Out of Egypt: metaxy, memory, and Moses the Egyptian


I. Introduction

Draw a distinction.
Call it the first distinction.
Call the space in which it is drawn the space severed or cloven by the distinction.
—George Spencer-Brown[1]

Nothing, in fact, is far away from anything; things are not remote: there is, no doubt, the aloofness of difference and of mingled natures as against the unmingled; but selfhood has nothing to do with spatial position, and in unity itself there may still be distinction.

We find from time to time that the wisdom found in one field of study is applicable to another. George Spencer-Brown was writing about the space of logical and mathematical construction; Plotinus was speaking of unity on the most fundamental level, that of all things in the One. Taking these together, we see that every distinction between things is simultaneously a line of contact between them. That which we cleave apart, conceptually speaking, we necessarily and in the very same instance cleave together. Every separation is thus a connection. Such a line, of boundary as well as contact, not only cleaves a given space but is a space in itself, an interval or betweenness which has been called metaxy.

Jan Assmann, who begins his book Moses the Egyptian with the very same quote from Spencer-Brown, notes that it “also applies surprisingly well to the space of cultural constructions and distinctions and to the spaces that are severed or cloven by such distinctions.”[3] If we further apply the premise of metaxy above, so that every cultural distinction is understood to be simultaneously a connection, we have taken a crucial step in examining a particularly important cultural distinction—that which Assmann calls the Mosaic distinction—and thus have a firm ground upon which to begin the translation of that which lies on either side of the distinction. We’ll return to this matter shortly; first, a brief introduction to the subject matter of Moses the Egyptian.

There is a discussion on the nature of monotheism, religious revelation, and their relation to Egypt through the figure of Moses, which began in Antiquity and continues to the present day. Moses the Egyptian is a recent installment in this Moses-Egypt discourse, and it takes a discerning look back at the trains of thought which have run through its territory. In both this narrow sense and in a broader sense which regards the entire Western experience before and since the Christianization of Europe, the book is a study in cultural memory.

In the course of this study, Assmann articulates and integrates several concepts, the explanations of which constitute in themselves some of the book’s most important theses. The Mosaic distinction is chief among them, aside perhaps from that of mnemohistory, that is, the study of how the past is remembered. Also of importance is the anonymous god who is “One and All”, or Ἓν καὶ Πᾶν, as revealed by Egyptological study and as remembered by scholars and mystics from Ancient Egypt to the Enlightenment and beyond. Though we will not spend much time here on its Enlightenment reception or its roots in Ramesside theology, this concept of deity is of central importance to the Moses-Egypt discourse.

My especial interest in these matters regards their importance for the rehabilitation of an extra-Mosaic European religious perspective, the development of which will depend on the examination of the cultural threads which connect Egypt to both Israel and Greece. Such an examination will help us translate Christianity and pre-Christianity, to find the underlying stream by which European culture has in all its phases been nourished, and thus to build a “Grand Narrative” of the European past which can serve as the foundation of new cultural undertakings.

Such an effort, of course, will require much more examination, deconstruction, and reconstruction than is offered in the present treatment. Here our chief concern regards the Mosaic distinction, given that it underlies the distinction between Christians and “pagans”. Before we can go any further in our examination and translation of this distinction, of course, we must define it, and for that we turn to Jan Assmann.

II. The Mosaic Distinction: Before and After
From the first chapter of Moses the Egyptian:

The distinction I am concerned with in this book is the distinction between true and false in religion that underlies more specific distinctions such as Jews and Gentiles, Christians and pagans, Muslims and unbelievers. Once this distinction is drawn, there is no end of reentries or subdistinctions. We start Christians and pagans and end up with Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Lutherans, Socinians and Latitudinarians, and thousand more similar denomination and subdenominations. Cultural or intellectual distinctions such as these construct a universe that is not only full of meaning, identity, and orientation, but also full of conflict, intolerance, and violence. Therefore, there have always been attempts to overcome the conflict by reexamining the distinction, albeit at the risk of losing cultural meaning.[3]

He explains that this distinction is best called the Mosaic distinction since it begins according to tradition with Moses; nonetheless, even if we assume Moses to have been a real figure, Akhenaten’s monotheistic revolution in Egypt, in which temples and sacred images were demolished and cultus of the gods was banned, drew the same distinction even earlier. However, “Moses is a figure of memory but not of history, while Akhenaten is a figure of history but not of memory”, and since “memory is all that counts”[4] when it comes to cultural definitions—we’ll soon pick up this thread on the importance of memory a bit later with the introduction of the concept of mnemohistory—the term Mosaic distinction, rather than Akhenaten’s distinction, is justified.

The assumption might come rather easily that all religious traditions define those outside themselves as “unbelievers” or “pagans”. But such a distinction is not universal; it is part and parcel not of religion itself, but of what we call monotheism. It is thus fundamental to the modern “secular” frame, as I have written elsewhere; it cleaves the space in which the Western mind has dwelt since its Christianization.

