Voltaire on the History of the Jews
Watch out for the irony.
Of the Jews, When First Known
WE SHALL TOUCH as little as possible upon what is divine in the history of the Jews; or, if compelled to speak of it, shall go no farther than as their miracles seem to have a connection with the usual course of events.
We have all the respect that is due to the continual miracles that signalized the progress of that nation. We believe in them with all the reasonable faith that is required by the church, which has been substituted for the synagogue. We do not examine them, but confine ourselves to history.
We shall write of the Jews, as we spoke of the Scythians and the Greeks, in weighing the probabilities and discussing the facts. As no other persons than themselves have written their history, before the Romans destroyed their city, it is only necessary to consult their own annals.
The Jews rank only among the most modern nations, if we consider them from the time when they first formed a settlement and possessed a capital. They seemed to have been of but little consideration to their neighbors until the time of Solomon, which was about the time of Hesiod and Homer, and the first Archons of Athens.
The name of Solomon, or Soleiman, is well known to the Eastern people; but that of David is not, and Saul still less. The Jews, before Saul, appeared only like a band of Arabs of the Desert, of so little power that the Phoenicians treated them nearly the same as the Lacedaemonians treated the Iliots; that is, as slaves, who were not allowed arms. They had not the privilege of forging iron, not even to sharpen their plow-shares and the edge of their hatchets. This is set forth in the book of Samuel, and they add that they had neither sword nor javelin in Saul and Johnathan’s battle at Bethaven against the Philistines — an action in which Saul made an oath of sacrificing to the Lord those who should eat during the conflict.
It is true that before this battle, won without arms, it is said in 1 Kings, chap. ii., that Saul, with an army of three hundred and thirty thousand men, entirely defeated the Ammonites; which does not seem to agree with the confession, that they had neither sword nor javelin, nor any other arms. Moreover, the greatest princes have seldom had at one time three hundred and thirty thousand effective warriors. How could the Jews, who appear wandering and oppressed in this little country, which has not so much as a sword, be able to bring thirty-three thousand soldiers in the field? Such a force would have been adequate to the conquest of all Asia and Europe.
Let us leave the task of reconciling these apparent contradictions, which superior intellects remove, to learned and celebrated authors: let us respect what we are obliged to respect; and let us recur to the history of the Jews according to their own writings.
Of the Jews in Egypt
According to the annals of the Jews, this nation inhabited the confines of Egypt in those remote times of which history furnishes no account. They resided in the little country of Gossen, or Goshen, towards mount Cassius and lake Sirbon. The Arabians, who in winter repair with their herds to graze in southern Egypt, still remain there.
This nation was composed of no more than a single family, who, in the space of two hundred years, produced a race of two millions of people; for to furnish six hundred thousand warriors, who according to Genesis came out of Egypt, they must have consisted of at least two millions of souls.
This multiplication, contrary to the order of nature, is one of those miracles which God deigned to operate in favor of the Jews.
It is in vain for a multitude of learned men to be astonished that the king of Egypt should have commanded the two midwives to destroy all the male children of the Hebrews — that the king’s daughter, who resided at Memphis, should go and bathe herself at a great distance from Memphis, in a branch of the Nile where nobody ever bathed on account of crocodiles; it is in vain for them to make objections to the age of eighty, which Moses had already attained, before he undertook to conduct a whole people out of bondage.
They dispute about the ten plagues of Egypt. They say that the magicians of the kingdom could not perform the same miracles as the messenger of God; and that if God gave them this power, he seems to have acted against himself. They suppose, that as Moses had changed all the waters into blood, there remained no more water for the magicians to perform the same metamorphosis upon.
They ask how could Pharaoh pursue the Jews with a great number of horsemen, after all the horses had died, by the fifth and sixth plagues? They ask why the six hundred warriors should run away when God was at their head, and they might have engaged the Egyptians to advantage, all the first born of whom being struck dead? They ask again, why God did not give fertile Egypt to his cherished people, instead of making them wander forty years in appalling deserts?
