the desire to look after the welfare of the Israelites.

I think Dr. Zornberg’s takeaway from describing the end of Moses’ life shows us that we can’t change the future. Imagining how our life will unfold gives us the feeling of control and of purpose. But the passages of Deuteronomy show us that our purpose is not to complete our own goals, but to fulfill God’s plans for us. The sense of incompleteness in human life is encompassed by Moses emphasizing to the people that they will cross into the promised land, when they would rather stay on the fertile side they are currently on. While Moses, who wants to cross over more than anything, will die without having done so.