The space severed or cloven by this distinction is the space of Western monotheism. It is this constructed mental or cultural space that has been inhabited by Europeans for nearly two millennia.

It is an error to believe that this distinction is as old as religion itself, though at first sight nothing might seem more plausible. Does not every religion quite automatically put everything outside itself in the position of error and falsehood and look down on other religions as “paganism”? Is this not quite simply the religious expression of ethnocentricity? Does not the distinction between true and false in [religion] amount to the distinction between “us” and “them”? Does not every construction of identity by the very same process generate alterity? Does not every religion produce “pagans” in the same way that every civilization produces “barbarians”?

However plausible this may seem, it is not the case. Cultures not only generate otherness by constructing identity, but also develop techniques of translation.
Ancient polytheisms functioned as such a technique of translation. They belong within the emergence of the “Ancient World” as a coherent ecumene of interconnected nations.[4]

In order to illustrate the radically different understanding of religion brought about by the Mosaic distinction, we must describe in further depth what came before it.

The word paganism for what exists outside, and existed prior to, the Mosaic distinction is unsatisfactory, not only because the term was coined in contradistinction, but more importantly because the diversity of religion in such places and times consists of a multitude of systems of differing names, rites, and doctrines; there are innumerable “paganisms”. There is something these systems had in common, however, namely their sense that the gods are in a certain respect international and do not limit themselves to the concerns of an elect group, which allowed them to translate one another.

Hence the concept of the All-Encompassing God we mentioned above: this was the understanding which was implicit in the intercultural translation of Antiquity, and was made explicit in “an uninterrupted line of textual tradition from the Ramesside age down to the Greco-Roman era”.[5] This textual tradition, which is the origin of the Hermetic idea of the cosmic god, expounds what Assmann calls evolutionary monotheism, rather than revolutionary monotheism. The former is compatible with polytheistic worship, whereas the latter opposes it.

Indeed, the terms monotheism and polytheism show themselves in this discourse to be inadequate for describing the real differences between Mosaic counter-religion and the innumerable “paganisms” it rejects. The modern contrast of monotheism and polytheism is unsatisfactory, since it addresses the differences between monotheistic counter-religions and other traditions as a question of number, which is less important than the differences in how God’s nature is understood. The difference between religion and counter-religion is much more a question of quality than of quantity. In “paganisms”, that is to say, in cultures not observing the Mosaic distinction, God is present in nature, or even directly equivalent to Nature Herself; in cultures which do observe it, deity and world are severed from one another. Thus Assmann and others have taken to referring to this sense of God-as-One-and-All, and the intercultural interpretation of the gods that went with it, as cosmotheism.

For a further account of this cosmotheistic sensibility, we can turn reliably to the ancients themselves. As early as the Kassite period of Bronze-Age Mesopotamia, lists were written not only relating the names of deities in Akkadian and Sumerian, which were spoken by members of the same cultural bloc—and in which lists of this sort were already in existence—but now also in Kassite, Amorite, Hurrian, and Elamite, thus translating across truly distinct cultures.[6]Greeks living in Cyrene visited a temple of Zeus Ammon in the Siwa Oasis; a distinctive Gallo-Roman religion, in which the gods were addressed by double names, developed from the Roman conquest of the Celts; and so on. The examples of such cross-cultural interpretations (as in the case of the Sumerians, Kassites, and so on) and syncretic formations of new cultural paradigms (as in the case of the Gallo-Roman development) are innumerable.

Tacitus, in his study of the ancient Germans, while nonetheless considering their practice of human sacrifice to be unlawful, quite easily renders their primary deities into Roman terms:

Mercury is the deity whom they chiefly worship, and on certain days they deem it right to sacrifice to him even with human victims. Hercules and Mars they appease with more lawful offerings. Some of the Suevi also sacrifice to Isis.[7]

Plutarch says in his work on Egyptian religion:

Nor do we think of the gods as different gods among different peoples, nor as barbarian gods and Greek gods, nor as southern and northern gods ; but, just as the sun and the moon and the heavens and the earth and the sea are common to all, but are called by different names by different peoples, so for that one rationality which keeps all these things in order and the one Providence which watches over them and the ancillary powers that are set over all, there have arisen among different peoples, in accordance with their customs, different honours and appellations.[8]

In the last book of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, Lucius invokes the Queen of Heaven by four names: Ceres, Venus, Diana, and Proserpina, which themselves could be easily rendered in Greek: Demeter, Aphrodite, Artemis, and Persephone. In her reply, she refers to herself by no less than eleven names:

Lo, I am with you, Lucius, moved by your prayers, I who am the mother of the universe, the mistress of all the elements, the first offspring of time, the highest of deities, the queen of the dead, foremost of heavenly beings, the single form that fuses all gods and goddesses; I who order by my will the starry heights of heaven, the health giving breezes of the sea, and the awul silences of those in the underworld: my single godhead is adored by the whole world in varied forms, in differing rites and with many diverse names.

