Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Ernst Sellin and the death of Moses (1of 3): Freud's use of Sellin's material

Ernst Sellin (1867-1946)

I recently found a copy of a book, Geschichte des israelitische-jüdischen Volkes (1924) by Ernst Sellin (1867-1946) which gave me new insight into a literary/historical question that has puzzled me for a long time.

One of Sigmund Freud’s very last publications, which came out during his exile in England, is Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion. Drei Abhandlungen, published in English as Moses and Monotheism (1939).

There is a tradition of considering Moses as an Egyptian rather than a Hebrew, which Freud also did in Moses and Monotheism. Not as implausible as it might sound to those familiar only with the traditional story. The familiar Biblical story itself describes Moses growing up as an Egyptian prince, and Moses is an Egyptian name. Jan Assmann discusses this tradition, including Freud’s part in it, in Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (1997; Harvard Press edition).

Assmann points out that the selection of the phrase “der Mann Moses” (the man Moses) for the title of Freud’s book in German refers to Exodus 11:3, the only place in the Scriptures in which Moses is referred to that way, in what Assmann calls “such a distancing manner”. That description includes a reference to Moses being “exceedingly important in the land of Egypt”, making the use of “der Mann Moses” a particular reference to his Egyptian background.

Freud cites the references in Sellin’s earlier Mose[sic] und seine Bedeutung fur die israelitisch-jüdischenReligionsgeschichte (1922) and describes Sellin’s references there to the murder of Moses as follows:

In 1922 Ernst Sellin made a discovery of decisive importance. He found in the book of the Prophet Hosea (second half of the eighth century [BCE]) unmistakable traces of a tradition to the effect that the founder of their religion, Moses, met a violent end in a rebellion of his stubborn and refractory people. The religion he had instituted was at that time abandoned. This tradition is not restricted to Hosea: it recurs in the writings of most of the later Prophets; indeed, according to Sellin, it was the basis of all the later expectations of the Messiah. [Katherine Jones translation]
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in London, 1938, with the manuscript of An Outline of Psychoanalysis

Sellin saw the northern prophets Hosea and Amos as part of a religious tendency that preserved the “desert religion” of Moses and the period of the Exodus. This trend placed a strong emphasis on an ethical monotheism. So they were particularly critical of the assimilation of what they saw as Canaanite practices, especially including the incorporation of Canaanite deities. The Hebrew Bible repeatedly refers to the cult of the goddess Asheroth. Sellin argues that Asheroth was of honored in some form as part of the Yahwist religion and later archaeological work has confirmed that view. She was sometimes considered to be Yahweh’s consort. But as the invective against Asheroth in the Hebrew Bible shows, this was never a generally accepted practice and apparently always had its opponents, not just among the supposed “desert religion” tendency of Hosea and Amos.

Sellin detects two distinct traditions in the Hebrew Bible over the wandering of the Israelites in the desert: a Sinai tradition and a Kadesh tradition, which were merged at the time of Saul and David. He’s careful to note that solutions have to be inferred from the evidence and cannot be taken as certain.

Sellin argued that part of this desert religion/Sinai tradition included a version of the Exodus in which the Israelite rose up against Moses and actually killed him. This tradition was also known to others, he argues, that were not Northern prophets like Deutero-Isaiah and Deutero-Zechariah. He lists the following as “Seher un freien Propheten” working in the direct Mosaic tradition: “Debora, Samuel, Nathan, Elia, Amos, Hosea, Jesaja, Micha, Jeremia, Deuterojesaja”. He argued that those in this group who followed the ethical religion of Moses “the most truly have the image of the historical Moses,” i.e., the more likely correct image.

The passages of the Bible in which he perceives this tendency include the following, based on his exposition in Geschichte des israelitisch-jüdischen Volkes (pp. 77-78) are:

Hosea 9:7-13; 12:14-13:4; 5:2; 4:4-5; 11:3. According to his summary in this work, the first three references are those he cited in the earlier book Der Mann Mose that Freud cites in Moses and Monotheism.

Exodus 32:32 vergleich mit Hosea 9:7ff

Numbers 11:12; 25:6ff; vergleich mit 12:1; he notes that Num. 25:1-5 “reißen ganz abrupt ab”.

Deuteronomy 34:1ff “mit einem Schleier zugedeckt”.

II Kings 9:31

Amos 5:13

Deutero-Isaiah Ch. 53, the Suffering Servant chapter, using the figure of the Servant of the Lord.

Jeremiah 2:30

Deutero-Zachariah 10:12; 11:4-14; 13:7

Since Geschichte des israelitisch-jüdischen Volkes appeared two years after Der Mann Mose and apparently includes more complete references to the texts on which Sellin based his theory of the death of Moses, I wonder why Freud didn’t cite the later text, as well.

Part 2 tomorrow: The Sellin mystery

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Perplexa said...


I'm wondering if you know of an English translation of Ernst Sellin's work on Moses?

Thanks so much

Bruce Miller said...

Sorry, I don't know of an English translation of the book I reviewed here or the earlier book on Moses. There is an earlier book of his that is available in English, "Introduction to the Old Testament. Initiated by Ernst Sellin. It came out in 1914; the English translation is a revision and rewriting by Georg Fohrer. I don't know to what extent it deals with Sellin's Moses theories.

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