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ON THE INTERPRETATION OF THE OLD TESTAMENT - Voltaire, Toleration and Other Essays 
Toleration and Other Essays by Voltaire. Translated, with an Introduction, by Joseph McCabe (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912).
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ON THE INTERPRETATION OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
Books rule the world, or, at least, those nations in it which have written language; the others do not count. The Zend Avesta, attributed to the first Zoroaster, was the law of the Persians. The Veda and the Shastabad are the law of the Brahmans. The Egyptians were ruled by the books of Thot, who has been called “the first Mercury.” The Koran holds sway to-day over Africa, Egypt, Arabia, India, part of Tartary, the whole of Persia, Scythia, Asia Minor, Syria, Thrace, Thessaly, and the whole of Greece as far as the strait which separates Naples and the Empire.1 The Pentateuch controls the Jews; and, by a singular dispensation of Providence, it rules us to-day. It is, therefore, our duty to read this work together, since it is the foundation of our faith.
When we read the early chapters of the Pentateuch, we must remember that, in speaking thus to the Jews, God deigned to accommodate himself to their intelligence, which was still very crude. It is well known to-day that our earth is but a point in comparison with the space which we, improperly, call the heavens, in which shine a prodigious number of stars, with planets far superior to ours. We know that light was not made before the day, and that it comes to us from the sun. We know that the supposed solid expanse between the upper and the lower waters, which is called the “firmament,”1 is an error of ancient physics, adopted by the Greeks. But as God was speaking to the Jews, he deigned to stoop low enough to adopt their language. Certainly no one would have understood him in the desert of Horeb if he had said: “I have put the sun in the centre of your world; the little globe of the earth revolves, with other planets, round this great star, which illumines the planets; and the moon turns round the earth in the course of a month. Those other stars which you see are so many suns, presiding over other worlds.”
If the eternal geometrician had spoken thus, he would indeed have spoken worthily, as a master who knows his own work; but no Jew would have understood a word of such sublime truths. The Jewish people were stiff of neck and hard of understanding. It was necessary to give coarse food to a coarse people, which could find sustenance only in such food. It seems that this first chapter of Genesis was an allegory presented to them by the Holy Spirit, to be interpreted some day by those whom God would deign to fill with his light. That, at least, was the idea of the leading Jews, since it was forbidden to read this book before reaching one’s twenty-fifth year, in order that the mind of young folk might be prepared by masters to read it with more intelligence and respect.
These doctors taught that, in the literal sense, the Nile, Euphrates, Tigris, and Araxes did not really rise in the terrestrial paradise; but that the four rivers, which watered it, evidently meant four virtues necessary to man. It was, according to them, clear that the formation of woman from the rib of man was a most striking allegory of the unvarying harmony that ought to be found in marriage; that the souls of married people ought to be united like their bodies. It it a symbol of the peace and fidelity that ought to rule in conjugal society.
The serpent that seduced Eve, and was the most cunning of all animals on the earth, is, if we are to believe Philo and other writers, a figurative expression of our corrupt desires. The use of speech, which Scripture assigns to it, is the voice of our passions speaking to our hearts. God used the allegory of the serpent because it was very common in the East. The serpent was considered subtle because it quickly escapes those who pursue it, and skilfully falls on those who attack it. Its change of skin was the symbol of immortality. The Egyptians carried a silver serpent in their processions. The Phœnicians, who were neighbours of the Hebrews, had long had an allegorical fable of a serpent that had made war on God and man. In fine, the serpent which tempted Eve has been recognised as the devil, who is ever seeking to tempt and undo us.
It is true that the idea of a devil falling from heaven and becoming the enemy of the human race was known to the Jews only in the course of time; but the divine author, who knew that this idea would spread some day, deigned to plant the seed of it in the early chapters of Genesis.
We really know nothing of the fall of the wicked angels except from these few words in the Epistle of St. Jude: “Wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever, of whom Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied.” It has been thought that these wandering stars were the angels transformed into malevolent demons, and we supply the place of the prophecies of Enoch, the seventh man after Adam, which we no longer have. But no matter into what labyrinth learned men may wander, in trying to explain these incomprehensible things, we must always understand in an edifying sense whatever we cannot understand literally.
The ancient Brahmans, as we said, had this theology many centuries before the Jewish nation came into existence. The ancient Persians had given names to the devils long before the Jews did so. You are aware that in the Pentateuch we do not find the name of any angel, good or bad. There is no mention of Gabriel, or Raphael, or Satan, or Asmodeus in the Jewish books until long afterwards, when the little people had learned their names during the Babylonian captivity [or the Persian domination]. That shows, at least, that the doctrine of celestial and infernal beings was common to all great nations. You will find it in the book of Job, a precious monument of antiquity. Job is an Arabic character; if the allegory was written in Arabic. There are still, in the Hebrew translation, purely Arabic phrases.1 Here, then, we have the Hindoos, Persians, Arabs, and Jews successively adopting much the same theology. It is therefore entitled to close attention.
