Treatise on Tolerance

by Voltaire (1763)

Whether Intolerance Was of Divine Right in Judaism, and Whether It Was Always Practised

Divine right means, I believe, the precepts which God himself has given. He ordered that the Jews should eat a lamb cooked with lettuces, and that the eaters should stand, with a stick in their hands, in commemoration of the Passover; he commanded that in the consecration of the high-priest blood should be applied to his right ear, right hand, and right foot. They seem curious customs to us, but they were not to antiquity. He ordered them to put the iniquities of the people on the goat hazazel, and forbade them to eat scaleless fishes, hares, hedgehogs, owls, griffins, etc. He instituted feasts and ceremonies.

All these things, which seem arbitrary to other nations, and a matter of positive law and usage, being ordered by God himself, became a divine law to the Jews, just as whatever Christ ordered is a divine law for us. Let us not inquire why God substituted a new law for that which he gave to Moses, and why he laid more commandments on Moses than on Abraham, and more on Abraham than on Noah. It seems that he deigns to accommodate himself to the times and the state of the human race. It is a kind of paternal gradation. But these abysses are too deep for our feeble sight. Let us keep to our subject, and see first what intolerance was among the Jews.

It is true that in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy there are very severe laws, and even more severe punishments, in connection with religion. Many commentators find a difficulty in reconciling the words of Moses with the words of Jeremiah and Amos, and those of the celebrated speech of St. Stephen in Acts. Amos says that in the deserts the Jews worshipped Moloch, Rempham, and Kium. Jeremiah says explicitly (vii., 12) that God asked no sacrifice of their fathers when they came out of Egypt. St. Stephen says in his speech to the Jews (Acts vii., 42): "Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices for the space of forty years in the wilderness? Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Rempham."

Other critics infer that these gods were tolerated by Moses, and they quote these words of Deuteronomy (xii., 8): "When ye are in the land of Canaan, ye shall not do all the things that we do here this day, where every man does what he pleases." They find encouragement in the fact that nothing is said of any religious act of the people in the desert, and there is no mention of Passover, Pentecost, Feast of Tabernacles, or public prayer in any shape. Circumcision, moreover, the seal of the covenant, was not practised.

It is enough, it seems to me, that it is proved by Holy Scripture that, in spite of the extraordinary punishment inflicted on the Jews on account of the cult of Apis, they had complete liberty for a long time. Possibly the massacre of twenty-three thousand men by Moses for worshipping the golden calf set up by his brother led him to appreciate that nothing was gained by severity, and induced him to close his eyes to the people's passion for strange gods.

Sometimes he seems to transgress his own law. He forbade the making of images, yet set up a brazen serpent. We find another deviation from the law in the temple of Solomon. He had twelve oxen carved to sustain the great basin of the temple, and in the ark were placed cherubim with the heads of eagles and calves. It seems to have been this calf-head, badly made, and found in the temple by Roman soldiers, which led to the belief that the Jews worshipped an ass.

The worship of foreign gods was vainly prohibited. Solomon was quite at his ease in idolatry. Jeroboam, to whom God had given ten parts of the kingdom, set up two golden calves, and ruled for twenty-two years, uniting in his person the dignities of monarch and pontiff. The little kingdom of Judah under Rehoboam raised altars and statues to foreign gods. The holy king Asa did not destroy the high places. The high-priest Urijah erects in the temple, in the place of the altar of holocausts, an altar to the king of Syria (2 Kings, xvi.). In a word, there seems to be no real restraint in matters of religion. I know that the majority of the Jewish kings murdered each other, but that was always to further a material interest, not on account of belief.

It is true that some of the prophets secured the interest of heaven in their vengeance. Elias brought down fire from heaven to consume the priests of Baal. Elisha caused forty-two bears to devour the children who commented on his baldness. But these are rare miracles, and facts that it would be rather hard to wish to imitate.

It is also objected that the Jewish people were very ignorant and barbaric. In the war with the Midianites Moses ordered that all the male children and their mothers should be slain and the booty divided. Some commentators even argue that thirty-two girls were sacrificed to the Lord: "The Lord's tribute was thirty and two persons [virgins]" (Numbers xxxii., 40). That the Jews did offer human sacrifices is seen in the story of Jephthah [Judges xi., 39], and the cutting-up of King Agag by the priest Samuel. Ezekiel even promises that they will eat human flesh: "Ye shall eat the horse and the rider; ye shall drink the blood of princes." Some commentators apply two verses of this prophecy to the Jews themselves, and the others to the carnivorous beasts. We do not find in the whole history of this people any mark of generosity, magnanimity, or beneficence; yet some ray of toleration escapes always from the cloud of their long and frightful barbarism.

