Front Page Titles (by Subject) MOSES. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. VI (Philosophical Dictionary Part 4)
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MOSES. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. VI (Philosophical Dictionary Part 4) 
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. VI.
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Philosophy, of which we sometimes pass the boundaries, researches of antiquity, and the spirit of discussion and criticism, have been carried so far that several learned men have finally doubted if there ever was a Moses, and whether this man was not an imaginary being, such as were Perseus, Bacchus, Atlas, Penthesilea, Vesta, Rhea Silvia, Isis, Sammonocodom, Fo, Mercury, Trismegistus, Odin, Merlin, Francus, Robert the Devil, and so many other heroes of romance whose lives and prowess have been recorded.
It is not very likely, say the incredulous, that a man ever existed whose life is a continual prodigy.
It is not very likely that he worked so many stupendous miracles in Egypt, Arabia, and Syria, without their being known throughout the world.
It is not likely that no Egyptian or Greek writer should have transmitted these miracles to posterity. They are mentioned by the Jews alone; and in the time that this history was written by them, they were not known to any nation—not indeed until towards the second century. The first author who expressly quotes the Book of Moses is Longinus, minister of Queen Zenobia, in the time of the emperor Aurelian.
It is to be remarked that the author of the “Mercury Trismegistus,” who certainly was an Egyptian, says not a single word about this Moses.
If a single ancient author had related a single one of these miracles, Eusebius would no doubt have triumphed in this evidence, either in his “History” or in his “Evangelical Preparation.”
It is true, he mentions authors who have quoted his name, but none who have cited his prodigies. Before him, the Jews, Josephus and Philo, who have so much celebrated their own nation, sought all the writers in which the name of Moses is found, but there was not a single one who made the least mention of the marvellous actions attributed to him.
In this silence of the whole world, the incredulous reason with a temerity which refutes itself.
The Jews are the only people who possessed the Pentateuch, which they attribute to Moses. It is said, even in their books, that this Pentateuch was not known until the reign of their king Josiah, thirty-six years before the destruction and captivity of Jerusalem; and they then only possessed a single copy, which the priest Hilkiah found at the bottom of a strong box, while counting money. The priest sent it to the king by his scribe Shaphan. All this, say they, necessarily obscures the authenticity of the Pentateuch.
In short, if the Pentateuch was known to all the Jews, would Solomon—the wise Solomon, inspired by God Himself to build a temple—have ornamented this temple with so many statues, contrary to the express order of Moses?
All the Jewish prophets, who prophesied in the name of the Lord from the time of Moses till that of King Josiah, would they not have been supported in all their prophecies by the laws of Moses? Would they not a thousand times have quoted his own words? Would they not have commented upon them? None of them, however, quote two lines—no one follows the text of Moses—they even oppose them in several places.
According to these unbelievers, the books attributed to Moses were only written among the Babylonians during the captivity, or immediately afterwards by Esdras. Indeed, we see only Persian and Chaldæan terminations in the Jewish writings: “Babel,” gate of God; “Phegor-beel,” or “Beel-phegor,” god of the precipices; “Zebuth-beel,” or “Beel-zebuth,” god of insects; “Bethel,” house of God; “Daniel,” judgment of God; “Gabriel,” man of God; “Jahel,” afflicted of God; “Jael,” the life of God; “Israel,” seeing God; “Oviel,” strength of God; “Raphael,” help of God; “Uriel,” fire of God.
Thus, all is foreign in the Jewish nation, a stranger itself in Palestine; circumcision, ceremonies, sacrifices, the ark, the cherubim, the goat Hazazel, baptism of justice, simple baptism, proofs, divination, interpretation of dreams, enchantment of serpents—nothing originated among these people, nothing was invented by them.
The celebrated Lord Bolingbroke believed not that Moses ever existed; he thought he saw in the Pentateuch a crowd of contradictions and puzzling chronological and geographical faults; names of towns not then built, precepts given to kings at a time when not only the Jews had no kings, but in which it is probable there were none, since they lived in deserts, in tents, in the manner of the Bedouin Arabs.