There is but a single answer to all these innumerable objections; and this answer is, God would have it so. The Church believes it, and we should believe it. It is in this respect that this history differs from others. Every people has its miracles; but everything is miraculous with the Jewish nation; and it should have been so, as this people were conducted by God himself. It is plain that the history of God should not resemble that of man. Wherefore we shall not relate any of those supernatural facts, which should be mentioned only in the Holy Scripture. Still less should we dare attempt their explanation. Let us only examine those few that may be subject to criticism.
Of Moses as Chief of a Nation
The master of nature only gives strength to the arm he deigns to choose. Moses is supernatural in everything. More than one learned man has looked upon him as a very able politician. Others have considered him only as a weak reed, which the divine hand deigned to use, to frame the destiny of empires.
What can we think of an old man of eighty years of age, who by himself alone undertakes to conduct a whole people over whom he had no authority? His arm cannot fight nor his tongue articulate. He is described as a cripple and a stammerer. He conducts his followers for forty years successively through horrid deserts. He wants to give them a settlement, but he gives them none. If we were to pursue his steps in the deserts of Sur, Sin, Horeb, Sinai, Pharan, and of Cades-Barnea, and observe his retrograde motions towards the very spot from which he set out, could we believe that he was a great commander? It is stated that he was at the head of six hundred thousand warriors, and he could neither provide clothing nor subsistence for them. God does everything. God remedies everything. He nourishes, He clothes the people, by working miracles. Moses, then, is nothing of himself, and his impotence shows that he can be guided by nothing but the hand of the Almighty. We therefore consider him as a man, and not the minister of God. His personality, in this capacity, is an object of interesting enquiry.
He wants to go into the country of the Canaanites, on the west of the river Jordan, in the land of Jericho, which is in fact the only fruitful spot in the whole province; and instead of taking this road, he turns eastward, towards Esion-Gaber and the Black Sea, a savage barren country on which not a single shrub or bush grows, and which is without a rivulet, without springs, save a few small wells of brackish and unwholesome water.
When the news of this irruption of a foreign people reached the Canaanites or Phoenicians, they came and gave them battle in these deserts of Cades-Barnea. How could Moses permit himself to be defeated at the head of six hundred thousand soldiers, in a country that does not now contain three thousand inhabitants? At the expiration of thirty-nine years he gains two victories, but he does not fulfill a single object of his legislation. He and his people die before he sets foot in the country that he had hoped to conquer.
A legislator, according to our common notions, should make himself beloved and feared. He should not push severity to barbarity. He should not, instead of using the servants of the law to inflict some punishments upon the criminal, have a foreign nation murder the greatest part of his own people.
Could Moses at near the age of one hundred and twenty years, could he, actuated only by his own feelings, have been so inhuman, so hardened in bloodshed, as to command the Levites to massacre their brothers indiscriminately to the number of twenty-three thousand, to protect Moses’ own brother, who ought rather to have died, than to have made a golden calf to be adored? And, strange to relate, his brother is, after this shameful action, made high pontiff, and twenty-three thousand men are massacred.
Moses had wedded a Midianitish woman, the daughter of Jethro, the high priest of Midian, in Arabia Petræa. Jethro had conferred numerous favors upon him; and permitted his son to accompany him as a guide in the wilderness. Now, by what cruelty, so contrary to all policy, (to judge only by our feeble notions,) must Moses have been actuated, to command the massacre of twenty-four thousand of his countrymen, under the pretext that a Jew had been discovered with a woman of Midian? And how can it be said, after such astonishing butchery, that “Moses was the most meek and gentle of men”?
We must acknowledge, humanly speaking, that these horrid deeds revolt against reason and nature. But if we consider Moses as the minister of God’s designs and vengeance, the aspect is entirely changed. He is not a man that acts as a man; he is the instrument of the divinity, whom we should not call to account. We should offer up silent adoration.
If Moses had of himself instituted his religion, like Zoroaster, Thoth, the first Brahmins, Numa, Mahomet, and many others, we might ask him, why he did not avail himself of the most useful and efficacious means of restraining lust and sin? Why he did not expressly preach the immortality of the soul, rewards and punishments after death, dogmas long before received in Egypt, in Phoenicia, in Mesopotamia, in Persia, and in India?