Thus the Phyrgians . . . call me Pessinuntia . . .; the Athenians . . . call me Cecropeian Minerva; the Cyprians . . . call me Paphian Venus, the . . . Cretans Dictynna, the . . . Sicilians Ortygian Proserpinel to the Eleusinians I am Ceres. . ., to others Juno, to others Bellona and Hecate and Rhamnusia. But the Ethiopians . . . together with the Africans and Egyptians who excel by having my original doctrine honor me with my distinctive rites and give me my true name of Queen Isis.[9]

Note that the translatability of distinct cultures by means of common archetypes does not imply that these cultures were the same, or that their differences were merely superficial (Greco-Roman Isis religion, with its habit of addressing the goddess by so many names, is itself a distinct cultural development). Indeed, the very act of translation presupposes that there are meaningful differences. Translation is a crossing of boundaries, and non-existent boundaries cannot be crossed. We may use the analogy of language to illustrate the mutual conditioning of translatability and heterogeneity.

In Spanish, the verb tocar has several meanings which have separate words in English. Tocar una cosa, for example, means to touch something, but tocar la guitarra means to play the guitar. This demonstrates that there is no precise equivalent for the word tocar, in all its shades of meaning, in English. These different senses of the words are nonetheless translatable.

Likewise, the Egyptian figure of Thoth and the Greek figure of Hermes were seen as reflecting a common divine essence, despite noted differences. Thoth for the Egyptians is the scribe of the gods, and is said to have given language and science to mankind. Hermes is also responsible for language and is the messenger of the gods, but traditionally he is portrayed more as clever and cunning than book-wise as Thoth is.[10] He is also a psychopomp, which Thoth is plainly not. These differences were not enough, however, to prevent the center of Thoth’s cult in Khmun from being called Hermopolis. Hermes’ role as psychopomp, in fact, gave him an affinity with the Egyptian Anubis, and the two were rendered during the period of Roman rule in Egypt as Hermanubis.

What is fundamental, of course, to this pre-Mosaic understanding of divinity is not that the gods were translated, but rather that they were not deemed categorically “true” and “false”, as they were understood to be present in nature. This sense of common truth, combined with the presence of very real boundaries of meaning and practice, is what allows for any kind of translation in the first place, linguistic or otherwise.

Thus the Mosaic distinction created a new understanding of religion: one of “true” and “false” gods, “righteous” and “heretical” customs, revealed creeds versus “idolatry”. It made different systems of myth and ritual opaque to one another, rather than translatable by means of underlying commonalities in the figures and narratives by which these systems made reference to the divine. In so doing, it also created a new kind of violence. War in what we would call Classical Antiquity was not waged in the name of “spreading the true faith” or “destroying false gods”; the very concept of a “false god” does not seem to have been established. Traditions which adhere to the Mosaic distinction, and thus have within themselves an impetus for such violence, are counter-religions, for they frame themselves in contradistinction to all other religions.

III. Mnemohistory and the Genius of the Discourse
Egypt functions as the emblem of this “otherness” or “falsehood”. The remembrance of Egypt is, in the Mosaic tradition, part of a “constellative myth” or a “Tale of Two Countries”, as Assmann puts it, which frames Egypt as a rejected past, a past which has been overcome, a previous state from which one has been converted. The calling forth of this past can serve another purpose, however: that of deconstructing the Mosaic distinction.

If the space of religious truth is constructed by the distinction between “Israel in truth” and “Egypt in error,” any discoveries of Egyptian truths will necessarily invalidate the Mosaic distinction and deconstruct the space separated by this distinction.[11]

Thus the Mosaic distinction is maintained by the very same method which allows us to deconstruct it, that is, by remembering Egypt. This recalls our discussion of metaxy earlier; the distinction connects what it divides, and what lies between is what allows for movement in either direction:

[I]t is as a neuter plural (τὰ μεταξύ), referring to “intermediate” or “in-between things”, that the metaxy occurs in Plato’s Gorgias (468a), where Socrates discovers through dialogue with Polus that there is a neutral class of things, qualities, states and actions which are neither good nor bad (τὰ μήτε ἀγαθὰ μήτε κακά). While our actions may in themselves be neutral or intermediate (Socrates gives the examples of sitting, walking, and running), we always act in pursuit of the good, however. Even evil actions are committed for the sake of the good; they are evil as a result of their agents’ perverted understanding, whereby the Good and the Truth become obnubilated in the soul.[12]

In this case, what has been obnubilated is Egypt, and what lies between is memory. Just as we always act in pursuit of the Good, movement in either direction across the Mosaic distinction puts us in the pursuit of remembering Egypt; whether we affirm or deny the falsehood of the gods, we are keeping the memory of Egypt alive, as an anchor for either affirmation or contradistinction. Hence the importance of mnemohistory, that field of history whose distinction from others is that it is not concerned with what actually happened as much as with how what happened was (and is) remembered. Thus in tracing the Moses-Egypt discourse from Antiquity to the 20th century, Assmann is undertaking a mnemohistorical study, thereby uncovering the metaxy, the in-between space, of the Mosaic distinction.

