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Moses and Multiculturalism

Barbara Johnson

Publication Year: 2010

Countering impressions of Moses reinforced by Sigmund Freud in his epoch-making Moses and Monotheism, this concise, engaging work begins with the perception that the story of Moses is at once the most nationalist and the most multicultural of all foundation narratives. Weaving together various texts—biblical passages, philosophy, poems, novels, opera, and movies—Barbara Johnson explores how the story of Moses has been appropriated, reimagined, and transmitted across cultures and historical moments. But she finds that already in the Bible, the story of Moses is a multicultural story, the story of someone who functions well in a world to which he, unbeknownst to the casual observer, does not belong. Using the Moses story as a lens through which to view questions at the heart of contemporary literary, philosophical, and ethical debates, Johnson shows how, through a close analysis of this figure's recurrence through time, we might understand something of the paradoxes, if not the impasses of contemporary multiculturalism.

Published by: University of California Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

If the story of Moses didn’t exist, Barbara Johnson might have invented it to illustrate concepts she began writing about in 1980. “The problem of difference,” she wrote in the Opening Remarks to her first book, The Critical Difference, “can be seen both as an uncertainty over separability and as a drifting apart within identity.” ...

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pp. 1-15

Ever since Sigmund Freud published his epoch-making Moses and Monotheism at the height of the Nazi Holocaust, the impression of Moses’ mono-ness and his role as founder of the Jewish faith has been reinforced. But this book begins with the perception that the story of Moses is at once the most nationalist and the most multiculturalist of all foundation narratives. ...

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1. The Biblical Moses

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pp. 16-24

This chapter is devoted to reading the original story of Moses and noting the many odd things that come up in it. The story stretches over the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, but barely a tenth of that length is devoted to familiar plot elements: the baby in the bulrushes, the killing of the overseer, ...

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2. Moses and the Law

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pp. 25-28

Moses is often associated with the founding of the rule of law: a U.S. judge who wanted to display the Ten Commandments in his office sparked an intense debate about the separation of church and state. Christians treated the Ten Commandments as their own; ...

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3. Flavius Josephus

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pp. 29-38

Josephus was a Pharisee priest, a Jewish historian, and a military leader who wrote around the time of the death of Christ. His opposition to Jewish nationalism and his infatuation with the Roman Empire have negatively affected his reputation among Jews, but his accounts of Jewish history are often the only versions that still exist outside of the Bible. ...

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4. Frances E.W. Harper

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pp. 39-45

Antislavery activist and early black woman writer — one would expect the story of the liberation of Egypt’s slaves to be tailor-made for Frances E. W. Harper. Therefore, it is all the more surprising to see her take for granted the story of liberation from slavery to zero in on Moses’ complicated relations with his two mothers ...

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5. Moses, the Egyptian

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pp. 46-57

It was not only Freud who announced to the world that Moses was really an Egyptian; so did the prominent Egyptologist Jan Assmann. Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian gives solidity to Freud’s claim. But it does more: Assmann makes a useful distinction between history and memory, traditions and “what really happened.” ...

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6. Freud's Moses

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pp. 58-76

Even in the Bible, the presence of leprosy and plagues is an indication, perhaps, of an event in Egyptian history that is never reported directly: the occurrence of a terrible epidemic. This has led to many stories equating Jews with disease. Maybe the Amarna episode is figured as a plague, or maybe the Jews were considered responsible for a plague. ...

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7. Hurston's Moses

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pp. 77-81

Zora Neale Hurston wrote one of the few full-length portraits of the man Moses. His humanity is emphasized by Hurston, as well as by Freud, for different reasons. Freud strove to present Moses as a character in a historical novel, whereas Hurston depicts him as a very special person, adept in magic, able to talk with animals, ...

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8. The German Moses

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pp. 82-88

Friedrich von Schiller, a rival and contemporary of Goethe, is now better known as a playwright, a philosopher, and a Weimar classicist than for his little 1790 text on Moses, “The Mission of Moses.” His dilemma with Moses was, however, quite influential in its day. ...

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9. Moses, the Movie

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pp. 89-94

Cecil B. DeMille produced two versions of the Moses story, both called The Ten Commandments: a silent film in 1926 and the classic starring Charlton Heston in 1956. These two films are in many ways very different. The earlier film is a morality tale showing the relevance of the commandments to modern life, and the second is a Hollywood blockbuster. ...

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pp. 95-96

Even in the biblical version, it is sometimes hard to see Moses’ character as consistent. In fact, those enigmatic moments in the biblical story give an opening to entirely different imaginings of Moses. This book, which profits greatly from biblical commentaries, departs from them, too, in not trying to reconcile all inconsistencies and not drawing a lesson from them. ...


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pp. 97-104


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pp. 105-112

Production Notes

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p. 127-127

E-ISBN-13: 9780520946101
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520262546

Page Count: 126
Publication Year: 2010