Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The sacred writer having conformed himself to the ideas generally received, and being indeed obliged not to deviate from them, as without such condescension to the weakness and ignorance of those whom he addressed, he would not have been understood, it only remains for us to make some observations on the natural philosophy prevailing in those early periods; for, with respect to theology, we reverence it, we believe in it, and never either dispute or discuss it.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Thus has the original passage been translated, but the translation is not correct. There is no one, however slightly informed upon the subject, who is not aware that the real meaning of the word is, “In the beginning the gods made (firent or fit) the heaven and the earth.” This reading, moreover, perfectly corresponds with the ancient idea of the Phœnicians, who imagined that, in reducing the chaos (chautereb) into order, God employed the agency of inferior deities.

The Phœnicians had been long a powerful people, having a theogony of their own, before the Hebrews became possessed of a few cantons of land near their territory. It is extremely natural to suppose that when the Hebrews had at length formed a small establishment near Phœnicia, they began to acquire its language. At that time their writers might, and probably did, borrow the ancient philosophy of their masters. Such is the regular march of the human mind.

At the time in which Moses is supposed to have lived, were the Phœnician philosophers sufficiently enlightened to regard the earth as a mere point in the compass with the infinite orbs placed by God in the immensity of space, commonly called heaven? The idea so very ancient, and at the same time so utterly false, that heaven was made for earth, almost always prevailed in the minds of the great mass of the people. It would certainly be just as correct and judicious for any person to suppose, if told that God created all the mountains and a single grain of sand, that the mountains were created for that grain of sand. It is scarcely possible that the Phœnicians, who were such excellent navigators, should not have had some good astronomers; but the old prejudices generally prevailed, and those old prejudices were very properly spared and indulged by the author of the Book of Genesis, who wrote to instruct men in the ways of God, and not in natural philosophy.

“The earth was without form (tohu bohu) and void; darkness rested upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the surface of the waters.”

Tohu bohu means precisely chaos, disorder. It is one of those imitative words which are to be found in all languages; as, for example, in the French we have sens dessus dessous, tintamarre, trictrac, tonnerre, bombe. The earth was not as yet formed in its present state; the matter existed, but the divine power had not yet arranged it. The spirit of God means literally the breath, the wind, which agitated the waters. The same idea occurs in the “Fragments” of the Phœnician author Sanchoniathon. The Phœnicians, like every other people, believed matter to be eternal. There is not a single author of antiquity who ever represented something to have been produced from nothing. Even throughout the whole Bible, no passage is to be found in which matter is said to have been created out of nothing. Not, however, that we mean to controvert the truth of such creation. It was, nevertheless, a truth not known by the carnal Jews.

On the question of the eternity of the world, mankind has always been divided, but never on that of the eternity of matter. From nothing, nothing can proceed, nor into nothing can aught existent return. “De nihilo nihilum, et in nihilum nil posse gigni reverti.” (Persius, Sat. iii.) Such was the opinion of all antiquity.

“God said let there be light, and there was light; and he saw that the light was good, and he divided the light from the darkness; and he called the light day, and the darkness night; and the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said also, let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And God called the firmament heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. . . . . And he saw that it was good.”

We begin with examining whether Huet, bishop of Avranches, Leclerc, and some other commentators, are not in the right in opposing the idea of those who consider this passage as exhibiting the most sublime eloquence.

Eloquence is not aimed at in any history written by the Jews. The style of the passage in question, like that of all the rest of the work, possesses the most perfect simplicity. If an orator, intending to give some idea of the power of God, employed for that purpose the short and simple expression we are considering, “He said, let there be light, and there was light,” it would then be sublime. Exactly similar is the passage in one of the Psalms, “Dixit, et facta sunt”—“He spake, and they were made.” It is a trait which, being unique in this place, and introduced purposely in order to create a majestic image, elevates and transports the mind. But, in the instance under examination, the narrative is of the most simple character. The Jewish writer is speaking of light just in the same unambitious manner as of other objects of creation; he expresses himself equally and regularly after every article, “and God saw that it was good.” Everything is sublime in the course or act of creation, unquestionably, but the creation of light is no more so than that of the herbs of the field; the sublime is something which soars far from the rest, whereas all is equal throughout the chapter.

