Will the real Moses please stand up – Ofri Ilani

Dr. Ofri Ilani“Thus it was a Jew, Freud, who came up with the theory that paints the people of Israel in the harshest light, as the murderers of their leader and founder of their own religion. In the 70 years since Freud published his book, mountains of criticism have been heaped on his murder-of-Moses theory.” – Dr Ofri Ilani

MosesOne day, King Amenophis of Egypt decided that he wanted to see the gods with his own eyes. He called on one of the kingdom’s sages and asked him how he could make his wish come true. The wise man replied that the king could do so if he were to cleanse Egypt of lepers and other impure people.

The king took immediate action. He gathered all the people with disabilities and diseases and expelled them all to the stone quarries east of the Nile, to endure hard labor and be separated from the rest of the population.

When the sage saw the king’s acts of cruelty, which were committed because of his prophecy, he feared the rage of the gods and the destructive consequences of his act, and killed himself.

The lepers labored in the quarries for a long time before Amenophis finally allocated the empty city of Avaris for them to live in.

Upon arrival, they made an Egyptian priest from Heliopolis named Osarseph their leader, and swore to obey his every order. Osarseph assigned the lepers a series of rules, each of them a violation of Egyptian law. Among other things, he forbade them to eat the animals that were sacred to Egyptians, and further ordered that these animals be slaughtered whenever they were encountered.

Next he dispatched emissaries to the Hyksos, a tribe of shepherds that had been expelled from Egypt by the Pharaohs and were living at that time in a city called Jerusalem — and invited them to join forces with the lepers and defeat Pharaoh. After anointing himself king over the shepherds and lepers, Osarseph changed his name to Moses.

To someone who has been hearing about the Israelites’ slavery and exodus from Egypt since childhood, this story sounds oddly familiar. It was written by Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived in the 3rd century B.C.E., and who evidently based his account on ancient hieroglyphic inscriptions preserved in Egyptian tombs.

To a great extent, we can view the story of the enslaved lepers and their leader Osarseph as the Egyptian version of the Exodus story. Manetho’s tale continued by recounting that the joint army of lepers and shepherds from Jerusalem took over the kingdom of the Nile, vandalized the statues of the gods, and led a reign of cruelty over the kingdom. They quit Egypt only when Pharaoh came with a large army and drove them northward.

Was Moses actually an Egyptian priest who led a revolt against his country? Various writers have raised this theory on numerous occasions in the past, from the Hellenistic period to the 20th century. It is supported by, among other things, the recurrent appearance in ancient Egyptian sources of the name Mose, which was fairly common among the Egyptian nobility.

Unfortunately, Manetho’s book has been lost to history; the Moses-Osarseph story reached us thanks to Flavius Josephus, the 1st-century C.E. Jewish-cum-Roman historian, who quotes him in his book Against Apion.

Josephus tries to undercut the Egyptian priest Manetho’s version, and presents it as a ridiculous story that is rife with contradictions. Scholars today are divided over whether Manetho’s version of the birth of the Israelites is actually a deliberate distortion of the Biblical story about the Exodus from Egypt, or is perhaps based on certain historical elements that were preserved in Egypt and were passed down to him.

Titus Flavius JosephusMoses the general

Egyptologist Jan Assmann is of the second opinion. Assmann, author of the book Moses the Egyptian, argues that the story Manetho recounts is based on traditions that were left over from two traumatic events in Egyptian history: the religious revolution by Pharaoh Akhenaten, known as the Heretic King, who tried to ban idol worship and impose a monotheistic religion with the sun god Aten at its center; and Egypt’s conquest by the Semitic Hyksos shepherds.

Assmann contends that the story of the Exodus from Egypt as told in the Bible is a version of that affair — the nomads’ takeover and expulsion — that had been preserved in Canaan and found expression in the Torah.

Whether true or false, Manetho’s version of the Exodus from Egypt is among the first of countless theories and myths that grew up around the Biblical story down through the generations. These theories tried to solve the mystery of the story in various ways, and to imbue it with various meanings.

While Josephus Flavius denies Manetho’s story about the leper revolt, he provides another odd tale of his own. In his work Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus tells of a little-publicized chapter in Moses’ life.

Exodus leaves blank the chapter of Moses’ life from the time he was saved as a baby by Pharaoh’s daughter until he witnessed the suffering of his people and killed the Egyptian taskmaster. But Flavius provides details.

He recounts that Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, and on reaching adulthood was appointed chief of the army and led the Egyptian troops in a war against their Ethiopian enemies.

It was a tough battle. To mislead the enemy, Moses guided the Egyptian army along an unexpected route, through the desert. But there he had to contend with a surprising foe: flying snakes, which according to Flavius are born in massive numbers from the desert soil.

Moses came up with a brilliant strategy to overcome this obstacle: He ordered baskets made, and placed in them the birds known in Egypt as ibises. He released the ibis in the desert and they hunted the snakes, clearing the way for the Egyptian army with Moses at the helm.

When the Egyptian army reached Sheba, the Ethiopians’ capital, Moses faced another problem: The city was walled and sat on an island in the Nile.