What appears to him above all the most palpable contradiction is the gift of forty-eight cities with their suburbs, made to the Levites in a country in which there was not a single village; and it is principally on these forty-eight cities that he refutes Abbadie, and even has the cruelty to treat him with the aversion and contempt of a lord of the Upper Chamber, or a minister of state towards a petty foreign priest who would be so impertinent as to reason with him.
I will take the liberty of representing to Viscount Bolingbroke, and to all those who think with him, not only that the Jewish nation has always believed in the existence of Moses, and in that of his books, but that even Jesus Christ has acknowledged him. The four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, recognize him. St. Matthew says expressly, that Moses and Elias appeared to Jesus Christ on the mountain during the night of the transfiguration, and St. Luke says the same.
Jesus Christ declares in St. Matthew that he is not come to abolish this law, but to accomplish it. In the New Testament, we are often referred to the law of Moses and to the prophets. The whole Church has always believed the Pentateuch written by Moses; and further, of five hundred different societies, which have been so long established in Christendom, none have ever doubted the existence of this great prophet. We must, therefore, submit our reason, as so many men have done before us.
I know very well that I shall gain nothing in the mind of the viscount, or of those of his opinion. They are too well persuaded that the Jewish books were not written until very late, and during the captivity of the two tribes which remained. But we shall possess the consolation of having the Church with us.
If you would be instructed and amused with antiquity, read the life of Moses in the article on “Apocrypha.”
In vain have several scholars believed that the Pentateuch could not have been written by Moses. They say that it is affirmed even by the Scripture, that the first known copy was found in the time of King Josiah, and that this single copy was brought to the king by the secretary Shaphan. Now, between the time of Moses and this adventure of the secretary Shaphan, there were one thousand one hundred and sixty-seven years, by the Hebrew computation. For God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, in the year of the world 2213, and the secretary Shaphan published the book of the law in the year of the world 3380. This book found under Josiah, was unknown until the return from the Babylonish captivity; and it is said that it was Esdras, inspired by God, who brought the Holy Scriptures to light.
But whether it was Esdras or another who digested this book is absolutely indifferent, since it is inspired. It is not said in the Pentateuch, that Moses was the author; we might, therefore, be permitted to attribute it to the declaration of some other divine mind, if the Church had not decided that the book is by Moses.
Some opposers add, that no prophet has quoted the books of the Pentateuch, that there is no mention of it either in the Psalms or in the books attributed to Solomon, in Jeremiah or Isaiah, or, in short, in any canonical book of the Jews. Words answering to those of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, are not found in any other language recognized by them as authentic. Others, still more bold, have put the following questions:
1. In what language could Moses have written in a savage desert? It could only be in Egyptian; for by this same book we are told that Moses and all his people were born in Egypt. It is therefore probable that they spoke no other language. The Egyptians had yet made no use of papyrus; they engraved hieroglyphics on tables of wood or marble. It is even said, that the tables of the commandments were engraved on polished stones, which required prodigious time and labor.
2. Is it likely, that in a desert where the Jewish people had neither shoemaker nor tailor—in which the God of the universe was obliged to work a continual miracle to preserve the old dresses and shoes of the Jews—men could be found clever enough to engrave the five books of the Pentateuch on marble or wood? You will say, that they found laborers who made a golden calf in one night, and who afterwards reduced the gold into powder—an operation impracticable to common chemistry, which was not yet discovered. Who constructed the tabernacle? Who ornamented thirty columns of brass with capitals of silver? Who wove and embroidered veils of linen with hyacinth, purple, and scarlet? An account that supports the opinion of the contradictors. They answer, that it was not possible that in a desert, where they were in want of everything, for them to perform works so intricate; that they must have begun by making shoes and tunics; that those who wanted necessaries could not indulge in luxuries; and that it is an evident contradiction to say, that they had founders, engravers, and embroiderers, when they had neither clothes nor bread.
