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Abraham

Excerpted from

Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary

Abraham is one of the names famous in Asia Minor and in Arabia, like Thoth among the Egyptians, the first Zoroaster in Persia, Hercules in Greece, Orpheus in Thrace, Odin among the northern nations, and so many others whose fame is greater than the authenticity of their history. I speak here only of profane history; for that of the Jews, our teachers and our enemies, whom we believe and detest, having manifestly been written by the holy ghost himself, we feel about it as we must. I refer here only to the Arabs. They boast that they descend from Abraham through Ishmael. They believe that this patriarch built Mecca and died in that city.

The fact is that the race of Ishmael has been infinitely more favoured by god than the race of Jacob. It is true that both races have produced thieves; but the Arab thieves have been prodigiously superior to the Jewish thieves. The descendants of Jacob conquered only a very small country, which they lost; and the descendants of Ishmael have conquered part of Asia, Europe and Africa have established an empire vaster than that of the Romans, and have driven the Jews from their caves, which they called the promised land. If we followed the methods of our modern history books it would be quite hard to believe that Abraham was the father of two such different nations. We are told that he was born in Chaldea, and that he was the son of a poor potter who earned his living by making little day idols. It is scarcely credible that the son of this potter went to Mecca, 300 leagues away in the  tropics, by way of impassable deserts. If he was a conqueror he no doubt aimed at the fine country of Assyria; and if he was only a poor man as he is depicted, he founded no kingdoms in foreign parts.

Genesis relates that he was seventy-five years old when he departed from the land of Haran after the death of his father, the potter Terah; but the same Genesis also says that Terah, having begotten Abraham at the age of seventy, lived to the age of 205, and that Abraham did not leave Haran until after the death of his father. Either the author did not know how to arrange his narrative, or it is clear from Genesis itself that Abraham was 135 when he left Mesopotamia. He went from one idolatrous country to another idolatrous country called Shechem, in Palestine. Why did he go there? Why did he leave the fertile banks of the Euphrates for so distant, so sterile and so stony a region as Shechem? The Chaldean language must have been very different from that of Shechem, which was not a trading centre. Shechem is more than 1 hundred leagues from Chaldea.

Deserts have to be traversed to get there. But God wanted him to make this journey, he wanted to show him the land which his descendants were to occupy several centuries later. The human mind has difficulty in grasping the reasons for such a journey. Hardly had he arrived in the little mountainous country of Shechem than famine obliged him to leave it. He went to Egypt to seek sustenance. It is 200 leagues from Shechem to Memphis. Is it natural to go so far to ask for grain, and that to a country whose language one does not understand?

What strange journeys to undertake at the age of nearly 140! He brought his wife Sarah to Memphis. She was extremely young, almost a child compared to him, for she was only sixty-five. As she was very beautiful he resolved to turn her beauty to account, and said to her: "Pretend to be my sister, that it may go well with me for your sake." He should rather have said: "Pretend to be my daughter." The king fell in love with the young Sarah, and gave the self-styled brother many sheep, oxen, asses, she-asses, camels, man-servants and maids: which proves that Egypt was already a very powerful, very civilized, and consequently very ancient kingdom, and that brothers who came and offered their sisters to the kings of Memphis were magnificently rewarded. According to the scriptures the young Sarah was ninety when God promised her that Abraham, who was then 160, would give her a child that year.

 

Abraham, who loved to travel, went into the horrible desert of Kadesh with his pregnant wife, still young and still pretty. A king of this desert did not fail to fall in love with Sarah as had the king of Egypt. The father of the faithful told the same lie as in Egypt: he passed off his wife as his sister, and this again earned him a profit of sheep, oxen, men-servants and maids. We might say that Abraham grew very rich by means of his wife. The commentators have written a prodigious number of volumes to justify Abraham's conduct, and to reconcile his chronology. The reader must therefore be referred to these commentaries. They are all written by delicate wits and discerning minds, excellent philosophers, unprejudiced, no pedants. For the rest, this name Bram, Abram, was famous in India and Persia: some learned men even allege that he was the same legislator as the one the Greeks called Zoroaster. Others say that he was the Brahma of the Indians. But what appears very reasonable to many scholars is that this Abrahim was a Chaldean or a Persian. Later on the Jews boasted that they were descended from him, as the Franks descend from Hector, and the Bretons from Tubal.

It is certain that the Jewish nation was quite a modern horde; that it did not establish itself near Phoenicia until very late; that it was surrounded by ancient peoples; that it adopted their language; that it took from them the very name of Israel which is Chaldean, according to the testimony of the Jew Flavius Josephus himself. We know that it took even the names of the angels from the Babylonians; and finally that it was only after the Phoenicians that it gave god the name of Eloi or Eloa, Adonai, Jehovah or Hiao.

It probably knew the name of Abraham or Ibrahim only through the Babylonians; for the ancient religion of all the regions from the Euphrates to the Oxus was called Kish-Ibrahim, Milat-Irbirahim. All the researches made on the spot by the learned Hyde confirm this. The Jews thus treat history and ancient fables as their old clothes-men treat their worn out garments: they turn them and sell them for new at the highest possible price It is a singular example of human stupidity that we should for so long have regarded the Jews as a nation which had taught everything to all others, although their historian Josephus himself admits the contrary.

It is difficult to pierce the darkness of antiquity; but it is evident that all the kingdoms of Asia flourished greatly before the vagabond horde of Arabs called Jews possessed a little corner of earth for its own, before it had a town, laws, and a settled religion. Thus, when we consider an ancient rite, an ancient opinion, established both in Egypt or Asia, and among the Jews, it is quite natural to suppose that this little people, new, ignorant, rude, still lacking the arts, copied as best it could the ancient, flourishing and industrious nation.

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