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Notes on Moses the Egyptian

Jan Assmann [1]

Jan Assmann

2,666 words

Translations: French [2], Spanish [3]

Author’s Note:

The following text is an experiment. It is the first of a series of “notes” on select chapters of Jan Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian [4]. My primary aims are to encourage more people to read the book and to shape how they read it.

Stylistically, these notes are denser, more repetitive, and contain more lists than I would normally permit in my published writing. 

They are dense because I do not have time to fully expand upon each point. (Although there are always the discussion threads.) They are repetitive and contain lists for pedagogical purposes. I find such writing useful on the first reading for driving its points home, but very annoying on subsequent readings.

Think of this as an online seminar on Moses the Egyptian. If this format works, I will apply it to other key texts as well. 

In the opening chapter of Moses the Egyptian, “Mnemohistory and the Construction of Egypt,” Jan Assmann sets forth the elements of his argument, which I discussed at some length in my previous article [5]:

  1. religion vs. counter-religion
  2. religion being identified with with polytheism and cosmotheism, counter-religion being identified with Biblical monotheism
  3. normative inversion, referring to the process by which counter-religions create values by inverting (profaning, desecrating) the the values of religions
  4. Egypt vs. Israel, Egypt being the paradigmatic land of polytheism, Israel being the paradigm of monotheism whose concept of the sacred was arrived at through the normative inversion of Egyptian ideas of the sacred
  5. Akhnaton and Moses as the creators of monotheistic counter-religions who were associated in Egyptian myths and may have been connected in history
  6. religious tolerance and international law founded on the cosmotheistic idea of a common divine order behind different religions vs. religious intolerance and international enmity that follows from . . .
  7. . . . the “Mosaic distinction” between true and false religions (which must be suppressed)
  8. the transcendent creator god of Biblical monotheism vs. the immanent pantheistic or panentheistic god of “cosmotheism,” which teaches that a single hidden god — who manifests himself in the form of the diversity of particular gods, mortals, and nature as a whole — inhabits nature as a soul inhabits the body

Assmann likens his book to a kaleidoscope, in which all these elements are placed in a tube, and each chapter deals with a new “twist” which constellates these elements into a different pattern.

Chapter 2, “Suppressed History, Repressed Memory,” begins with Assmann’s fascinating survey of ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman accounts of the exodus that clearly contain occluded memory traces of Akhnaton’s reign, which was associated with two traumas.

  1. Akhnaton proclaimed that the god Aten, represented by the solar disk, was the one true god, and he closed the temples of the other gods and suppressed their worship, cutting the people off from the divine order as they had approached it for millennia.
  2. At the end of Akhnaton’s reign, a plague swept the Near East. This plague raged for 20 years, killed countless people, and destabilized the political order and international landscape.

After Akhnaton’s death, the old gods were restored, and Akhnaton’s name and deeds were so thoroughly expunged from Egyptian records that he was forgotten by history for more than 3,000 years.

However, Egyptologists have argued plausibly that trace memories of Akhnaton’s reign survived. Manetho was an Egyptian priest and historian who lived in the first half of the third century BCE under the Macedonian pharaoh Ptolemy II. Excerpts from Manetho’s history were preserved by Jewish writer Flavius Josephus (first to second centuries CE) in his Contra Apionem [6], a defense of Judaism from its Egyptian and Greek critics.

According to Manetho, Moses was an Egyptian priest from Heliopolis known as Osarsiph. King Amenhotep — which is the original name of Akhnaton as well as his father — wished to perceive the gods directly. The Egyptians believed that the gods were hidden, and the pharaoh as well as the religious cults were established as their visible representatives. The desire to see the gods directly, therefore, was implicitly revolutionary, since it would make both “church” and “state” no longer necessary.

To reveal the gods, the sage Amenhotep, son of Hapu (a known historical figure) advised the king to purify the land of lepers. The king had 80,000 lepers sent to work in the quarries of the eastern desert. Among the lepers were priests. It is not clear if they were lepers themselves or simply priests sent to minister to them. But the sage foresaw divine punishment for this treatment of the sick: they would receive help from outside, conquer Egypt, and rule for 13 years. Fearing to tell the king, the sage wrote down his prophecy and committed suicide.

After a while, the king allowed the lepers to move to the deserted city of Avaris, which had been the capital of the Hyksos, the Semitic invaders who had ruled Egypt for more than a century before they had been expelled, about 200 years before the time of Akhnaton. Once installed in Avaris, the lepers chose Osarsiph, a priest of Heliopolis, as their leader. Osarsiph then proclaimed new laws based on the principle of normative inversion. Everything that the Egyptians held sacred was now condemned, and everything they condemned was to be held sacred. His followers were also told to hold themselves apart from all other peoples. Osarsiph fortified Avaris, called for the Hyksos to return, and then attacked Egypt. King Amenhotep withdrew to Nubia with Egypt’s sacred animals. The lepers/Semites held Egypt for 13 years, committing every counter-religious abomination. Then king Amenhotep and his grandson Rameses returned and drove the lepers/Semites from Egypt. Osarsiph, their leader, took the name Moses, and so began the wanderings of the Jews.

