Jan Assmann: Remembering the Exodus

Almost 30 years ago, friends in Jerusalem invited my family to a Passover Seder. It might be fun, they said, to have me on board as an Egyptologist to professionally depict the sufferings in the house of serfdom. As the youngest child at the Seder, my daughter Corinna had to learn and ask the question, “Ma nishtana?”,  triggering a chain of liturgical and improvised recitations. I began to think about how an Egyptologist would reconstruct and ‘remember’ the Exodus. After all, I was a complete outsider at the Seder. My only legitimation lay in the fact that it was Egypt that the children of Israel left in order to start a new form of community in Canaan. I wondered, was there a specifically anti-Egyptian gist in this narrative?

When I was asked to write a book on Exodus for Princeton University Press, I felt the time had finally come to set to work. As an Egyptologist, I knew for sure that there was no Egyptian evidence that could corroborate the historicity of the story. There was no use inquiring into what really happened in the time of Ramesses II. Instead, I asked, “How was this event remembered?” This approach allowed me to read the book of Exodus not as a historical account, but as an act of remembering in itself. It also allowed me to locate the story not in the Late Bronze Age, but rather in the time of its narration­—probably the sixth century BCE.

Re-reading the book of Exodus, I remarked with surprise that the Exodus proper—from the sufferings of serfdom to the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea—fills just one part of the book. The two other parts contain the revelation of the Law at Mt. Sinai and the construction of the Tabernacle. The theme of revelation, however, is present in all three parts:

  1. First, God reveals his name to Moses at the Burning Bush and commissions Moses to lead his people to Canaan, the Promised Land (chs. 3-6). God reveals his power by hitting Pharaoh and his land with ten plagues and drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Sea of Reeds (chs. 7-15a).
  2. In the second part, God reveals himself to his chosen people, with whom he forms a covenant, and whom he instructs about the rules to remain true to this covenant (chs. 15b-24).
  3. In the third part, God reveals to Moses the structure of the Tabernacle in the cloud (chs. 25-31) and—in a scene of reconciliation after the crisis of the Golden Calf—his view from behind and his merciful or unforgiving nature.

The book’s narrative arc starts with trauma and ends with triumph: from extreme God-forsakenness to God living ‘in the midst of his people’, ‘sitting on the cherubim.’ Near the middle of the book, the text even contains God’s detailed prescription as to how this story should be remembered by future generations. This prescription is implemented and acted out in the feast of Passover, starting with the Seder night.

The book of Exodus, it turns out, is about much more than just the Israelites’ exit from Egypt. It is about the foundation of a new, revealed religion based on covenant, faith and law, and of a nation chosen to be the carrier of this religion, serving as a prototype that at the end of time will be adopted by all nations on earth.

So where, one may ask, is the “anti-Egyptian gist”? It lies in the opposition of serfdom and freedom. Egypt represents the old system of sacral kingship, where religion and state are the same and the king rules as a god on earth. This system is overturned by the religion of covenant and faith that liberates its members from serving Pharaoh into the service of God. Freedom means autonomy as a diasporic nation—forced to obey the host country’s laws, but at the same time obeying a higher authority whose laws are meant to last forever, untouched by any mundane government. This is religion in a new key, independent of state and country, religion that is able to resist oppression and persecution—religion, that is, as we understand it today. This is why I finally titled my book The Invention of Religion.

Freedom is the major theme of the Passover Haggadah. Freedom in times of exile and persecution—this is what the Seder celebrates. Yet kherût, or freedom, is not a biblical word. It became a keyword only in the Diaspora, when Egypt came to stand for any country and any period where and when the Jews were oppressed. “Wherever you live,” wrote Michael Walzer in Exodus and Revolution, “it is probably Egypt.” Remembering the Exodus means exiting Egypt.

Jan Assmann is honorary professor of cultural studies at the University of Konstanz and professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught for nearly three decades. He is the author of many books on ancient history and religion, including From Akhenaten to Moses, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization, and Moses the Egyptian.

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