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ABRAHAM. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. III (Philosophical Dictionary Part 1) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. III.
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We must say nothing of what is divine in Abraham, since the Scriptures have said all. We must not even touch, except with a respectful hand, that which belongs to the profane—that which appertains to geography, the order of time, manners, and customs; for these, being connected with sacred history, are so many streams which preserve something of the divinity of their source.
Abraham, though born near the Euphrates, makes a great epoch with the Western nations, yet makes none with the Orientals, who, nevertheless, respect him as much as we do. The Mahometans have no certain chronology before their hegira. The science of time, totally lost in those countries which were the scene of great events, has reappeared in the regions of the West, where those events were unknown. We dispute about everything that was done on the banks of the Euphrates, the Jordan, and the Nile, while they who are masters of the Nile, the Jordan and the Euphrates enjoy without disputing. Although our great epoch is that of Abraham, we differ sixty years with respect to the time of his birth. The account, according to the registers, is as follows:
“And Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abraham, Nahor, and Haran. And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years, and Terah died in Haran. Now the Lord had said unto Abraham, get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation.”
It is sufficiently evident from the text that Terah, having had Abraham at the age of seventy, died at that of two hundred and five; and Abraham, having quitted Chaldæa immediately after the death of his father, was just one hundred and thirty-five years old when he left his country. This is nearly the opinion of St. Stephen, in his discourse to the Jews.
But the Book of Genesis also says: “And Abraham was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran.”
This is the principal cause (for there are several others) of the dispute on the subject of Abraham’s age. How could he be at once a hundred and thirty-five years, and only seventy-five? St. Jerome and St. Augustine say that this difficulty is inexplicable. Father Calmet, who confesses that these two saints could not solve the problem, thinks he does it by saying that Abraham was the youngest of Terah’s sons, although the Book of Genesis names him the first, and consequently as the eldest. According to Genesis, Abraham was born in his father’s seventieth year; while, according to Calmet, he was born when his father was a hundred and thirty. Such a reconciliation has only been a new cause of controversy. Considering the uncertainty in which we are left by both text and commentary, the best we can do is to adore without disputing.
There is no epoch in those ancient times which has not produced a multitude of different opinions. According to Moréri there were in his day seventy systems of chronology founded on the history dictated by God himself. There have since appeared five new methods of reconciling the various texts of Scripture. Thus there are as many disputes about Abraham as the number of his years (according to the text) when he left Haran. And of these seventy-five systems there is not one which tells us precisely what this town or village of Haran was, or where it was situated. What thread shall guide us in this labyrinth of conjectures and contradictions from the very first verse to the very last? Resignation. The Holy Spirit did not intend to teach us chronology, metaphysics or logic; but only to inspire us with the fear of God. Since we can comprehend nothing, all that we can do is to submit.
It is equally difficult to explain satisfactorily how it was that Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was also his sister. Abraham says positively to Abimelech, king of Gerar, who had taken Sarah to himself on account of her great beauty, at the age of ninety, when she was pregnant of Isaac: “And yet indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.” The Old Testament does not inform us how Sarah was her husband’s sister. Calmet, whose judgment and sagacity are known to every one, says that she might be his niece. With the Chaldæans it was probably no more an incest than with their neighbors, the Persians. Manners change with times and with places. It may be supposed that Abraham, the son of Terah, an idolater, was still an idolater when he married Sarah, whether Sarah was his sister or his niece.
There are several Fathers of the Church who do not think Abraham quite so excusable for having said to Sarah, in Egypt: “It shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife, and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister, that it may be well with me for thy sake.” She was then only sixty-five. Since she had, twenty-five years afterwards the king of Gerar for a lover, it is not surprising that, when twenty-five years younger, she had kindled some passion in Pharaoh of Egypt. Indeed, she was taken away by him in the same manner as she was afterwards taken by Abimelech, the king of Gerar, in the desert.
Abraham received presents, at the court of Pharaoh, of many “sheep, and oxen, and he-asses, and men-servants, and maid-servants, and she-asses, and camels.” These presents, which were considerable, prove that the Pharaohs had already become great kings; the country of Egypt must therefore have been very populous. But to make the country inhabitable, and to build towns, it must have cost immense labor. It was necessary to construct canals for the purpose of draining the waters of the Nile, which overflowed Egypt during four or five months of each year, and stagnated on the soil. It was also necessary to raise the town at least twenty feet above these canals. Works so considerable seem to have required thousands of ages.