3. If Moses had written the first chapter of Genesis, would all young people have been forbidden to read the first chapter? Would so little respect have been paid to the legislator? If it was Moses who said that God punished the iniquity of the fathers to the fourth generation, would Ezekiel have dared to say the contrary?
4. If Moses wrote Leviticus, could he have contradicted it in Deuteronomy? Leviticus forbids a woman to marry her brother, Deuteronomy commands it.
5. Could Moses have spoken of towns which existed not in his time? Would he have said that towns which, in regard to him, were on the east of the Jordan were on the west?
6. Would he have assigned forty-eight cities to the Levites, in a country in which there were never ten, and in a desert in which he had always wandered without habitation?
7. Would he have prescribed rules for the Jewish kings, when not only there were no kings among this people, but they were held in horror, and it was not probable they would ever have any? What! would Moses have given precepts for the conduct of kings who came not until five hundred years after him, and have said nothing in relation to the judges and priests who succeeded him? Does not this religion lead us to believe that the Pentateuch was composed in the time of kings, and that the ceremonies instituted by Moses were only traditional.
8. Suppose he had said to the Jews: I have made you depart to the number of six hundred thousand combatants from the land of Egypt under the protection of your God? Would not the Jews have answered him: You must have been very timid not to lead us against Pharaoh of Egypt; he could not have opposed to us an army of two hundred thousand men. There never was such an army on foot in Egypt; we should have conquered them easily; we should have been the masters of their country. What! has the God, who talks to you, to please us slain all the first-born of Egypt, which, if there were in this country three hundred thousand families, makes three hundred thousand men destroyed in one night, simply to avenge us, and yet you have not seconded your God and given us that fertile country which nothing could withhold from us. On the contrary you have made us depart from Egypt as thieves and cowards, to perish in deserts between mountains and precipices. You might, at least, have conducted us by the direct road to this land of Canaan, to which we have no right, but which you have promised us, and on which we have not yet been able to enter.
It was natural that, from the land of Goshen, we should march towards Tyre and Sidon, along the Mediterranean; but you made us entirely pass the Isthmus of Suez, and re-enter Egypt, proceed as far as Memphis, when we find ourselves at Beel-Sephor on the borders of the Red Sea, turning our backs on the land of Canaan, having journeyed eighty leagues in this Egypt which we wished to avoid, so as at last to nearly perish between the sea and the army of Pharaoh!
If you had wished to deliver us to our enemies, you could not have taken a different route and other measures. God has saved us by a miracle, you say; the sea opened to let us pass; but after such a favor, should He let us die of hunger and fatigue in the horrible deserts of Kadesh-barnea, Mara, Elim, Horeb, and Sinai? All our fathers perished in these frightful solitudes; and you tell us, at the end of forty years, that God took particular care of them.
This is what these murmuring Jews, these unjust children of the vagabonds who died in the desert, might have said to Moses, if he had read Exodus and Genesis to them. And what might they not have said and done on the article of the golden calf? What! you dare to tell us that your brother made a calf for our fathers, when you were with God on the mountain? You, who sometimes tell us that you have spoken to God face to face, and sometimes that you could only see His back! But no matter, you were with this God, and your brother cast a golden calf in one day, and gave it to us to adore it; and instead of punishing your unworthy brother, you make him our chief priest, and order your Levites to slay twenty-three thousand men of your people. Would our fathers have suffered this? Would they have allowed themselves to be sacrificed like so many victims by sanguinary priests? You tell us that, not content with this incredible butchery, you have further massacred twenty-four thousand of our poor followers because one of them slept with a Midianitish woman, whilst you yourself espoused a Midianite; and yet you add, that you are the mildest of men! A few more instances of this mildness, and not a soul would have remained.
No; if you have been capable of all this cruelty, if you can have exercised it, you would be the most barbarous of men, and no punishment would suffice to expiate so great a crime.