“You have been instructed,” we should tell him, “in the wisdom of the Egyptians, you are a legislator, and you absolutely neglect the principal dogma of the Egyptians, the most necessary dogma to man, a belief so salutary and holy, that your own Jews, barbarous as they were, embraced it a long time after you; it was at least partly adopted by the Essenes and the Pharisees, at the end of a thousand years.”
This perplexing objection against a common legislator falls to the ground and, as we find, loses all its force, when the legislator is God himself, who condescended to be king of the Jewish people, temporarily rewarding and punishing them, and when it was he who would not reveal the knowledge of the immortality of the soul, and hell’s eternal torments, although appointed by his decrees. Almost every event merely human among the Jews is the summit of horror. Everything divine is above our feeble comprehension. We are constantly silenced by them both.
There have been men of extensive knowledge, who have carried their skepticism so far as to question the existence of such a person as Moses; whose whole life, which is a series of miracles from his cradle to his grave, appeared to them an imitation of the ancient Arabian fables, and particularly that of the ancient Bacchus. They do not know at what period to fix Moses. Even the name of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, is unknown. No monument, no vestige, remains in the country in which he is said to have traveled. It seems impossible that Moses should have governed two or three millions of men for forty years in uninhabitable deserts, where we can scarce meet at present with two or three wandering tribes, who do not number altogether more than between three and four thousand men. For our own part, we are far from adopting this bold opinion, which would sap the very foundations of the ancient history of the Jewish people.
Neither shall we adhere to the opinion of Eben-Esra, Maimonides, Nugens, or the author of the Jewish Ceremonies, though the learned Le Clerc, Middleton, the eminent men known as the theologians of Holland, and even the great Newton, have added weight to the doctrine. These illustrious scholars imagine that neither Moses nor Joshua could have written the books that are attributed to them. They say that their histories and laws would been engraved in stone, had they in fact ever existed, that this art requires great labor and perseverance, and that it is not possible to engrave histories in deserts. They base their opinion upon various assertions and contradictions. In opposition to these learned men, we embrace the common opinion, which is that of the synagogue and the church, whose infallibility we acknowledge.
Not that we dare to accuse the LeClercs, the Middletons, or the Newtons of impiety. God forbid! We are convinced that if the books of Moses and Joshua do not appear to them as if coming from the hands of those heroes of Israel, they are still of the opinion that these books were inspired. They acknowledge the finger of God in every line of Genesis, in Joshua, in Sampson, and Ruth. The Jewish writer was merely the secretary of God—that God who has dictated all things. Newton could not think otherwise, as we already know. God keep us from these perverse hypocrites who, with any excuse, accuse great men of irreligion, just as they formerly accused them of magic! We do not assert that the most learned men, and the greatest geniuses on earth are not true Christians. The more we respect the church, to which we submit, the more we think that this church tolerates, with that charity which forms its real character, the honest opinions of all virtuous scholars.
Of the Jews from Moses to Saul
I do not endeavor to discover why Joshua or Josuah, captain of the Jews, in making his tribe pass from the east of the river Jordan to the west, towards Jericho, should want God to suspend the course of this river, which is not at that place forty feet wide, when it was so easy to throw a bridge over it, and which it was still more easy to ford. There were several fords to this river, which is proved by the Israelites slaying at one of them the forty-two thousand Jews who could not pronounce the word Shibboleth.
I do not ask why the walls of Jericho should fall at the sound of trumpets. These are strange prodigies which God thought fit to operate in favor of the people whose king he had declared himself to be, and miracles of this kind do not belong to historical research. I shall not examine what right Joshua had to come and destroy villages, where his name had never been heard before. The Jews claimed that they were descended from Abraham. Abraham had traveled in this country about four hundred years previously. Therefore, said Joshua, your country belongs to us, and we ought to cut the throats of your mothers, wives, and children.
On this point, Fabricius and Holstenius have made the following objection. What should we say if a Norwegian came into Germany with some hundreds of his countrymen, and told the Germans that about four hundred years ago a countryman of ours, who was the son of a potter, traveled near Vienna; therefore, Austria belongs to us, and we are come to sacrifice you all in the name of the Lord?