There were only about four hundred years between the Deluge and the period at which we fix Abraham’s journey into Egypt. The Egyptians must have been very ingenious and indefatigably laborious, since, in so short a time, they invented all the arts and sciences, set bounds to the Nile, and changed the whole face of the country. Probably they had already built some of the great Pyramids, for we see that the art of embalming the dead was in a short time afterwards brought to perfection, and the Pyramids were only the tombs in which the bodies of their princes were deposited with the most august ceremonies.
This opinion of the great antiquity of the Pyramids receives additional countenance from the fact that three hundred years earlier, or but one hundred years after the Hebrew epoch of the Deluge of Noah, the Asiatics had built, in the plain of Sennaar, a tower which was to reach to heaven. St. Jerome, in his commentary on Isaiah, says that this tower was already four thousand paces high when God came down to stop the progress of the work.
Let us suppose each pace to be two feet and a half. Four thousand paces, then, are ten thousand feet; consequently the tower of Babel was twenty times as high as the Pyramids of Egypt, which are only about five hundred feet. But what a prodigious quantity of instruments must have been requisite to raise such an edifice! All the arts must have concurred in forwarding the work. Whence commentators conclude that men of those times were incomparably larger, stronger, and more industrious than those of modern nations.
So much may be remarked with respect to Abraham, as relating to the arts and sciences. With regard to his person, it is most likely that he was a man of considerable importance. The Chaldæans and the Persians each claim him as their own. The ancient religion of the magi has, from time immemorial, been called Kish Ibrahim, Milat Ibrahim, and it is agreed that the word Ibrahim is precisely the same as Abraham, nothing being more common among the Asiatics, who rarely wrote the vowels, than to change the i into a, or the a into i in pronunciation.
It has even been asserted that Abraham was the Brahma of the Indians, and that their notions were adopted by the people of the countries near the Euphrates, who traded with India from time immemorial.
The Arabs regarded him as the founder of Mecca. Mahomet, in his Koran, always viewed in him the most respectable of his predecessors. In his third sura, or chapter, he speaks of him thus: “Abraham was neither Jew nor Christian; he was an orthodox Mussulman; he was not of the number of those who imagine that God has colleagues.”
The temerity of the human understanding has even gone so far as to imagine that the Jews did not call themselves the descendants of Abraham until a very late period, when they had at last established themselves in Palestine. They were strangers, hated and despised by their neighbors. They wished, say some, to relieve themselves by passing for descendants of that Abraham who was so much reverenced in a great part of Asia. The faith which we owe to the sacred books of the Jews removes all these difficulties.
Other critics, no less hardy, start other objections relative to Abraham’s direct communication with the Almighty, his battles and his victories. The Lord appeared to him after he went out of Egypt, and said, “Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art, northward and southward, and eastward, and westward. For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed forever.”
The Lord, by a second oath, afterwards promised him all “from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.” The critics ask, how could God promise the Jews this immense country which they have never possessed? And how could God give to them forever that small part of Palestine out of which they have so long been driven? Again, the Lord added to these promises, that Abraham’s posterity should be as numerous as the dust of the earth—“so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.”
Our critics insist there are not now on the face of the earth four hundred thousand Jews, though they have always regarded marriage as a sacred duty and made population their greatest object. To these difficulties it is replied that the church, substituted for the synagogue, is the true race of Abraham, which is therefore very numerous.
It must be admitted that they do not possess Palestine; but they may one day possess it, as they have already conquered it once, in the first crusade, in the time of Urban II. In a word, when we view the Old Testament with the eyes of faith, as a type of the New, all either is or will be accomplished, and our weak reason must bow in silence.
Fresh difficulties are raised respecting Abraham’s victory near Sodom. It is said to be inconceivable that a stranger who drove his flocks to graze in the neighborhood of Sodom should, with three hundred and eighteen keepers of sheep and oxen, beat a king of Persia, a king of Pontus, the king of Babylon, and the king of nations, and pursue them to Damascus, which is more than a hundred miles from Sodom. Yet such a victory is not impossible, for we see other similar instances in those heroic times when the arm of God was not shortened. Think of Gideon, who, with three hundred men, armed with three hundred pitchers and three hundred lamps, defeated a whole army! Think of Samson, who slew a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass!
