Moses and Monotheism
is a 1939 religious philosophy book by Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, consisting of three essays and expanding Freud’s work on psychoanalytic theory to generate hypotheses about historical events. Freud argues that Moses was not Hebrew as stated in the Bible, but was actually born into Ancient Egyptian nobility and was likely a follower of the early Egyptian monotheist Akhenaten. Freud provides his own retelling of events leading to the Biblical Exodus and applies his beliefs on the psychological impact of guilt to the events. Exploring themes of religious history, historical inaccuracy, and collective guilt, Moses and Monotheism
is one of Freud’s most controversial works, as many religious scholars have taken umbrage with his reinterpretation of biblical history. It was translated into English shortly after its Austrian release and remains widely read and debated today.
Divided into three parts, Moses and Monotheism
begins by setting up Freud’s central conceit, which was that Moses was not actually a Jewish man but rather an Egyptian rebel who led a small band of Jewish rebels out of Egypt during a civil war. They eventually conspired against him and killed him, an original sin that has haunted the tribe of Israel ever since. Freud argues that after their killing of Moses, these people were overcome by remorse and guilt and they later came across a small monotheistic tribe. They combined this system of belief with their memory of Moses and their belief system was developed. This is why the Jewish people developed the concept of a Messiah, as a way to reconnect with their ancient father figure. Freud argues that this sense of ancient shame has been passed down in Jewish collective memory for generations and has led to their devout nature. Looking at the Jewish story of the adoption of Moses, Freud attributes it to the individual desire to tie their bloodline to royalty because it makes them feel important. Freud says that while Moses’ true family was the royal family of Egypt, the Jewish people who followed him established their tale of Moses’ adoption to feel closer to him.
In the second section of the book, Freud explores how the Jewish religion was developed. Freud explains that the Egyptian God Aten was the original God of Moses, but was not fully accepted by the polytheistic priests of Ancient Egypt who held great sway with the public. Aten was first introduced to the public under the monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaton, but his dream of creating a monotheistic faith in Egypt died with him. The priests re-established the old order, but Freud argues that a group of royals led by Moses were unhappy with this. They led a rebellion and eventually fled to the desert. Freud raises the evidence of similarities between Jewish culture and Aten worshipers. These include circumcision of young children, very little mention of life after death, and strict adherence to a single God. Freud asserts that after his attempts at power were thwarted by the priesthood, Moses led his band of loyal followers into the desert and began practicing their religion away from the power of the Egyptian throne. However, Freud has no historical evidence for this theory, beyond presenting it as an alternative to the prevailing theory of Moses as a Jewish man raised by Egyptian royalty.
Freud, having been born Jewish, uses his knowledge of Jewish folklore to find evidence for his theory. He asserts that Moses’ band of followers were initially loyal to him, but at a certain point their beliefs from their polytheistic past came into conflict with their new faith. After Moses died, most of his religion was abandoned, but they eventually came into contact with a group who had also escaped Egypt’s civil war. This group practiced the worship of a mountain god called Yahweh. He was a demanding God in terms of ritual sacrifice, and the people began to follow him. However, the influence of this new group of followers began to affect the worshippers of Yahweh, and the memory of the all-powerful, all-loving God of Moses crept in and influenced the followers of Yahweh towards a more moderate approach. The group had initially suppressed memory of Moses due to shame, but his influence began to re-emerge and his story was integrated with Yahweh. Freud also argues that the story of Jesus was another, similar invention, and those who became Christian created the story of the crucifixion and resurrection to redeem humanity for its past sins. Freud says that the Holy Communion is linked to the totem feast described in his earlier work on religion, Totem and Taboo.
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst, and is considered one of the most significant figures in the development of the modern field of psychology. He is most famous for his work analyzing human sexuality and its influence on behavior patterns. While his work is controversial and heavily debated today, it is still widely taught. He wrote twenty-two books between 1891 and 1940, and is also known for his extensive selection of case histories. His most significant works were re-published in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud.