Book Review: Meribah by Arthur Mokin
Mokin, Arthur. Meribah. New Generation Publishing. 2013. ISBN 978-1910162163.
Many thanks to Mr. Mokin and his publicity team for providing me a review copy.
Meribah is a novel by award-winning filmmaker Arthur Mokin that follows the fortunes of a young Egyptian scribe during the events related in the biblical books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. After his country and family are devastated by the ten plagues, he decides to follow the Israelites on their journey, in large part because he has fallen in love with an Israelite woman, though a small part of his decision (and one that becomes more important throughout the novel) is his fascination with the God of the Israelites who so convincingly, albeit brutally, demonstrates his power over the Egyptian pantheon and Pharaoh.
It is difficult to categorize Meribah. It is partly an historical novel, partly a series of theological reflections, partly an apologetic, partly akin to an ancient genre we call Rewritten Scripture, and partly a “going native” story like Dances With Wolves. It furthermore draws heavily on Jewish traditions to supplement the biblical narrative. Large sections of the legal portions of the Pentateuch are retold, which has an unfortunate bloating effect on the novel (the novel is 330 pages, which is at least 50 pages too long, in my opinion) but which does function to set the stage for important interactions among the characters. Even so, the story takes remarkably few artistic liberties with the biblical text. Indeed, as I shall explore more fully below, I really feel like the author probably should have taken more artistic license than he did.
While the Egyptian protagonist (who remains nameless for most of the novel and is referred to simply as “the Egyptian”) is the primary focalizing character, the narrative occasionally takes up the perspectives of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The narrative also goes back and forth between a third person narrative and first person segments supposedly from the Egyptian’s personal journal. This free-form approach to perspective was, to be honest, a little unsettling, though I cannot say that at any moment it was confusing or that it detracted from my enjoyment of the story. It just felt a little chaotic.
Before I go any further, I want to state that my overall evaluation of the novel is a positive one: I quite liked it. It retells an old story while, in multiple imaginative ways, distancing us from that story and helping us to experience afresh the horror, excitement, mystery, and awe of it. Using the perspective of a non-Israelite opens the way for asking serious and troubling questions about the Exodus, about the Torah, about Moses, and about God. This appeals to me, inasmuch as I am sympathetic with post-modern methods aimed at “reading against the grain” of biblical texts to reveal suppressed voices (even if I am more often than not very disappointed with the simplistic and agenda-driven execution of these readings). Speaking from the perspective of the average faith-based reader of the Pentateuch (Jewish, Christian, or otherwise), how often do we stop to think about the brutality, horror, and tragedy of the Exodus events for the average Egyptian family, who may not have harbored any ill will against the Israelites? Do we ever stop and consider whether God’s multiple deadly punishments of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness were really warranted? Do they not seem excessive at times? If the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath, how is death in any way an appropriate punishment for violating the Sabbath? The Egyptian protagonist brings these questions up over and over, rarely if ever getting a satisfactory answer for them and yet finding himself so convinced that the God of Israel is indeed the one true God that he eventually requests and is permitted to join Israel officially and pitch his tent among the Levites. At times, the Egyptian’s feelings are clearly anachronistic and more belonging to a Westerner of the 21st century CE than to an Egyptian of the 2nd millennium BCE. There are things he expresses confusion or shock over that I honestly cannot imagine an ancient Egyptian really having problems with. But this occasional anachronism falls well within the acceptable boundaries of artistic license and is welcome inasmuch as it helps the novel have contemporary relevance.
Overall, the author has done an impressive job of researching the geographical and cultural details of his setting. The journeys of the Israelites through Sinai, the wilderness, and into trans-Jordan are colorfully brought to life with descriptions of geology, flora, and wildlife. While I have suggested that some of the protagonist’s objections to Israel’s god and Torah sound suspiciously 21st century, in most other ways he is a plausible ancient Egyptian who makes an excellent case for the virtues of his own culture.
Up to now I have not gone into detail about one of the most important parts of Meribah’s plot – the love story. This is because this is at the same time one of the most imaginative and appealing aspects of the novel as well as one of its most problematic aspects. The Israelite woman with whom the Egyptian falls in love is none other than Miriam, Moses’ older sister. This love story shapes the early stages of the novel, where the plagues and the Exodus are really more background details. I liked this a lot. It was fresh and imaginative, and it promised much. Both Miriam and the Egyptian wish to be together, but both see it as impossible. Nevertheless, the Egyptian throws his lot in with Israel in the hope that perhaps they can make it work. Unfortunately, that relationship fades more and more into the background as the novel turns into a novelistic retelling of the giving of the Torah and begins to focus more on the protagonist’s growing friendship with Aaron, which is interesting in its own right, but it just isn’t the same.
An informed reader of this review, however, will immediately recognize a problem here: according to the biblical chronology, Miriam would have been over 80 years old at the time of the Exodus. Instead, the author presents Miriam as a young woman in the prime of life – and apparently the modern prime of life, meaning late twenties or early thirties, rather than the ancient prime of life, being a woman’s mid-teenage years. But such artistic license is perfectly acceptable – the animated movie Prince of Egypt takes much the same license. However, this change in chronology is not implemented with consistency. Moses is never in the early part of the novel depicted as a man in his early to mid-twenties. He is never explicitly said to be otherwise, but there is no indication that the Egyptian protagonist views Moses as his contemporary. On the contrary, Moses is a presented as a mature man. Moreover, Aaron is presented as a man with grown up children at the time of the Sinai event – highly unlikely unless Aaron is supposed to be a great deal older than Miriam and Moses. The final blow to the novel’s consistency, however, is the fact that the author retains Moses’ age of 120 years at the end of his life, meaning he retains the depiction of Moses as 80 years old at the time of the Exodus. This makes the Egyptian’s romantic relationship with Miriam, who is explicitly said to be Moses’ older sister (you can’t really do away with that detail), absolutely impossible.
Leaving aside this extreme editorial oversight (which actually could be fixed relatively easily, I think, with a more liberal use of artistic license), the way the novel deals with the love story turns what could have been a revelation of Israel’s inherent universality into a series of dissatisfying excuses for Moses’ – and apparently God’s – ethnic bigotry and hypocrisy. God (whom the Israelites call Hashem rather than Yahweh or Adonai – a distractingly anachronistic detail) is never depicted positively. He is dangerous, vindictive, capricious, and always aloof. There is no contact whatsoever between the protagonist and God. As far as we know, God neither knows the Egyptian is there nor cares. While the characters try to say that he is merciful, I have difficulty seeing it in the events of the novel. This makes the protagonist’s full conversion to Yahwism ironically disappointing to me – ironic because, as a Christian, I am predisposed to cheer for Yahwism. On the other hand, however, the author should be lauded for not giving in to the temptation to provide an easy out for God, as many Christian novelists do. I just feel that there ought to be some sort of middle ground, a way to keep a bad situation bad but to show God’s goodness in the midst of it.
In conclusion, despite some shortcomings (and a jarring editorial oversight), I do recommend Meribah. The protagonist is engaging and easy to sympathize with. The novel raises important and difficult theological questions while refusing to blithely offer easy excuses for God and his behavior. You can purchase it at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1910162167/fictiondb.