“The Invention of Religion: Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus” by Jann Assmann —How the Book of Exodus Shaped Fundamental Aspects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam


Assmann, Jan. “The Invention of Religion: Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus”, (Translated by Robert Savage), Princeton University Press, 2018.

How the Book of Exodus Shaped Fundamental Aspects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Amos Lassen

Of all of the stories in the Bible, The Book of Exodus may be the most spectacular and certainly the consequential story ever told. However writer Jann Assmann, a leading historian of ancient religion, does not write about the spectacular moments of heaven-sent plagues and parting seas. Assmann sees the true importance of Exodus in the story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of captivity to become God’s people and the foundation of an entirely new idea of religion. That event lives on today in many of the world’s faiths.

“The Invention of Religion” examines the ancient scriptures to show how Exodus has shaped fundamental understandings of monotheistic practice and belief. We go into the power of the narrative of the exodus by looking at how it was written and what is distinct to it—motifs and dichotomies: slavery and redemption; belief and doubt; worship and idolatry; loyalty and betrayal. Assmann maintains that revelation is a central theme (“the revelation of God’s power in miracles, of God’s presence in the burning bush, and of God’s chosen dwelling among the Israelites in the vision of the tabernacle”) in the Book of Exodus. But above everything else, it is God’s covenant with Israel; that obligation of the Israelites to accept and acknowledge God as their redeemer and obey His law. Without a second thought, this is a transformative idea and it has challenged basic assumptions about humankind’s relationship to God in the ancient world.

Assmann gives us a powerful account of how ideas of faith, revelation, and covenant which were ideas and ideals that were first introduced in Exodus have shaped Judaism and then were later adopted by Christianity and Islam to form the basis of the Abrahamic religions.

What we see is how the Book of Exodus preserves the memories of prebiblical Egyptian and Israelite while at the same time bringing forth a monotheism based upon loyalty and this has become a leading factor in Western religion. What we see here that we have not seen before is the tremendous importance of ancient civilizations, cultural memory, and biblical texts that show the Exodus story as both the story of the liberation of a people and the story of the invention of a new conception of religion that was radically different from what already existed and that also became the basis for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

It is not often that we get a scholarly work in which the author takes us by the hand and explains his ideas in ways that are easily understood. By the time I was on page two, I knew I was reading something very special. The amount of work that went into this study is astounding and I felt as if I can trust every word. While this is a scholarly study, it can be read by anyone who has an interest in the Book of Exodus. It is so beautifully written that each sentence is a gem and it is certainly easy to see that there are debates coming about what he has to say here. This is a must read for anyone who is interested in the history of monotheism and a great read for everyone else. Below is the table of contents so that you can get an idea of what is covered here.


List of Illustrations xi

Foreword xv

Introduction 1


Chapter One

Theme and Structure of the Book of Exodus— God Reveals His Name—God Reveals His Power

Sinai—Calling, Covenant, and Law

The Way to Sinai—God Reveals the Covenant

Divine Presence 25

God Reveals the Tabernacle—Revelation of the Divine Being: Breach and Reconciliation—The Tabernacle Is Built—The Revelation Concludes: God’s Permanent Presence

Chapter Two
The Historical Background: Event and Remembrance 32

Memories 34

The Hyksos—Amarna—Ḥabiru/ʿapiru—Waves of Migration,

Sea Peoples—Theocracy

Experiences 47

Miraculous Redemption from Mortal Danger—The “Secession of the Northern Tribes”: The First Occasion for Remembering the Exodus?—Israel Refounded: The Principal Occasion for Remembering

Chapter Three

Textual History and the History of Meaning 55

Redaction as “Cultivation of Meaning”: Textual Layering in the Bible 55 From Myth to Canon and Back 74 The “Mosaic Distinctions” and the Monotheism of Loyalty 79


Chapter Four

The Tribulations of the Israelites and the Birth of the Savior 93

Bondage in Egypt 93 The Birth of the Child 106 Moses’s Childhood and Upbringing 114

Chapter Five
God Reveals His Name: Moses at the Burning Bush 117 Moses Is Called 117 God Renews His Promise 123 Excursus I: The Burning Bush in Schoenberg’s Opera Moses und Aron 126 IAmThatIAm 131

Chapter Six
Signs and Wonders: God Reveals His Power 138

The Plagues of Egypt 138 The Egyptian-Hellenistic Tradition 154 The Institution of the Passover Feast and the Passover Haggadah 161 Excursus II: Moses’s Song of Thanksgiving and Handel’s Oratorio

Israel in Egypt 173 PART THREE | THE COVENANT

Chapter Seven
The Calling of the People 181

Holy People and Portable Fatherland 181 The Torah as Memory 191 The Development of the Covenant Idea: Bridal and Filial Metaphors 196

Chapter Eight
Treaty and Law 204

The Deconstruction of Kingship: Treaty and Law as the
Constitution of God’s People 204

The Ten Commandments 209 The Covenant Code and the Solemnization of the Covenant 224 Excursus III: “Excarnation” and Theologization of the Law 236 Excursus IV: The Decalogue and Egyptian Norms for Judging

the Dead 240 Chapter Nine

Resistance: Moses and the Violent Fate of the Prophets 253

Murmuring in the Desert 253 The Murder of Moses? 271 The Violent Fate of the Prophets 276

Chapter Ten
The Institutionalization of Divine Presence 287

YHWH Comes to Dwell among His People 287 The Golden Calf: The Original Sin against the Covenant 302 Excursus V: The Golden Calf in Schoenberg’s Opera Moses und Aron 317 A “Book of the Temple”? 322

Conclusion 327

Narrative, Historical, and Performative Truth 327 Revelation 329 Out of Egypt 332 Exodus as Political Myth 334 Exodus and Monotheism 335

Notes 339

Bibliography 365

Illustration Credits 383

Index 385

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