The Murder of Moses


John Everett Millais‘ Victory O Lord! (1871)

« All men are either Jews or Hellenes; either they are driven by ascetic impulses which lead them to reject all pictorial representation and to sacrifice to sublimation, or they are distinguished by their serenity, their expansive naturalness and their realistic spirit, » wrote Heinrich Heinei.

The over-schematic and somewhat outrageous nature of this statement may surprise in the mouth of the « last of the Romantic poets ».

But, according to Jan Assmann, Heine here would only symbolize the opposition between two human types, each of them holding on to two world visions, one valuing the spirit, without seeking a direct relationship with material reality, and the other valuing above all the senses and the concrete world.

In any case, when Heinrich Heine wrote these words at the beginning of the 19th century, this clear-cut opposition between « Hebraism » and « Hellenism » could be seen as a kind of commonplace “cliché” in the Weltanschauung then active in Germany.

Other considerations fueled this polarization. A kind of fresh wind seemed to be blowing on the European intellectual scene following the recent discovery of Sanskrit, followed by the realization of the historical depth of the Vedic heritage, and the exhumation of evidence of a linguistic filiation between the ‘Indo-European’ languages.

All this supported the thesis of the existence of multi-millennia migrations covering vast territories, notably from Northern Europe to Central Asia, India and Iran.

There was a passionate search for a common European origin, described in Germany as ‘Indo-Germanic’ and in France or Britain as ‘Indo-European’, taking advantage as much as possible of the lessons of comparative linguistics, the psychology of peoples and various mythical, religious and cultural sources.

Heine considered the opposition between « Semitic » and « Aryan » culture as essential. For him, it was a question not only of opposing « Aryans » and « Semites », but of perceiving « a more general opposition that concerned ‘all men’, the opposition between the mind, which is not directly related to the world or distant from it, and the senses, which are linked to the world. The first inclination, says Heine (rather simplistically, I must say), men get it from the Jews, the second, they inherited it from the Greeks, so that henceforth two souls live in the same bosom, a Jewish soul and a Greek soul, one taking precedence over the other depending on the case.» ii

A century later, Freud thought something comparable, according to Jan Assmann. « For him, too, the specifically Jewish contribution to human history lay in the drive toward what he called « progress in the life of the spirit. This progress is to the psychic history of humanity what Freud calls ‘sublimation’ in the individual psychic life.”iii

For Freud, the monotheistic invention consisted « in a refusal of magic and mysticism, in encouraging progress in the life of the spirit, and in encouraging sublimation ». It was a process by which « the people, animated by the possession of truth, penetrated by the consciousness of election, came to set great store by intellectual things and to emphasize ethics »iv.

This would be the great contribution of « Judaism » to the history of the world.

At the same time, however, Freud developed a particularly daring and provocative thesis about the « invention » of monotheism. According to him, Moses was not a Hebrew, he was Egyptian; moreover, and most importantly, he did not die in the land of Moab, as the Bible reports, but was in fact murdered by his own people.

Freud’s argument is based on the unmistakably Egyptian name ‘Moses’, the legend of his childhood, and Moses’ « difficult speech, » an indication that he was not proficient in Hebrew. Indeed, he could communicate only through Aaron. In addition, there are some revealing quotations, according to Freud: « What will I do for this people? A little more and they will stone me! « (Ex. 17:4) and : « The whole community was talking about [Moses and Aaron] stoning them. » (Numbers 14:10).

There is also that chapter of Isaiah in which Freud distinguishes the « repressed » trace of the fate actually reserved for Moses: « An object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like one before whom one hides his face, despised, we took no notice of him. But it was our sufferings that he bore and our pains that he was burdened with. And we saw him as punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:3-5)

Freud infers from all these clues that Moses was in fact murdered by the Jews after they revolted against the unbearable demands of the Mosaic religion. He adds that the killing of Moses by the Jews marked the end of the system of the primitive horde and polytheism, and thus resulted in the effective and lasting foundation of monotheism.

The murder of the « father », which was – deeply – repressed in Jewish consciousness, became part of an « archaic heritage », which « encompasses not only provisions but also contents, mnemonic traces relating to the life of previous generations. (…) If we admit the preservation of such mnemonic traces in the archaic heritage, we have bridged the gap between individual psychology and the psychology of the masses, we can treat people as the neurotic individual.”v

The repression is not simply cultural or psychological, it affects the long memory of peoples, through « mnemonic traces » that are inscribed in the depths of souls, and perhaps even in the biology of bodies, in their DNA.

The important thing is that it is from this repression that a « decisive progress in the life of the spirit » has been able to emerge, according to Freud. This « decisive progress », triggered by the murder of Moses, was also encouraged by the ban on mosaic images.

« Among the prescriptions of the religion of Moses, there is one that is more meaningful than is at first thought. It is the prohibition to make an image of God, and therefore the obligation to worship a God who cannot be seen. We suppose that on this point Moses surpassed in rigor the religion of Aten; perhaps he only wanted to be consistent – his God had neither name nor face -; perhaps it was a new measure against the illicit practices of magic. But if one admitted this prohibition, it necessarily had to have an in-depth action. It meant, in fact, a withdrawal of the sensory perception in favor of a representation that should be called abstract, a triumph of the life of the mind over the sensory life, strictly speaking a renunciation of impulses with its necessary consequences on the psychological level.”vi

If Judaism represents a « decisive progress » in the life of the spirit, what can we think of the specific contribution of Christianity in this regard?

