Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The prophet Jurieu was hissed; the prophets of the Cévennes were hanged or racked; the prophets who went from Languedoc and Dauphiny to London were put in the pillory; the Anabaptist prophets were condemned to various modes and degrees of punishment; and the prophet Savonarola was baked at Florence. If, in connection with these, we may advert to the case of the genuine Jewish prophets, we shall perceive their destiny to have been no less unfortunate; the greatest prophet among the Jews, St. John the Baptist, was beheaded.

Zachariah is stated to have been assassinated; but, happily, this is not absolutely proved. The prophet Jeddo, or Addo, who was sent to Bethel under the injunction neither to eat nor drink, having unfortunately tasted a morsel of bread, was devoured in his turn by a lion; and his bones were found on the highway between the lion and his ass. Jonah was swallowed by a fish. He did not, it is true, remain in the fish’s stomach more than three days and three nights; even this, however, was passing threescore and twelve hours very uncomfortably.

Habakkuk was transported through the air, suspended by the hair of his head, to Babylon; this was not a fatal or permanent calamity, certainly; but it must have been an exceedingly uncomfortable method of travelling. A man could not help suffering a great deal by being suspended by his hair during a journey of three hundred miles. I certainly should have preferred a pair of wings, or the mare Borak, or the Hippogriffe.

Micaiah, the son of Imla, saw the Lord seated on His throne, surrounded by His army of celestial spirits; and the Lord having inquired who could be found to go and deceive King Ahab, a demon volunteered for that purpose, and was accordingly charged with the commission; and Micaiah, on the part of the Lord, gave King Ahab an account of this celestial adventure. He was rewarded for this communication by a tremendous blow on his face from the hand of the prophet Zedekiah, and by being shut up for some days in a dungeon. His punishment might undoubtedly have been more severe; but still, it is unpleasant and painful enough for a man who knows and feels himself divinely inspired to be knocked about in so coarse and vulgar a manner, and confined in a damp and dirty hole of a prison.

It is believed that King Amaziah had the teeth of the prophet Amos pulled out to prevent him from speaking; not that a person without teeth is absolutely incapable of speaking, as we see many toothless old ladies as loquacious and chattering as ever; but a prophecy should be uttered with great distinctness; and a toothless prophet is never listened to with the respect due to his character.

Baruch experienced various persecutions. Ezekiel was stoned by the companions of his slavery. It is not ascertained whether Jeremiah was stoned or sawed asunder. Isaiah is considered as having been incontestably sawed to death by order of Manasseh, king of Judah.

It cannot be denied, that the occupation of a prophet is exceedingly irksome and dangerous. For one who, like Elijah, sets off on his tour among the planets in a chariot of light, drawn by four white horses, there are a hundred who travel on foot, and are obliged to beg their subsistence from door to door. They may be compared to Homer, who, we are told, was reduced to be a mendicant in the same seven cities which afterwards sharply disputed with each other the honor of having given him birth. His commentators have attributed to him an infinity of allegories which he never even thought of; and prophets have frequently had the like honor conferred upon them. I by no means deny that there may have existed elsewhere persons possessed of a knowledge of the future. It is only requisite for a man to work up his soul to a high state of excitation, according to the doctrine of one of our doughty modern philosophers, who speculates upon boring the earth through to the Antipodes, and curing the sick by covering them all over with pitch-plaster.

The Jews possessed this faculty of exalting and exciting the soul to such a degree that they saw every future event as clearly as possible; only unfortunately, it is difficult to decide whether by Jerusalem they always mean eternal life; whether Babylon means London or Paris; whether, when they speak of a grand dinner, they really mean a fast, and whether red wine means blood, and a red mantle faith, and a white mantle charity. Indeed, the correct and complete understanding of the prophets is the most arduous attainment of the human mind.

There is likewise a further difficulty with respect to the Jewish prophets, which is, that many among them were Samaritan heretics. Hosea was of the tribe of Issachar, which dwelt in the Samaritan territory, and Elisha and Elijah were of the same tribe. But the objection is very easily answered. We well know that “the wind bloweth where it listeth,” and that grace lights on the most dry and barren, as well as on the most fertile soil.

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