Even profane history furnishes like examples. Three hundred Spartans stopped, for a moment, the whole army of Xerxes, at the pass of Thermopylæ. It is true that, with the exception of one man who fled, they were all slain, together with their king, Leonidas, whom Xerxes had the baseness to gibbet, instead of raising to his memory the monument which it deserved. It is moreover true that these three hundred Lacedæmonians, who guarded a steep passage which would scarcely admit two men abreast, were supported by an army of ten thousand Greeks, distributed in advantageous posts among the rocks of Pelion and Ossa, four thousand of whom, be it observed, were stationed behind this very passage of Thermopylæ.
These four thousand perished after a long combat. Having been placed in a situation more exposed than that of the three hundred Spartans, they may be said to have acquired more glory in defending it against the Persian army, which cut them all in pieces. Indeed, on the monument afterwards erected on the field of battle, mention was made of these four thousand victims, whereas none are spoken of now but the three hundred.
A still more memorable, though much less celebrated, action was that of fifty Swiss, who, in 1315, routed at Morgarten the whole army of the Archduke Leopold, of Austria, consisting of twenty thousand men. They destroyed the cavalry by throwing down stones from a high rock; and gave time to fourteen hundred Helvetians to come up and finish the defeat of the army. This achievement at Morgarten is more brilliant than that of Thermopylæ, inasmuch as it is a finer thing to conquer than to be conquered. The Greeks amounted to ten thousand, well armed; and it was impossible that, in a mountainous country, they could have to encounter more than a hundred thousand Persians at once; it is more than probable that there were not thirty thousand Persians engaged. But here fourteen hundred Swiss defeat an army of twenty thousand men. The diminished proportions of the less to the greater number also increases the proportion of glory. But how far has Abraham led us? These digressions amuse him who makes and sometimes him who reads them. Besides, every one is delighted to see a great army beaten by a little one.
Abraham is one of those names which were famous in Asia Minor and Arabia, as Thaut was among the Egyptians, the first Zoroaster in Persia, Hercules in Greece, Orpheus in Thrace, Odin among the northern nations, and so many others, known more by their fame than by any authentic history. I speak here of profane history only; as for that of the Jews, our masters and our enemies, whom we at once detest and believe, their history having evidently been written by the Holy Ghost, we feel toward it as we ought to feel. We have to do here only with the Arabs. They boast of having descended from Abraham through Ishmael, believing that this patriarch built Mecca and died there. The fact is, that the race of Ishmael has been infinitely more favored by God than has that of Jacob. Both races, it is true, have produced robbers; but the Arabian robbers have been prodigiously superior to the Jewish ones; the descendants of Jacob conquered only a very small country, which they have lost, whereas the descendants of Ishmael conquered parts of Asia, of Europe, and of Africa, established an empire more extensive than that of the Romans, and drove the Jews from their caverns, which they called The Land of Promise.
Judging of things only by the examples to be found in our modern histories, it would be difficult to believe that Abraham had been the father of two nations so widely different. We are told that he was born in Chaldæa, and that he was the son of a poor potter, who earned his bread by making little earthen idols. It is hardly likely that this son of a potter should have passed through impracticable deserts and founded the city of Mecca, at the distance of four hundred leagues, under a tropical sun. If he was a conqueror, he doubtless cast his eyes on the fine country of Assyria. If he was no more than a poor man, he did not found kingdoms abroad.
The Book of Genesis relates that he was seventy-five years old when he went out of the land of Haran after the death of his father, Terah the potter; but the same book also tells us that Terah, having begotten Abraham at the age of seventy years, lived to that of two hundred and five; and, afterward, that Abraham went out of Haran, which seems to signify that it was after the death of his father.
Either the author did not know how to dispose his narration, or it is clear from the Book of Genesis itself that Abraham was one hundred and thirty-five years old when he quitted Mesopotamia. He went from a country which is called idolatrous to another idolatrous country named Sichem, in Palestine. Why did he quit the fruitful banks of the Euphrates for a spot so remote, so barren, and so stony as Sichem? It was not a place of trade, and was distant a hundred leagues from Chaldæa, and deserts lay between. But God chose that Abraham should go this journey; he chose to show him the land which his descendants were to occupy several ages after him. It is with difficulty that the human understanding comprehends the reasons for such a journey.
Scarcely had he arrived in the little mountainous country of Sichem, when famine compelled him to quit it. He went into Egypt with his wife Sarah, to seek a subsistence. The distance from Sichem to Memphis is two hundred leagues. Is it natural that a man should go so far to ask for corn in a country the language of which he did not understand? Truly these were strange journeys, undertaken at the age of nearly a hundred and forty years!
