Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

BETHSHEMESH.

Of the Fifty Thousand and Seventy Jews Struck with Sudden Death for Having Looked Upon the Ark; of the Five Golden Emeroids Paid by the Philistines; and of Dr. Kennicott’s Incredulity.

Men of the world will perhaps be astonished to find this word the subject of an article; but we here address only the learned and ask their instruction.

Bethshemesh was a village belonging to God’s people, situated, according to commentators, two miles north of Jerusalem. The Phœnicians having, in Samuel’s time, beaten the Jews, and taken from them their Ark of alliance in the battle, in which they killed thirty thousand of their men, were severely punished for it by the Lord:

“Percussit eos in secretiori parte natium, et ebullierunt villæ et agri. . . . et nati sunt mures, et facta est confusio mortis magna in civitate.” Literally: “He struck them in the most secret part of the buttocks; and the fields and the farmhouses were troubled . . . . and there sprung up mice; and there was a great confusion of death in the city.”

The prophets of the Phœnicians, or Philistines, having informed them that they could deliver themselves from the scourge only by giving to the Lord five golden mice and five golden emeroids, and sending him back the Jewish Ark, they fulfilled this order, and, according to the express command of their prophets sent back the Ark with the mice and emeroids on a wagon drawn by two cows, with each a sucking calf and without a driver.

These two cows of themselves took the Ark straight to Bethshemesh. The men of Bethshemesh approached the Ark in order to look at it, which liberty was punished yet more severely than the profanation by the Phœnicians had been. The Lord struck with sudden death seventy men of the people, and fifty thousand of the populace.

The reverend Doctor Kennicott, an Irishman, printed in 1768 a French commentary on this occurrence and dedicated it to the bishop of Oxford. At the head of this commentary he entitles himself Doctor of Divinity, member of the Royal Society of London, of the Palatine Academy, of the Academy of Göttingen, and of the Academy of Inscriptions at Paris. All that I know of the matter is that he is not of the Academy of Inscriptions at Paris. Perhaps he is one of its correspondents. His vast erudition may have deceived him, but titles are distinct from things.

He informs the public that his pamphlet is sold at Paris by Saillant and Molini, at Rome by Monaldini, at Venice by Pasquali, at Florence by Cambiagi, at Amsterdam by Marc-Michel Rey, at The Hague by Gosse, at Leyden by Jaquau, and in London by Beckett, who receives subscriptions.

In this pamphlet he pretends to prove that the Scripture text has been corrupted. Here we must be permitted to differ with him. Nearly all Bibles agree in these expressions: seventy men of the people and fifty thousand of the populace — “De populo septuaginta viros, et quinquaginta millia plebis.” The reverend Doctor Kennicott says to the right reverend the lord bishop of Oxford that formerly there were strong prejudices in favor of the Hebrew text, but that for seventeen years his lordship and himself have been freed from their prejudices, after the deliberate and attentive perusal of this chapter.

In this we differ from Dr. Kennicott, and the more we read this chapter the more we reverence the ways of the Lord, which are not our ways. It is impossible, says Kennicott, for the candid reader not to feel astonished and affected at the contemplation of fifty thousand men destroyed in one village — men, too, employed in gathering the harvest.

This does, it is true, suppose a hundred thousand persons, at least, in that village, but should the doctor forget that the Lord had promised Abraham that his posterity should be as numerous as the sands of the sea?

The Jews and the Christians, adds he, have not scrupled to express their repugnance to attach faith to this destruction of fifty thousand and seventy men.

We answer that we are Christians and have no repugnance to attach faith to whatever is in the Holy Scriptures. We answer, with the reverend Father Calmet, that “if we were to reject whatever is extraordinary and beyond the reach of our conception we must reject the whole Bible.” We are persuaded that the Jews, being under the guidance of God himself, could experience no events but such as were stamped with the seal of the Divinity and quite different from what happened to other men. We will even venture to advance that the death of these fifty thousand and seventy men is one of the least surprising things in the Old Testament.

We are struck with astonishment still more reverential when Eve’s serpent and Balaam’s ass talk; when the waters of the cataracts are swelled by rain fifteen cubits above all the mountains; when we behold the plagues of Egypt, and the six hundred and thirty thousand fighting Jews flying on foot through the divided and suspended sea; when Joshua stops the sun and moon at noonday; when Samson slays a thousand Philistines with the jaw-bone of an ass. . . . . In those divine times all was miracle, without exception, and we have the profoundest reverence for all these miracles — for that ancient world which was not our world; for that nature which was not our nature; for a divine book, in which there can be nothing human.

But we are astonished at the liberty which Dr. Kennicott takes of calling those deists and atheists, who, while they revere the Bible more than he does, differ from him in opinion. Never will it be believed that a man with such ideas is of the Academy of Medals and Inscriptions. He is, perhaps, of the Academy of Bedlam, the most ancient of all, and whose colonies extend throughout the earth.

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