The same authors consider that the time of Joshua is not ours; that it is not for us to cast a profane eye upon things divine; and particularly that God had a right to punish the sins of the Canaanites by the hands of the Jews.
We are told that no sooner was Jericho defenseless, than the Jews sacrificed to their God all the inhabitants, old men, aged women, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, nursing infants, and even all domestic animals.
The only exception to this indiscriminate slaughter, was a famous courtesan, who had concealed the Jewish spies in her house—spies that were quite useless, as the walls of the city were to fall at the sound of the trumpets. And why were all the domestic animals killed, which were certainly of great use and value?
With regard to the disreputable woman, before mentioned, it is probable that she afterwards led a more virtuous life, as she is acknowledged to have been one of King David’s grandmothers, and in the Vulgate is called Meretrix [literally a woman who earns her own living, i.e. a prostitute].
All these events are so many figures, or prophecies, which foretold from afar the law of grace. Once more, we repeat, these are mysteries, as sacred as they are incomprehensible.
From the book of Joshua we learn that this chief, having made himself master of the land of Canaan, had thirty-one of their petty kings hanged, that is to say, thirty kings and one of the principal burgesses, who had dared to defend their hearths, their wives and their children. We should here prostrate ourselves to Providence, who chastised the sins of these kings by the sword of Joshua.
It is not at all astonishing that the neighboring people should unite against the Jews, who in their eyes, could only appear as a band of execrable robbers and predators; and not as the sacred instruments of divine vengeance, and the future salvation of the human race. They were reduced to slavery by Cushan, king of Mesopotamia. It is true that Mesopotamia and Jericho are at a great distance apart. Cushan must then have conquered Syria, and part of Palestine. Be this as it may, they were in bondage eight years, and remained afterwards fifty-two years upon the same spot. These fifty-two years were a space of servitude, as they were commanded by the law to take all the country from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates—all this vast extent of country being promised to them; and they would doubtless have been tempted to seize upon it, if they had been at liberty. They were also in bondage for eighteen years to Eglon, king of the Moabites, who was assassinated by Ehud, or Aod; they were afterwards for twenty-eight years slaves to a people of Canaan, whom they do not name, until the warlike prophetess Deborah delivered them. Gideon held them afterwards for seven years in bondage.
They were for eighteen years slaves to the Phoenicians, whom they call Philistines, until the time of Jephtha. And they were, for forty years more, slaves to the same people, until the time of Saul. What perplexes our judgement is, that they remained slaves at the time of Samson, when Samson only required the jawbone of an ass to kill a thousand Philistines, and when God performed, by the hands of Samson, such wonderful miracles.
Let us stop a moment to observe how many Jews were exterminated by their own brethren, or by the order of God himself, from the time that they wandered in the desert, till the time they elected a king by drawing lots.
23,000 — Slaughtered by the Levites, after the worship of the Golden Calf made by Aaron, the brother of Moses.
250 — Destroyed by fire, at Korah’s revolt.
34,700 — Put to death for the same revolt.
24,000 — Slaughtered for correspondence with Midianite women.
42,000 — Slain at the ford of Jordanfor not correctly pronouncing Shibboleth.
40,000 — Killed by the tribe of Benjaminwho were attacked.
45,000 — Benjaminites killed by the other tribes.
When the Ark was taken by the Philistines, and God had afflicted them with hemorrhoids, they returned the Ark to Behemoth, and made an offering of five golden hemorrhoids, and five golden rats. There were slaughtered of the Bethshemites for looking into the Ark 50,700.
239,650 — Total number.
Here we have two hundred and thirty-nine thousand six hundred and fifty Jews, exterminated either by the command of God himself, or in their civil wars; without reckoning those who fell in the different battles with the Canaanites, etc.
If we were to judge of the Jews as of other nations, we could not conceive how the children of Jacob could have produced a race sufficiently numerous to sustain such a loss. But God who conducted and watched over them, God who tried and punished them, rendered that nation so different and distinct from all others, that we should not look upon them with the same eyes, nor judge their actions with the same standard that seems applicable to ordinary mortals.
These children of Abraham, these favorites of Omnipotence, these chosen people of Israel, have always claimed special rights, special privileges, and special rewards.