The story of Micah and the Levite, told in chapters xvii. and xviii. of Judges, is another incontestable proof of the great liberty and toleration that prevailed among the Jews. Micah's wife, a rich Ephraimite woman, had lost eleven hundred pieces of silver. Her son restored them to her, and she devoted them to the Lord, making images of him, and built a small chapel. A Levite served the chapel, receiving ten pieces of silver, a tunic, and a cloak every year, besides his food; and Micah said: "Now know I the Lord will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to my priest" (xvii., 13).

However, six hundred men of the tribe of Dan, who wanted to seize some village of the district to settle in, and had no priest-Levite to secure the favour of God for their enterprise, went to Micah's house, and took the ephod, idols, and Levite, in spite of the remonstrances of the priest and the cries of Micah and his mother. They then proceeded with confidence to attack the village of Lais, and put everything in it to fire and sword, as was their custom. They gave the name of Dan to Lais in honour of their victory, and set Micah's idol on an altar; and, what is still more remarkable, Jonathan, grandson of Moses, was the high priest of this temple, in which the God of Israel and Micah's idol were worshipped.

After the death of Gideon the Hebrews worshipped Baal-berith for nearly twenty years, and gave up the cult of Adonai; and no leader or judge or priest cried for vengeance. Their crime was great, I admit; but if such idolatry was tolerated, how much the more easily should we tolerate differences within the proper cult.

Some allege as a proof of intolerance that, when the Lord himself had allowed his ark to be taken by the Philistines in a battle, the only punishment he inflicted on the Philistines was a secret disease, resembling hemorrhoids, the overthrowing of the statue of Dagon, and the sending of a number of rats into their country. And when the Philistines, to appease his anger, had sent back the ark, drawn by two cows, which had calves, and offered to God five golden rats and five golden anuses, the Lord slew seventy elders of Israel and fifty thousand of the people for looking at the ark. The answer is plain, therefore: the Lord's chastisement is not connected with belief, or difference of cult, or idolatry.

Had the Lord wished to punish idolatry, he would have slain all the Philistines who dared to take his ark, and who worshipped Dagon; but he slew instead fifty thousand and seventy men of his own people merely because they looked at an ark at which they ought not to have looked. So different are the laws, the morals, and the economy of the Jews from anything that we know to-day; so far are the inscrutable ways of God above our own! However, God is not punishing a foreign cult, but a profanation of his own, an indiscreet curiosity, an act of disobedience, possibly a spirit of revolt. We realise that such chastisements belong to God only in the Jewish theocracy. We cannot repeat too often that these times and ways have no relation to our own.

Again, when in later years the idolatrous Naaman asked Elisha if he were allowed to accompany his king to the temple of Rimmon, and worship with him, Elisha—the man who caused children to be devoured by bears—merely said, "Go in peace." More remarkable still is the fact that the Lord orders Jeremiah to put cords and yokes round his neck, and send them to the kings of Moab, Ammon, Edom, Tyre, and Sidon, saying, on the part of the Lord: "I have given all your lands to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, my servant." Here we have an idolatrous king declared to be the servant and favourite of God.

The same Jeremiah, whom the petty king of the Jews, Zedekiah, had put in prison and then pardoned, advises the king, on the part of God, to surrender to the king of Babylon. Thus God takes the part of an idolatrous king. He gives him possession of the ark, the mere sight of which had cost fifty thousand and seventy Jews their lives, the holy of holies, and the rest of the temple, the building of which had cost a hundred and eight thousand gold talents, a million and seventeen thousand silver talents, and ten thousand gold drachmas, left by David and his officers for the construction of the house of the Lord; which, without counting the funds used by Solomon, amounts to nineteen thousand and sixty-two million francs, or thereabouts, of our money [more than £750,000,000]. Never was idolatry so signally rewarded! I am aware that the figure is exaggerated, and may be due to a copyist; but if you reduce the sum by half, or to a fourth or an eighth, it is still astonishing. One is hardly less surprised at the wealth which Herodotus says he saw in the temple of Ephesus. But treasures are nothing in the eyes of God; the title of his "servant," which is given to Nebuchadnezzar, is the only real treasure.

God is equally favourable to Kir, or Koresh, or Kosroes, whom we call Cyrus. He calls him "his Christ," "his Anointed," although he was not anointed in the ordinary meaning of the word, and he followed the religion of Zoroaster; he calls him his "shepherd," though he was a usurper in the eyes of men. There is no greater mark of predilection in the whole of Scripture.

You read in Malachi that "from the east to the west the name of God is great among the nations, and pure oblations are everywhere offered to him." God takes as much care of the idolatrous Ninevites as of the Jews; he threatens and pardons them. Melchizedech, who was not a Jew, sacrificed to God. The idolatrous Balaam was a prophet. Scripture shows, therefore, that God not only tolerated other peoples, but took a paternal care of them. And we dare to be intolerant!

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