But further, it was another very ancient opinion that light did not proceed from the sun. It was seen diffused throughout the atmosphere, before the rising and after the setting of that star; the sun was supposed merely to give it greater strength and clearness; accordingly the author of Genesis accommodates himself to this popular error, and even states the creation of the sun and moon not to have taken place until four days after the existence of light. It was impossible that there could be a morning and evening before the existence of a sun. The inspired writer deigned, in this instance, to condescend to the gross and wild ideas of the nation. The object of God was not to teach the Jews philosophy. He might have raised their minds to the truth, but he preferred descending to their error. This solution can never be too frequently repeated.

The separation of the light from the darkness is a part of the same system of philosophy. It would seem that night and day were mixed up together, as grains of different species which are easily separable from each other. It is sufficiently known that darkness is nothing but the absence of light, and that there is in fact no light when our eyes receive no sensation of it; but at that period these truths were far from being known.

The idea of a firmament, again, is of the very highest antiquity. The heavens are imagined to be a solid mass, because they always exhibited the same phenomena. They rolled over our heads, they were therefore constituted of the most solid materials. Who could suppose that the exhalations from the land and sea supplied the water descending from the clouds, or compute their corresponding quantities? No Halley then lived to make so curious a calculation. The heavens therefore were conceived to contain reservoirs. These reservoirs could be supported only on a strong arch, and as this arch of heaven was actually transparent, it must necessarily have been made of crystal. In order that the waters above might descend from it upon the earth, sluices, cataracts, and floodgates were necessary, which might be opened and shut as circumstances required. Such was the astronomy of the day; and, as the author wrote for Jews, it was incumbent upon him to adopt their gross ideas, borrowed from other people somewhat less gross than themselves.

“God also made two great lights, one to rule the day, the other the night; He also made the stars.”

It must be admitted that we perceive throughout the same ignorance of nature. The Jews did not know that the moon shone only with a reflected light. The author here speaks of stars as of mere luminous points, such as they appear, although they are in fact so many suns, having each of them worlds revolving round it. The Holy Spirit, then, accommodated Himself to the spirit of the times. If He had said that the sun was a million times larger than the earth, and the moon fifty times smaller, no one would have comprehended Him. They appear to us two stars of nearly equal size.

“God said, also, let us make man in our own image, and let him have dominion over the fishes.”

What meaning did the Jews attach to the expression, “let us make man in our own image?” The same as all antiquity attached to it: “Finxit in effigiem moderantum cuncta deorum.” (Ovid, Metam. i. 82.)

No images are made but of bodies. No nation ever imagined a God without body, and it is impossible to represent Him otherwise. We may indeed say that God is nothing that we are acquainted with, but we can have no idea of what He is. The Jews invariably conceived God to be corporeal, as well as every other people. All the first fathers of the Church, also, entertained the same belief till they had embraced the ideas of Plato, or rather until the light of Christianity became more pure.

“He created them male and female.” If God, or the secondary or inferior gods, created mankind, male and female, after their own likeness, it would seem in that case, as if the Jews believed that God and the gods who so formed them were male and female. It has been a subject of discussion, whether the author means to say that man had originally two sexes, or merely that God made Adam and Eve on the same day. The most natural meaning is that God formed Adam and Eve at the same time; but this interpretation involves an absolute contradiction to the statement of the woman’s being made out of the rib of man after the seven days were concluded.

“And he rested on the seventh day.” The Phœnicians, Chaldæans, and Indians, represented God as having made the world in six periods, which the ancient Zoroaster calls the six “Gahanbars,” so celebrated among the Persians.

It is beyond all question that these nations possessed a theology before the Jews inhabited the deserts of Horeb and Sinai, and before they could possibly have had any writers. Many writers have considered it probable that the allegory of six days was imitated from that of the six periods. God may have permitted the idea to have prevailed in large and populous empires before he inspired the Jewish people with it. He had undoubtedly permitted other people to invent the arts before the Jews were in possession of any one of them.

