Historical time and the Enlightenment Re-imaginings of Moses and Solomon

Written by Inge Erdal. The nature of historical time has always been contested. Through the Enlightenment and nineteenth century, as European empires spread across the globe, writers slid between the boundaries of fiction and history, trying to unpack stories from the Bible.

As those who were schooled in the Bible can relate, its accounts and stories are stuck in an awkward place between fiction, myth, and historical events. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with ambiguity. Rather, it has the potential of being a very useful pedagogical tool for historical teaching and reflection, the line between the three is after all often quite blurry. One such utility I would like to ponder on is the text’s relationship to historical time, or rather its readership’s changing perception of it through the ages. Looking back to my own Lutheran upbringing, biblical narratives were presented as essentially timeless, yet simultaneously frozen in the ancient past. One result of this curious mixture was that it seemed both alien and archaic, with little relevance for contemporary life beyond the often-trite moral lessons. This distance would not have been present in most of Christian history, as we see in for example medieval artistry, where not only biblical but all historical events were presented in then contemporary dress and style, indicating the generally cyclical conception of historical time in pre-Modernity.

Indeed, reimaginations of the Bible took very interesting forms in the transition period of premodern cyclical time to modern linear time, which the historical theorist Reinhard Koselleck has the dubbed the Sattelzeit (saddle time), from 1750 to 1850.  I would like to highlight two such cases: the re-imaginings of the old testament patriarchs Moses and Solomon during and after the Enlightenment. The former being recast as the deistic reformer of a backwards, superstitious people and the latter as a global merchant and coloniser. In these examples we see both distance and timeliness coexisting, resulting in the patriarchs being both historical forbearers of the ongoing projects of enlightenment and empire, a sensation that shaped ongoing debates and policy. Simultaneously, they also give evidence of the ongoing shift in the western European perception of historical time in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

One of the key innovations of the European Enlightenments was the practice of universal history, understood as the history of the whole of humankind traced from the beginning of scriptural evidence to the present. Unsurprisingly, the Bible, especially the Old Testament, was central in this project, stimulating a keen interest in the ancient history of the Hebrews and its role in the present. Prominent among these was the celebrated Enlightenment and early Romantic writer Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805). Though most famous for his plays and poetry, he was also noteworthy as an historian in his capacity as professor at Jena. This included his lecture Die Sendung Moses (The Messenger Moses), delivered in 1789 and published the following year. Schiller’s lecture discusses the history of the Hebrews during their mythical sojourn in Egypt, using it to formulate a more contemporary vision of Moses. Pulling largely from the Book of Exodus and the Ptolemaian historian Manetho’s Aegyptiaca (History of Egypt), he presents the Hebrews as a degenerate, despised, and abandoned people. Significantly, he argues this deprivation stems from historical contingency rather than inherent traits, the result of them being relegated to the Egyptian region of Gosen, which – though fertile – could not accommodate their rapidly rising population and inefficient pastoralism, leading to a successive degeneration for each generation. The deprivation of the descendants of Abraham made them the target of scorn and hatred among Egyptians, as it did for Schiller’s contemporaries.

As a result, it was deemed that the illustrious figure of Moses, much praised in the Enlightenment imagination as a wise lawmaker, could not truly come from this miserable people. Fortunately for Schiller, the narrative of the patriarch is flexible enough to allow for reinterpretation. Pulling from Manetho’s alternative account, he adds to the biblical narrative that Moses, beyond being raised by the Egyptian royal family, was also initiated in the esoteric mystery cult of Isis and Serapis. The prophet-to-be therefore gains knowledge restricted to the highest priests, that of the “beings above all beings … the supreme cause of all things”. Schiller makes the ancient Egyptians, whom he thought the oldest civilization, originators of knowledge of monotheism. Contrary to his own Enlightenment spirit, they keep this secret from the deeply superstitious Egyptians, who remained slavishly devoted to their false gods.

Here the genius of Moses comes into force, for Schiller has already concluded that unlike the Egyptians, the Hebrews are so debased that a total reconstruction under an inspired leader is necessary for any improvement. Therefore, the plan leading them out of Egypt and reconstituting them in a new state is convinced, making them carriers of the forbidden truth of monotheism. However, the professor reassures the listener, the monotheism of the Jews is necessarily a debased one, fanaticism and dubious practices remaining. Here he pulls from certain strains of the debate on the ‘Jewish question’, arguing that in spite of their deprivation, the Jews enabled monotheism to become world religions, in the forms of Christianity and Islam, whose fundamental grounding in reason made enlightenment possible for millions rather than a few ancient philosophers. The Moses of Schiller is hence made an enlightened despot doing his best to reform a backwards people, a necessary stage for the enlightenment of all humankind. There is a parallel to be drawn here with German writers’ treatment of their own self-styled enlightened despots, like Kant on Frederick the Great. The mythical biblical past is hence able to inform the present, though this mirror to the past has been shattered without Schiller or his contemporaries noticing, starring in fact back at themselves instead. In the process turning the salvation history of Christianity into one of secular enlightenment.

