Moses and Monotheism

by Sigmund Freud

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Moses is an Egyptian of noble origin whom the myth transforms into a Jew. And that is our conclusion! (5)

This quote demonstrates the remarkable thesis of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's Moses and Monotheism (Knopf, 1939). His justification for this thesis relies on several premises. The first is that Moses's name is likely of Egyptian origin (as had been previously posited by other scholars). Next, the transformation of the myth to claim that Moses was born to humble parents would have been a natural one, given the narrative tropes common to other myths. Finally, Moses's behavior as savior and (according to Freud) ambassador to the Jews represented a psychological identification with his noble-born Egyptian father.

Elsewhere in the text, Freud writes:

Circumcision is the symbolic substitute for castration, a punishment, which the primeval father dealt his sons long ago out of absolute power; and whosoever accepted this punishment was ready to submit to the father's will, at the cost of a painful sacrifice. (16)

This discussion exemplifies Freud's eagerness to see symbols when interpreting the rites of human religion. It also showcases Freud's propensity for a psychological and structural interpretation. Freud claims that Moses brought monotheism to the Jews via Ikhnaton (Akhenaten), an Egyptian pharaoh who was ousted for having tried to introduce worship of a sole sun god, Aten, and who moved the capital south to Amarna (though it was later moved back to Memphis). According to Freud, Moses was a cultural hero. On monotheism, Freud states:

Monotheism did not take root in Egypt. It might also have failed later, in Israel, after people threw off the pretentious religion imposed on them. From the mass of the Jewish people, however, there arose again and again men who lent new color to a fading tradition, renewed the threats and demands of Moses, and did not rest until the lost cause was once more regained. (10)

Freud states that monotheism, as it was delivered to the Jews by Moses, was unique for several reasons. First, it was a transformation of the popular Babylonian god, Jahve (Yahweh). Next, it reinforced the notion that that the Jews were the "chosen" ones. Finally, Freud suggests that Moses was murdered "in a rebellion by his stubborn and refractory people" (37) and that the Jews' guilt over the murder of their leader is the basis for the hope for and expectation of a Messiah.

Lastly, Freud acknowledges that "one precept of the Mosaic religion is the prohibition against making an image of God, and the compulsion to worship an invisible God" (11). Freud argues that by subordinating an image to an idea, the worshippers' mental faculties are proven to be more highly developed—which, in the case of the Jews, led to their intellectual development to a level beyond that of contemporary peoples. This reputation in turn led to a Jewish pride in intellectualism. Freud observes that the Jews, who deem themselves a chosen people, are especially proud and confident. For these qualities, according to Freud, they ultimately have Moses to thank.

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