He brought with him to Memphis his wife, Sarah, who was extremely young, and almost an infant when compared with himself; for she was only sixty-five. As she was very handsome, he resolved to turn her beauty to account. “Say, I pray thee, that thou art my sister, that it may be well with me for thy sake.” He should rather have said to her, “Say, I pray thee, that thou art my daughter.” The king fell in love with the young Sarah, and gave the pretended brother abundance of sheep, oxen, he-asses, she-asses, camels, men-servants and maid-servants; which proves that Egypt was then a powerful and well-regulated, and consequently an ancient kingdom, and that those were magnificently rewarded who came and offered their sisters to the kings of Memphis. The youthful Sarah was ninety years old when God promised her that, in the course of a year, she should have a child by Abraham, who was then a hundred and sixty.
Abraham, who was fond of travelling, went into the horrible desert of Kadesh with his pregnant wife, ever young and ever pretty. A king of this desert was, of course, captivated by Sarah, as the king of Egypt had been. The father of the faithful told the same lie as in Egypt, making his wife pass for his sister; which brought him more sheep, oxen, men-servants, and maid-servants. It might be said that this Abraham became rich principally by means of his wife. Commentators have written a prodigious number of volumes to justify Abraham’s conduct, and to explain away the errors in chronology. To these commentaries we must refer the reader; they are all composed by men of nice and acute perceptions, excellent metaphysicians, and by no means pedants.
For the rest, this name of Bram, or Abram, was famous in Judæa and in Persia. Several of the learned even assert that he was the same legislator whom the Greeks called Zoroaster. Others say that he was the Brahma of the Indians, which is not demonstrated. But it appears very reasonable to many that this Abraham was a Chaldæan or a Persian, from whom the Jews afterwards boasted of having descended, as the Franks did of their descent from Hector, and the Britons from Tubal. It cannot be denied that the Jewish nation were a very modern horde; that they did not establish themselves on the borders of Phœnicia until a very late period; that they were surrounded by ancient states, whose language they adopted, receiving from them even the name of Israel, which is Chaldæan, from the testimony of the Jew Flavius Josephus himself. We know that they took the names of the angels from the Babylonians, and that they called God by the names of Eloi or Eloa, Adonaï, Jehovah or Hiao, after the Phœnicians. It is probable that they knew the name of Abraham or Ibrahim only through the Babylonians; for the ancient religion of all the countries from the Euphrates to the Oxus was called Kish Ibrahim or Milat Ibrahim. This is confirmed by all the researches made on the spot by the learned Hyde.
The Jews, then, treat their history and ancient fables as their clothesmen treat their old coats—they turn them and sell them for new at as high a price as possible. It is a singular instance of human stupidity that we have so long considered the Jews as a nation which taught all others, while their historian Josephus himself confesses the contrary.
It is difficult to penetrate the shades of antiquity; but it is evident that all the kingdoms of Asia were in a very flourishing state before the wandering horde of Arabs, called Jews, had a small spot of earth which they called their own—when they had neither a town, nor laws, nor even a fixed religion. When, therefore, we see an ancient rite or an ancient opinion established in Egypt or Asia, and also among the Jews, it is very natural to suppose that this small, newly formed, ignorant, stupid people copied, as well as they were able, the ancient, flourishing, and industrious nation.
It is on this principle that we must judge of Judæa, Biscay, Cornwall, etc. Most certainly triumphant Rome did not in anything imitate Biscay or Cornwall; and he must be either very ignorant or a great knave who would say that the Jews taught anything to the Greeks.
It must not be thought that Abraham was known only to the Jews; on the contrary, he was renowned throughout Asia. This name, which signifies father of a people in more Oriental languages than one, was given to some inhabitant of Chaldæa from whom several nations have boasted of descending. The pains which the Arabs and the Jews took to establish their descent from this patriarch render it impossible for even the greatest Pyrrhoneans to doubt of there having been an Abraham.
The Hebrew Scriptures make him the son of Terah, while the Arabs say that Terah was his grandfather and Azar his father, in which they have been followed by several Christians. The interpreters are of forty-two different opinions with respect to the year in which Abraham was brought into the world, and I shall not hazard a forty-third. It also appears, by the dates, that Abraham lived sixty years longer than the text allows him; but mistakes in chronology do not destroy the truth of a fact. Supposing even that the book which speaks of Abraham had not been so sacred as was the law, it is not therefore less certain that Abraham existed. The Jews distinguished books written by inspired men from books composed by particular inspiration. How, indeed, can it be believed that God dictated false dates?
