A Review of Moses and Monotheism

The symbol of the Aton: a sun disc whose rays extend with hands blessing all it touches

A few weeks ago I came across a book by Sigmund Freud called Moses and Monotheism, his last completed bookThe subject of this book is an attempt to delve into the origins of Judaism and make sense of the story of Exodus. The story of the Exodus is one of the most important in the Judaic religions: Moses, through the ten plagues, defies the will of Pharaoh and frees the Israelites from slavery, leading them to the promised land of Canaan. Popular opinion has placed this event during the reign of Rameses II  (as popularized by the Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments). Academics have generally sought to place it in the reign of Rameses’ son Meneptah. Freud, however, argues for the exodus happening slightly earlier; towards the end of the 18th dynasty (Rameses II was the 3rd Pharaoh of the 19th dynasty) and the period after the reign of the Heretic King Akhenaton.

Akhenaton is, in my opinion, the most interesting Pharaoh of Egyptian history; a man who has been called “the first individual in history”. Akhenaton effectively overthrew the social and religious order of Egypt by proclaiming there to be only one god, the Aton, manifested in the sun, but omnipresent and omnipotent. In doing so Akhenaton was not only attempting to overthrow the old religion, but also to destroy the power of the priests of Amon who, over the previous centuries, had accrued so much power that they were able to rival that of Pharaoh. To this end Akhenaton moved the capital from Thebes (modern Luxor) and founded a new city, Akhetaton (now called Tell Armana), here he built a temple to the Aton and forbade the worship of any other gods. The Aton was revolutionary in that he wasn’t just an Egyptian god, rather Akhenaton envisaged him as a universal god whose light blessed all of creation. However, Akhenaton became obsessed with his new god to the extent that his empire began to crumble. On his death he was succeeded by his son Tutankhaton. The priesthood of Amon seized their chance to reclaim power and forced the new king to re-establish the the old religion, whereupon he was renamed Tutankhamen (replacing replacing Aton with Amun). The boy king’s reign was famously short and in the power struggle following his death (most likely in a chariot accident) the general Horemheb became Pharaoh. Horemheb made it a personal mission to destroy any evidence of the Heretic King. In this task Horemheb was relatively successful so that all memory of Akhenaton had been completely forgotten until the discovery of his capital city in the late 19th century.

Freud starts his hypothesis by claiming that Moses was an Egyptian and not a Hebrew. To start with he points to the name itself. Moses, or Moshe in Hebrew, is an Egyptian name meaning “drawn from” as evidenced in many Egyptian names such as Rameses (Ra-Mose) meaning “drawn from Ra” or Tuthmoses meaning “drawn from Toth”. Freud therefore claims that it is likely that Moses was merely the ending of the man’s real name and the fore-part of the name was subsequently dropped or forgotten in time. Freud then moves on to the subject of circumcision, in Judaism the symbol of God’s covenant with Abraham. We know from archaeological evidence that circumcision was a tradition practised by the ancient Egyptians. It would seem strange therefore that the Hebrews would adopt, as a symbol of their specialness, a practice in common with the most powerful nation on Earth at the time. Rather, Freud postulates, it was a tradition that started as a reminder of the Egyptian origins of Moses’ followers.

Freud claims that the most convenient time for the Exodus to have taken place would be in the time immediately after the death of Akhenaton, at time when the followers of the Aton were persecuted by the old religion. Freud therefore deduces that Moses was possibly a priest of the Aton who gathered his followers to flee into exile. Freud goes on to theorize that Moses was a very wilful and forceful man (as evidenced by his actions in the Book of Exodus) and points to several rebellions that he faces in Exodus; he deduces that in one of these rebellions Moses is killed by his followers. Moses’ followers wander and settle with the tribe of Midian in modern Saudi Arabia (on the Red Sea) who worship a mountain god called Yahweh. Over several generations (the 40 years in the wilderness) the cult of Yahweh and Aton were fused together (an angry god and a gentle god which Freud uses to explain the temperament of the Jewish God rather neatly). Freud postulates that it is their guilt over the killing of Moses that led to his followers incorporating him as a the great prophet of the Book of Exodus. Moses’ followers also became adamant that their Egyptian past should not be forgotten, hence they keep the practice of circumcision and create the Exodus legend which is celebrated every year at Passover. Freud suggest that, coming from the more cultured society of Egypt, the followers of Moses became the priestly tribe of Levi, creating a line of continuity from the priesthood of the Aton to the modern era.

Moses and Monotheism is about more than speculation on the origins of Judaism. In the book Freud is, without renouncing his atheism, seeing the Jewish faith that he was born into as a source of cultural progress in the past and of personal inspiration in the present. Close to his own death, Freud had started to recognize the poetry and promise in religion. Despite being deeply irreligious, Freud was able to take inspiration from the great prophets of the past. Much in the same way as Nietzsche hated Christianity yet aspired to emulate Jesus. One does not have to, indeed should not, take Moses and Monotheism, at face value. The book is about far more that trying to make sense of the Exodus story. It is Freud showing his fascination with Moses, a man he sought to emulate in the sense of making conceptual innovations which could stand the test of time. Freud, it seems “did not see religion as the opium of the masses – but rather as the poetry of the masses”. Moses and Monotheism is testament to Freud’s recognition of the beauty and poetry of religion; there is something about his progression of the Jewish faith from that of Akhenaton, through Moses, to modern era.

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