These are nearly the objections which all scholars make to those who think that Moses is the author of the Pentateuch. But we answer them, that the ways of God are not those of men; that God has proved, conducted, and abandoned His people by a wisdom which is unknown to us; that the Jews themselves, for more than two thousand years, have believed that Moses is the author of these books; that the Church, which has succeeded the synagogue, and which is equally infallible, has decided this point of controversy; and that scholars should remain silent when the Church pronounces.
We cannot doubt that there was a Moses, a legislator of the Jews. We will here examine his history, following merely the rules of criticism; the Divine is not submitted to similar examination. We must confine ourselves to the probable; men can only judge as men. It is very natural and very probable that an Arab nation dwelt on the confines of Egypt, on the side of Arabia Deserta; that it was tributary or slave to the Egyptian kings, and that afterwards it sought to establish itself elsewhere; but that which reason alone cannot admit is, that this nation, composed of seventy persons at most in the time of Joseph, increased in two hundred and fifteen years, from Joseph to Moses, to the number of six hundred thousand combatants, according to the Book of Exodus, which six hundred thousand men capable of bearing arms imply a multitude of about two millions, counting old men, women, and children. It is not certainly in the course of nature for a colony of seventy persons, as many males as females, to produce in two centuries two millions of inhabitants. The calculations made on this progression by men very little versed in the things of this world, are falsified by the experience of all nations and all times. Children are not made by a stroke of the pen. Reflect well that at this rate a population of ten thousand persons in two hundred years would produce more inhabitants than the globe of the earth could sustain.
Is it any more probable, that these six hundred thousand combatants, favored by the Author of nature who worked for them so many prodigies, were forced to wander in the deserts in which they died, instead of seeking to possess themselves of fertile Egypt?
By these rules of an established and reasonable human criticism, we must agree that it is very likely that Moses conducted a small people from the confines of Egypt. There was among the Egyptians an ancient tradition, related by Plutarch in his “Treatise on Isis and Osiris,” that Tiphon, the father of Jerosselaim and Juddecus, fled from Egypt on an ass. It is clear from this passage that the ancestors of the Jews, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, were supposed to have been fugitives from Egypt. A tradition, no less ancient and more general is, that the Jews were driven from Egypt, either as a troop of unruly brigands, or a people infected with leprosy. This double accusation carries its probability even from the land of Goshen, which they had inhabited, a neighboring land of the vagabond Arabs, and where the disease of leprosy, peculiar to the Arabs, might be common. It appears even by the Scripture that this people went from Egypt against their will. The seventeenth chapter of Deuteronomy forbids kings to think of leading the Jews back to Egypt.
The conformity of several Egyptian and Jewish customs still more strengthens the opinion that this people was an Egyptian colony, and what gives it a new degree of probability is the feast of the Passover; that is to say, of the flight or passage instituted in memory of their evasion. This feast alone would be no proof; for among all peoples there are solemnities established to celebrate fabulous and incredible events; such were most of the feasts of the Greeks and Romans; but a flight from one country to another is nothing uncommon, and calls for belief. The proof drawn from this feast of the Passover receives a still greater force by that of the Tabernacles, in memory of the time in which the Jews inhabited the desert on their departure from Egypt. These similitudes, united with so many others, prove that a colony really went from Egypt, and finally established itself for some time at Palestine.
Almost all the rest is of a kind so marvellous that human sagacity cannot digest it. All that we can do is to seek the time in which the history of this flight—that is to say, the Book of Exodus—can have been written, and to examine the opinions which then prevailed; opinions, of which the proof is in the book itself, compared with the ancient customs of nations.
With regard to the books attributed to Moses, the most common rules of criticism permit us not to believe that he can be the author of them.
1. It is not likely that he spoke of the places by names which were not given to them until long afterwards. In this book mention is made of the cities of Jair, and every one agrees that they were not so named until long after the death of Moses. It also speaks of the country of Dan, and the tribe of Dan had not given its name to the country of which it was not yet the master.
