Moses, The Egyptians, and Primitive Myth: A Girardian Analysis
In 1939, Sigmund Freud published a series of essays to deconstruct the Exodus account in the Old Testament. Moses and Monotheism was the outcome. Without a doubt, Freud’s core conclusions are disputable, but his opening essay reveals an interesting peculiarity in the Book of Exodus.
Following the work of his disciple, Otto Von Rank, Freud makes a compelling case that the life of Moses follows a particular theme among ancient heroes. Referring to this phenomenon as the “average myth,” he demonstrates many common characteristics at play in the story. The hero’s origin, for instance, begins in crisis. The pattern follows a father who has a bad dream related to his wife’s pregnancy, or is visited by an oracle prophesying a bad omen, and the father (or his representative)—upon birth—casts the child “in a casket and [delivers him] to the waves.” 1
With the origin of Moses, the father is not discussed much but he seems to inspire the mother’s impetus to hide the infant. Nor is the father responsible for casting Moses upon the waves. This is also the work of his mother. When the infant reached three months old, she “took a papyrus basket, daubed it with bitumen and pitch, and putting the child in it, placed it among the reeds on the bank of the Nile 2.”
It is here that we see a peculiar divergence between Moses and the “average myth.” One that leads Freud to conclude that Moses was probably Egyptian, and that the Israelites fabricated his humble origins. In the usual narrative, the hero comes from royalty. His father, typically a king, sends his son to certain death. The babe is saved by “animals or poor people, such as shepherds, and suckled by a female animal or a woman of humble birth. 3” An example of the common origin plays out in a recent substack essay by Luke Burgis involving “the myth of Romulus and Remus 4.” Though, after being discovered on the Nile, Moses is suckled by a woman of humble birth—his biological mother was employed as his nursemaid—he is not saved by poor people or animals. Instead, as if in reverse, Pharaoh’s own daughter has Moses removed from the Nile.
Freud’s analysis buttresses his skepticism of Judaism’s most towering figure, but a more interesting conclusion is drawn by the French anthropologist René Girard. Following Freud’s work on the “average myth,” he postulates that for the Exodus account to fit the pattern of primitive myth, the whole story only makes sense if it is told from the perspective of the Egyptians 5.
In Girard’s account of myth, human culture is founded on a collective murder that resolves a destabilizing social crisis. However, human psychology is too fragile to acknowledge the heinous persecution that inspires myth. So the collective murder is filtered through a series of mythological constructs intent on rehabilitating the perpetrators. This process begins with the first persecutors, but is systemically cleansed of any traces of violence by proceeding generations. A thorough account of this phenomenon is articulated in Girard’s book, The Scapegoat, but to summarize, the essayist George Boreas lays out “three “stereotypes” that can be used to detect persecution 6.”
First comes the social crisis, such as a plague, an economic collapse, or a drought that sends the community into a downward spiral. The second stereotype is the accusation of a heinous crime. For instance, in The Scapegoat 7, the first chapter is dedicated to Guillaume de Machaut, a fourteenth century French Poet, who wrote The Judgement of King Navarre8, after the Black Plague had ravaged his home of Northern France. The most startling details implicate this small community in transferring guilt for the plague onto the Jewish residents—Mauchet joined the mob in accusing them of poisoning the drinking water. A similar theme of contagious crimes operated in the Salem Witch trials where the victims were accused of performing black magic.
The final stereotype of persecution is triangulating on a worthy victim. Unique features of the scapegoat will draw rapacious attention from the mob. Oedipus Rex is set apart by a noticeable limp, and the famous Aztec scapegoat—As Gil Bailie explains in Violence Unveiled—Quetzalcoatl introduced “a new kind of music and wantonly ﬂouted the culture’s taboos 9.” In Machaut’s account, the outsider was the Jewish community writ large—a religious minority.