Hence the subtitle of the book: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. For Moses and the traditions which have followed him, Egypt is important not for what it was but as a reified “other”, a memory of the rejected “pagan” past—”And I that am the LORD thy God from the land of Egypt…”[13] Likewise, any tradition which seeks to retrace history in order to overcome the Mosaic distinction must involve its own memory of Egypt. Assmann wants to place this sense of memory in the context of actual Egyptian history, in order to shed light on the origins and effects of the memory. He also wants to make a more general illustration of the reception of Egypt:

Mnemohistory is reception theory applied to history. But “reception” is not to be understood here merely in the narrow sense of transmitting and receiving. The past is not simply “received” by the present. The present is “haunted” by the past and the past is modeled, invented, reinvented, and reconstructed by the present. To be sure, all this implies the tasks and techniques of transmitting and receiving, but there is much more involved in the dynamic of cultural memory than is covered by the notion of reception. It makes much more sense to speak of Europe’s having been “haunted” by Egypt than of Egypt’s having been “received” by Europe.[14]

Indeed, as we’ll see later, it is not only the Mosaic memory of Egypt that the West has inherited, but important traces of the Egyptians’ own memories of counter-religion which survived into Late Antiquity—all the better for uncovering the metaxic “neutral ground” which lies between them. Assmann thus wants not only to understand the memory of a rejected Egypt in its “mythomotoric” function for the Mosaic tradition, but more broadly to elucidate the thematic patterns underlying the entire Moses-Egypt discourse, to perform a “mnemohistorical discourse analysis” which “investigates this concatenation of texts as a vertical line of memory and seeks out the threads of connectivity which are working behind the texts: the intertextuality, evolution of ideas, recourse to forgotten evidence, shifts of focus, and so forth.”[15]

In performing this analysis, Assmann says, a heretofore neglected phase in the “haunting” of Europe by Egypt is brought to light, namely that of Egyptomania which “starts in the latter half of seventeenth century and culminates in the time of Napoleon”. This phase is important because it “is different from that of the Egyptophilic Renaissance in that is has worked through… the hostile reactions of orthodoxy”[16] and has built itself on a firmer ground of historical criticism. It has merged, in the context of Egypt, a Hermetic discourse, a “hieroglyphic” discourse (“the Egyptian script (mis)understood as pure conceptual writing (Begriffschrift)”[17]), and a Biblical discourse; it does so by means of the conception of an unrevealed “monotheism”, in which Nature Herself is deity, which is thus important to the project of constructing the mediating figure of Moses the Egyptian. This period of post-Renaissance Egyptomania is of more interest to Assmann’s book than it is to our discussion here, but we must acknowledge it as a significant part of the broader discourse in which we are participating.

Assmann notes that this project will require the input of scholars with expertise outside of Egyptology, but also that Egyptology itself has a crucial role to play:

It might be asked what an Egyptologist could possibly contribute to such a project, which obviously requires very different qualifications. It is necessary to know Egyptian to study the works of these men, who themselves did not know Egyptian. What is required is the combined competencies of a classicist, a scholar of patristic literature, a Hebraist, a Renaissance scholar, a historian of ideas, and a Freudian scholar, whose field is now a discipline in itself. I cannot claim any of these competencies for myself. I am perfectly (and painfully) aware of the all too preliminary character of my observations, which, of course, need to be extended, reviewed, and corrected by the respective specialists. But there is something here which only an Egyptologist can discover, and that is the original impetus which got this discourse started and which survives in an almost miraculous way through all of its transformations and ramifications.[18]

Assmann thus wants to establish “a dialogue with Ancient Egypt… integrating it again into the cultural memory of Europe”. He must thus “coloniz[e] the no man’s land” between the historical study of Egypt and the fascination or “haunting” which Egypt has exerted on the European mind, and thus make a mnemohistorical examination of Egyptology itself.[19]

For someone who wishes to understand fundamentally the importance of the Mosaic distinction as well as the purpose of mnemohistory, this chapter provides a good enough summation. Most importantly for us, it introduces the genius or daemon of the Moses-Egypt discourse—though for Assmann, “this kind of helpful mystification is, of course, illicit”[20]—which generates myths from the distinctions and constructions therein. We now have a basic portrait of the mythomotor we’ll need to become familiar with in order to overcome the distinction whose metaxic space it inhabits, and thus to bring the fruits of the discourse to bear on a European religious perspective.

