Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


We are called upon to reverence David as a prophet, as a king, as the ancestor of the holy spouse of Mary, as a man who merited the mercy of God from his penitence.

I will boldly assert that the article on “David,” which raised up so many enemies to Bayle, the first author of a dictionary of facts and of reasonings, deserves not the strange noise which was made about it. It was not David that people were anxious to defend, but Bayle whom they were solicitous to destroy. Certain preachers of Holland, his mortal enemies, were so far blinded by their enmity as to blame him for having praised popes whom he thought meritorious, and for having refuted the unjust calumny with which they had been assailed.

This absurd and shameful piece of injustice was signed by a dozen theologians on Dec. 20, 1698, in the same consistory in which they pretended to take up the defence of King David. A great proof that the condemnation of Bayle arose from personal feeling is supplied by the fact of that which happened in 1761, to Mr. Peter Anet, in London. The doctors Chandler and Palmer, having delivered funeral sermons on the death of King George II., in which they compared him to King David, Mr. Anet, who did not regard this comparison as honorable to the deceased monarch, published his famous dissertation entitled, “The History of the Man after God’s Own Heart.” In that work he makes it clear that George II., a king much more powerful than David, did not fall into the errors of the Jewish sovereign, and consequently could not display the penitence which was the origin of the comparison.

He follows, step by step, the Books of Kings, examines the conduct of David with more severity than Bayle, and on it founds an opinion that the Holy Spirit does not praise actions of the nature of those attributed to David. The English author, in fact, judges the king of Judah upon the notions of justice and injustice which prevail at the present time.

He cannot approve of the assembly of a band of robbers by David to the amount of four hundred; of his being armed with the sword of Goliath, by the high priest Abimelech, from whom he received hallowed bread.

He could not think well of the expedition of David against the farmer, Nabal, in order to destroy his abode with fire and sword, because Nabal refused contributions to his troop of robbers; or of the death of Nabal a few days afterwards, whose widow David immediately espoused.

He condemned his conduct to King Achish, the possessor of a few villages in the district of Gath. David, at the head of five or six hundred banditti, made inroads upon the allies of his benefactor Achish. He pillaged the whole of them, massacred all the inhabitants, men, women, and children at the breast. And why the children at the breast? For fear, says the text, these children should carry the news to King Achish, who was deceived into a belief that these expeditions were undertaken against the Israelites, by an absolute lie on the part of David.

Again, Saul loses a battle and wishes his armorbearer to slay him, who refuses; he wounds himself, but not effectually, and at his own desire a young man despatches him, who, carrying the news to David, is massacred for his pains.

Ishbosheth succeeds his father, Saul, and David makes war upon him. Finally Ishbosheth is assassinated.

David, possessed of the sole dominion, surprised the little town or village of Rabbah and put all the inhabitants to death by the most extraordinary devices — sawing them asunder, destroying them with harrows and axes of iron, and burning them in brick-kilns.

After these expeditions there was a famine in the country for three years. In fact, from this mode of making war, countries must necessarily be badly cultivated. The Lord was consulted as to the causes of the famine. The answer was easy. In a country which produces corn with difficulty, when laborers are baked in brick-kilns and sawed into pieces, few people remain to cultivate the earth. The Lord, however, replied that it was because Saul had formerly slain some Gibeonites.

What is David’s speedy remedy? He assembles the Gibeonites, informs them that Saul had committed a great sin in making war upon them, and that Saul not being like him, a man after God’s own heart, it would be proper to punish him in his posterity. He therefore makes them a present of seven grandsons of Saul to be hanged, who were accordingly hanged because there had been a famine.

Mr. Anet is so just as not to insist upon the adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, as these crimes were pardoned in consequence of the repentance of David. They were horrible and abominable, but being remitted by the Lord, the English author also absolves from them.

No one complained in England of the author, and the parliament took little interest in the history of a kinglet of a petty district in Syria.

Let justice be done to Father Calmet; he has kept within bounds in his dictionary of the Bible, in the article on “David.” “We pretend not,” said he, “to approve of the conduct of David, but it is to be believed that this excess of cruelty was committed before his repentance on the score of Bathsheba.” Possibly he repented of all his crimes at the same time, which were sufficiently numerous.

Let us here ask what appears to us to be an important question. May we not exhibit a portion of contempt in the article on “David,” and treat of his person and glory with the respect due to the sacred books? It is to the interest of mankind that crime should in no case be sanctified. What signifies what he is called, who massacres the wives and children of his allies; who hangs the grandchildren of his king; who saws his unhappy captives in two, tears them to pieces with harrows, or burns them in brickkilns? These actions we judge, and not the letters which compose the name of the criminal. His name neither augments nor diminishes the criminality.

The more David is revered after his reconciliation with God, the more are his previous qualities condemnable.

If a young peasant, in searching after she-asses finds a kingdom it is no common affair. If another peasant cures his king of insanity by a tune on the harp that is still more extraordinary. But when this petty player on the harp becomes king because he meets a village priest in secret, who pours a bottle of olive oil on his head, the affair is more marvellous still.

I know nothing either of the writers of these marvels, or of the time in which they were written, but I am certain that it was neither Polybius nor Tacitus.

I shall not speak here of the murder of Uriah, and of the adultery with Bathsheba, these facts being sufficiently well known. The ways of God are not the ways of men, since He permitted the descent of Jesus Christ from this very Bathsheba, everything being rendered pure by so holy a mystery.

I ask not now how Jurieu had the audacity to persecute the wise Bayle for not approving all the actions of the good King David. I only inquire why a man like Jurieu is suffered to molest a man like Bayle.

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