In this story, three Egyptian historical traumas are recombined: the invasion of the Semitic Hyksos, Akhnaton’s heresy, and the great plague that followed it.

  1. The Egyptians naturally associated the Hyksos and the Jews, since both were Semites.
  2. Moreover, although the Hyksos worshiped Baal and other gods, one Hyksos king, Apophis, worshiped only Baal, which the Egyptians identified with Set and the Greeks with Typhon.
  3. Thus Avaris was associated in the Egyptian mind with Semitic invaders, storm gods, and monotheism (or at least monolatry — the worship of one god alone).
  4. After the time of Akhnaton, the Egyptians began to regard Set less as a god than as a counter-god — a demonic figure.
  5. Plutarch also records an Egyptian tradition that identified the Jews as the children of Set.
  6. It might even be the case that the Hyksos and the Jews were the same people, for the Hyksos domination could very well be the historical reality behind the Biblical story of Joseph, who rose to power in Egypt and summoned his people to strip the Egyptians to the bone, but whose power was ended by a patriotic pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” and freed his people from their alien parasites.

The story of Osarsiph also clearly relates to Akhnaton.

  1. The Amarna heresy took place between the reign of Amenhotep III (Akhnaton’s father) and the accession of Rameses I, the founder of the 19th dynasty.
  2. The two may even have been related as grandfather and grandson, although the foundation of a new dynasty indicates that it could only have been matrilineally.
  3. In any case, the restoration of the old gods did take place under the rule of a known grandson of Amenhotep, namely Tutankamun (whose name was later suppressed along with Akhnaton’s).
  4. It is also significant that there is no mention of Amenhotep’s son, as Amenhotep III’s son was the proscribed Akhnaton.
  5. Osarsiph was a priest of Heliopolis, a center for the worship of the sun, and Akhnaton’s Aten religion bears traces of the Heliopolitan solar theology.
  6. The move to Avaris corresponds to Akhnaton’s move from Thebes to found his new capital Akhnaton.

The association with leprosy calls to mind four things:

  1. the plague that began at the end of Akhnaton’s reign
  2. the grotesque representations of Akhnaton and his family — some of which were still visible to travelers on the defaced boundary stelae of his deserted capital
  3. the metaphorical sense of lepers as outcasts
  4. For Osarsiph’s followers, their outcast status was reinforced by his own commandment that they be a people that shall dwell alone.

After the end of the Amarna heresy, it would be natural to picture Akhnaton ruling over a leper colony engaged in systematic sacrilege and abomination. Even the period of 13 years is about right, since Akhnaton was the capital for the last 12 years of Akhnaton’s reign, plus the rule of two ephemeral successors Neferneferuaten and Smenkhkare, until the return to Thebes under Tutankhamun.

Assmann relates other overlapping Egyptian, Greek, and Roman versions of the exodus story:

  1. Hecateus of Abdera (Greek, 4th century BCE)
  2. Lysimachos (Greek, 2nd century BCE)
  3. Chaeremon (Egyptian, 1st century BCE)
  4. Pompeius Trogus (Roman, 1st century BCE)
  5. Atrapanus (Jewish, 2nd century BCE)
  6. Tacitus (Roman, 1st-2nd centuries CE)
  7. Apion (Egyptian, first century CE)
  8. Strabo (Greek, 1st century BCE).

All told, there are more than a dozen such accounts, which repeatedly speak of the expulsion of the Jews and associate them with disease, subversion, misanthropy, and the creation of a religion through “normative inversion,” meaning the profanation of all that the Egyptians held sacred.

When surveying this ancient consensus gentium about the Jews, Assmann rather absurdly sidesteps the question of truth, claiming that he is only dealing with memories: “The image of the Jew as the religious enemy par excellence — as atheist, iconoclast, sacrilegious criminal — turns out to be a matter not of experience, but of memory, that is, the return of the suppressed memory of Akhnaton” (p. 43).

In other words, none of these writers over a span of five centuries ever saw a Jew do something wrong, something that would support their reputation as a uniquely hateful and dangerous people. Nor had any of them peeked into Jewish scriptures, which are a long narrative of intrigues, crimes, and lovingly tended, luxuriantly attenuated hatreds. No, the only historical basis for the Jews’ ill-repute were the crimes of Akhnaton, who was forgotten by history and only dimly recollected in myth.

Assmann even goes so far as to suggest that in the 14th century CE, when Jews were accused of subverting a Christian kingdom at the behest of the Muslim king of Granada by allying themselves with lepers, this is no good reason to ask “What is it with Jews and lepers?” No, this too was simply the distant echo of Akhnaton’s crimes (p. 44).

