Recently I have found myself fascinated by the biblical account of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, eagerly reading and watching any account of the story I can get my hands on. So when I discovered that Orson Scott Card, one of my favorite science fiction authors, had written his own version of the story of Moses I eagerly ordered myself a copy and dove in, and I am pleased to report that I was not disappointed by the masterful retelling to be found in Stone Tables.
Card originally conceived of Stone Tables as a free verse play, as he details in his introduction, and it is this play that eventually became a musical, and then finally a novel. Card immediately lays out that he does not pretend to present a story of Moses that is authoritative, because of the general nature of the storytelling in the biblical texts and historical debates surrounding the exact time placement of the Exodus on the timeline of world events. Despite this warning, however, Card remains satisfyingly faithful to both the spirit and letter of the Exodus story. His deviations from the biblical text are nothing beyond the acceptable limits of creative license while adapting an ancient tale into a more modern novel. Of thankfully little concern is Card’s professed religious faith of Mormonism, as his adaptation is theologically and philosophically consistent with the biblical text itself.
For anyone familiar with Card’s other writings, Stone Tables features the trademarks of his best works. Card develops his characters magnificently. Particularly striking is his portrayal of Moses, complete with a prominent wrestling with his speech impediment, an aspect of Moses often ignored in adaptations of the story. Moses also wrestles with his split identity between his Egyptian upbringing and his Israelite heritage (Moses is always knowledgeable of his true birth, which is probably more accurate to the source material, and diverges from the two best known film adaptations, The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt) and the way in which Card weaves together this struggle with his speech impediment and his wrestling with God’s will, tying it all together with his conflicted identity and pride, is marvelous to behold. His characterizations of other famous figures from the Exodus, such as Pharaoh, Jethro, Aaron and Miriam among others, are all unique and well-developed. Aaron’s struggles with envy are particularly compelling, and his ultimate reconciliation with God and Moses is poignant, coming on the heels of his greatest failure: the golden calf.
Card develops his characters through bountiful, meaningful dialogue and their thoughts, prayers and musings. The emphasis in Stone Tables is not on the action. One who expects simply spectacle and thrills may be disappointed, particularly by the quick handling the acts of God receive. The focus of the story is instead placed on the hearts and souls of the characters and how they reconcile themselves both with God and each other. Family dynamics play a critical role in the proceedings, a hallmark of Card’s writing, revolving especially around the divided heritage of Moses.
What Card does best though is reveal why Moses and the other characters act in the way that they do. We intimately know these people, and understand their motivations and worldviews, often finding ourselves agreeing with and adopting the thoughts and opinions of the character whose perspective we have at the moment. Card delves deep into their psyches, and readers may be surprised at just how many thoughtful and meaningful philosophical and theological discussions he fits into these several hundred pages. Most interesting and rewarding though is Card’s continued exploration of what makes a person’s actions good or evil. Moses (early in the story) and the rulers of Egypt attempt to justify their greedy and selfish enslavement of the Hebrew people by pointing to the results: civil order and abundant prosperity. Jethro and others, however, argue that God does not count such results as good and righteous, as their driving motivations were essentially evil. Moses and Aaron both wrestle with what is truly driving them to serve God: is it foolish pride, or a genuine denial of the self for God’s greater purposes? Card weaves this theme throughout the work, hitting nearly every character with the question of whether their intentions are truly righteous or not. This proves incredibly rewarding as it not only helps the reader to gain a grip on the struggles the biblical characters must have faced, but it also convicts the reader to examine their own life and the nature of their intentions.
Ultimately, Stone Tables is must-read for a plethora of reasons. Fans of Orson Scott Card in general will love to see the best aspects of his science fiction on display in a very different setting. Those in search of a good retelling of a spiritual tale will find themselves richly rewarded with a faithful adaptation, and anyone simply looking for a thought-provoking and compelling book will find much to ponder during and after their reading of Stone Tables. The prose is not lofty or hard to comprehend, and the story is told rather straightforwardly, so any who are willing to invest the time in reading should be rewarded. Stone Tables exceeded even my high expectations for a religious tale from one of my favorite authors, and I do not doubt it will exceed yours as well.