Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The history of Joseph, considering it merely as an object of curiosity and literature, is one of the most precious monuments of antiquity which has reached us. It appears to be the model of all the Oriental writers; it is more affecting than the “Odyssey”; for a hero who pardons is more touching than one who avenges.

We regard the Arabs as the first authors of these ingenious fictions, which have passed into all languages; but I see among them no adventures comparable to those of Joseph. Almost all in it is wonderful, and the termination exacts tears of tenderness. He was a young man of sixteen years of age, of whom his brothers were jealous; he is sold by them to a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants, conducted into Egypt, and bought by a eunuch of the king. This eunuch had a wife, which is not at all extraordinary; the kislar aga, a perfect eunuch, has a seraglio at this day at Constantinople; they left him some of his senses, and nature in consequence is not altogether extinguished. No matter; the wife of Potiphar falls in love with the young Joseph, who, faithful to his master and benefactor, rejects the advances of this woman. She is irritated at it, and accuses Joseph of attempting to seduce her. Such is the history of Hippolytus and Phædra, of Bellerophon and Zenobia, of Hebrus and Damasippa, of Myrtilus and Hippodamia, etc.

It is difficult to know which is the original of all these histories; but among the ancient Arabian authors there is a tract relating to the adventure of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, which is very ingenious. The author supposes that Potiphar, uncertain between the assertions of his wife and Joseph, regarded not Joseph’s tunic, which his wife had torn as a proof of the young man’s outrage. There was a child in a cradle in his wife’s chamber; and Joseph said that she seized and tore his tunic in the presence of this infant. Potiphar consulted the child, whose mind was very advanced for its age. The child said to Potiphar: “See if the tunic is torn behind or before; if before, it is a proof that Joseph would embrace your wife by force, and that she defended herself; if behind, it is a proof that your wife detained Joseph.” Potiphar, thanks to the genius of the child, recognized the innocence of his slave. It is thus that this adventure is related in the Koran, after the Arabian author. It informs us not to whom the infant belonged, who judged with so much wit. If it was not a son of Potiphar, Joseph was not the first whom this woman had seduced.

However that may be, according to Genesis, Joseph is put in prison, where he finds himself in company with the butler and baker of the king of Egypt. These two prisoners of state both dreamed one night. Joseph explains their dreams; he predicted that in three days the butler would be received again into favor, and that the baker would be hanged; which failed not to happen.

Two years afterwards the king of Egypt also dreams, and his butler tells him that there is a young Jew in prison who is the first man in the world for the interpretation of dreams. The king causes the young man to be brought to him, who foretells seven years of abundance and seven of sterility.

Let us here interrupt the thread of the history to remark, of what prodigious antiquity is the interpretation of dreams. Jacob saw in a dream the mysterious ladder at the top of which was God Himself. In a dream he learned a method of multiplying his flocks, a method which never succeeded with any but himself. Joseph himself had learned by a dream that he should one day govern his brethren. Abimelech, a long time before, had been warned in a dream, that Sarah was the wife of Abraham.

To return to Joseph: after explaining the dream of Pharaoh, he was made first minister on the spot. We doubt if at present a king could be found, even in Asia, who would bestow such an office in return for an interpreted dream. Pharaoh espoused Joseph to a daughter of Potiphar. It is said that this Potiphar was high-priest of Heliopolis; he was not therefore the eunuch, his first master; or if it was the latter, he had another title besides that of high-priest; and his wife had been a mother more than once.

However, the famine happened, as Joseph had foretold; and Joseph, to merit the good graces of his king, forced all the people to sell their land to Pharaoh, and all the nation became slaves to procure corn. This is apparently the origin of despotic power. It must be confessed, that never king made a better bargain; but the people also should no less bless the prime minister.

Finally, the father and brothers of Joseph had also need of corn, for “the famine was sore in all lands.” It is scarcely necessary to relate here how Joseph received his brethren; how he pardoned and enriched them. In this history is found all that constitutes an interesting epic poem — exposition, plot, recognition, adventures, and the marvellous; nothing is more strongly marked with the stamp of Oriental genius.

What the good man Jacob, the father of Joseph, answered to Pharaoh, ought to strike all those who know how to read. “How old art thou?” said the king to him. “The days of the years of my pilgrimage,” said the old man, “are an hundred and thirty years; few and evil have the days of the years of my life been.”

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