Moses and Monotheism

by Sigmund Freud

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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 identified with the Midianite priest who had introduced the Jews to Yahweh. Thus, they could unite their conflicting religious traditions in support of the rigorous monotheism which now became a source of identity and pride to the Jews, while at the same time denying the crime—the murder of Moses—which lay at the base of their history as a people. They further expiated that crime by projecting the characteristics of the man Moses onto the God he had taught them to worship, including the idea of “chosenness”; just as the Egyptian Moses had chosen the Jewish people...

(This entire section contains 1284 words.)

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as his people, so the God of Moses, in the revised memory of the Jews, had chosen them, bestowing upon them a special blessing and a special destiny. In Freud’s account, it is this sense of being chosen, the pride and ultimate self-confidence it offers, that has enabled the Jews to survive as a people in spite of all the catastrophes that have befallen them in their history.

In the third essay, Freud ranges far beyond the history of the Jewish people and religion to the formation of religious beliefs in general and of Christianity in particular. Briefly recapitulating the argument of the first two essays, Freud reaffirms that the later Jewish religion is the ethical monotheism of the Egyptian Moses, whose God was recognized as the only God; disdaining ceremonial and sacrifice, He demands only belief in Him and a life of truth and justice. Yet the triumph of the God of Moses came only after a long period of rejection in favor of the primitive Yahweh of the Midianites.

Freud explains this delayed effect psychoanalytically by analogy to the development of a neurosis. Defense against the memory of an early trauma—the murder of their leader Moses and the rejection of his God—lies at the heart of the history of the Jews and their religion. By identifying the God of Moses with the god Yahweh, they denied that the God of Moses had ever been abandoned; by identifying the murdered Moses with the Midianite priest, they denied Moses’ death. What made this crime particularly difficult either to remember openly or to forget completely was that it repeated the primal crime, the murder of the father of the primal horde by his sons, which, according to Freud’s psychoanalytic anthropology, is lodged in the unconscious memory of all people.

The subsequent history of the Jews, during which the worship of Yahweh grew more and more like the religion of Moses and all remnants of the primitive religion that Yahweh represented were cast off, corresponds to the latency period of a neurosis, characterized by a psychic development apparently untroubled by the traumatic memory. After several generations of this “advance in intellectuality,” however, the collective neurosis emerged in the form of guilt as the defensive repression loosened and the traumatic memory began its disturbing work. Paul of Tarsus identified the source of this guilt as “original sin.” Paul’s Christianity, therefore, with its repetition of the killing of the Father in the reversed and expiating form of the killing of the Son, represents the return of the repressed. Christianity, in Freud’s view, was culturally regressive, in that it abandoned the high intellectuality of developed Judaism for a return to a proliferation of symbolic rites and a thinly disguised polytheism. Christianity, in other words, represented a “fresh victory for the priests of Amun over Akhenaten’s god.” Nevertheless, as the return of the repressed Christianity is a psychological advance over the Jewish religion, which became “to some extent a fossil.”

The question of the historic relationship between the Jews and other peoples was much on Freud’s mind in the Nazi era. Arguing that the essential character of the Jewish people was bestowed upon them by Moses, Freud claims that the source both of the hatred so often directed against them and of their capacity to endure this hatred and to survive until the present day is the same: their religion. Belief in a God who is universal and therefore the God of all, who nevertheless out of all peoples especially chose them, the Jews, as his own; a God moreover who is known not crudely through miracles or graven images, but intellectually through the written record, the Torah—these facts of their faith have given the Jews a self-confidence, even an arrogance, that tends to bring down the hatred and envy of others upon their heads. Yet that same self-confidence, that pride in their special destiny, is what has kept them together as a people in spite of dispersion, hostility, and persecution.


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