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Moses and Multiculturalism

Moses and Multiculturalism

Barbara Johnson
Foreword by Barbara Rietveld
Series: FlashPoints
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 126
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  • Book Info
    Moses and Multiculturalism
    Book Description:

    Countering impressions of Moses reinforced by Sigmund Freud in his epoch-makingMoses and Monotheism, this concise, engaging work begins with the perception that the story of Moses is at once the most nationalist and the most multicultural of all foundation narratives. Weaving together various texts-biblical passages, philosophy, poems, novels, opera, and movies-Barbara Johnson explores how the story of Moses has been appropriated, reimagined, and transmitted across cultures and historical moments. But she finds that already in the Bible, the story of Moses is a multicultural story, the story of someone who functions well in a world to which he, unbeknownst to the casual observer, does not belong. Using the Moses story as a lens through which to view questions at the heart of contemporary literary, philosophical, and ethical debates, Johnson shows how, through a close analysis of this figure's recurrence through time, we might understand something of the paradoxes, if not the impasses of contemporary multiculturalism.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94610-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Barbara Rietveld

    If the story of Moses didn’t exist, Barbara Johnson might have invented it to illustrate concepts she began writing about in 1980. “The problem of difference,” she wrote in the Opening Remarks to her first book,The Critical Difference, “can be seen both as an uncertainty over separability and as a drifting apart within identity.” The focus in this new volume functions as a prism through which she looks at the “separability” of the cultures that have contributed to the formation of the Moses figure through stories told by different peoples and how the “drifting apart within identity” played out...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    Ever since Sigmund Freud published his epoch-makingMoses and Monotheismat the height of the Nazi Holocaust, the impression of Moses’ mono-ness and his role as founder of the Jewish faith has been reinforced. But this book begins with the perception that the story of Moses is at once the most nationalist and the most multiculturalist of all foundation narratives. This does not simply mean that many different nations and liberation movements have adopted the story as their own, although the outlines of the story do seem to have compelling and enduring narrative shape. John Hope Franklin could thus call...

  5. CHAPTER ONE The Biblical Moses
    (pp. 16-24)

    This chapter is devoted to reading the original story of Moses and noting the many odd things that come up in it. The story stretches over the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, but barely a tenth of that length is devoted to familiar plot elements: the baby in the bulrushes, the killing of the overseer, the burning bush, the liberation from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the rock that gives water, the march through the wilderness to reach the Promised Land, the tables of the law, the Golden Calf. Many chapters are not narrative at all...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Moses and the Law
    (pp. 25-28)

    Moses is often associated with the founding of the rule of law: a U.S. judge who wanted to display the Ten Commandments in his office sparked an intense debate about the separation of church and state. Christians treated the Ten Commandments as their own; it was Christian fundamentalists who laid down their bodies to prevent the removal of what had become by then a granite version of the commandments in the (by then) disbarred judge’s office. Zora Neale Hurston, too, refers to “the Moses of the Christian concept” and seems to have no inkling that Moses might not be Christian.¹...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Flavius Josephus
    (pp. 29-38)

    Josephus was a Pharisee priest, a Jewish historian, and a military leader who wrote around the time of the death of Christ. His opposition to Jewish nationalism and his infatuation with the Roman Empire have negatively affected his reputation among Jews, but his accounts of Jewish history are often the only versions that still exist outside of the Bible. It is from him that we learn extensively about Moses’ brilliant early career as an Egyptian general, and there is no reason to question that version’s authority.

    In addition, Josephus offers a firsthand account (inThe Wars of the Jews) of...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Frances E. W. Harper
    (pp. 39-45)

    Antislavery activist and early black woman writer—one would expect the story of the liberation of Egypt’s slaves to be tailor-made for Frances E. W. Harper. Therefore, it is all the more surprising to see her take for granted the story of liberation from slavery to zero in on Moses’ complicated relations with his two mothers and to see all his decisions as entailing a difficult parting. The story sketched out in Harper’s fragmentary version is psychological. It is not only about the resolve to leave the high-status mother; it is also about the psychological costs of telling her so,...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Moses, the Egyptian
    (pp. 46-57)

    It was not only Freud who announced to the world that Moses was really an Egyptian; so did the prominent Egyptologist Jan Assmann. Assmann’sMoses the Egyptiangives solidity to Freud’s claim. But it does more: Assmann makes a useful distinction between history and memory, traditions and “what really happened.” This distinction suits Egypt in Europe’s memory almost better than anything else. It is this distinction that explains the effect of Egypt on Europe and even, by contrast, the image of Greece as Europe’s pure childhood—an image of European origins that was fundamental to philosophical and literary theory. The...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Freud’s Moses
    (pp. 58-76)

    Even in the Bible, the presence of leprosy and plagues is an indication, perhaps, of an event in Egyptian history that is never reported directly: the occurrence of a terrible epidemic. This has led to many stories equating Jews with disease. Maybe the Amarna episode is figured as a plague, or maybe the Jews were considered responsible for a plague. Maybe Moses was “King of the Lepers” and was expelled instead of initiating a liberation, but in any case, the anti-Semitic tradition, starting with the Egyptian historian Manetho and continuing through the Holocaust, associated Jews with disease. Because of the...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Hurston’s Moses
    (pp. 77-81)

    Zora Neale Hurston wrote one of the few full-length portraits of the man Moses. His humanity is emphasized by Hurston, as well as by Freud, for different reasons. Freud strove to present Moses as a character in a historical novel, whereas Hurston depicts him as a very special person, adept in magic, able to talk with animals, and learning avidly from an old stableman, Mentu.

    This returns us to the question of the role of blacks in Egypt in a new form—and directly brings up the relation between blacks and Jews. Hurston is writing in part against Hitler in...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT The German Moses
    (pp. 82-88)

    Friedrich von Schiller, a rival and contemporary of Goethe, is now better known as a playwright, a philosopher, and a Weimar classicist than for his little 1790 text on Moses, “The Mission of Moses.” His dilemma with Moses was, however, quite influential in its day. The problem, as he saw it, was to “avoid the double wrong of imputing to the Jews qualities which they never possessed, or of robbing them of a merit that cannot be denied.”¹ The problem was that Judaism was the foundation of Christianity but surpassed and subsumed by the latter. Furthermore, the Jews were degraded...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Moses, the Movie
    (pp. 89-94)

    Cecil B. DeMille producedtwoversions of the Moses story, both calledThe Ten Commandments:a silent film in 1926 and the classic starring Charlton Heston in 1956. These two films are in many ways very different. The earlier film is a morality tale showing the relevance of the commandments to modern life, and the second is a Hollywood blockbuster.

    The silent movie is presented with a musical accompaniment: gongs for majesty, faster music for Egyptian chariots and orgies. The silent movie has clear roots in melodrama: indeed, when the medium must resort to written captions to make the story...

  14. Epilogue
    (pp. 95-96)

    My study of the various versions of the story of Moses does not start from the premise, frequent in scholarship about Moses, that he is a sign of Jewishness, or that all these stories are about thesameMoses.

    Even in the biblical version, it is sometimes hard to see Moses’ character as consistent. In fact, those enigmatic moments in the biblical story give an opening to entirely different imaginings of Moses. This book, which profits greatly from biblical commentaries, departs from them, too, in not trying to reconcile all inconsistencies and not drawing a lesson from them. The exegetical...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 97-104)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 105-113)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 114-114)