Will we find, in the figure of Moses, any of these stereotypes of persecution? The ten plagues illustrate that Moses brought both plague and pestilence to Egypt. In the Exodus, Moses causes the plagues and is held responsible for the death of the Egyptian first born—a notable heinous crime. Finally, and contrary to Freud, Moses’ Hebrew origins would set him apart perfectly as an outsider to the Egyptians. As Sandor Goodheart explains in his essay, “I am Joseph”, the transfer of guilt onto a single victim necessitates this distinction. “Thus, the most arbitrary differences—hair color, skin color—can come to count absolutely 10. Moses, a child of slaves and raised by Egyptian royalty, would almost certainly be situated as an ideal scapegoat.
Finally, the Exodus is not explicit about collective violence against Moses. However, there is no doubt he and his followers are cast out of society. It happens gradually then suddenly after the death of the Egyptian first born, and it reaches a climax in the parting of the Red Sea. In this sense, Moses meets all the necessary criteria for the stereotypes of persecution.
The Exodus differentiates itself by being told from the perspective of the Israelites, not the Egyptians, and these stereotypes of persecution are being celebrated rather than rehabilitated. Moses operates here as an outsider, he brings plague and pestilence, commits a heinous crime, becomes the victim of collective violence, and the Israelites celebrate him for it. Gil Bailie speculates in his book Violence Unveiled that, “As an account of a people’s origins and destiny, the Bible is the world’s most striking example of a non-myth, not because those who produced these texts renounced the impulse to mythologize their violence, but because something operating in the consciousness of this people made them very clumsy myth-makers.” 11
In the Girardian understanding, what makes the Israelites of the Old Testament particularly clumsy, and unique among primitive cultures, is their inability to completely let the mob off the hook. They seem psychologically incapable of holding the victim in proper contempt. In the Scriptural penchant for identifying with the victim, we can see a slow but systematic unraveling of the myth-making enterprise. They are still a primitive people with the same crises that plagued primitive societies, but they never fully resolve themselves to the heinous nature of sacred violence.
In this sense, Moses becomes a fitting prelude for the Christ figure of the New Testament. The Israelite “stone that the builders rejected 12” became the cornerstone of the newly ordained Hebraic social order. While myth-making was still active in the account of Exodus, the project of demystification that Girard singles out as operating within the Passion narrative of the Gospels 13, albeit in a primitive manner, happens as well in the figure of Moses.
In the final act of scapegoating, due to its effective restoration of social cohesion, the victim is rehabilitated and deified. Sacrificial rites and liturgies proliferate to immortalize the “founding murder.” In the Exodus, with this process having gone haywire, we see the liturgical practice of Passover—a celebration of Moses’ “heinous crime” against the Egyptians—emerge as a lynchpin in Jewish worship. Throughout this account, the scapegoat mechanism is brought to the surface and celebrated rather than hidden as a mythological object of embarrassment. In a sense then, Moses triumphs in the Exodus as alpha-victim to a subjugated people in need of a hero.
For the Israelite slaves, the spotless victim would ideally manifest in the Mosaic figure, paralleling the Agnus Dei of Christian Revelation, which transformed him into a kind of primitive god-king for the Israelites 14, precisely because he was the scapegoat who brought scandal upon the Egyptian empire.
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- Freud, Sigmund. Moses and Monotheism, at 14, Harmakis Edizioni, 1939.
- Exodus 2:3-4, NAB
- Freud, Sigmund. Moses, at 13
- Burgis, Luke. “The Uncut, Original Opening of “Wanting.” (Part 1),” Substack, 2022
- Girard, René. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, at 153, Stanford University Press, 1978.
- Boreas George. “René Girard XXII: Stereotypes of Persecution”, georgeboreas.com, December, 2021
- Girard, René. The Scapegoat, at 1-11, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986
- de Machaut, Guillaume. The Judgement of the King of Bohemia, April, 2019
- Bailie Gil. Violence Unveiled, at 102-103, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1995
- Goodhart, Sandor. The Prophetic Law, at 5, Michigan State University Press, 2014
- Bailie, Gil. Violence, at 135
- Ps 118 5:22, NAB
- Girard, René. “Are the Gospels Mythical?” First Things Magazine, April, 1996
- Barnes , Marc. “Moses and the Battle not to be God,” New Polity Press, 2020