“From this pleasant place a river went out which watered the garden, and thence it was divided into four rivers. One was called Pison, which compassed the whole land of Havilah, whence cometh gold . . . . the second was called Gihon and surrounds Ethiopia . . . . the third is the Tigris, and the fourth the Euphrates.”

According to this version, the earthly paradise would have contained nearly a third part of Asia and of Africa. The sources of the Euphrates and the Tigris are sixty leagues distant from each other, in frightful mountains, bearing no possible resemblance to a garden. The river which borders Ethiopia, and which can be no other than the Nile, commences its course at the distance of more than a thousand leagues from the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates; and, if the Pison means the Phasis, it is not a little surprising that the source of a Scythian river and that of an African one should be situated on the same spot. We must therefore look for some other explanation, and for other rivers. Every commentator has got up a paradise of his own.

It has been said that the Garden of Eden resembles the gardens of Eden at Saana in Arabia Felix, celebrated throughout all antiquity; that the Hebrews, a very recent people, might be an Arabian horde, and assume to themselves the honor of the most beautiful spot in the finest district of Arabia; and that they have always converted to their own purposes the ancient traditions of the vast and powerful nations in the midst of whom they were in bondage. They were not, however, on this account, the less under the divine protection and guidance.

“The Lord then took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden that he might cultivate it.” It is very respectable and pleasant for a man to “cultivate his garden,” but it must have been somewhat difficult for Adam to have dressed and kept in order a garden of a thousand leagues in length, even although he had been supplied with some assistants. Commentators on this subject, therefore, we again observe, are completely at a loss, and must be content to exercise their ingenuity in conjecture. Accordingly, these four rivers have been described as flowing through numberless different territories.

“Eat not of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” It is not easy to conceive that there ever existed a tree which could teach good and evil, as there are trees that bear pears and apricots. And besides the question is asked, why is God unwilling that man should know good and evil? Would not his free access to this knowledge, on the contrary, appear — if we may venture to use such language — more worthy of God, and far more necessary to man? To our weak reason it would seem more natural and proper for God to command him to eat largely of such fruit; but we must bring our reason under subjection, and acquiesce with humility and simplicity in the conclusion that God is to be obeyed.

“If thou shalt eat thereof, thou shalt die.” Nevertheless, Adam ate of it and did not die; on the contrary, he is stated to have lived on for nine hundred and thirty years. Many of the fathers considered the whole matter as an allegory. In fact, it might be said that all other animals have no knowledge that they shall die, but that man, by means of his reason, has such knowledge. This reason is the tree of knowledge which enables him to foresee his end. This, perhaps, is the most rational interpretation that can be given. We venture not to decide positively.

“The Lord said, also, it is not good for man to be alone; let us make him a helpmeet for him.” We naturally expect that the Lord is about to bestow on him a wife; but first he conducts before him all the various tribes of animals. Perhaps the copyist may have committed here an error of transposition.

“And the name which Adam gave to every animal is its true name.” What we should naturally understand by the true name of an animal, would be a name describing all, or at least, the principal properties of its species. But this is not the case in any language. In each there are some imitative words, as “coq” and “cocu” in the Celtic, which bear some slight similarity to the notes of the cock and the cuckoo; tintamarre, trictrac, in French; alali, in Greek; lupus, in Latin, etc. But these imitative words are exceedingly few. Moreover, if Adam had thus thoroughly known the properties of various animals, he must either have previously eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, or it would apparently have answered no end for God to have interdicted him from it. He must have already known more than the Royal Society of London, and the Academy of the Sciences.

It may be remarked that this is the first time the name of Adam occurs in the Book of Genesis. The first man, according to the ancient Brahmins, who were prodigiously anterior to the Jews, was called Adimo, a son of the earth, and his wife, Procris, life. This is recorded in the Vedas, in the history of the second formation of the world. Adam and Eve expressed perfectly the same meanings in the Phœnician language — a new evidence of the Holy Spirit’s conforming Himself to commonly received ideas.

“When Adam was asleep God took one of his ribs and put flesh instead thereof; and of the rib which he had taken from Adam he formed a woman, and he brought the woman to Adam.”

