Friday, November 06, 2009

Ernst Sellin and the death of Moses (3 of 3): Is Sellin’s theory of the murder of Moses plausible?

This is the third of three posts on the book, Geschichte des israelitische-jüdischen Volkes (1924) by Ernst Sellin. Part 1 is Freud's use of Sellin's material. Part 2 is The Sellin mystery.

Ernst Sellin was an important Biblical scholar and archaeologist. Ernest Jones describes him as “one of the most distinguished Hebrew and Arabic scholars.” He is perhaps most famous for his archaeological work including the excavation of Jericho, which he described in Jericho, die ergebnisse der ausgrabungen dargestellt von Ernst Sellin und Carl Watzinger (1913).

Michaelangelo's Moses

The seventh annual Ernst Sellin-Carl Watzinger-Kolloquium was held in May 2009 at the University of Rostock. The 2006 version was held by the University of Vienna. Sellin taught in both universities.

I don’t read Hebrew and I have no credentials as a Biblical scholar. So I can only offer a lay person’s view as to the plausibility of Sellin’s argument on the murder of Moses.

Contemporary historical scholarship on the period is marked by a dispute between archaeological minimalists who contend that absent any supporting archaeological evidence, the Hebrew Scriptures have no secular historical value and events known only through that and other literary sources cannot be accepted as historically valid.

Most Biblical scholars aren’t ready to go that far in dismissing the literary sources as completely useless for the writing of history. But most would also not have put the confidence that Sellin and Freud apparently did in the literary sources, either. But Sellin was also a leading Biblical archaeologist and did not assume that Biblical traditions should override the physical evidence. His extensive use of information derived from archaeological discoveries in Geschichte des israelitische-jüdischen Volkes is evidence of his familiarity with the field.

There is no clear archaeological evidence for the existence of Moses or of the Exodus. There is archaeological evidence showing that a major part of the people who later became Israelites were not descended from Hebrews coming out of Egypt but rather developed locally and expanded their presence through some combination of peaceful and military expansion. A reasonably conservative use of the available evidence would argue that there probably was an Exodus and that some leader like the one remembered as Moses existed, and that Hebrew immigrants into Palestine combined with local groups over a period of time to form the tribes of Israel. There is evidence of the presence of large numbers of Semitic people in Egypt that is consistent with the movement of people there describes in Genesis in the story of Joseph.

Based on the Biblical passages he cites, I would say that Sellin has a good argument for a tradition that believed Moses had been killed by his own people. Given the lack of evidence outside the Scriptures for the existence of Moses, it doesn’t strike me as a tradition that should be completely discarded as history.

The fact that Freud found such a reading historically plausible is in itself a reason not to dismiss it carelessly. Ernest Jones wrote, “It was Sellin's suggestion [on the murder of Moses] that made Freud decide to write his book; it fitted so well with his views on the importance of parricide.” Jones’ description argues for the view that Freud may have been particularly disposed to accept such an interpretation, and that’s very likely true. But Freud’s own studies on religion and his views on the role of guilt in Judaism and Christianity provide a basis for that inclination that is neither arbitrary nor irrational in itself.

The possibility of the existence of such a tradition that Moses was murdered is important in itself because it could have shaped the understanding of the authors of the Hebrew Bible in ways such as those on which Freud speculated in Moses and Monotheism. I find Sellin’s idea that [Deutero-] Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant chapter, could be read as coming out of this tradition that viewed Moses as having been murdered and then taken retrospectively as a substitute sacrifice for his people, to be particularly intriguing in that regard.

Christians, of course, see Deutero-Isaiah 53 as a prophecy of Jesus and generally don’t give it much more thought. A great deal of the lyrics in Handel’s orotorio The Messiah are taken from the Suffering Servant description. The Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Heschel wrote in The Prophets (1962) about the servant of the Lord, who is the subject of Chapter 53 and other passages in Second Isaiah:

Perhaps no other problem in the Hebrew Bible has occupied the minds of scholars more than the identification and interpretation of the servant. For a survey of the vast literature, see C. R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah (Oxford, 1956). In the main, four theories have been proposed. The servant is (1) an anonymous contemporary of Second Isaiah; (2) Second Isaiah himself; (3) Israel; (4) a purely ideal or imaginary figure. To quote J. Muilenburg, in The Interpreter's Bible, V, 408, 411, "The servant is certainly Israel. . . . Israel, and Israel alone, is able to bear all that is said about the servant of the Lord. For the fundamental fact outweighing all others is the repeated equation of the two in the poems." ... According to H. H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel (London, 1956), p. 122, "The servant is at once Israel and an individual, who both represents the whole community and carries to its supreme point the mission of the nation, while calling the whole people to enter into that mission, so that it shall be its mission and not merely his. ... The servant is Israel today and tomorrow; but Israel may be all or a few or one of its members."
A tradition like that Sellin and Freud describe around the murder of Moses could very plausibly have contributed to Jewish and later Christian concepts of the Messiah, the anointed one. And specifically to Deutero-Isaiah’s image of the Servant of the Lord.

Sellin’s following comments about the significant of Moses in the Jewish religion could apply just as well to an historically false tradition that nevertheless could have contributed to the development of ancient Jewish theology (S. 94):

Zum Schlusse sei schon hier daran erinnert, daß Mose auch durch sein persönliches Schicksal bedeutungsvoll für die Religion seines Volkes geworden ist. Sein Verkehr mit der Gottheit galt je länger je mehr als ein Unikum, nur er hatte Gott von Angesicht zu Angesicht gesehn, nur mit ihm hatte Gott von Mund zu Mund gesprochen vgl. Ex. 33.11; Num. 12.7 f.; Deut. 34.10. Er war von seinen eigenen Volksgenossen als Märtyrer seines Glaubens hingemordet, auch das ist im Kreise seiner Anhänger unvergessen geblieben. Während Hosea noch einfach konstatiert, daß dies ungesühnte Verbrechen der Gipfel aller Sünden Israels sei, daß es unweigerlich jetzt das Gericht im Gefolge haben werde 9.7,11f.; 12.15, bildete sich allmählich die Vorstellung heraus, daß Mose, der sanft-mütigste aller Menschen Num. 12.3, sich freiwillig selbst als Sühnopfer dargebracht habe, und daraus erwuchs beim Deuterojesaja der Gedanke einer Erlösung des Volkes durch ihn, die Hoffnung auf seine Wiederkehr als eines Torahlehrers für die Volker der Erde 42.1ff.; 49.1 ff. usw. Und das bleibt bestehn [sic]: mit ihm ist ein Großer durch die Geschichte hindurchgegangen, der nicht nur eine Bedeutung für sein Volk, sondern für die ganze Menschheit gewonnen hat, eine weit großere, als die meisten Menschen sich träumen lassen.

[In conclusion, it should also be remembered that Moses also became important for the religion of his people through his personal fate. [Sellin means his murder at the hands of the Israelites.] His interaction with God was seen increasingly as unique; only he had seen God face to face, only with him did God speak mouth to mouth. … He was massacred by those from his own people as a martyr to his faith, [and] that also remained unforgotten in the circles of his followers. While Hosea still simply took the view that this unexpiated crime was the pinnacle of all Israel’s sins, that it would now inevitably bring judgment …, a concept was developing that Moses, the mildest of all people, … freely offered himself as a sin-offering, and from that arose the idea with Deutero-Isaiah of the salvation of the people through him, the hope of his return as a teacher of the Torah for the peoples of the earth … And it remains true: with him, a great one passed through history who won not only a significance for his people, but for all of humanity, one far wider than most people could even dream.]

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