But what is even more clearly entitled to our attention is the morality that ought to result from all this ancient theology. Men, who are not born to be murderers, since God has not armed them like lions and tigers; who are not born to be imposed upon, since they all necessarily love truth; who are not born to be marauding brigands, since God has given equally to them all the fruits of the earth and the wool of the sheep; but who have, nevertheless, become marauders, perjurers, and murderers, are really angels transformed into demons.
Let us, my brethren, always seek in Holy Writ what morality, not what physics, teaches.
Let the ingenious Father Calmet employ his profound sagacity and penetrating logic in discovering the place of the earthly paradise; we may be content to deserve, if we can, the heavenly paradise by the practice of justice, toleration, and kindliness.
“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen., ii., 17).
Interpreters admit that we do not know of any tree that gives knowledge. Adam did not die on the day on which he ate of it; he lived for nine hundred and thirty years afterwards, the Scripture says. But, alas, what are nine hundred years between two eternities! They are not to be compared with a moment of time, and our days pass like the shadow. Does not this allegory, however, clearly teach us that knowledge, wrongly understood, is able to undo us? The tree of knowledge bears, no doubt, very bitter fruit, since so many learned theologians have been persecutors or persecuted, and many have died a dreadful death. Ah, my brethren, the Holy Sprit wished to show us how dangerous false science is, how it puffs up the heart, and how absurd a learned doctor often is.
It is from this passage that St. Augustine gathered the guilt of all men on account of the disobedience of the first man. He it is who developed the doctrine of original sin. Whether the stain of this sin corrupted our bodies, or steeped the souls which enter them, is an entirely incomprehensible mystery; it warns us at least not to live in crime, if we were born in crime.
“And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him” (Gen. iv.).
Here, especially, my brethren, the fathers are opposed to each other. The family of Adam was not yet numerous; Scripture gives him no other children than Abel and Cain, at the time when the former was murdered by his brother. Why is God forced to give Cain a safeguard against any who may find him? Let us be content to observe that God pardons Cain, no doubt after filling him with remorse. Let us profit by the lesson, and not condemn our brethren to frightful torments for small causes. When God is so merciful as to forgive an abominable murder, we may imitate him. The objection is raised that the same God who pardons a cruel murderer damns all men for ever for the transgression of Adam, whose only crime was to eat the forbidden fruit. To our feeble human reason it seems unjust for God to punish eternally all the children of the guilty, not indeed to atone for a murder, but to expiate what seems an excusable act of disobedience. This is said to be an intolerable contradiction, which we cannot admit in an infinitely good being; but it is only an apparent contradiction. God hands us over, with our parents and children, to the flames for the disobedience of Adam; but four thousand years afterwards he sends Jesus Christ to deliver us, and he preserves the life of Cain in order to people the earth: thus he remains in all things the God of justice and mercy. St. Augustine calls Adam’s sin a “fortunate fault”; but that of Cain was still more fortunate, since God took care himself to put a mark of his protection on him.
“A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above,” etc. (Gen. vi. 16).
Here we reach the greatest of all miracles, before which reason must humble itself and the heart must break. We know with what bold contempt the incredulous rise against the prodigy of a universal deluge.
It is fruitless for them to object that in the wettest years we do not get thirty inches of rain; that even in such a year there are as many regions without rain as there are flooded regions; that the law of gravity prevents the ocean from overflowing its bounds; that if it covered the earth it would leave its bed dry; that, even if it covered the earth, it could not rise fifteen cubits above the highest mountains; that the animals could not reach the ark from America and southern lands; that seven pairs of clean animals and two pairs of unclean could not have been put in twenty arks; that these twenty arks would not have sufficed to hold the fodder they needed, not merely for ten months, but for the following year, in which the earth would be too sodden to produce; that the carnivorous animals would have died of starvation; that the eight persons in the ark would not have been able to give the animals their food every day. There is no end to their difficulties. But the whole of them are solved by pointing out that this great event was a miracle—that puts an end to all dispute.
“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. xi. 4).
Unbelievers declare that it is possible to make a name, yet be scattered abroad. They ask if men have ever been so stupid as to wish to build a tower as high as the heavens. They say that such a tower would rise into the atmosphere, and that, if you call the atmosphere the heavens, the tower will necessarily be in the heavens if it were no more than twenty feet high; and that, if all men then spoke the same tongue, the wisest thing they could do would be to gather in a common city and prevent a corruption of their tongue. Apparently they were all in their own country, since they were all agreed to build therein. To drive them from their country is tyrannical; to make them suddenly speak new tongues is absurd. Hence, they say, we can only regard the story of the tower of Babel as an oriental romance.