In the previous chapter the Lord had already created the male and the female; why, therefore, remove a rib from the man to form out of it a woman who was already in being? It is answered that the author barely announces in the one case what he explains in another. It is answered further that this allegory places the wife in subjection to her husband, and expresses their intimate union. Many persons have been led to imagine from this verse that men have one rib less than women; but this is a heresy, and anatomy informs us that a wife has no more ribs than her husband.

“But the serpent was more subtle than all animals on the earth; he said to the woman,” etc. Throughout the whole of this article there is no mention made of the devil. Everything in it relates to the usual course of nature. The serpent was considered by all oriental nations, not only as the most cunning of all animals, but likewise as immortal. The Chaldæans had a fable concerning a quarrel between God and the serpent, and this fable had been preserved by Pherecydes. Origen cites it in his sixth book against Celsus. A serpent was borne in procession at the feasts of Bacchus. The Egyptians, according to the statement of Eusebius in the first book of the tenth chapter of his “Evangelical Preparation,” attached a sort of divinity to the serpent. In Arabia, India, and even China, the serpent was regarded as a symbol of life; and hence it was that the emperors of China, long before the time of Moses, always bore upon their breast the image of a serpent.

Eve expresses no astonishment at the serpent’s speaking to her. In all ancient histories, animals have spoken; hence Pilpay and Lokman excited no surprise by their introduction of animals conversing and disputing.

The whole of this affair appears so clearly to have been supposed in the natural course of events, and so unconnected with anything allegorical, that the narrative assigns a reason why the serpent, from that time, has moved creeping on its belly, why we always are eager to crush it under our feet, and why it always attempts — at least according to the popular belief — to bite and wound us. Precisely as, with respect to presumed changes affecting certain animals recorded in ancient fable, reasons were stated why the crow which originally had been white is at the present day black; why the owl quits his gloomy retreat only by night; why the wolf is devoted to carnage. The fathers, however, believed the affair to be an allegory at once clear and venerable. The safest way is to believe like them.

“I will multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children. Thou shalt be under the power of the man, and he shall rule over thee.” Why, it is asked, should the multiplication of conception be a punishment? It was, on the contrary, says the objector, esteemed a superior blessing, particularly among the Jews. The pains of childbirth are inconsiderable, in all except very weak or delicate women. Those accustomed to labor are delivered, particularly in warm climates, with great ease. Brutes frequently experience greater suffering from this process of nature: some even die under it. And with respect to the superiority or dominion of the man over the woman, it is merely in the natural course of events; it is the effect of strength of body, and even of strength of mind. Men, generally speaking, possess organs more capable of continued attention than women, and are better fitted by nature for labors both of the head and arm. But when a woman possesses both a hand and a mind more powerful than her husband’s, she everywhere possesses the dominion over him; it is then the husband that is under subjection to the wife. There is certainly truth in these remarks; but it might, nevertheless, very easily be the fact that, before the commission of the original sin, neither subjection nor sorrow existed.

“The Lord made for them coats of skins.” This passage decidedly proves that the Jews believed God to be corporeal. A rabbi, of the name of Eliezer, stated in his works that God clothed Adam and Eve with the skin of the very serpent who had tempted them; and Origen maintains that this coat of skins was a new flesh, a new body, which God conferred on man. It is far better to adhere respectfully to the literal texts.

“And the Lord said; Lo! Adam is become like one of us.” It seems as if the Jews admitted, originally, many gods. It is somewhat more difficult to determine what they meant by the word “God,” Elohïm. Some commentators have contended that the expression “one of us” signifies the Trinity. But certainly there is nothing relating to the Trinity throughout the Bible. The Trinity is not a compound of many or several Gods: it is one and the same god threefold; and the Jews never heard the slightest mention of one god in three persons. By the words “like us,” or “as one of us,” it is probable that the Jews understood the angels, Elohïm. It is this passage which has induced many learned men very rashly to conclude that this book was not written until that people had adopted the belief of those inferior gods. But this opinion has been condemned.