2. How could Moses have quoted the book of the wars of the Lord, when these wars and this book were after his time?
3. How could Moses speak of the pretended defeat of a giant named Og, king of Bashan, vanquished in the desert in the last year of his government? And how could he add, that he further saw his bed of iron of nine cubits long in Rabath? This city of Rabath was the capital of the Ammonites, into whose country the Hebrews had not yet penetrated. Is it not apparent, that such a passage is the production of a posterior writer, which his inadvertence betrays? As an evidence of the victory gained over the giant, he brings forward the bed said to be still at Rabath, forgetting that it is Moses whom he makes speak, who was dead long before.
4. How could Moses have called cities beyond the Jordan, which, with regard to him, were on this side? Is it not palpable, that the book attributed to him was written a long time after the Israelites had crossed this little river Jordan, which they never passed under his conduct?
5. Is it likely that Moses told his people, that in the last year of his government he took, in the little province of Argob—a sterile and frightful country of Arabia Petræa—sixty great towns surrounded with high fortified walls, independent of an infinite number of open cities? Is it not much more probable that these exaggerations were afterwards written by a man who wished to flatter a stupid nation?
6. It is still less likely, that Moses related the miracles with which this history is filled.
It is easy to persuade a happy and victorious people that God has fought for them; but it is not in human nature that a people should believe a hundred miracles in their favor, when all these prodigies ended only in making them perish in a desert. Let us examine some of the miracles related in Exodus.
7. It appears contradictory and injurious to the divine essence to suppose that God, having formed a people to be the sole depository of His laws, and to reign over all nations, should send a man of this people to demand of the king, their oppressor, permission to go into the desert to sacrifice to his God, that this people might escape under the pretence of this sacrifice. Our common ideas cannot forbear attaching an idea of baseness and knavery to this management, far from recognizing the majesty and power of the Supreme Being.
When, immediately after, we read that Moses changed his rod into a serpent, before the king, and turned all the waters of the kingdom into blood; that he caused frogs to be produced which covered the surface of the earth; that he changed all the dust into lice, and filled the air with venomous winged insects; that he afflicted all the men and animals of the country with frightful ulcers; that he called hail, tempests, and thunder, to ruin all the country; that he covered it with locusts; that he plunged it in fearful darkness for three days; that, finally, an exterminating angel struck with death all the first-born of men and animals in Egypt, commencing with the son of the king; again, when we afterwards see his people walking across the Red Sea, the waves suspended in mountains to the right and left, and later falling on the army of Pharaoh, which they swallowed up—when, I say, we read all these miracles, the first idea which comes into our minds is, that this people, for whom God performed such astonishing things, no doubt became the masters of the universe. But, no! the fruit of so many wonders was, that they suffered want and hunger in arid sands; and—prodigy upon prodigy—all died without seeing the little corner of earth in which their descendants afterwards, for some years, established themselves! It is no doubt pardonable if we disbelieve this crowd of prodigies, at the least of which reason so decidedly revolts.
This reason, left to itself, cannot be persuaded that Moses wrote such strange things. How can we make a generation believe so many miracles uselessly wrought for it, and all of which, it is said, were performed in the desert? What being, enjoying divine power, would employ it in preserving the clothes and shoes of these people, after having armed all nature in their favor?
It is therefore very natural to think that all this prodigious history was written a long time after Moses, as the romances of Charlemagne were forged three centuries after him; and as the origins of all nations have not been written until they were out of sight, the imagination has been left at liberty to invent. The more coarse and unfortunate a people are, the more they seek to exalt their ancient history; and what people have been longer miserable, or more barbarous, than the Jews?
It is not to be believed that, when they had not wherewithal to make shoes in their deserts, under the government of Moses, there were any cunning enough to write. We should presume, that the poor creatures born in these deserts did not receive a very brilliant education; and that the nation only began to read and write when it had some commerce with Phœnicia. It was probably in the commencement of monarchy that the Jews, feeling they had some genius, wrote the Pentateuch, and adjusted their traditions. Would they have made Moses recommend kings to read and write his law in a time in which there were no kings? Is it not probable, that the seventeenth chapter of Deuteronomy was composed to moderate the power of royalty; and that it was written by priests in the time of Saul?