Further progress in the march of the spirit? Or, on the contrary, regression?

Freud’s judgment of the Christian religion is very negative.

« We have already said that the Christian ceremony of Holy Communion, in which the believer incorporates the Saviour’s flesh and blood, repeats in its content the ancient totemic meal, certainly only in its sense of tenderness, which expresses veneration, not in its aggressive sense ».vii

For him, « this religion constitutes a clear regression in the life of the spirit, since it is marked by a return to magical images and rites, and in particular to the sacrificial rite of the totemic meal during which God himself is consumed by the community of believers.”viii

Freud’s blunt condemnation of Christianity is accompanied by a kind of contempt for the « lower human masses » who have adopted this religion.

« In many respects, the new religion constituted a cultural regression in relation to the old, Jewish religion, as is regularly the case when new, lower-level human masses enter or are admitted somewhere. The Christian religion did not maintain the degree of spiritualization to which Judaism had risen. It was no longer strictly monotheistic, it adopted many of the symbolic rites of the surrounding peoples, it restored the great mother goddess and found room for a large number of polytheistic deities, recognizable under their veils, albeit reduced to a subordinate position. Above all it did not close itself, like the religion of Aten and the Mosaic religion which followed it, to the intrusion of superstitious magic and mystical elements, which were to represent a serious inhibition for the spiritual development of the next two millennia.”ix

If one adopts a viewpoint internal to Christianity, however hurtful Freud’s attacks may be, they do not stand up to analysis. In spite of all the folklore from which popular religiosity is not exempt, Christian theology is clear: there is only one God. The Trinity, difficult to understand, one can admit, for non-Christians as well as for Christians, does not imply « three Gods », but only one God, who gives Himself to be seen and understood in three « Persons ».

To take a cross-comparison, one could infer that Judaism is not « strictly monotheistic » either, if one recalls that the Scriptures attest that « three men » (who were YHVH) appeared to Abraham under the oak tree of Mamre (Gen 18:1-3), or that the Word of God was « incarnated » in the six hundred thousand signs of the Torah, or that God left in the world His own « Shekhinah » .

From the point of view of Christianity, everything happens as if Isaiah chapter 53, which Freud applied to Moses, could also be applied to the figure of Jesus.

It is the absolutely paradoxical and scandalous idea (from the point of view of Judaism) that the Messiah could appear not as a triumphant man, crushing the Romans, but as « an object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised. »

But what is, now, the most scandalous thing for the Jewish conscience?

Is it Freud’s hypothesis that Isaiah’s words about a « man of sorrow », « despised », indicate that the Jews murdered Moses?

Or is it that these same Isaiah’s words announce the Christian thesis that the Messiah had to die like a slave, under the lazzis and spittle?

If Freud is wrong and Moses was not murdered by the Jews, it cannot be denied that a certain Jesus was indeed put to death under Pontius Pilate. And then one may be struck by the resonance of these words uttered by Isaiah seven centuries before: « Now it is our sufferings that he bore and our sorrows that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:4-5)

There is obviously no proof, from the Jewish point of view, that these words of Isaiah apply to Jesus, — or to Moses.

If Isaiah’s words do not apply to Moses (in retrospect) nor to Jesus (prophetically), who do they apply to? Are they only general, abstract formulas, without historical content? Or do they refer to some future Messiah? Then, how many more millennia must Isaiah’s voice wait before it reaches its truth?

History, we know, has only just begun.

Human phylum, if it does not throw itself unexpectedly into nothingness, taking with it its planet of origin, still has (roughly) a few tens of millions of years of phylogenetic « development » ahead of it.

To accomplish what?

One may answer: to rise ever more in consciousness.

Or to accomplish still unimaginable « decisive progress »…

With time, the millennia will pass.

Will Isaiah’s words pass?

What is mankind already capable of?

What will be the nature of the « decisive progress » of the human spirit, which has yet to be accomplished, and which still holds itself in the potency to become?

It is necessary to prepare for it. We must always set to work, in the dark, in what seems like a desert of stone, salt and sand.

For example, it would be, it seems to me, a kind of « decisive » progress to “see” in the figure of Moses « put to death » by his own people, and in that of Christ « put on the cross », the very figure of the Sacrifice.

What Sacrifice?

The original Sacrifice, granted from before the creation of the world by the Creator God, the « Lord of Creatures » (that One and Supreme God whom the Veda already called « Prajāpati » six thousand years ago).

It would also, it seems to me, be another kind of « decisive » progress to begin to sense some of the anthropological consequences of the original « Sacrifice » of the supreme God, the « Lord of Creatures ».