“The Lord sent him forth from the garden of Eden to cultivate the ground.” But,” it is remarked by some, “the Lord had placed him in the garden of Eden to cultivate that garden.” If Adam, instead of being a gardener, merely becomes a laborer, his situation, they observe, is not made very much worse by the change. A good laborer is well worth a good gardener. These remarks must be regarded as too light and frivolous. It appears more judicious to say that God punished disobedience by banishing the offender from the place of his nativity.

The whole of this history, generally speaking — according to the opinion of liberal, not to say licentious, commentators — proceeds upon the idea which has prevailed in every past age, and still exists, that the first times were better and happier than those which followed. Men have always complained of the present and extolled the past. Pressed down by the labors of life, they have imagined happiness to consist in inactivity, not considering that the most unhappy of all states is that of a man who has nothing to do. They felt themselves frequently miserable, and framed in their imaginations an ideal period in which all the world had been happy; although it might be just as naturally and truly supposed that there had existed times in which no tree decayed and perished, in which no beast was weak, diseased, or devoured by another, and in which spiders did not prey upon flies. Hence the idea of the golden age; of the egg pierced by Arimanes; of the serpent who stole from the ass the recipe for obtaining a happy and immortal life, which the man had placed upon his pack-saddle; of the conflict between Typhon and Osiris, and between Opheneus and the gods; of the famous box of Pandora; and of all those ancient tales, of which some are ingenious, but none instructive. But we are bound to believe that the fables of other nations are imitations of the Hebrew history, since we possess the ancient history of the Hebrews, and the early books of other nations are nearly all destroyed. Besides the testimonies in favor of the Book of Genesis are irrefragable.

“And He placed before the garden of Eden a cherub with a flaming sword, which turned all round to guard the way to the tree of life.” The word “kerub” signifies ox. An ox armed with a flaming sword is rather a singular exhibition, it is said, before a portal. But the Jews afterwards represented angels under the form of oxen and hawks although they were forbidden to make any images. They evidently derived these emblems of oxen and hawks from the Egyptians, whom they imitated in so many other things. The Egyptians first venerated the ox as the emblem of agriculture, and the hawk as that of the winds; but they never converted the ox into a sentinel. It is probably an allegory; and the Jews by “kerub” understood nature. It was a symbol formed of the head of an ox, the head and body of a man, and the wings of a hawk.

“And the Lord set a mark upon Cain.” What Lord? says the infidel. He accepts the offering of Abel, and rejects that of his elder brother, without the least reason being assigned for the distinction. By this proceeding the Lord was the cause of animosity between the two brothers. We are presented in this piece of history, it is true, with a moral, however humiliating, lesson; a lesson to be derived from all the fables of antiquity, that scarcely had the race of man commenced the career of existence, before one brother assassinates another. But what the sages of this world consider contrary to everything moral, to everything just, to all the principles of common sense, is that God, who inflicted eternal damnation on the race of man, and useless crucifixion on His own son, on account merely of the eating of an apple, should absolutely pardon a fratricide! nay, that He should more than pardon, that He should take the offender under His peculiar protection! He declares that whoever shall avenge the murder of Abel shall experience sevenfold the punishment that Cain might have suffered. He puts a mark upon him as a safeguard. Here, continue these vile blasphemers, here is a fable as execrable as it is absurd. It is the raving of some wretched Jew, who wrote those infamous and revolting fooleries, in imitation of the tales so greedily swallowed by the neighboring population in Syria. This senseless Jew attributes these atrocious reveries to Moses, at a time when nothing was so rare as books. That fatality, which affects and disposes of everything, has handed down this contemptible production to our own times. Knaves have extolled it, and fools have believed it. Such is the language of a tribe of theists, who, while they adore a God, dare to condemn the God of Israel; and who judge of the conduct of the eternal Deity by the rules of our own imperfect morality, and erroneous justice. They admit a God, to subject Him to our laws. Let us guard against such rashness; and, once again it must be repeated, let us revere what we cannot comprehend. Let us cry out, O Altitudo! O the height and depth! with all our strength.

