Sigmund Freud

Moses and Monotheism

Review by Sally Paddock, 2008

Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism. New York: Vintage Books, 1967. 178 pages.

As much as scholars, artists, researchers and really any other 'private' individual who releases their work into the public domain may objectively acknowledge that their contributions are part of a constantly evolving, shifty historical process, there must also often be a hesitant hope that their contribution contains at least a kernel of truth, something essential and evident that they need to reveal and, perhaps, that the rest of the world needs them to reveal. Something, which they hope, later theorists will not need to discard – at least for awhile. It was with similar ambition that Freud wrote Moses and Monotheism: believing so steadfastly in the application of his psychoanalytic theory to historical experience, he found the strength to compose his treatise amidst a weakening old age and the grave external danger that was the Nazi era – hoping that, even if he could not find a safe space to publish it, someone later on in history would find it and find affirmation that “in darker days there lived a man who thought as [I] did” (68).

It is from these 'less-darker' days, then, that this treatise can again be reviewed – despite the fact that Freud did find a safe space to publish his work. It is a work based primarily on his earlier clinical work with individuals: Freud takes his theories of how neurotic obsessions develop in individuals and applies them as an explanation for what he calls the “neurosis of mankind” (68) – religion. The religion he uses to illuminate his theory of the psyche of the masses is Judaism although he believes it can be applied to all religious phenomena.

Combining recent theories of evolutionary biology with those of the sociology of primeval man, Freud asserts throughout his book that the memory of historical experiences – like those of early childhood – are passed down through human generations phylogenetically; these experiences, again like individual impressions, are sexual-aggressive in nature and pass through similar stages of impression, repression and distorted expression. As historical experience traces the course of individual experience with such fidelity, Freud asserts, it is similarly possible to psychoanalyze history and uncover those “repressed” impressions just as it is possible to do with an individual. One just has to read between the lines of expressed history.

The history that Freud traces, then, is that of the development of Judaism and the lines he reads between are those found in the Bible and those of ancient Egyptian inscriptions. According to the studies he has read, Freud states, as fact, that Amenhotep IV of the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt was the first to promote a religious belief based on monotheism; along with the absence of other gods, Amenhotep IV's worship also excluded myth, magic, sorcery and an obsession with the realm of the dead (26). Moses, an Egyptian noble of the time, took this religion (which perished in Egypt along with Amenhotep IV), took a group of Hebrew people then living in Egypt, took the practice of circumcision which Freud assumes also developed in Egypt, and migrated to the Sinai desert. Once in the desert Moses developed an even stricter version of monotheistic worship by refusing to allow any images of the One God to be made. The people got angry, they killed Moses their father-leader-circumciser (castrator), and combined their ethnicity and religion with other people of the Midian area who worshiped the god Jehu. The guilt of the murder remained with them, however. It remained with them for approximately seven hundred years till the prophets, as expressed in the book Hosea, resurrected monotheism and insisted on a worship and practice of ethics that emphasized spirituality (more fatherly in nature) rather than sensuality (more motherly).

Freud bases his historical conclusions, however, upon a teetering tower of questionable evidence: the etymology of the name Moses, his convenient reversal of the exposure myth, extrapolating monotheism from Amenhotep, selective Biblical source criticism of the J and E trajectories, one study by his contemporary Sellin who was able to “divine (119)” that Moses was actually killed in the desert, and traces of the covering up of the patricide – a deliberate falsification of the text corresponding to a late latency period which he finds in the textual discrepancies of the Bible. From this he is able to explain the history of the Jewish 'guilt' complex; the waxing and waning of sensual and spiritual emphases throughout religious histories as the patricide is both atoned for and repeated (the murder of Jesus); and why Jews, of all the people of the ancient Near East, have not only survived but have contributed to culture in such an intellectually, progressive manner.

From the current vantage point of historical, textual, psychological and religious research it is easy to dismiss Freud's conclusions of a collective Oedipal complex as an unscientific investigation which held a conclusion up in the theoretical sky and then searched for evidence that might reach high enough to buttress it. Some of his historical claims are wildly akin to those which a recent Egyptian lobbying group used in order to determine whether or not it could sue world Jewry for the plunder of the Exodus. The Jewish response: We will sue you for four-hundred years of slavery (Randall, David. 2003. Egyptian Lawyers Say They May Sue Jews for Exodus Plunder. The Independent, September 15)! On the other hand, read in context, Moses and Monotheism is an excellent example of a piece of research which has contributed to the evolution of the joint study of psychology and religious experience. Freud, despite any internal struggles and obsessions that may have marred his objectivity (as all subjectivities are), was able to bring together results and hypotheses of current theories in sociology, evolutionary biology, psychoanalysis and historical-textual criticism and apply them, with a passionate personal history, to something of relevant interest. It is through this approach and thought process, his commitment to multidisciplinary research – not to a particular conclusion of psychoanalysis, that Freud's “darker days” should continue to be followed and his contributions to our 'less-darker' days appropriated.