Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

Of Some Singular Passages in This Prophet, and of Certain Ancient Usages.

It is well known that we ought not to judge of ancient usages by modern ones; he that would reform the court of Alcinous in the “Odyssey,” upon the model of the Grand Turk, or Louis XIV., would not meet with a very gentle reception from the learned; he who is disposed to reprehend Virgil for having described King Evander covered with a bear’s skin and accompanied by two dogs at the introduction of ambassadors, is a contemptible critic.

The manners of the ancient Egyptians and Jews are still more different from ours than those of King Alcinous, his daughter Nausicáa, and the worthy Evander. Ezekiel, when in slavery among the Chaldæans, had a vision near the small river Chobar, which falls into the Euphrates.

We ought not to be in the least astonished at his having seen animals with four faces, four wings, and with calves’ feet; or wheels revolving without aid and “instinct with life”; these images are pleasing to the imagination; but many critics have been shocked at the order given him by the Lord to eat, for a period of three hundred and ninety days, bread made of barley, wheat, or millet, covered with human ordure.

The prophet exclaimed in strong disgust, “My soul has not hitherto been polluted”; and the Lord replied, “Well, I will allow you instead of man’s ordure to use that of the cow, and with the latter you shall knead your bread.”

As it is now unusual to eat a preparation of bread of this description, the greater number of men regard the order in question as unworthy of the Divine Majesty. Yet it must be admitted that cow-dung and all the diamonds of the great Mogul are perfectly equal, not only in the eyes of a Divine Being, but in those of a true philosopher; and, with regard to the reasons which God might have for ordering the prophet this repast, we have no right to inquire into them. It is enough for us to see that commands which appear to us very strange, did not appear so to the Jews.

It must be admitted that the synagogue, in the time of St. Jerome, did not suffer “Ezekiel” to be read before the age of thirty; but this was because, in the eighteenth chapter, he says that the son shall not bear the iniquity of his father, and it shall not be any longer said the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

This expression was considered in direct contradiction to Moses, who, in the twenty-eighth chapter of “Numbers,” declares that the children bear the iniquity of the fathers, even to the third and fourth generation.

Ezekiel, again, in the twentieth chapter, makes the Lord say that He has given to the Jews precepts which are not good. Such are the reasons for which the synagogue forbade young people reading an author likely to raise doubts on the irrefragability of the laws of Moses.

The censorious critics of the present day are still more astonished with the sixteenth chapter of Ezekiel. In that chapter he thus takes it upon him to expose the crimes of the city of Jerusalem. He introduces the Lord speaking to a young woman; and the Lord said to her, “When thou wast born, thy navel string was not cut, thou wast not salted, thou wast quite naked, I had pity on thee; thou didst increase in stature, thy breasts were fashioned, thy hair was grown, I passed by thee, I observed thee, I knew that the time of lovers was come, I covered thy shame, I spread my skirt over thee; thou becamest mine; I washed and perfumed thee, and dressed and shod thee well; I gave thee a scarf of linen, and bracelets, and a chain for thy neck; I placed a jewel in thy nose, pendants in thy ears, and a crown upon thy head.”

“Then, confiding in thy beauty, thou didst in the height of thy renown, play the harlot with every passer-by . . . . And thou hast built a high place of profanation . . . . and thou hast prostituted thyself in public places, and opened thy feet to every one that passed . . . . and thou hast committed fornication with the Egyptians . . . . and finally thou hast paid thy lovers and made them presents, that they might lie with thee . . . . and by hiring them, instead of being hired, thou hast done differently from other harlots. . . . . The proverb is, as is the mother, so is the daughter, and that proverb is used of thee,” etc.

Still more are they exasperated on the subject of the twenty-third chapter. A mother had two daughters, who early lost their virginity. The elder was called Ahola, and the younger Aholibah . . . . “Aholah committed fornication with young lords and captains, and lay with the Egyptians from her early youth . . . . Aholibah, her sister, committed still greater fornication with officers and rulers and well-made cavaliers; she discovered her shame, she multiplied her fornications, she sought eagerly for the embraces of those whose flesh was as that of asses, and whose issue was as that of horses.”

These descriptions, which so madden weak minds, signify, in fact, no more than the iniquities of Jerusalem and Samaria; these expressions, which appear to us licentious, were not so then. The same vivacity is displayed in many other parts of Scripture without the slightest apprehension. Opening the womb is very frequently mentioned. The terms made use of to express the union of Boaz with Ruth, and of Judah with his daughter-in-law, are not indelicate in the Hebrew language, but would be so in our own.

People who are not ashamed of nakedness, never cover it with a veil. In the times under consideration, no blush could have been raised by the mention of particular parts of the frame of man, as they were actually touched by the person who bound himself by any promise to another; it was a mark of respect, a symbol of fidelity, as formerly among ourselves, feudal lords put their hands between those of their sovereign.

We have translated the term adverted to by the word “thigh.” Eliezer puts his hand under Abraham’s thigh. Joseph puts his hand under the thigh of Jacob. This custom was very ancient in Egypt. The Egyptians were so far from attaching any disgrace to what we are desirous as much as possible to conceal and avoid the mention of, that they bore in procession a large and characteristic image, called Phallus, in order to thank the gods for making the human frame so instrumental in the perpetuation of the human species.

All this affords sufficient proof that our sense of decorum and propriety is different from that of other nations. When do the Romans appear to have been more polished than in the time of Augustus? Yet Horace scruples not to say, in one of his moral pieces: “Nec metuo, ne dum futuo vir rure recurrat.” (Satire II., book i., v. 127.) Augustus uses the same expression in an epigram on Fulvia.

The man who should among us pronounce the expression in our language corresponding to it, would be regarded as a drunken porter; that word, as well as various others used by Horace and other authors, appears to us even more indecent than the expressions of Ezekiel. Let us then do away with our prejudices when we read ancient authors, or travel among distant nations. Nature is the same everywhere, and usages are everywhere different.

I once met at Amsterdam a rabbi quite brimful of this chapter. “Ah! my friend,” says he, “how very much we are obliged to you. You have displayed all the sublimity of the Mosaic law, Ezekiel’s breakfast; his delightful left-sided attitudes; Aholah and Aholibah are admirable things; they are types, my brother — types which show that one day the Jewish people will be masters of the whole world; but why did you admit so many others which are nearly of equal strength? Why did not you represent the Lord saying to the sage Hosea, in the second verse of the first chapter, ‘Hosea, take to thyself a harlot, and make to her the children of a harlot?’ Such are the very words. Hosea takes the young woman and has a son by her, and afterwards a daughter, and then again a son; and it was a type, and that type lasted three years. That is not all; the Lord says in the third chapter, ‘Go and take to thyself a woman who is not merely a harlot, but an adulteress.’ Hosea obeyed, but it cost him fifteen crowns and eighteen bushels of barley; for, you know, there was very little wheat in the land of promise — but are you aware of the meaning of all this?” “No,” said I to him. “Nor I neither,” said the rabbi.

A grave person then advanced towards us and said they were ingenious fictions and abounding in exquisite beauty. “Ah, sir,” remarked a young man, “if you are inclined for fictions, give the preference to those of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid.” He who prefers the prophecies of Ezekiel deserves to breakfast with him.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25