“The gods Elohïm, seeing the daughters of men that they were fair, took for wives those whom they chose.” This imagination, again, may be traced in the history of every people. No nation has ever existed, unless perhaps we may except China, in which some god is not described as having had offspring from women. These corporeal gods frequently descended to visit their dominions upon earth; they saw the daughters of our race, and attached themselves to those who were most interesting and beautiful: the issue of this connection between gods and mortals must of course have been superior to other men; accordingly, Genesis informs us that from the association it mentions, of the gods with women, sprang a race of giants.

“I will bring a deluge of waters upon the earth.” I will merely observe here that St. Augustine, in his “City of God,” No. 8, says, “Maximum illud diluvium Græca nec Latina novit historia” — neither Greek nor Latin history knows anything about the great deluge. In fact, none had ever been known in Greece but those of Deucalion and Ogyges. They are regarded as universal in the fables collected by Ovid, but are wholly unknown in eastern Asia. St. Augustine, therefore, is not mistaken, in saying that history makes no mention of this event.

“God said to Noah, I will make a covenant with you, and with your seed after you, and with all living creatures.” God make a covenant with beasts! What sort of a covenant? Such is the outcry of infidels. But if He makes a covenant with man, why not with the beast? It has feeling, and there is something as divine in feeling as in the most metaphysical meditation. Besides, beasts feel more correctly than the greater part of men think. It is clearly in virtue of this treaty that Francis d’Assisi, the founder of the Seraphic order, said to the grasshoppers and the hares, “Pray sing, my dear sister grasshopper; pray browse, my dear brother hare.” But what were the conditions of the treaty? That all animals should devour one another; that they should feed upon our flesh, and we upon theirs; that, after having eaten them, we should proceed with wrath and fury to the extermination of our own race — nothing being then wanting to crown the horrid series of butchery and cruelty, but devouring our fellow-men, after having thus remorselessly destroyed them. Had there been actually such a treaty as this it could have been entered into only with the devil.

Probably the meaning of the whole passage is neither more nor less than that God is equally the absolute master of everything that breathes. This pact can be nothing more than an order, and the word “covenant” is used merely as more emphatic and impressive; we should not therefore be startled and offended at the words, but adore the spirit, and direct our minds back to the period in which this book was written — a book of scandal to the weak, but of edification to the strong.

“And I will put my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of my covenant.” Observe that the author does not say, I have put my bow in the clouds; he says, I will put: this clearly implies it to have been the prevailing opinion that there had not always been a rainbow. This phenomenon is necessarily produced by rain; yet in this place it is represented as something supernatural, exhibited in order to announce and prove that the earth should no more be inundated. It is singular to choose the certain sign of rain, in order to assure men against their being drowned. But it may also be replied that in any danger of inundation, we have the cheering security of the rainbow.

“But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of Adam had built, and he said, ‘Behold a people which have but one language. They have begun to do this, and they will not desist until they have completed it. Come, then, let us go and confound their language, that no one may understand his neighbor.’ ” Observe here, that the sacred writer always continues to conform to the popular opinions. He always speaks of God as of a man who endeavors to inform himself of what is passing, who is desirous of seeing with his own eyes what is going on in his dominions, who calls together his council in order to deliberate with them.

“And Abraham having divided his men — who were three hundred and eighteen in number — fell upon the five kings, and pursued them unto Hoba, on the left hand of Damascus.” From the south bank of the lake of Sodom to Damascus was a distance of eighty leagues, not to mention crossing the mountains Libanus and Anti-Libanus. Infidels smile and triumph at such exaggeration. But as the Lord favored Abraham, nothing was in fact exaggerated.

“And two angels arrived at Sodom at even.” The whole history of these two angels, whom the inhabitants of Sodom wished to violate, is perhaps the most extraordinary in the records of all antiquity. But it must be considered that almost all Asia believed in the existence of the demoniacal incubus and succubus; and moreover, that these two angels were creatures more perfect than mankind, and must have possessed more beauty to stimulate their execrable tendencies. It is possible that the passage may be only meant as a rhetorical figure to express the atrocious depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is not without the greatest diffidence that we suggest to the learned this solution.

