Moses and Monotheism Critical Essays

Sigmund Freud


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In the short first essay of Moses and Monotheism, Freud seeks to establish that Moses was probably not a Jew but an Egyptian. Comparing the story of the birth of Moses and his rescue from the river by the pharaoh’s daughter with other stories glorifying national heroes, and drawing upon Otto Rank’s psychoanalytic study, Der Mythus von der Geburt des Helden (1909; The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology, 1914) as well as the more general psychoanalytic concept of the “family romance” (a common childhood fantasy of having been born to noble or royal parents and only adopted by the humbler family of reality), Freud concludes that the adoptive family in the Moses myth—that is, the Egyptian family—must have been his real family, and that the myth’s birth family—the Jewish family of the tribe of Levi—was a fiction.

In essay 2, Freud discusses the source, character, and historical development of the religion an Egyptian Moses would have given to the Jewish people. Freud maintains that the God of Moses must have been an adaptation of the sun-god Aton, the god that a pharaoh of the fourteenth century b.c.e., Akhenaton, had tried to substitute for the many gods and sacrifices of popular Egyptian religion. After Akhenaton’s death, the traditional polytheistic priesthood of Amon regained power and suppressed all mention of the worship of Aton. In Freud’s conjectural reconstruction, Moses was a highly placed adherent of Akhenaton’s religion who saw his ambitions thwarted, his beliefs driven underground, and himself isolated. Freud suggests that Moses—estranged from his own people—adopted the Jews as his new people, to whom he could give his cherished religion. In support of this idea, Freud identifies three points of similarity between Judaism and the religion of Aton: strict monotheism, lack of concern with the idea of life after death, and the practice of circumcision.

Following a Jewish folk tradition for which the scholar Ernst Sellin had recently found scriptural support, Freud surmises that after first accepting the leadership of Moses and his God, the Jewish people rebelled against the ethical rigor and ceremonial austerity of the new religion, murdering Moses himself. A generation or two later, the descendants of the Jews who had followed Moses out of Egypt united with related tribes between Egypt and Canaan and adopted the worship of an Arab-Midianite volcano-god, Yahweh, who demanded the very sacrifices and rituals that Moses’ God had despised. The memory of the one God of Moses and His requirement of a life of justice and mercy did not completely die, however, having been kept up among a small group who remained loyal to the Moses tradition. Through their influence, the law of circumcision was retained; in time, Yahweh grew beyond the primitive localism of his origins, acquiring the greatness and power of the God of the Exodus. Eventually, with the periodic prodding and chastisement of the prophets, the God of Moses was entirely identified with the god Yahweh, and the Moses of the Exodus became...

(The entire section is 1284 words.)