IV. Akhenaten: The First Counter-Religion
Now that we have explained the Mosaic distinction, its metaxic space which consists in the remembrance of Egypt, and the aims of mnemohistory, we can delve a bit further into the history behind the relevant memories. In the second chapter of Moses the Egyptian, the religious antagonism underlying the constellative myth of Israel and Egypt is further explained, and the Egyptians’ own memory of the events of the Amarna period—to the extent that such can be traced, since Akhenaten was subject to damnatio memoriae after his death—is discussed. Though Assmann cautions us that to affirm outright that Moses was Akhenaten is to operate in “a field which could be characterized as ‘science fiction’ applied to the past instead of the future”,[21] mnemohistory tells us that there is at least some historical connection between these two figures.

To establish such a connection, we must begin with King Amenophis IV, that is, with Akhenaten. Assmann notes that one could trace religious antagonism in Egypt to its conquest by the Hyksos, a Palestinian people, about three centuries earlier. The Hyksos ruled Egypt for over a century, and the experience of Hyksos rule remained in Egyptian memory. But “there was certainly no religious conflict between the Hyksos and the Egyptians”,[21] because the Hyksos, who worshipped Baal, did not impose their cult on the Egyptians, let alone destroy Egyptian sacred sites or objects.

Thus the earliest “purely religious conflict” we have any certainty of is that instigated by Akhenaten, and as it turns out, a plague broke out across the Near East around the end of the Amarna period. This experience must have added to the horror of Amarna counter-religion, and together they “formed the trauma that gave rise the phantasm of the religious enemy”.[22]

Among both the priestly class and the common people, there was reason to see Akhenaten’s revolution as a shocking act of sacrilege and destruction: for the former, the performative construction of order on earth by means of ritual had been interrupted; for the latter, the gods, who were understood to be present outside their temples during festivals—”[e]very major Egyptian religious feast was celebrated in the form of a procession”[23]—were now continually absent.

Thus the Amarna revolution was a civic disruption as well as a spiritual one, and the two qualities are rather difficult to distinguish:

The Egyptian idea of the city was thus centered on and shaped by the religious feasts. The city was the place on earth where the divine presence could be sensed by everyone on the occasion of the main processional feasts. The more important the feast, the more important the city. The feasts promoted religious participation but also social identification and cohesion. The Egyptians conceived of themselves as members of a town or city rather than as members of a nation. The city was where they belonged and where they wanted to be buried. Belonging to a city primarily meant belonging to a deity as the master of that city. This sense of belonging to a god or goddess was created and confirmed by participation in the feasts. The abolition of the feasts must have deprived the Egyptians of their sense of identity and, what is more, their hopes of immortality. For following the deities in their earthly feasts was held to be the first and most necessary step toward otherworldly beatitude. In the Theban tomb of Pairi there is a graffito which the scribe Pawah wrote in the time of Smenkhkare, the last of the Amarna kings. It is a lamentation for the absent god and it begins which the words: “My heart longs to see you!” Its theme is nostalgia for the sight of Amun in his feast.[23]

This desacralization and even desemioticization of the city and the cosmos, combined with the spread of disease, thus created a devastating experience, the trauma of which was exacerbated by the systematic removal of Amarna from Egyptian memory:

The recollection of the Amarna experience was made even more problematic by the process of systematic suppression whereby all the visible traces of the period were deleted and the names of the kings were removed from all official records. The monuments were dismantled and concealed in new buildings. Akhenaten did not even survive as a heretic in the memory of the Egyptians. His name and his teaching fell into oblivion. Only the imprint of the shock remained: the vague remembrance of something religiously unclean, hateful, and disastrous in the extreme.[24]

Thus the frame of experience which Amarna established, voided of any conscious recollection of what had caused the trauma, was then filled with new experiences as well as reïnterpretations of old ones (the Hyksos, for example, were reïmagined as monolatrists of Seth), “which in their turn had roots in this semantic frame of this nascent image of the Asiatic foe.”[25] This semantic frame, as we’ll see, is considered by Assmann to be part of the Western inheritance of Egyptian memory. By reading ancient authors from Manetho to Tacitus regarding the story of Moses, we can develop a better picture of how this semantic frame was established.

V. Traces of Amarna: The Classical Reception of Moses
Assmann goes on to describe how Egyptian oral tradition retained traces of the Amarna experience; by elucidating these traces, we are not only able to acquire a better understanding of how counter-religion was experienced by Egypt (i.e., by those who were not counter-religious), but also to get a further sense of the dependence of the Mosaic tradition on Egypt. Manetho, an Egyptian priest who wrote his history of Egypt in the early Ptolemaic period, made an account of such traces.