As to Lot, who proposes to the people of Sodom the substitution of his two daughters in the room of the angels; and his wife, who was changed into a statue of salt, and all the rest of that history, what shall we venture to say? The old Arabian tale of Kinyras and Myrrha has some resemblance to the incest of Lot with his daughters; and the adventure of Philemon and Baucis is somewhat similar to the case of the two angels who appeared to Lot and his wife. With respect to the statue of salt, we know not where to find any resemblance; perhaps in the history of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Many ingenious men are of opinion, with the great Newton and the learned Leclerc that the Pentateuch was written by Samuel when the Jews had a little knowledge of reading and writing, and that all these histories are imitations of Syrian fables.

But it is enough that all this is in the Holy Scripture to induce us to reverence it, without attempting to find out in this book anything besides what is written by the Holy Spirit. Let us always recollect that those times were not like our times; and let us not fail to repeat, after so many great men, that the Old Testament is a true history; and that all that has been written differing from it by the rest of the world is fabulous.

Some critics have contended that all the incredible passages in the canonical books, which scandalize weak minds, ought to be suppressed; but it has been observed in answer that those critics had bad hearts, and ought to be burned at the stake; and that it is impossible to be a good man without believing that the people of Sodom wanted to violate two angels. Such is the reasoning of a species of monsters who wish to lord it over the understandings of mankind.

It is true that many eminent fathers of the Church have had the prudence to turn all these histories into allegories, after the example of the Jews, and particularly of Philo. The popes, more discreet, have endeavored to prevent the translation of these books into the vulgar tongue, lest some men should in consequence be led to think and judge, about what was proposed to them only to adore.

We are certainly justified in concluding hence, that those who thoroughly understand this book should tolerate those who do not understand it at all; for if the latter understand nothing of it, it is not their own fault: on the other hand, those who comprehend nothing that it contains should tolerate those who comprehend everything in it.

Learned and ingenious men, full of their own talents and acquirements, have maintained that it is impossible that Moses could have written the Book of Genesis. One of their principal reasons is that in the history of Abraham that patriarch is stated to have paid for a cave which he purchased for the interment of his wife, in silver coin, and the king of Gerar is said to have given Sarah a thousand pieces of silver when he restored her, after having carried her off for her beauty at the age of seventy-five. They inform us that they have consulted all the ancient authors, and that it appears very certain that at the period mentioned silver money was not in existence. But these are evidently mere cavils, as the Church has always firmly believed Moses to have been the author of the Pentateuch. They strengthen all the doubts suggested by Aben-Ezra, and Baruch Spinoza. The physician Astruc, father-in-law of the comptroller-general Silhouette, in his book — now become very scarce — called “Conjectures on the Book of Genesis,” adds some objections, inexplicable undoubtedly to human learning, but not so to a humble and submissive piety. The learned, many of them, contradict every line, but the devout consider every line sacred. Let us dread falling into the misfortune of believing and trusting to our reason; but let us bring ourselves into subjection in understanding as well as in heart.

“And Abraham said that Sarah was his sister, and the king of Gerar took her for himself.” We admit, as we have said under the article on “Abraham,” that Sarah was at this time ninety years of age, that she had been already carried away by a king of Egypt, and that a king of this same horrid wilderness of Gerar, likewise, many years afterwards, carried away the wife of Isaac, Abraham’s son. We have also spoken of his servant, Hagar, who bore him a son, and of the manner in which the patriarch sent her and her son away. It is well known how infidels triumph on the subject of all these histories, with what a disdainful smile they speak of them, and that they place the story of one Abimelech falling in love with Sarah whom Abraham had passed off as his sister, and of another Abimelech falling in love with Rebecca, whom Isaac also passes as his sister, even beneath the thousand and one nights of the Arabian fables. We cannot too often remark that the great error of all these learned critics is their wishing to try everything by the test of our feeble reason, and to judge of the ancient Arabs as they judge of the courts of France or of England.

“And the soul of Shechem, King Hamor’s son, was bound up with the soul of Dinah, and he soothed her grief by his tender caresses, and he went to Hamor his father, and said to him, give me that woman to be my wife.”

