The Invention of Religion

Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus

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Jan Assman
Robert Savage
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , March
     424 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Invention of Religion: Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus, Jan Assmann undertakes a reading of the second book of the Bible informed by his background as an Egyptologist and historian. The author contends that “the Book of Exodus is not just about the departure of the people of Israel from Egypt but also about the establishment of a completely new type of religion, or even ‘religion’ as such” (xv). This innovation is one of revelation, covenant, and loyalty—themes that he explores at length throughout the course of the book. Part commentary, part retelling, part reception history, Assmann produces what he calls a “resonant reading,” or, in other words, one that is both a subjective interpretation and shaped by historical experiences and cultural interests (xvi). The result is a broad and nuanced portrait of the theme of Exodus and its literary and theological kinships both within the Bible and the surrounding ancient Near Eastern world.

Assmann opens with an exploration of the structure of the book of Exodus, explaining its separation into three distinct sections around the motifs of departure (chapters 1-15), covenant (chapters 15-24), and divine presence (chapters 25-40). Next, he turns his attention to locating Exodus in the cultural and historical context of the ancient Near East. In these early chapters, Assmann succinctly introduces the Priestly source (P) as a composition that presents the books of Genesis and Exodus as a single work of history extending from creation to the revelation on Sinai (29).

This idea of the P source as oriented in a creation-theological manner runs counter to what Assmann terms the Deuteronomistic school’s liberation-theological viewpoint throughout his analysis. It is also within this first section of the book that Assmann delimits his goal, which is not to uncover the historical events that lie behind this myth of origin, nor to identify historical residue in the final form of the book, but to search out the meaning of the “Exodus-and-Moses tradition . . . in what it had to say to its audience down the ages” (33). In the remainder of his book Assmann reads the text of Exodus sequentially, covering key moments such as the revelation of the divine name, the plagues, the handing down of the law, the rebellion of the people (including the golden calf episode), and the institutionalization of the divine presence in turn. 

In each chapter, Assmann deftly navigates between the books of the Torah (especially Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), the prophets who engage the motif of Exodus (especially Hosea, Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), the Psalms that retell portions of the Exodus story, and ancient Near Eastern monumental inscriptions, law codes, and theological treatises. He does this alongside more recent texts like Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (1939, Knopf) and George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt (1963), in order to make sense of the story of Exodus as a founding myth that represents both a radical innovation and variation on a common theme.

On the one hand, according to Assmann, the biblical concept of God’s chosen people represents an innovative and momentous achievement: “The one God is the God of one people, and this one people is the people of the one God” (190, emphasis original). Bound by covenant into a long-term relationship that recasts the future into one marked by cycles of loyalty and betrayal, this is a covenant between liberator and liberated—not between creator and created. The difference, argues Assmann, is that the covenant between liberator and liberated both presupposes alternatives and runs a high risk of betrayal by either party, something the biblical text is all too keen to display. On the other hand, as Assmann demonstrates, the covenant code itself is not radically different from its Near Eastern counterparts; its relationship to Assyrian treaty texts is hard to miss.

However, the covenant at Sinai does make one radical change: the elimination of an intermediary between the people and their God. Instead of serving as divine overseer of an agreement as in comparable Near Eastern codes, YHWH enters into covenant directly with each and every one of the people. Setting the P source in the period of the Babylonian Exile helps Assmann to make sense both of Israel’s poor self-representation as unfaithful and rebellious in the book of Exodus and why the text could only represent the people (and not YHWH) as betraying the covenant—to make the opposite claim would sacrifice the memory of YHWH as liberator and the hope that YHWH might deliver the people once again.

While some of the author’s subjective conclusions are presented as obvious truths and the scope of his study at times disappointingly limits its depth, his provocative insights and ability to carefully investigate threads of connection between memory and history, text and culture make this book a valuable resource for any student of the Hebrew Bible, especially in its consideration of the religious and political milieu of the ancient Near East. Assmann’s previous work on memory permeates his exploration of the story of Exodus and shapes his conclusions regarding how and for what purposes this master narrative has been remembered and retold.

For Assmann, Exodus both tells of and brings about a radical shift that “has become the narrative template and symbol for fundamental intellectual, religious, and political change” (338). It is from this mythic core that the story of Exodus helps individuals, communities, and movements to create an identity for themselves, reorient human ways of being, and invest their endeavors with meaning.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kelsey Erin Wallace is a doctoral student in the Bible and Cultures program at Drew Theological School.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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 MosesCultural Memory and Early Civilization, and Moses the Egyptian.


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