Of the Jews, after Saul
The Jews do not appear to have enjoyed a happier lot under their Kings than under their Judges. Their first king, Saul, was obliged to put himself to death. Ishbosheth and Mephibosheth, his sons, were assassinated.
David delivers up to the Gibeonites seven of Saul’s grandsons, who were cruelly murdered. He also orders his son Solomon to put to death Adonijah, his other son, and Joab his general. Their king Asa destroys a considerable number of the people in Jerusalem, and Baasha assassinates Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, and all his family and kindred. Jebu assassinates Jaram and Ochosias, Ahab’s seventy sons, forty-two brethren of Ochosias, and all their kindred. Athaliah assassinates all her grandsons except Joash and she, in her turn, is assassinated by the high priest, Johoiada. Joash is assassinated by his servants, and his son Amaziah meets with the same fate. Zachariah is slain by Shallum, who, after a short reign, is slain by Menahem. Of this last wretch, the Scriptures assert “that he ripped up all the women that were with child, in Tipshah.” Pekakiah, the son of Menahem, is assassinated by Pekah, the son of Remaliah, and Pekah himself is assassinated by Hoshea, the son of Elah. Of Manasseh, it is said, that he “shed innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to the other.” And Amon, son of Manasseh, is also assassinated, etc.
In the midst of these massacres ten tribes, who are carried off by Salmanazar, king of Babylon, are enslaved and dispersed forever, except some husbandmen, who were left to till the land.
There yet remained two tribes, who were also carried into captivity, and continued in a state of bondage seventy years; then they obtained permission from their conquerors to return to Jerusalem. These two tribes, with the few Jews still remaining in Samaria, were finally subjected to the kings of Persia.
When Alexander became master of Persia, Judea was comprised in his conquests. After Alexander, the Jews remained in subjection, at one time to the Seleucids, his successors in Syria, at another, to the Ptolemies, his successors in Egypt—constantly in a state of subjection, and obtaining a livelihood by acting as brokers in different parts of Asia. They obtained some favors from Ptolemy Epiphanes, king of Egypt. A Jew named Joseph became chief tax-collector in Lower Syria and Judea, which belonged to this Ptolemy. This was the most fortunate state of the Jews, for it was at this time that they built the third part of their city, afterwards called the inclosure, or the wall of the Maccabees, because they finished and completed the work.
From the yoke of King Ptolemy, they passed under that of Antiochus. The courage and greatness of the Maccabees at this point are celebrated by the Jews of Alexandria; but the Maccabees could not prevent the general Antiochus Eupater, son to Antiochus Epiphanes, from razing to the ground the temple, leaving only the sanctuary standing, nor from cutting off the head of Onias, the high priest, who was considered as the instigator of the revolt.
Never were the Jews more attached to their law than under the kings of Syria; they no longer adored foreign divinities, and it was at this time that their religion was irrevocably fixed. They were, nevertheless, more unhappy than ever, always in expectation of being delivered by the promises of their prophets—by the assistance of their gods—but they were abandoned by Providence, whose decrees are unknown to man.
They had sometimes a period of tranquility, amid the internal wars of the kings of Syria. But the Jews soon armed themselves one against another. As they had no kings, and as the first dignity was that of the sacrificing priest, violent parties arose in order to obtain it. There was no method of obtaining the dignity of High-Priest but by sword in hand, and the path to the sanctuary was often obstructed with the dead bodies of the slain.
Hircan, of the race of Maccabees, being made high priest, but still in subjection to the Syrians, caused David’s sepulcher to be opened, in which the exaggerator, Josephus, pretends that Hircan found three thousand talents. This imaginary treasure should have been sought at the time of rebuilding the temple under Nehemiah. This Hircan obtained from Antiochus Sidetes the privilege of coining money; but as there never was any Jewish money, it is very probable that the treasure found in David’s tomb was not very considerable.
It is remarkable that this high priest, Hircan, was a Sadducean, and that he neither believed in the immortality of the soul, nor in angels—a fresh subject of altercation, which began to divide the Sadducees and the Pharisees. These latter conspired against Hircan, and would have condemned him to be whipped and imprisoned. He avenged himself of them and governed despotically.
