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  • Monotheism, the Incomplete Revolution:Narrating the Event in Freud’s and Assmann’s Moses
  • Ari Ofengenden (bio)


The Man Moses and the Monotheistic Religion1 has traditionally been seen as the most speculative of Freud’s works. Freud wrote the book under the threat of rising Nazi power while suffering from cancer and knowing full well that it would be his last book. Interestingly, Freud does not choose to summarize his views on psychoanalysis, but boldly ventures into the field of biblical history, writing what he calls an “historical novel.” Bold but nevertheless writing in a defensive, almost neurotic style, Freud hedges his claims in a variety of ways, complaining about his own fading powers, highlighting the uncertainty of his findings even as he makes very audacious claims. Influenced by Dostoyevskian monologues, Freud positions himself as desperate narrator attempting the impossible, well aware of the speculative character of his undertaking. Freud’s historical novel was also inspired by his reading of Thomas Man’s “Joseph and his Brothers,” and undeniably reads like a serialized novel which breaks off at key points in order to heighten suspense.

Freud’s audacious reconstruction of the story of Moses is by now well known. Moses was an Egyptian born priest or nobleman who lived at the time of the monotheistic revolution undertaken by Ikhnaton at 14 B.C.E. Ikhnaton violently negated polytheism, destroyed temples and statues of sacred Egyptian Deities, and was the first in human history to invent and call for the worship of an unseen, unified god by the name of Aten. Freud’s Moses was either a disciple or high priest of the new religion. However, the [End Page 291] monotheistic revolution ultimately met a reactionary backlash and Moses was forced to side with “Semitic tribes” temporarily residing in Egypt, becoming their leader, bringing them out of Egypt, and giving them a new God and new laws. At some point, Moses and his people then joined another group of people who resided in Meribah-Kadesh and who believed in “JHWH”—a local angry volcanic God. In something like a psychic compromise formation (that is, behavior and outcome which results from the conflation of opposing tendencies in a person), the two different groups claimed the story of exodus as theirs but also named their god JAHWE, attributing to him all the characteristics of the angry, spiteful, volcanic God. The people, however resent the discipline and exacting demands that come with this exclusive, unrepresentable God, and—after several attempts at revolt—finally murder “the great man” Moses. After the killing they repress both the man and his exacting monotheism. However, the repressed memory returns, and by the spiritual leadership of the prophets, JHAWA takes on once more the characteristics of Aten, a universal, omnipotent, unseen, ethical God. Consequently, the Jews2 take upon themselves unprecedented instinctual renunciations for at least three primary reasons. They do so first because their God could not be seen and worshiped in an orgiastic manner. Secondly they do so to maintain his omnipotence in the face of military defeat, loss of power, and exile. They blamed themselves for not following his exacting commandments and made their laws even stricter and harder to follow. Thirdly, the Jews remained in denial about killing the “great man,” leaving their unconscious guilt intact which in turn demands even more strident renunciation. Those who became Christians, Freud concludes, have implicitly accepted that they have killed Moses/God and have had the son Jesus atone for their guilt by his own death. Indeed, Freud rhetorically asks what sin other than murder is atoned by death. Those who stayed Jews, however, have tragically refused to accept their guilt for killing Moses/God, which has been sustained in a displaced form by the claim that they have killed the Christ, and indeed have been made to “pay a heavy penance for it.” Freud’s ethnogenesis of the Jewish people thus explains the essential features of Judaism and anti-Semitism as it presents three explanations for why the Jews took on new renunciations against sensual instinct. [End Page 292]

Reception of Freud’s Moses

The book, while often considered wholly speculative, has frequently been treated...


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pp. 291-307
Launched on MUSE
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