The fact that Assmann feels constrained to offer such ludicrous apologetics for ancient Jews is, of course, proof that we still live under the shadow of Jewish hatred and intolerance today.

Assmann then changes the subject to ancient cosmotheism. When ancient polytheists encountered other religions, they did not regard them as false simply because they differed from their own. Instead, they sought to establish correspondences between the different religions, allowing mutual “translation” and understanding.

But just as languages are mutually translatable because they refer to a common reality, ancient polytheists could translate between religions only on the assumption that they were different ways of referring to a common divine order.

  1. Different religions may be relative to different peoples, but the divine order is absolute.
  2. Different religions are many, but the divine order is one.
  3. Since divine names are many and relative, the absolute one is beyond all names.
  4. Since all forms of manifestation are relative, the absolute one is hidden.

How does the absolute hidden one relate to the world of manifestation? He is its cause or creator, but not a transcendent creator, like the Jewish God, but an immanent creator who occupies, pervades, and sustains the world of plurality like the soul does the body. God is thus both one and all — the Greek “hen kai pan.” Thus the whole can be referred to as “god or nature” — the Latin “deus sive natura” — depending on whether one focuses on its hidden, creative, absolute, unitative aspect (god) or its manifest, created, relative, diverse aspect (nature).

Assmann gives two examples of the cosmotheist outlook in late antiquity.

First, is Lucius’ prayer to Isis in book 11 of Apuleius’  [7]The Golden Ass [7] and the goddess’s reply, in which both list the names the Queen of Heaven is called by the different peoples of the world. But she does assert that her “true name” (verum nomen) is Isis, thus stopping just short of an unnameable “one” — which would, of course, be beyond the distinction between god and goddess as well. Although Apuleius presents the syncretic Isis cult of late antiquity, Assmann again shows that such syncretism has authentic Egyptian sources, helpfully citing an Egyptian text from the 5th century BCE, i.e., before the Macedonian conquest.

The second example is the idea from Late Antiquity of the “Supreme Being,” who encompasses all divine beings but is preeminently called by the names of different sovereign deities, primarily Zeus, Serapis, Helios . . . and Yahweh (Iao). This ecumenical gesture toward the Jewish God was not, of course, reciprocated by the Jews, who correctly perceived it as a covert denial of one of Yahweh’s essential characteristics, namely his claim to be the one true God. Thus the syncretic Supreme Being was Yahweh in name only.

Although cosmotheist ideas are primarily known through texts from Greco-Roman late antiquity, Assmann shows that they are an accurate transmission of much older Egyptian ideas. In the form of the Corpus Hermeticum, they returned to Europe in the 15th century along with the writings of Plato, helping to spark the Renaissance. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they were associated with deism and the pantheism of Baruch Spinoza and had an immense influence on the Enlightenment and Romanticism.

It is odd for Assmann to follow his summary of ancient accounts of the exodus with a discussion of cosmotheism. Why do these topics belong in the same chapter? At the end of the chapter, however, Assmann explains that an understanding of cosmotheism provides very sound reasons why “the antagonistic power of counter-religions like Judaism and Christianity was so much resented by pagan intellectuals” (p. 54).

Biblical monotheism was regarded with horror because it strikes at the root of the greatest intellectual and political achievements of pagan antiquity: cosmotheism and its practical implications, namely religious pluralism and international law.

Because different religions all refer to the same divine order, all of them can be respected. They are all true, insofar as they refer to the same truth. They just refer to the same truth in different ways, just as different languages use different words for the same realities. These different ways of approaching the divine reality are not, however, “merely human.” They too are expressions of divine creativity, accommodating itself to the plurality of different peoples and types — which are expressions of divine creativity as well. Thus the ancients did not merely “tolerate” (suffer) religious pluralism as a necessary evil. They could embrace it as a positive good.

The chief practical implications of ancient cosmotheism are religious tolerance and international law, since the idea of a common divine order can unite and harmonize peoples even as different religions and nations divide and oppose them. Biblical monotheism, however, denies the truth of other religions and seeks to suppress them. And since Biblical monotheism does not recognize a common divine order underlying all religions, it cannot appeal to this order as the foundation of international agreements. This order is not, of course, the only possible foundation for such agreements, but it certainly aided different peoples in establishing amicable relations in a time of almost universal war and strife. This common divine order is not, for instance, the same as the idea of natural law or natural right, but they are analogous. For Islam, which does not recognize ideas of natural right, peace can come only through subjection to Islamic law (conversion or dhimmitude).

Thus, after blaming Akhnaton and absolving Jews for anti-Semitism, Assmann explains why ancient polytheists had good reason to fear Biblical monotheism. This is a pattern with Assmann: he flatly disavows Semitically-incorrect conclusions while coolly assembling airtight arguments for them.