Here our critics exclaim in terms of stronger disgust than ever. “What!” say they; “the son of a king is desirous to marry a vagabond girl;” the marriage is celebrated; Jacob the father, and Dinah the daughter, are loaded with presents; the king of Shechem deigns to receive those wandering robbers called patriarchs within his city; he has the incredible politeness or kindness to undergo, with his son, his court, and his people, the rite of circumcision, thus condescending to the superstition of a petty horde that could not call half a league of territory their own! And in return for this astonishing hospitality and goodness, how do our holy patriarchs act? They wait for the day when the process of circumcision generally induces fever, when Simeon and Levi run through the whole city with poniards in their hands and massacre the king, the prince his son, and all the inhabitants. We are precluded from the horror appropriate to this infernal counterpart of the tragedy of St. Bartholomew, only by a sense of its absolute impossibility. It is an abominable romance; but it is evidently a ridiculous romance. It is impossible that two men could have slaughtered in quiet the whole population of a city. The people might suffer in a slight degree from the operation which had preceded, but notwithstanding this, they would have risen in self-defence against two diabolical miscreants; they would have instantly assembled, would have surrounded them, and destroyed them with the summary and complete vengeance merited by their atrocity.

But there is a still more palpable impossibility. It is, that according to the accurate computation of time, Dinah, this daughter of Jacob, could be only three years old; and that, even by forcing up chronology as far as possible in favor of the narrative, she could at the very most be only five. It is here, then, that we are assailed with bursts of indignant exclamation! “What!” it is said, “what! is it this book, the book of a rejected and reprobate people; a book so long unknown to all the world; a book in which sound reason and decent manners are outraged in every page, that is held up to us as irrefragable, holy, and dictated by God Himself? Is it not even impious to believe it? or could anything less than the fury of cannibals urge to the persecution of sensible and modest men for not believing it?”

To this we reply: “The Church declares its belief in it. The copyists may have mixed up some revolting absurdities with respectable and genuine histories. It belongs to the holy church only to decide. The profane ought to be guided by her. Those absurdities, those alleged horrors do not affect the substance of our faith. How lamentable would be the fate of mankind, if religion and virtue depended upon what formerly happened to Shechem and to little Dinah!”

“These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before the children of Israel had a king.” This is the celebrated passage which has proved one of the great stumbling stones. This it was which decided the great Newton, the pious and acute Samuel Clarke, the profound and philosophic Bolingbroke, the learned Leclerc, the ingenious Fréret, and a host of other enlightened men, to maintain that it was impossible Moses could have been the author of Genesis.

We admit that in fact these words could not have been written until after the time that the Jews had kings.

It is principally this verse that determined Astruc to give up the inspired authority of the whole Book of Genesis, and suppose the author had derived his materials from existing memoirs and records. His work is ingenious and accurate, but it is rash, not to say audacious. Even a council would scarcely have ventured on such an enterprise. And to what purpose has it served Astruc’s thankless and dangerous labor — to double the darkness he wished to enlighten? Here is the fruit of the tree of knowledge, of which we are all so desirous of eating. Why must it be, that the fruit of the tree of ignorance should be more nourishing and more digestible?

But of what consequence can it be to us, after all, whether any particular verse or chapter was written by Moses, or Samuel, or the priest (sacrificateur) who came to Samaria, or Esdras, or any other person? In what respect can our government, our laws, our fortunes, our morals, our well-being, be bound up with the unknown chiefs of a wretched and barbarous country called Edom or Idumæa, always inhabited by robbers? Alas! those poor Arabs, who have not shirts to their backs, neither know nor care whether or not we are in existence! They go on steadily plundering caravans, and eating barley bread, while we are perplexing and tormenting ourselves to know whether any petty kings flourished in a particular canton of Arabia Petræa, before they existed in a particular canton adjoining the west of the lake of Sodom!

O miseras hominum curas! O pectora cœca!

— Lucretius, ii. 14.

Blind, wretched man! in what dark paths of strife

Thou walkest the little journey of thy life!

— Creech.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01