It is most likely at this epoch that we must place the digest of the Pentateuch. The frequent slaveries to which this people were subject seem badly calculated to establish literature in a nation, and to render books very common; and the more rare these books were in the commencement, the more the authors ventured to fill them with miracles.
The Pentateuch, attributed to Moses, is, no doubt, very ancient; if it was put in order in the time of Saul and Solomon, it was about the time of the Trojan war, and is one of the most curious monuments of the manner of thinking of that time. We see that all known nations, in proportion to their ignorance, were fond of prodigies. All was then performed by celestial ministry in Egypt, Phrygia, Greece, and Asia.
The authors of the Pentateuch give us to understand that every nation has its gods, and that these gods have all nearly an equal power.
If Moses, in the name of God, changed his rod into a serpent, the priests of Pharaoh did as much; if he changed all the waters of Egypt into blood, even to that which was in the vases, the priests immediately performed the same prodigy, without our being able to conceive on what waters they performed this metamorphosis; at least, unless they expressly created new waters for the purpose. The Jewish writers prefer being reduced to this absurdity, rather than allow us to suspect that the gods of Egypt had not the power of changing water into blood as well as the God of Jacob.
But when the latter fills the land of Egypt with lice, changing all the dust into them, His entire superiority appears; the magi cannot imitate it, and they make the God of the Jews speak thus: “Pharaoh shall know that nothing is equal to me.” These words put into his mouth, merely mark a being who believes himself more powerful than his rivals; he was equalled in the metamorphosis of a rod into a serpent, and in that of the waters into blood; but he gains the victory in the article of the lice and the following miracles.
This idea of the supernatural power of priests of all countries is displayed in several places of Scripture. When Balaam, the priest of the little state of a petty king, named Balak, in the midst of deserts, is near cursing the Jews, their God appears to him to prevent him. It seems that the malediction of Balaam was much to be feared. To restrain this priest, it is not enough that God speaks to him, he sends before him an angel with a sword, and speaks Himself again by the mouth of his ass. All these precautions certainly prove the opinion which then prevailed, that the malediction of a priest, whatever it was, drew fatal consequences after it.
This idea of a God superior to other gods, though He made heaven and earth, was so rooted in all minds, that Solomon in his last prayer cries: “Oh, my God! there is no other god like thee in earth or heaven.” It is this opinion which rendered the Jews so credulous respecting the sorceries and enchantments of other nations.
It is this which gave rise to the story of the Witch of Endor, who had the power of invoking the shade of Saul. Every people had their prodigies and oracles, and it never even came into the minds of any nations to doubt the miracles and prophecies of others. They were contented with opposing similar arms; it seems as if the priests, in denying the prodigies of other nations, feared to discredit their own. This kind of theology prevailed a long time over all the earth.
It is not for us to enter here on the detail of all that is written on Moses. We speak of his laws in more than one place in this work. We will here confine ourselves to remarking how much we are astonished to see a legislator inspired by God; a prophet, through whom God Himself speaks, proposing to us no future life. There is not a single word in Leviticus, which can lead us to suspect the immortality of the soul. The reply to this overwhelming difficulty is, that God proportioned Himself to the ignorance of the Jews. What a miserable answer! It was for God to elevate the Jews to necessary knowledge—not to lower Himself to them. If the soul is immortal, if there are rewards and punishments in another life, it is necessary for men to be informed of it. If God spoke, He must have informed them of this fundamental dogma. What legislator, what god but this, proposes to his people wine, oil, and milk alone! What god but this always encourages his believers, as a chief of robbers incourages his troops, with the hope of plunder only! Once more; it is very pardonable for mere human reason simply to see, in such a history, the barbarous stupidity of the first ages of a savage people. Man, whatever he does, cannot reason otherwise; but if God really is the author of the Pentateuch, we must submit without reasoning.