However, Moses was not alone in being an ancient figure whose example was sought in this period. The biblical king of Israel, Solomon the Wise, was also invoked as a flexible model of British imperial designs. The Britain of the 1790s saw a renewed interest in charting Solomon’s fabled trade routes, most of all to the land of Ophir, the source of the gold that filled his palaces. This no doubt reflected the increasing globalisation of their own commercial network, though it should be emphasised that this Ophir imperialism was not a British invention but one pioneered by the Iberians, who had used the supposed discovery of Ophir as means of legitimising their conquest in the Americas. This illustrates a very modernist problem, the mapping of the world and closing of frontiers meant that location of Ophir had to be spatialised in the existing world, it could longer be left alone the semi-mystical periphery of the white parts of the map.

It had to be somewhere, though each new consensus proved fleeting.  By the 1860s it had been agreed to be in India – conspicuously shortly after the establishment of the British Raj in 1858. However, it shifted in the 1880s to South Africa, the site of newly discovered ancient gold mines, and not to mention diamonds in Kimberley, found in 1867. However, even more stirring for the Victorian imagination was Karl Mauch’s discovery of Great Zimbabwe in 1871 which was reasoned could not have been built by Africans due to their perceived racial inferiority, giving existing theories of biblical mines legitimacy. This was a consensus only adopted by archaeologists in 1906, though it was popularised among the reading public before, through the massive success of H. Rider Haggard’s adventure novel King Solomon’s Mines, where British travellers discover the ruins of Solomon’s diamond mines in the fictive Kukuanaland in the South African interior. The interest in Solomon then, occurred alongside trade expansion and the economic shift of Britain turning from a gold purchaser to an extractor in huge quantities in its colonies. A Christian empire which now had a certain ‘inherited right’ to the treasures it was stealing.  

However, this reliance on biblical stories as fodder for the imperial imagination also had a pernicious side effect, due to their unmistakable function as moral narratives. As Timothy Alborn does well to point out, many living in the eighteenth century were not blind to the potential social ills emerging from commerce, as the example of Solomon illustrates. He could gather large riches and build golden temples, while the people were in misery and slavery. Theologians played a critical function in obfuscating this contradiction, by emphasizing that the ‘heavenly gold’ of Christ was far superior to Solomon’s earthly gold, giving the Britons a certain distance with which they pursued their plunder. One contradiction that did become harder to obfuscate was the problem on relying on biblical epistemology. For if Ophir was not real, then what was?

Approaching the end, it feels necessary to comment on the clear antisemitism central to both imaginations. Schiller felt the need to cleanse Moses of any Jewishness. It is hence unsurprising that Die Sendung is not among the acceptable Schiller canon that won him a bust in Central Park, New York. That said, it was reprinted in 1934, at which point it had become central feature of the German antisemitic canon, with its descriptions of Jews as a despised ‘state in the state’, only capable of limited restitution by their removal to a land of their own. Schiller is therefore among many enlightenment thinkers, to which Voltaire perhaps contributed most of all, whose legacy in this regard has not been seriously reckoned with.

Solomon’s treatment is not too different, though he is not left off the hook like the prophet. As Heidi Kaufman points out, in prevailing Victorian norms, Solomon would have been perceived as a Jewish king who willingly prostituted himself for gold from the mines of the Queen of Sheba, who was understood at the time as Ethiopian and hence black, something that is implicit in King Solomon’s Mines and quite explicit in its parodies like King Solomon’s Wives; or the Phantom Mines (1887). A significant link between Jewishness and homosexuality would have also been inferred, both hiding something in the domestic sphere, both emasculated and sexually degenerate. This is of course not to mention the evoking of Solomon as a vain gold hoarder, as if sexual immorality and tyranny were not damning enough charges.

Hence it seems that the plasticity of historical time during the waves of Enlightenment and Romanticism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries allowed the reconstruction of the imagined Biblical past as an inspiration to be improved upon, while simultaneously deriding it as morally inferior. Such imagination fell behind in the twentieth century, when a serious biblical chronology became increasingly absurd considering the shockwaves of secularisation, critical historical research, and deepening geological insight into the age of the earth. Hence, an understanding of time that had already been made linear through universal history, rather than the cyclical one of previous ages, was also stripped of the certainty of its perceived past. At last, the very modernist affliction of rootlessness had completed its reach into the domain of time by the second half of twentieth century, leaving only the dizzying present, and rendering faith in both the past and the future effectively shattered.

Written by Inge Erdal


Alborn, Timothy. “King Solomon’s Gold: Ophir in an Age of Empire.” Journal of Victorian Culture 20, no. 4 (2015): 491-508.

Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914.Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Harket, Håkon. Paragrafen: Eidsvoll,1814. Oslo: Dreyers forlag, 2014.

Kaufman, Heidi. “King Solomon’s Mines? African Jewry, British Imperialism, and H. Rider Haggard’s Diamonds.” Victorian Literature and Culture 33 (2005): 517-39.

Koselleck, Reinhart. The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, translated by Todd Samuel Presner, et al. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Sher, R. B. “From Troglodytes to Americans: Montesquieu and the Scottish Enlightenment on Liberty, Virtue, and Commerce.” In Republicanism, Liberty, and Commercial Society, 1649–1776, edited by David Wootton, 368-402.Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Spiegel, G. M. “Structures of time in medieval historiography.” The medieval history journal, 19, (2016): 21-33.

Woolf, Daniel. A Global History of History.New York, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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