His son, Aristobulus, was daring enough to create himself king during the troubles of Syria and Egypt. This was the cruelest tyrant of any who had oppressed the Jewish people. Aristobulus, who indeed prayed very regularly in the temple, and never ate any pork, starved his own mother to death, and had his brother, Antigonus, slain. His successor was named John, or Johannes, and was as wicked as himself.
This Johannes, overwhelmed with crimes, left two sons, who waged war against each other. These two sons were named Aristobulus and Hircan. The Romans at that time were subjugating Asia. Pompey arrives, puts things in order, and teaches the Jews reason. He took the Temple, had the seditious hanged at the gates, and loaded the pretended king, Aristobulus, with irons.
This Aristobulus had a son, who was insolent enough to take upon himself the name of Alexander. He stirred up a revolt, raised some troops, and was hanged by order of Pompey.
At length Mark Anthony gave to the Jews for king an Idumean Arab of the country of those Amalekites so much cursed by the Jews. It was this same Herod, of whom St. Matthew relates, that he had all the little children put to death in the neighborhood of Bethlehem, upon being informed that a king of the Jews was born in that village, and that three Magi conducted by a star were coming to offer him presents.
Thus were the Jews almost constantly subjugated or enslaved. We know how they revolted against the Romans, and how Titus had them sold in the open market, at the price of that animal whose flesh they would not touch.
They met with a still more wretched fate under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, and they deserved it. An earthquake happened in the time of Trajan, which swallowed up the finest cities of Syria. The Jews thought that this was the signal of God’s wrath against the Romans. They assembled and armed themselves in Africa and in Cyprus. They were animated with such rage, that they devoured the limbs of the Romans whom they had slain. But soon after, all the guilty were executed. Those who remained were animated with the same rage under Hadrian, when Barcochebas [i.e. Bar-Kochba], who called himself their Messiah, commanded them. This fanaticism was stifled by torrents of blood.
It is surprising that there should remain any Jews. The famous Benjamin of Tudela, a very learned Rabbi, who traveled in Europe and Asia in the twelfth century, computed that there were three hundred and eighty thousand Jews and Samaritans. For we must not mention the imaginary kingdom of Thema, near Tibet, where this Benjamin, either deceived or deceiving, asserts that there were three hundred thousand Jews of the ancient tribes assembled under one sovereign. The Jews never had any country to themselves since the time of Vespasian, except some hamlets of Arabia Felix towards the Red Sea.
Mahomet was at first obliged to keep terms with them. But he at length destroyed the little dominion which they had established in the north of Mecca. It is from the time of Mahomet that they have actually ceased to exist as a body of people.
In following simply the historical account of the little Jewish nation, we see that they could have no other end. They boast of having issued from Egypt like a band of robbers, carrying away everything that they had borrowed from the Egyptians. They glory in having spared neither age, sex, nor infancy, in the villages and boroughs they subdued. They have the effrontery to display an irreconcilable hatred against other nations—they revolt against all their masters—ever superstitious—ever envious of others’ good—ever barbarous—and ever servile in misfortune, and insolent in prosperity. Such were the Jews in the opinion of the Greeks and Romans, who could read their books; but in the eyes of Christians, enlightened by the faith which the Jews had persecuted, they prepared the way for us. They have been considered by some as the heralds of Providence.
The two other nations who are wanderers like the Jews in the East, and who, like them, do not unite with any other people, are the Banians and the Guebres, of the race of the Parsis or Persians. These Banians, whose talent consists in trade, like the Jews, are the descendants of the first peacable inhabitants of India. They do not intermarry with other nations, and in this respect resemble the Brahmins. The Parsis are the same people that we now call Persians, who were formerly rulers of the East and sovereigns of the Jews. They have been dispersed since the time of Omar, and cultivate in peace part of the land where they formerly reigned—still faithful to the ancient religion of the Magi [Zoroastrianism]—adoring one solitary God, and preserving the sacred fire, which they look upon as the work and emblem of the divinity.
I do not write of that remnant of the Egyptians, the secret worshippers of Isis, who now no longer exist, save as strolling and wandering bands, that will soon, no doubt, be totally annihilated.
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Source: National-Socialist Worldview