In Moses and Monotheism, his famous investigation of the origins of Judaism, Sigmund Freud contends that Moses was actually an Egyptian, who taught monotheism to the Jews who then murdered him and repressed the memory of this murder (although traces of the crime are preserved in the Bible and in the Jewish psyche). While much ink has been spilled in analyzing Freud’s work, few, according to Lawrence Kaplan, have noticed its striking internal contradictions; these, in Kaplan’s view, are the key to making sense of what Freud was up to:
Freud in Moses and Monotheism sets forth three exceptionally controversial historical claims: Moses was an Egyptian, the Israelites murdered him, and there were actually two Moseses, an Egyptian Moses and a Midianite Moses. And yet, although Freud never explicitly repudiates any of these claims, a close reading of his text shows that he silently drops all of them. Moses was an Egyptian: gone. The Israelites murdered Moses: gone. There were two Moseses: gone.
That Freud wrote Moses and Monotheism near the end of his life, after the Nazi rise to power and as he himself began to reread the Bible . . . and to rethink the nature of the Jewish psyche, is crucial for understanding Freud’s intellectual biography. . . . As we get further into Moses and Monotheism, it turns out that its real goal is to suggest a historical scenario that would explain the Jewish psyche. . . . More specifically, he wished to understand the emergence of what might seem to be the paradoxical, but in his eyes undeniable, combination of Jewish self-confidence and Jewish guilt. The repression of the memory of their savior’s murder served to account for Israelite guilt. And the fact that this savior, the Egyptian Moses, had chosen the Israelites helped Freud to account for the emergence of Jewish self-confidence. . . .
But, in Kaplan’s reading, Freud actually gives two contradictory accounts of the Exodus story:
[I]n Freud’s first account, the one everyone knows, it is the repressed memory of the murder of Moses, who becomes a father only when he is murdered, that is the source of Jewish guilt. However, in Freud’s second account, at the close of his book, it is the repressed hostility that the Jewish people felt toward [the live] Moses, who from the very beginning appeared as an “adored and feared” father in the eyes of his “dear children,” that serves as the source of their guilt.
In the first account it is the election of the “Semitic” Israelites by the Egyptian Moses that gives rise to their sense of self-confidence, while the repressed memory of Moses’ murder triggers their guilt. But in the second account it is the appearance of Moses, the father, together with his teachings about God the Father and the ambivalent feelings these trigger that, at one and the same time, elicit both Jewish self-confidence and Jewish guilt. This is, at least as psychoanalysis, a plausible claim, and it requires none of the historical pyrotechnics of Freud’s more famous story.
A deep and striking narrative irony, then, lies at the very heart of Moses and Monotheism. . . . [I]n the course of discussing “the problem of how the special character of the Jewish people arose,” Freud changes the book’s storyline radically, dropping the claims about Moses the Egyptian governor and his being murdered by the very people he liberated and replacing them with his new picture of Moses, the admired and dreaded “mighty prototype of a father” who, though he was rejected by his “dear children” and served as the object of their (unconscious) “murderous hatred,” was never literally murdered by them.