Pillars of Cloud and Fire

The Politics of Exodus in African American Biblical Interpretation

272 pages

August, 2015

ISBN: 9781479812509



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Herbert Robinson Marbury is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Imperial Dominion and Priestly Genius.

All books by Herbert Robinson Marbury

At the birth of the United States, African Americans were excluded from the newly-formed Republic and its churches, which saw them as savage rather than citizen and as heathen rather than Christian. Denied civil access to the basic rights granted to others, African Americans have developed their own sacred traditions and their own civil discourses. As part of this effort, African American intellectuals offered interpretations of the Bible which were radically different and often fundamentally oppositional to those of many of their white counterparts. By imagining a freedom unconstrained, their work charted a broader and, perhaps, a more genuinely American identity. In Pillars of Cloud and Fire, Herbert Robinson Marbury offers a comprehensive survey of African American biblical interpretation.  
Each chapter in this compelling volume moves chronologically, from the antebellum period and the Civil War through to the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights movement, the black power movement, and the Obama era, to offer a historical context for the interpretative activity of that time and to analyze its effect in transforming black social reality. For African American thinkers such as Absalom Jones, David Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Frances E. W. Harper, Adam Clayton Powell, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the exodus story became the language-world through which freedom both in its sacred resonance and its civil formation found expression. This tradition, Marbury argues, has much to teach us in a world where fundamentalisms have become synonymous with “authentic” religious expression and American identity. For African American biblical interpreters, to be American and to be Christian was always to be open and oriented toward freedom. 


  • "Marbury brilliantly functions as historical, literary, rhetorical and ideological critic in this work. Most exciting is how he demonstrates the sophisticated exegetical and hermeneutical usages of the biblical text by African Americans over three centuries. . . . . Fundamental to all of the individuals explored in this work and to Marbury is the belief that using the biblical text for inspiring African Americans to strive for freedom and for motivating other racial ethnic groups to assist in this effort is a worthwhile endeavor. This work is a must read."

    —Randall C. Bailey, Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor of Hebrew Bible, Interdenominational Theological Center

  • "Deepens in substantial ways our understanding of the socio-political dynamics informing Africana encounters with the Bible in North America. Marbury utilizes the 'cloud pillar' and the 'fire column' from Exodus as master tropes for examining the contexts and performative dimensions of biblical hermeneutics in the North American diaspora. The result is a new paradigm—both evocative and creative—for reconceptualizing biblically informed rhetorics of liberation and their historical development."

    —The Rev. Hugh R. Page, Jr., general editor of The Africana Bible: Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Dia

  • “The book will find a wide audience with scholars of African American biblical interpretation, scholars of the biblical book of exodus, and historians of American religion.”

    Religious Studies Review

  • “Herbert Robinson Marbury offers an insightful exploration of select African American social, cultural and political exegesis of Exodus, both the biblical text and liberative trope.”

    Black Theology