Flavius Josephus, in his Contra Apionem, seeking to dispel “the various calumnies which the Egyptian historian Apion and other Hellenistic historiographers—mostly of Egyptian provenance—had attributed to the Jews”[26], twice quotes Manetho. His first quote Josephus regards as true; it describes how the Hyksos, after their reign, during which they “treated the population with utmost cruelty”, was ended by the king of Thebes, “emigrated into Syria and finally settled in what is now called Judaea.”[27] The second version of this origin story Josephus is less happy about:

According to Josephus, Manetho’s first version follows the “sacred Scripture” (ta hiera grammata), but his second version is based on popular tales and legends (mutheuomena kai legomena). In Manetho’s [second] account, King Amenophis wanted to see the gods. The sage Amenophis, son of Hapu, tells him that he may see the gods if he cleanses the land of lepers. The king sends all lepers with priests among them into the quarries in the eastern desert. Amenophis the sage predicts divine punishment for this inhuman treatment of the sick: they will receive help from outside, conquer Egypt, and rule for thirteen years. Not daring to tell the king this in person, he writes everything down and commits suicide. The lepers are allowed to settle in Avaris, the ancient capital of the Hyksos. They choose Osarsiph, a Heliopolitan priest, as their leader. He makes laws for them on the principle of normative inversion, prescribing all that is forbidden in Egypt and forbidding all that is prescribed there.[27]

Thus the first commandment Osarsiph gives is “not to worship the gods, not to spare any of their sacred animals, not to abstain from other forbidden food.” It is a commandment of normative inversion, by which sacred things are made taboo and taboos are made sacred. This notion of inversion is crucial to the understanding of counter-religion which Assmann articulates, and we will return to it shortly.

The second commandment of Osarsiph “proscribes association with people from outside”. Assmann notes that while the first commandment “seems most characteristic of the negative force of a counter-religion”, the second commandment would appear to be typical of what Mary Douglas calls an “enclave culture”, a threatened minority culture which seeks to avoid being absorbed into the majority culture by means of “a multitude of purity laws”:

As Mary Douglas has brilliantly shown, Judaism is the classic case of such an “enclave culture”. Therefore, it is very probable that the second commandment, the prohibition of intercourse with outsiders, refers to the Jews rather than to the Amarna religion, especially since the notion of exclusivism, or “amixia,” came to be a stereotype of the Classical discourse on Jews and Judaism. The second of the two commandments of Osarsiph would then have to be explained as a secondary motif that entered the tradition only after the Egyptians encountered the Jews.[28]

But Assmann cautions us that “the possibility can by no means be ruled out that even the second commandment stems from the older experience”, as “the Amarna religion shows some traits of an enclave culture as well”, and notes the boundary stelae surrounding Amarna which record that the king was sworn not to cross them. This may have had to do with the fear of contagious disease, but it may also have been done for “fear of contagion of a more spiritual kind”. Assmann notes that it is “revealing” to make such an association between the idea of an enclave culture and the experience of Amarna.

Moreover, the prohibition of contact with outsiders can be more generally interpreted as the negation of mutual religious translatability. It then has to be seen against the background of ancient polytheism, which encourages and enforced intercultural communication.[28]

The story of Osarsiph continues, as he fortifies the city and invites the Hyksos, long since expelled from Egypt, to join them in their revolt. The Hyksos return; the king, remembering the prediction, flees to Ethiopia with the sacred animals. The lepers and the Hyksos then rule Egypt “for thirteen years in a way that makes the former Hyksos rule appear like a Golden Age in the memory of the Egyptians.”[29] Towns and temples are destroyed and the sanctuaries are “turned into kitchens” where the sacred animals are cooked. Osarsiph then takes the name Moses. Finally, Amenophis and his grandson Ramses return from the south and drive out the lepers and the Hyksos.

Assmann notes that, despite Josephus’ reading of this story as a “counterhistory”, as Amos Funkenstein would put it[29], it is actually a recording of an oral legend that apparently had many versions. He then goes on to recount the variants of the Moses story—Manetho is the only one to call him Osarsiph—which were told by other authors: the Greeks Hecataeus of Abdera and Lysimachus; Chaeremon of Alexandria, the Egyptian priest and bookkeeper who tutored a young Nero; the Gallo-Roman historian Pompeius Trogus; the Jewish author Artapanos (who describes Moses “ethnically as a Jew but culturally as the founder of Egyptian religion and civilization” and thus writes a “pure counterhistory in Funkenstein’s sense of the term”[30]); Tacitus; Plutarch; the Egyptian grammarian Apion (the namesake of Josephus’ Contra Apionem); and Strabo.