The Egyptians would have had to retreat had it not been for an act of treason on the Ethiopian side. Therbis, the daughter of the Ethiopian king, saw Moses over the wall and fell head-over-heels in love with him. She sent one of her servants to make him an offer: the city would be handed over to Moses on condition that he marry her.

Moses welcomed the deal, and the city was surrendered without a fight. Moses returned to Egypt with an Ethiopian wife.

We tend to believe Josephus when he tells of the revolt against the Romans and the suicide of Masada’s defenders, but for some reason the story of Moses the general never took root in Jewish historical lore.

The Bible scholars Yair Zakovitch and Avigdor Shinan claim, in their book That’s Not What the Good Book Says (Hebrew, Yedioth Ahronoth), that Josephus’ words might reflect an ancient tradition that was prevalent among the ancient Israelites, regarding Moses’ adventures in the early part of his life, i.e., at Pharaoh’s court.

The editors of the Torah, say Zakovitch and Shinan, tried to excise that tradition, because it portrayed Moses as a collaborator with the Egyptians.

Friedrich SchillerMoses the priest

While Jews have been handing down the story of the Exodus from Egypt from generation to generation, other peoples and cultures have expressed an interest in it as well. The Koran, for example, contains a version of the Exodus that is similar to the Biblical version, except that it includes a guest appearance by a surprising figure: Haman.

The well-known villain from the Book of Esther appears in the Koran as Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and at the end of the story he drowns along with the king. Apparently there is a connection between the name of Ahasuerus‘ adviser in the Book of Esther and that of Pharaoh’s chief minister in the Koran, but some argue that the name comes from the ancient Egyptian title Ha-amen, which was reserved for high-ranking officials in the Pharaonic court.

Christian scholars, particularly during the Renaissance period, were partial to a different theory that held that Moses was introduced to monotheistic belief by an Egyptian priest named Hermes Trismegistus.

The basis for this theory is a verse from the New Testament book Acts of the Apostles, which describes Moses as “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.”

In the Enlightenment period this claim was the basis for scientific theories that the Torah laws Moses gave to his people were actually pale copies of Egyptian laws.

The German poet Friedrich Schiller went further than any other philosopher of his time in describing the Egyptian education that Moses received. According to his essay The Mission of Moses, the Hebrew boy attended a school for Egypt’s priestly caste.

There the idea of monotheism — a primal force that drives the universe — was bequeathed from one generation to the next.

However, the priests kept this knowledge a secret so as not to rouse their idol-worshipping people to rebellion, and thus encoded it in the form of hieroglyphs and animal statuary.

“The entirety of the civil constitution was founded upon the worship of gods,” Schiller writes, “and were this caused to collapse, all the pillars supporting the entire edifice of the state would have collapsed at the same time. It was still quite uncertain whether the new religion, conceived to take its place, would also stand firm enough to carry that edifice.”

During the time he was training to become a priest, Moses memorized the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the mysterious rituals of the order. When he came to know the suffering of his enslaved people, he wanted both to save them and reveal to them the secret of the true divinity, of whose existence he had learned at the school for priests.

But because he knew his people’s limited capacity for perception, Moses decided to identify that god with the national god of the Hebrews, who was already familiar to them from the tales of their ancestors. Moses revealed the secret of the Egyptian priestly caste, but covered over part of it with an old-new legend.

And thus the Hebrew religion was born.

Sigmund FreudMoses the murdered

Schiller’s theory about Moses’ Egyptian education, and other essays written throughout the 19th century, were the source for the most famous theory of our time about the unknown aspects of Moses’ story: Sigmund Freud‘s book Moses and Monotheism, which came out in 1939, shortly before the author’s death.

Freud adopted the claim that Moses had been an Egyptian priest. He argued that circumcision is an Egyptian idea, and that Moses instituted the religion of Egypt’s monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten among the Hebrews. Except that the wise Egyptian forced this faith on the people he had adopted, and the Israelites, a stubborn people, disobeyed him and rose up against him.

According to the father of psychoanalysis, they could not bear such a spiritual, abstract and lofty religion. So one day, they rebelled and killed their leader — a shameful event that was censored from the Biblical text and therefore forgotten.

As Freud has it, after they murdered Moses, the Jews renounced the imposed burden of Akhenaten’s religion, and crowned instead Jhave, “A rude, narrow-minded local god, violent and bloodthirsty,” in Freud’s words, who ordered his believers to destroy the people living in Canaan. The monotheistic idea was shrouded in darkness; guilt over the leader’s murder remained in the repressed memory.

It erupted only a thousand years later, in the writings of the Jewish Saul (later Paul) of Tarsus, one of the founders of Christianity. The repressed remorse at the murder of Moses turned into the story of Jesus, the son of God who was murdered but returned to save the world.

Thus it was a Jew, Freud, who came up with the theory that paints the people of Israel in the harshest light, as the murderers of their leader and founder of their own religion. In the 70 years since Freud published his book, mountains of criticism have been heaped on his murder-of-Moses theory.

But perhaps something of the Jews’ buried grudge against their greatest of heroes surfaced in former prime minister Golda Meir‘s words during a conversation with reporters in Germany in 1973.

“Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses,” Meir said. “He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!” – Haaretz, 29 March 2010

» Dr Ofri Ilany is an Israeli post-graduate student at Humboldt University in Berlin.