I reply to this blasphemy that, since the miracle is described by an author who has recorded so many other miracles, it ought to be believed, like the others. The works of God cannot be expected to resemble the works of man in any way. The ages of the patriarchs and prophets can have no relation to the ages of ordinary men. God now comes upon the earth no more; but in those days he often came down to carry out his work in person. It is a tradition of all the great nations of antiquity. The Greeks, who had no knowledge of the Jewish books until long after they had been translated into Greek at Alexandria by Hellenising Jews, had believed, before Homer and Hesiod, that the great Zeus and all the other gods came down from the upper air to visit the earth. What lesson may we derive from the general acceptance of this idea? That we are always in the presence of God, and that we must engage in no deed or thought that is not in accord with his justice. In a word, the tower of Babel is no more extraordinary than all the rest. The book is equally authentic in all its parts; we cannot deny one fact without denying all the others. We must bring our proud reason into subjection, whether we regard the story as literally true or as a figure.
“In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham, saying: Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates” (Gen. xv., 18).
Unbelievers exclaim triumphantly that the Jews have never owned more than a part of what God promised them. They even think it unjust that the Lord gave them this part. They say that the Jews had not the least right to it; that the former journey of a Chaldæan into a barbaric country could not possibly be a legitimate pretext for invading the country; and that any man who declared himself a descendant of St. Patrick, and came on that account to sack Ireland, saying that he had God’s order to do so, would meet with a warm reception. But let us always remember that the times have changed. Let us respect the books of the Jews, and take care not to imitate the Jews. God enjoins no longer what he once commanded.
They ask who this Abraham is, and why the Jewish people is traced to the Chaldæan son of an idolatrous potter, who had no relation to the people of the land of Canaan, and could not understand their language. This Chaldæan, accompanied by a wife who bends under the weight of years, but is still good, reaches Memphis. Why do the couple pass from Memphis to the desert of Gerar? How comes there to be a king in this horrible desert? How is it that the king of Egypt and the king of Gerar both fall in love with the aged1 spouse of Abraham? These are but historical difficulties; the great thing is to obey God. Holy Scripture always represents Abraham as unreservedly submissive to the will of the Most High. Let us imitate him, and not dispute so much.
“And there came two angels to Sodom at even,” etc. (Gen. xix.).
Here is a stumbling-block for all readers who listen only to their own reason. Two angels—that is to say, two spiritual creatures, two heavenly ministers of God—have earthly bodies, and inspire a whole town, even its old men, with infamous desires; a father of a family prostitutes his two daughters to save the honour of the two angels; a town is changed into a lake of fire; a woman is transformed into a salt statue; two girls deceive and intoxicate their father in order to commit incest with him, lest, they say, their race should perish, while they have all the inhabitants of the town of Zoar to choose from! All these events, taken together, make up a revolting picture. But if we are reasonable we shall agree with St. Clement of Alexandria and the fathers who have followed him that the whole is allegorical.
Let us remember that that was the way of writing in the East. Parables were so constantly used that even the author of all truth spoke to the Jews only in parables when he came on earth.
Parables make up the whole of the profane theology of antiquity. Saturn devouring his children is evidently time destroying its own works. Minerva is wisdom; she is formed in the head of the master of the gods. The arrows and bandage of Cupid are obvious figures. The fall of Phaëthon is an admirable symbol of ambition. All is not allegory, either in the pagan theology or in the sacred history of the Jewish people. The fathers distinguish between what is purely historical and purely parabolical, and what partakes of the nature of each. It is, I grant, difficult to walk on these slippery paths; but if we walk in the way of virtue, why need we concern ourselves about that of science?
The crime that God punishes here is horrible; let that suffice us. Lot’s wife was changed into a salt statue for looking behind her. Let us curb the impulses of curiosity; in a word, let the stories of Holy Writ serve to make us better, if they do not make us more enlightened.
There are, it seems to me, my brethren, two kinds of figurative and mystic interpretation of the Scriptures. The first, and incomparably the better, is to gather from all facts counsels for the conduct of life. If Jacob cruelly wrongs his brother Esau and deceives his father-in-law Laban, let us keep peace in our families and act justly towards our relatives. If the patriarch Reuben dishonours his father’s bed, let us regard the incest with horror. If the patriarch Judah commits a still more odious incest with his daughter-in-law Thamar, let us all the more detest these iniquities. When David ravishes the wife of Uriah, and has the husband slain; when Solomon murders his brother; when we find that nearly all the petty kings of the Jews are murderous barbarians, let us mend our ways as we read this awful list of crimes. Let us read the whole Bible in this spirit. It discomposes the man who would be learned; it consoles the man who is content to be good.