Philo, the Jew of Suidas, relates that Terah, the father or grandfather of Abraham, who dwelt at Ur in Chaldæa, was a poor man who gained a livelihood by making little idols, and that he was himself an idolater. If so, that ancient religion of the Sabeans, who had no idols, but worshipped the heavens, had not, then, perhaps, been established in Chaldæa; or, if it prevailed in one part of the country, it is very probable that idolatry was predominant in the rest. It seems that in those times each little horde had its religion, as each family had its own peculiar customs; all were tolerated, and all were peaceably confounded. Laban, the father-in-law of Jacob, had idols. Each clan was perfectly willing that the neighboring clan should have its gods, and contented itself with believing that its own were the mightiest.
The Scripture says that the God of the Jews, who intended to give them the land of Canaan, commanded Abraham to leave the fertile country of Chaldæa and go towards Palestine, promising him that in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed. It is for theologians to explain, by allegory and mystical sense, how all the nations of the earth were to be blessed in a seed from which they did not descend, since this much-to-be-venerated mystical sense cannot be made the object of a research purely critical. A short time after these promises Abraham’s family was afflicted by famine, and went into Egypt for corn. It is singular that the Hebrews never went into Egypt, except when pressed by hunger; for Jacob afterwards sent his children on the same errand.
Abraham, who was then very old, went this journey with his wife Sarah, aged sixty-five: she was very handsome, and Abraham feared that the Egyptians, smitten by her charms, would kill him in order to enjoy her transcendent beauties: he proposed to her that she should pass for his sister, etc. Human nature must at that time have possessed a vigor which time and luxury have since very much weakened. This was the opinion of all the ancients; it has been asserted that Helen was seventy when she was carried off by Paris. That which Abraham had foreseen came to pass; the Egyptian youth found his wife charming, notwithstanding her sixty-five years; the king himself fell in love with her, and placed her in his seraglio, though, probably, he had younger women there; but the Lord plagued the king and his seraglio with very great sores. The text does not tell us how the king came to know that this dangerous beauty was Abraham’s wife; but it seems that he did come to know it, and restored her.
Sarah’s beauty must have been unalterable; for twenty-five years afterwards, when she was ninety years old, pregnant, and travelling with her husband through the dominions of a king of Phœnicia named Abimelech, Abraham, who had not yet corrected himself, made her a second time pass for his sister. The Phœnician king was as sensible to her attractions as the king of Egypt had been; but God appeared to this Abimelech in a dream, and threatened him with death if he touched his new mistress. It must be confessed that Sarah’s conduct was as extraordinary as the lasting nature of her charms.
The singularity of these adventures was probably the reason why the Jews had not the same sort of faith in their histories as they had in their Leviticus. There was not a single iota of their law in which they did not believe; but the historical part of their Scriptures did not demand the same respect. Their conduct in regard to their ancient books may be compared to that of the English, who received the laws of St. Edward without absolutely believing that St. Edward cured the scrofula; or to that of the Romans, who, while they obeyed their primitive laws, were not obliged to believe in the miracles of the sieve filled with water, the ship drawn to the shore by a vestal’s girdle, the stone cut with a razor, and so forth. Therefore the historian Josephus, though strongly attached to his form of worship, leaves his readers at liberty to believe just so much as they choose of the ancient prodigies which he relates. For the same reason the Sadducees were permitted not to believe in the angels, although the angels are so often spoken of in the Old Testament; but these same Sadducees were not permitted to neglect the prescribed feasts, fasts, and ceremonies. This part of Abraham’s history (the journeys into Egypt and Phœnicia) proves that great kingdoms were already established, while the Jewish nation existed in a single family; that there already were laws, since without them a great kingdom cannot exist; and consequently that the law of Moses, which was posterior, was not the first law. It is not necessary for a law to be divine, that it should be the most ancient of all. God is undoubtedly the master of time. It would, it is true, seem more conformable to the faint light of reason that God, having to give a law, should have given it at the first to all mankind; but if it be proved that He proceeds in a different way, it is not for us to question Him.