Among them, the future of the « religions » on the surface of such a small, negligible planet (Earth): their necessary movement of convergence towards a religion of Humanity and of the World, a religion of the conscience of the Sacrifice of God, a religion of the conscience of Man, in the emptiness of the Cosmos.

iHeinrich Heine. Ludwig Börne. Le Cerf. Paris, 1993

iiJan Assmann. Le prix du monothéisme. Flammarion, Paris 2007, p. 142

iiiIbid. p. 143

ivSigmund Freud, L’Homme Moïse et la Religion monothéiste, traduit de l’allemand par Cornelius Heim, Paris, Gallimard, 1993, p.177, cité par J. Assmann, op.cit. p.144

vIbid. p.196

viIbid. p.211-212

viiIbid. p.173 et 179

viiiJan Assmann. Le prix du monothéisme. Flammarion, Paris 2007, p. 163

ixSigmund Freud, L’Homme Moïse, p.211-212

Who Invented Monotheism?


Akhenaten. Thebes

The fables that people tell each other, the myths they construct for themselves, the stories that clothe their memory, help them to build their supposed identity, and enable them to distinguish themselves from other peoples.

Through the magic of words, « barbarians », « idolaters », « savages » and « infidels » appear in the imaginations of some peoples.

But with the hindsight of history and anthropology, we sometimes find strange similarities, disturbing analogies, between peoples who are so diverse, so distant, separated from each other by a priori ostracisms.

Many peoples resemble each other in that they all believe that they only are « unique », « special ». They believe that they are the only people in the world who are who they are, who believe in what they believe, who think what they think.

We can apply this observation to the religious fact.

The « monotheistic » religion, for example, has not appeared in a single culture, a single people. If the primacy of monotheistic worship is often associated with the ancient religion of the Hebrews, it is because we often forget that another form of monotheism was invented in Egypt by Amenophis IV (Akhenaten), several centuries before Abraham. Moses himself, according to Freud, but also according to the recent conclusions of some of the best informed Egyptologists, would have been, in his first life, a defrocked priest of the God Aten, and would have taken advantage of the Exodus to claim the laws and symbols of what was to define Judaism.

The idea of monotheism, far from being reserved for the Nile valley or the foothills of the Sinai, appeared in other cultures, in Vedic India or in the Avesta of ancient Iran.

In Max Müller’s Essay on the History of Religion (1879), which devotes a chapter to the study of the Zend Avesta, but also in Martin Haug’s Essays on the Sacred Language, Scriptures and Religion of the Parsis (Bombay, 1862), one finds curious and striking similarities between certain avestic formulas and biblical formulas.

In the Zend Avesta, we read that Zarathustra asked Ahura Mazda to reveal his hidden names. The God accepted and gave him twenty of them.

The first of these names is Ahmi, « I am ».

The fourth is Asha-Vahista, « the best purity ».

The sixth means « I am Wisdom ».

The eighth translates into « I am Knowledge ».

The twelfth is Ahura, « the Living One ».

The twentieth is Mazdao, which means: « I am He who is ».

It is easy to see that these formulas are taken up as they are in different passages of the Bible. Is it pure chance, an unexpected meeting of great minds or a deliberate borrowing? The most notable equivalence of formulation is undoubtedly « I am He who is », taken up word for word in the text of Exodus (Ex. 3:14).

Max Müller concludes: « We find a perfect identity between certain articles of the Zoroastrian religion and some important doctrines of Mosaism and Christianity.”

It is also instructive to note the analogies between the conception of Genesis in the Bible and the ideas that prevailed among the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians or Indians about « Creation ».

Thus, in the first verse of Genesis (« In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth »), the verb « to create » is translated from the Hebrew בָּרַא, which does not mean « to create » in the sense of « to draw out of nothing », but rather in the sense of « to cut, carve, sculpt, flatten, polish », from a pre-existing substance. Similarly, the Sanskrit verb tvaksh, which is used to describe the creation of the world in the Vedic context, means « to shape, to arrange », as does the Greek poiein, which will be used in the Septuagint version.

Some proper nouns, too, evoke borrowings across language barriers. The name Asmodeus, the evil spirit found in the biblical book of Tobit, was certainly borrowed from Persia. It comes from the parsi, Eshem-dev , which is the demon of lust, and which is itself borrowed from the demon Aeshma-daeva, mentioned several times in the Zend Avesta.

Another curious coincidence: Zoroaster was born in Arran (in avestic Airayana Vaêga, « Seed of the Aryan »), a place identified as Haran in Chaldea, the region of departure of the Hebrew people. Haran also became, much later, the capital of Sabaism (a Judeo-Christian current attested in the Koran).

In the 3rd century BC, the famous translation of the Bible into Greek (Septuagint) was carried out in Alexandria. In the same city, at the same time, the text of the Zend Avesta was also translated into Greek. This proves that at that time there was a lively intellectual exchange between Iran, Babylonia and Judeo-Hellenistic Egypt.

It seems obvious that several millennia earlier, a continuous stream of influences and exchanges already bathed peoples and cultures, circulating ideas, images and myths between India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Judea and Egypt.

And the very names of these countries, if they mean so much to us, it is probably because, by contrast, the cultures of earlier, « pre-historic » ages have left precisely little trace. But it is easy to imagine that the thinkers, prophets and magi of the Palaeolithic also had an intuition of the Whole and the One.