VI. Normative Inversion, From Without and Within
Among those listed above, we will linger here only on the accounts of Tacitus and Strabo, because of their emphasis on the principle of normative inversion which we established earlier as important to the understanding of counter-religion. Tacitus describes Moses as instituting “a new religion which is the exact opposite of all other religions (novos ritus contrariosque ceteris mortalibus indidit)”[31]. He explains that this religion conceives of god monotheistically and aniconically, rejecting the divine images as impious.

Tacitus further notes that “the Jews consider everything that we keep sacred as profane and permit everything that for us is taboo (profana illic omnia quae apud nos sacra, rursum concessa apud illos quae nobis incesta).”[31] As Assmann puts it:

In Tacitus, the characterization of Jewish monotheism as a counter-religion which is the inversion of Egyptian tradition and therefore totally derivative of, and dependent on, Egypt reaches its climax.[32]

Strabo’s account emphasises Moses’ rejection of images, and attributes to him a pantheistic conception of deity in which the representation of god in zoomorphic images, as in Egyptian tradition, is fundamentally inadequate in relation to such an all-encompassing being.[33] This sense of “idolatry” as inferior initiation, rather than outright impiety, is of a Stoic character rather than a Biblical one; “the coincidence in the refusal of images is purely formal.”[34] Nonetheless, this notion of monotheism as a break from tradition and a rejection of prior rituals is important, because it supplies a more appropriate definition of monotheism than the one to which we are accustomed:

The decisive feature of the monotheistic movements is their revolutionary, “idolophobic,” or iconoclastic character. They are counter-religions which are born out of “dissatisfaction” with tradition.[35]

Note that this picture of inversion is not merely the product of the biased account of Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. Much the same account of the Mosaic Law is given by Maimonides, who writes in his Guide for the Perplexed that Moses intended a sort of therapeutic legislation which would remove all trace of “idolatry”:

We have shown in our large work, Mishneh-torah (Hilkot, ‘Abodah-zarah, i. 3), that Abraham was the first that opposed [idolatry and magic] by arguments and by soft and persuasive speech. He induced these people, by showing kindness to them, to serve God. Afterwards came the chief of the prophets, and completed the work by the commandment to slay those unbelievers, to blot out their name, and to uproot them from the land of the living. Comp. “Ye shall destroy their altars,” etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 13). He forbade us to follow their ways; he said, “Ye shall not walk in the manners of the heathen”, etc. (Lev. XX. 23). You know from the repeated declarations in the Law that the principal purpose of the whole Law was the removal and utter destruction of idolatry, and all that is connected therewith, even its name, and everything that might lead to any such practices, e.g., acting as a consulter with familiar spirits, or as a wizard, passing children through the fire, divining, observing the clouds, enchanting, charming, or inquiring of the dead. The law prohibits us to imitate the heathen in any of these deeds, and a fortiori to adopt them entirely. It is distinctly said in the Law that everything which idolaters consider as service to their gods, and a means of approaching them, is rejected and despised by God; comp. “for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods” (Deut. xii. 3 1).[36]

Indeed, Maimonides uses this principle to construct his image of the “Sabians”, that is, the “idolaters” whose rites Moses legislated against:

Maimonides’ Sabians are an imagined community which he created by applying Manetho’s principle of normative inversion in the opposite direction. Manetho was familiar with Egyptian tradition and imagined a counter-community based upon the inverted mirror image of Egyptian mores. Maimonides was familiar with normative Judaism and imagined a pagan counter-community—the ‘ummat a’aba—as the counter-image of Jewish law. If the Law prohibits an activity x there must have existed an idolatrous community practicing x. The truth of both counter-constructions lies in the negative potential and antagonistic force of revelation or counter-religion.[37]

Thus both sides of the Mosaic distinction, with their mutual counter-constructions in both inherited memory and derivative reïmagination, agree that one side is the inversion of the other. Thus, irrespective of how factually accurate the stories told on either side about Moses may be, they both express the truth of what counter-religion is in relation to what exists outside it: the former semiotically and morally inverts the latter and thus denies any independent truth in the latter. A counter-vocabulary is thus coined to describe and account for other religions as a contiguous image of what is to be opposed: “paganism”, “heathenry”, “idolatry”, “unbelief”, “apostasy”, and so on.

This means that while both sides are affirming the antagonistic quality of counter-religion, they are by the very same fact denying one another’s conceptions of the divine and thus of the world. To turn on its head the statement we made in the introduction, this connection is simultaneously and necessarily a separation. Both sides remember one another in a negative light, but this shared negativity is grounded in unshared, and indeed mutually opposed, portions of the memory of what happened in Egypt.