The other way to detect the hidden meaning of the Scriptures is to regard each event as an historical and physical emblem. That was the method followed by St. Clement, the great Origen, the respectable St. Augustine, and so many other fathers. According to them, the piece of red cloth which the harlot Rahab hung from her window is the blood of Jesus Christ. Moses spreading out his arms foreshadows the sign of the cross. Judah tying his ass to a vine prefigures the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem. St. Augustine compares the ark of Noah to Jesus. St. Ambrose, in the seventh book of his De Arca, says that the making of the little door in the side of the ark signifies, or may be regarded as signifying, a part of the human body. Even if all these interpretations were true, what profit should we derive from them? Will men be juster from knowing what the little door of the ark means? This way of interpreting the Holy Scripture is but a subtlety of the mind, and it may injure the innocence of the heart.
Let us set aside all the subjects of contention which divide nations, and fill ourselves with the sentiments which unite them. Submission to God, resignation, justice, kindness, compassion, and tolerance—those are the great principles. May all the theologians of the earth live together as men of business do. Asking not of what country a man is, nor in what practices he was reared, they observe towards each other the inviolable rules of equity, fidelity, and mutual confidence; and by these principles they bind nations together. But those who know only their own opinions, and condemn all others; those who think that the light shines for them alone, and all other men walk in darkness; those who scruple to communicate with foreign religions, should surely be entitled enemies of the human race.
I will not conceal from you that the most learned men affirm that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses. The great Newton, who alone discovered the first principle of nature and the nature of light, the astounding genius who penetrated so deep into ancient history, attributes the Pentateuch to Samuel. Other distinguished scholars think that it was written in the time of Osias by the scribe Saphan; others believe that Esdras wrote it, on returning from the Captivity. All are agreed, together with certain modern Jews, that the work was not written by Moses.
This great objection is not as formidable as it seems. We assuredly respect the Decalogue, from whatever hand it came. We dispute about the date of several laws which some attribute to Edward III., others to Edward II.; but we do not hesitate to adopt the laws, because we perceive that they are just and useful. Even if those statements in the preamble that are called in question are rejected, we do not reject the law.
Let us always distinguish between dogma and history, and between dogma and that eternal morality which all legislators have taught and all peoples received.
O holy morality! O God who has created it! I will not confine you within the bounds of a province. You reign over all thinking and sentient beings. You are the God of Jacob; but you are the God of the universe.
I cannot end this discourse, my dear brethren, without speaking to you of the prophets. This is one of the large subjects on which our enemies think to confound us. They say that in ancient times every people had its prophets, diviners, or seers. But does it follow that because the Egyptians, for instance, formerly had false prophets the Jews may not have had true prophets? It is said that they had no mission, no rank, no legal authorisation. That is true; but may they not have been authorised by God? They anathematised each other, and treated each other as rogues and fools; the prophet Zedekiah even dared to strike the prophet Michah in the presence of King Josaphat. We do not deny it; the Paralipomena record the fact. But is a ministry less holy because the ministers disgrace it? Have not our priests done things a hundred times worse than the giving of blows?
The commandments of God to the prophets Ezekiel and Hosea scandalise those who think themselves wise. Will they not be wiser if they see that these are allegories, types, parables, in accordance with the ways of the Israelites? And that we have no more right to ask of God an account of the orders he gives in accordance with these ways than to ask the people why they have them? No doubt God could not order a prophet to commit debauch and adultery; but he wished to let us see that he disapproved the crimes and adulteries of his chosen people. If we did not read the Bible in this spirit, we should, alas, be filled with horror and indignation at every page.
Let us find edification in what scandalises others; let us find wholesome food in their poison. When the proper and literal meaning of a passage seems to be in accord with reason, let us keep to it. When it seems to be contrary to the truth or to sound morals, let us seek a hidden meaning that may reconcile truth and sound morals with Holy Scripture. Thus have all the fathers of the Church proceeded; thus do we proceed daily in the commerce of life. We always interpret favourably the discourses of our friends and partisans. Would we treat more harshly the sacred books of the Jews, which are the object of our faith? Let us, in fine, read the Jews’ books that we may be Christians; and if they make us not more wise, let them at least make us better.
[1 ]Greece threw off the Turkish yoke in 1827.—J. M.
[1 ]In the Greek, Latin, and modern Bibles it is “firmament.” In the Hebrew text it is “expanse,” though other passages show that it refers to the solid vault or firmament of the Babylonians.—J. M.
[1 ]The Rev. Professor Sayce regards Job as a piece of north Arabian or Edomite literature, borrowed by the Jews.—J. M.
[1 ]Ninety years old (Genesis xvii., 17).—J. M.