The remainder of Abraham’s history is subject to great difficulties. God, who frequently appeared to and made several treaties with him, one day sent three angels to him in the valley of Mamre. The patriarch gave them bread, veal, butter, and milk to eat. The three spirits dined, and after dinner they sent for Sarah, who had baked the bread. One of the angels, whom the text calls the Lord, the Eternal, promised Sarah that, in the course of a year, she should have a son. Sarah, who was then ninety-four, while her husband was nearly a hundred, laughed at the promise—a proof that Sarah confessed her decrepitude—a proof that, according to the Scripture itself, human nature was not then very different from what it is now. Nevertheless, the following year, as we have already seen, this aged woman, after becoming pregnant, captivated King Abimelech. Certes, to consider these stories as natural, we must either have a species of understanding quite different from that which we have at present, or regard every trait in the life of Abraham as a miracle, or believe that it is only an allegory; but whichever way we turn, we cannot escape embarrassment. For instance, what are we to make of God’s promise to Abraham that he would give to him and his posterity all the land of Canaan, which no Chaldæan ever possessed? This is one of the difficulties which it is impossible to solve.
It seems astonishing that God, after causing Isaac to be born of a centenary father and a woman of ninety-five, should afterwards have ordered that father to murder the son whom he had given him contrary to every expectation. This strange order from God seems to show that, at the time when this history was written, the sacrifice of human victims was customary amongst the Jews, as it afterwards became in other nations, as witness the vow of Jephthah. But it may be said that the obedience of Abraham, who was ready to sacrifice his son to the God who had given him, is an allegory of the resignation which man owes to the orders of the Supreme Being.
There is one remark which it is particularly important to make on the history of this patriarch regarded as the father of the Jews and the Arabs. His principal children were Isaac, born of his wife by a miraculous favor of Providence, and Ishmael, born of his servant. It was in Isaac that the race of the patriarch was blessed; yet Isaac was father only of an unfortunate and contemptible people, who were for a long period slaves, and have for a still longer period been dispersed. Ishmael, on the contrary, was the father of the Arabs, who, in course of time, established the empire of the caliphs, one of the most powerful and most extensive in the world.
The Mussulmans have a great reverence for Abraham, whom they call Ibrahim. Those who believe him to have been buried at Hebron, make a pilgrimage thither, while those who think that his tomb is at Mecca, go and pay their homage to him there.
Some of the ancient Persians believed that Abraham was the same as Zoroaster. It has been with him as with most of the founders of the Eastern nations, to whom various names and various adventures have been attributed; but it appears by the Scripture text that he was one of those wandering Arabs who had no fixed habitation. We see him born at Ur in Chaldæa, going first to Haran, then into Palestine, then into Egypt, then into Phœnicia, and lastly forced to buy a grave at Hebron.
One of the most remarkable circumstances of his life was, that at the age of ninety, before he had begotten Isaac, he caused himself, his son Ishmael, and all his servants to be circumcised. It seems that he had adopted this idea from the Egyptians. It is difficult to determine the origin of such an operation; but it is most likely that it was performed in order to prevent the abuses of puberty. But why should a man undergo this operation at the age of a hundred?
On the other hand it is asserted that only the priests were anciently distinguished in Egypt by this custom. It was a usage of great antiquity in Africa and part of Asia for the most holy personages to present their virile member to be kissed by the women whom they met. The organs of generation were looked upon as something noble and sacred—as a symbol of divine power: it was customary to swear by them; and, when taking an oath to another person, to lay the hand on his testicles. It was perhaps from this ancient custom that they afterwards received their name, which signifies witnesses, because they were thus made a testimony and a pledge. When Abraham sent his servant to ask Rebecca for his son Isaac, the servant placed his hand on Abraham’s genitals, which has been translated by the word thigh.
By this we see how much the manners of remote antiquity differed from ours. In the eyes of a philosopher it is no more astonishing that men should formerly have sworn by that part than by the head; nor is it astonishing that those who wished to distinguish themselves from other men should have testified by this venerated portion of the human person.
The Book of Genesis tells us that circumcision was a covenant between God and Abraham; and expressly adds, that whosoever shall not be circumcised in his house, shall be put to death. Yet we are not told that Isaac was circumcised; nor is circumcision again spoken of until the time of Moses.
We shall conclude this article with one more observation, which is, that Abraham, after having by Sarah and Hagar two sons, who became each the father of a great nation, had six sons by Keturah, who settled in Arabia; but their posterity were not famous.