Moses and Monotheism

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Begun in 1934, and rewritten in 1936, Freud's Moses and Monotheism appeared in an abridged form in the review Imago (the first two essays), and the final version was published in 1939. It also appeared in the Standard Edition edited by James Strachey (1964).

Upon first examination the work seems somewhat disordered, and contains repetitions and inconsistencies. The writing appears to reflect the movement of Freud's thought, his doubts and hesitation, his concern regarding the scientific nature of the information he provides, and his fears concerning the way the text might be received among Viennese Catholics and by the Jewish community.

The work contains three essays of unequal length, "Moses an Egyptian," "If Moses Was an Egyptian," and "Moses, His People, and Monotheistic Religion." The last essay includes prefatory notes written at different times, one in Vienna before Freud's departure for Great Britain, the other in London, which partly contradicts the first. Finally, part two of the third essay is preceded by a "Summary" in which he reevaluates much of the information in the first essays.

Moses and Monotheism can be approached in several different ways. First, it is a biography of Moses, the "historical novel" whose scientific nature Freud wanted to establish. Freud claims that Moses was not Jewish but Egyptian and bases this claim on the fact that the name "Moses" was Egyptian, as well as on certain considerations about the family origin of heroes, based on Otto Rank's Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1909).

In the second essay Freud tries to understand the reasons that would have led Moses to assume the leadership of the minority people who were to become Jews and impose a new religion upon them. He then comes up with the idea that what would become Mosaic religion originated in the cult of Aton practiced by the pharaoh Amenotep IV. Moses, as a devoted believer, is said to have adopted the new religion as his own. After the revolt that followed the death of the pharaoh, Moses chose exile and the creation of a people upon whom he was able to impose his religious beliefs, together with the (Egyptian) practice of circumcision. These are the people he led out of slavery. The cult of Aton and following Mosaic faith brought to religion, for the first time in history, the monotheistic notion of a unique and universal god. Because of his tyrannical and domineering character, and his desire to impose a monotheistic religion upon all Jews, Moses is said to have been assassinated during a revolt of the Jews against his authority.

Freud meets the criticism that situates the exodus one or two centuries after the reign of Akhenaton by advancing the idea that Moses did not draw his religious beliefs directly from the pharaoh but from priests who had been devotees of the cult of Aton. He also responds to certain historical conclusions that situated the origin of the Jewish religion in the cult of a volcano god, Yahweh, defeated by a Moses who was of Midian origin, by postulating the fusion of two religions: Aton's religion of truth and justice, which was temporarily repressed by the religion of Yahweh, which was focused more on conquest. While reconstituting the history of the Jewish people, Freud rediscovers the dualist system that was so important to him: the fusion of two Moses in a single character, of two new religions into a single monotheistic religion, of two peoples into a single nation.

Freud's work is thus an explanation of the formation of monotheistic religion on the basis of parricide (that of Moses), the collective repression of this murder, its passage from memory, but also its survival in the unconscious and its reappearance in religious phenomena. This theme is similar to one developed in Totem and Taboo : parricide as the origin of civilization and monotheistic religion. According to Freud, this explanation holds for both the Jewish religion, where parricide is not recognized as such but reappears in the feeling of guilt, and Christianity, where guilt (original sin) and parricide are recognized and assumed. Paul of Tarsus (the true founder, for Freud, of the Christian religion) is supposed to have recognized the murder. The expiation of parricide could only be carried out by the sacrifice of an expiatory victim: the son of God himself. The euphoria of being the chosen people in the Jewish religion is replaced in Christian religion by the sentiment of compensatory liberation through the sacrifice of the son. Original sin and atonement through sacrifice are the pillars of the new religion founded by Paul. In Freud's approach, Moses is desacralized, reduced to his human nature (as in "The Moses of Michelangelo," [1914b]), and God is reduced to a strictly human origin arising from projections of the individual unconscious.

Freud's Moses and Monotheism represents an application of the data of individual metapsychology to collective psychology. For Freud there is an "analogy" between the collective phenomena upon which religions are based and the process of repression at work in individual development according to the following schema: infantile traumadefenselatencyonset of neurotic illness and partial return of the repressed. As Marie Moscovici noted, Freud's work on Moses is also a consideration of the status of the father, whose function escapes any sensory appreciation or direct perception, and who can only be recognized as father through the mental activities of the son who designates him as father. Moses and Monotheism is also a reflection on Jewish identity, the character traits on which it is based and which ensure its longevity, the hatred it arouses in anti-Semitism and which Freud explains as the price to be paid for the denial of parricide and the refusal to acknowledge this.

As in all of Freud's work, one possible reading of Moses can refer to the individual history of the founder of psychoanalysis. The book was written immediately before his death. It constitutes what is almost his final text at a time when he feared that psychoanalysis, because of the rise of Nazism and the internal struggles among his own followers, was threatened with extinction. The idea that some might desire the death of the founder of psychoanalysis, just as the Jewish people would have desired the death of Moses, was probably not far removed from his contemplation of parricide.

Pierre Ferrari

See also: Anthropology and psychoanalysis; Collective psychology; Complementary series; Cultural transmission; Ethics; Historical truth; Judaism and psychoanalysis; Mythology and psychoanalysis; Politics and psychoanalysis; Primitive horde; Racism, anti-Semitism, and psychoanalysis; Return of the repressed; Sociology and psychoanalysis, sociopsychoanalysis; Visual.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1939a [1934-1938]). Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion: Drei Abhandlungen. Amsterdam, Allert De Lange; G. W, XVI, p. 103-246; Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 7-137.


Freud, Sigmund. (1914b). The Moses of Michelangelo. SE, 13: 209-238.

Gay, Peter. (1988). Freud: A life for our time. London-Melbourne: Dent.

Jones, Ernest. (1953-1957). Sigmund Freud: Life and work. London: Hogarth Press.

Moscovici, Marie. (1986). Préface. In Sigmund Freud, L'Homme Moïse et la Religion monothéiste. Trois Essais (p. 15-53). Paris: Gallimard.

Rank, Otto. (1952). The myth of the birth of the hero; a psychological interpretation of mythology (F. Robbins and Smith Ely Jelliffe, Trans.). New York: R. Brunner. (Original work published 1909)

Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. (1991). Freud's Moses, Judaism terminable and interminable. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.