VII. Reception and Dependence: Asymmetry in the Memory of Egypt

We have “a conspicuous case of distorted and dislodged memory” with the story of Moses and the lepers. Assmann argues that a “crypt” was formed in Egyptian collective memory, in which the dislocated recollections of the traumatic experience of Akhenaten’s monotheistic revolution were made subject to various alterations. He notes that on both sides of this “constellative myth”, Israel and Egypt, the other is seen in a “dark affective shading”: in the Biblical account of the Exodus, “the Egyptians are shown as torturers and oppressors, as idolaters and magicians”, while “in the Egyptian account, the ‘Jews’ are shown as lepers, as impure people, atheists, misanthropes, iconoclasts, vandals, and sacrilegious criminals.”[38]

While “it would be most instructive to confront these different versions with what could constitute historical evidence,” there is only one historical event which has not only archaeological evidence but also semantic conformity to these stories of plague and expulsion: the Hyksos period in Egypt.[38] Assmann agrees with Josephus and with Egyptologist and archaeologist Donald B. Redford that “the Hyksos’ sojourn in, and withdrawal from, Egypt was all that happened in terms of historical fact” and that “different memories of these events lived on in the traditions of Canaan and Egypt.”[39] Thus we have an archaeologically verifiable anchor by which to draw our mnemohistorical portrait:

The Hebrews merely fell heir to the Canaanite part of these memories. If we accept this theory, we are in a position to evaluate the stages of its transformation and to recognize its direction. The Hyksos stayed in Egypt not as slaves but as rulers. They withdrew from Egypt not as finally released slaves but as expelled enemies. The inversions which the Hebrew tradition imposed on the historical facts find their explanation in the semantic frame of the covenant-and-election theology.[39]

The Egyptian part of these memories, then, was inherited by the West, forming “the phantasm of the religious Other and the phobic idea of conspiracy and contagion” which “never ceased to haunt Europe”. He thus argues that “it is important to trace this history back to its origin, with the hope that this anamnesis and ‘working-through’ may contribute to a better understanding and an overcoming of the dynamics behind the development of cultural or religious abomination.”[40]

Here we must return to our discussion of metaxy, for it allows us to explain in further depth the understanding of the Mosaic distinction as “totally derivative of, and dependent on, Egypt”. The acknowledgement of an intervallic space between religion and counter-religion, or in this case between Egypt and Moses, should not be taken as an implication of symmetry. What the above accounts from Classical authors, taken together with the Biblical account, make clear is that there is a fundamental asymmetry surrounding the Mosaic distinction. One side is independent; the other dependent. One side supplies the metaxic space with content simply by being remembered; the other, in its rejection of what is remembered, uses the content of the former as fuel for a counter-narrative. One side was traumatized by the experience of the other; the other remembers the traumatized as oppressors.

This asymmetry, and thus the framing of its metaxic space, may provide the key to its own overcoming. It tells us not only what the Biblical and Classical accounts owe to Egypt, but also in what manner they relate to each other. The implications of this relationship, and the method thereby provided for transcending the Mosaic distinction, will require explication elsewhere.

[1] George Spencer-Brown, Laws of Form, 1972, pp. 3.
[2] Plotinus, Enneads, c. 270, IV.3.11 (trans. Stephen MacKenna and B.S. Page).
[3] Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 1997, p. 1.
[4] Idem, p. 2.
[5] Jan Assmann, Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism, 2008, p. 69.
[6] See idem, p. 54, as well as Mark S. Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World, 2010, pp. 41-43, and Theophilus G. Pinches, “The Language of the Kassites”, from The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 49, issue 1, January 1917, p. 112.
[7] Tacitus, De origine et situ Germanorum, 98, IX (trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb).
[8] Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, c. 100, 67 (trans. Frank Cole Babbitt).
[9] Apuleius, Metamorphoses, c. 165, XI.5.
[10] Walter J. Friedlander, The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine, 1992, p. 69.
[11] Idem [3], p. 8.
[12] Alistair Ian Blyth, “The Seductiveness of the Metaxy”, 2009.
[13] Hosea XII:9, KJV; see also Exodus XX:2.
[14] Idem [3], p. 9.
[15] Idem, p. 16.
[16] Idem, p. 19.
[17] Idem, p. 18.
[18] Idem, p. 21.
[19] Idem, p. 22.
[20] Idem, p. 17.
[21] Idem, p. 24.
[22] Idem, p. 25.
[23] Idem, p. 26.
[24] Idem, pp. 28-29.
[25] Idem, p. 29.
[26] Idem, p. 30.
[27] Idem, p. 31.
[28] Idem, p. 32.
[29] Idem, p. 33.
[30] Idem, p. 36.
[31] Tacitus, Historiae, c. 105, V.IV.
[32] Idem [3], p. 37.
[33] Strabo, Geographica, c. 23, 16.2.35.
[34] Idem [3], p. 226 (footnotes to pages 36-42).
[35] Idem, p. 39.
[36] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, c. 1190, p. 317.
[37] Idem [3], p. 58.
[38] Idem, p. 40.
[39] Idem, p. 41.
[40] Idem, p. 44.


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