The first five books in our Bible are known as the Pentateuch. For a long time it was supposed that Moses was the author, and among the ignorant the supposition still prevails. As a matter of fact, it seems to be well settled that Moses had nothing to do with these books, and that they were not written until he had been dust and ashes for hundreds of years. But, as all the churches still insist that he was the author, that he wrote even an account of his own death and burial, let us speak of him as though these books were in fact written by him. As the Christians maintain that God was the real author, it makes but little difference whom he employed as his pen, or clerk.
Nearly all authors of sacred books have given an account of the creation of the universe, the origin of matter, and the destiny of the human race. Nearly all have pointed out the obligation that man is under to his creator for having placed him upon the earth, and allowed him to live and suffer, and have taught that nothing short of the most abject worship could possibly compensate God for his trouble and labor suffered and done for the good of man. They have nearly all insisted that we should thank God for all that is good in life but they have not all informed us as to whom we should hold responsible for the evils we endure.
Moses differed from most of the makers of sacred books by his failure to say anything of a future life, by failing to promise heaven, and to threaten hell. Upon the subject of a future state, there is not one word in the Pentateuch. Probably at that early day God did not deem it important to make a revelation as to the eternal destiny of man. He seems to have thought that he could control the Jews, at least, by rewards and punishments in this world, and so he kept the frightful realities of eternal joy and torment a profound secret from the people of his choice. He thought it far more important to tell the Jews their origin than to enlighten them as to their destiny.
We must remember that every tribe and nation has some way in which the more striking phenomena of nature are accounted for. These accounts are handed down by tradition, changed by numberless narrators as intelligence increases, or to account for newly discovered facts, or for the purpose of satisfying the appetite for the marvelous.
The way in which a tribe or nation accounts for day and night, the change of seasons, the fall of snow and rain, the flight of birds, the origin of the rainbow, the peculiarities of animals, the dreams of sleep, the visions of the insane, the existence of earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, lightning and the thousand things that attract the attention and excite the wonder, fear or admiration of mankind, may be called the philosophy of that tribe or nation. And as all phenomena are, by savage and barbaric man accounted for as the action of intelligent beings for the accomplishment of certain objects, and as these beings were supposed to have the power to assist or injure man, certain things were supposed necessary for man to do in order to gain the assistance, and avoid the anger of these gods. Out of this belief grew certain ceremonies, and these ceremonies united with the belief, formed religion; and consequently every religion has for its foundation a misconception of the cause of phenomena.
All worship is necessarily based upon the belief that some being exists who can, if he will, change the natural order of events. The savage prays to a stone that he calls a god, while the Christian prays to a god that he calls a spirit, and the prayers of both are equally useful. The savage and the Christian put behind the Universe an intelligent cause, and this cause whether represented by one god or many, has been, in all ages, the object of all worship. To carry a fetich, to utter a prayer, to count beads, to abstain from food, to sacrifice a lamb, a child or an enemy, are simply different ways by which the accomplishment of the same object is sought, and are all the offspring of the same error.
Many systems of religion must have existed many ages before the art of writing was discovered, and must have passed through many changes before the stories, miracles, histories, prophecies and mistakes became fixed and petrified in written words. After that, change was possible only by giving new meanings to old words, a process rendered necessary by the continual acquisition of facts somewhat inconsistent with a literal interpretation of the "sacred records." In this way an honest faith often prolongs its life by dishonest methods; and in this way the Christians of to-day are trying to harmonize the Mosaic account of creation with the theories and discoveries of modern science.
Admitting that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, or that he gave to the Jews a religion, the question arises as to where he obtained his information. We are told by the theologians that he received his knowledge from God, and that every word he wrote was and is the exact truth. It is admitted at the same time that he was an adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter, and enjoyed the rank and privilege of a prince. Under such circumstances, he must have been well acquainted with the literature, philosophy and religion of the Egyptians, and must have known what they believed and taught as to the creation of the world.
Now, if the account of the origin of this earth as given by Moses is substantially like that given by the Egyptians, then we must conclude that he learned it from them. Should we imagine that he was divinely inspired because he gave to the Jews what the Egyptians had given him?
The Egyptian priests taught first, that a god created the "original matter" leaving it in a state of chaos; second, that a god molded it into from; third, that the breath of a god moved upon the face of the deep; fourth, that a god created simply by saying "Let it be;" fifth, that a god created light before the sun existed.
Nothing can be clearer than that Moses received from the Egyptians the principal parts of his narrative, making such changes and additions as were necessary to satisfy the peculiar superstitions of his own people.
If some man at the present day should assert that he had received from God the theories of evolution, the survival of the fittest, and the law of heredity, and we should afterwards find that he was not only an Englishman, but had lived in the family of Charles Darwin, we certainly would account for his having these theories in a natural way. So, if Darwin himself should pretend that he was inspired, and had obtained his peculiar theories from God, we should probably reply that his grandfather suggested the same ideas, and that Lamarck published substantially the same theories the same year that Mr. Darwin was born.
Now, if we have sufficient courage, we will, by the same course of reasoning, account for the story of creation found in the Bible. We will say that it contains the belief of Moses, and that he received his information from the Egyptians, and not from God. If we take the account as the absolute truth and use it for the purpose of determining the value of modern thought, scientific advancement becomes impossible. And even if the account of the creation as given by Moses should turn out to be true, and should be so admitted by all the scientific world, the claim that he was inspired would still be without the least particle of proof. We would be forced to admit that he knew more than we had supposed. It certainly is no proof that a man is inspired simply because he is right.
No one pretends that Shakespeare was inspired, and yet all the writers of the books of the Old Testament put together, could not have produced Hamlet.
Why should we, looking upon some rough and awkward thing, or god in stone, say that it must have been produced by some inspired sculptor, and with the same breath pronounce the Venus de Milo to be the work of man? Why should we, looking at some ancient daub of angel, saint or virgin, say its painter must have been assisted by a god?
Let us account for all we see by the facts we know. If there are things for which we cannot account, let us wait for light. To account for anything by supernatural agencies is, in fact to say that we do not know. Theology is not what we know about God, but what we do not know about Nature. In order to increase our respect for the Bible, it became necessary for the priests to exalt and extol that book, and at the same time to decry and belittle the reasoning powers of man. The whole power of the pulpit has been used for hundreds of years to destroy the confidence of man in himself--to induce him to distrust his own powers of thought, to believe that he was wholly unable to decide any question for himself and that all human virtue consists in faith and obedience. The church has said, "Believe, and obey! If you reason, you will become an unbeliever, and unbelievers will be lost. If you disobey, you will do so through vain pride and curiosity, and will, like Adam and Eve, be thrust from Paradise forever.
For my part I care nothing for what the church says, except in so far as it accords with my reason; and the Bible is nothing to me, only in so far as it agrees with what I think or know.
All books should be examined in the same spirit, and truth should be welcomed and falsehood exposed, no matter in what volume they may be found.
Let us in this spirit examine the Pentateuch; and if anything appears unreasonable, contradictory or absurd, let us have the honesty and courage to admit it. Certainly no good can result either from deceiving ourselves or others. Many millions have implicitly believed this book, and have just as implicitly believed that polygamy was sanctioned by God. Millions have regarded this book as the foundation of all human progress, and at the same time looked upon slavery as a divine institution. Millions have declared this book to have been infinitely holy, and to prove that they were right, have imprisoned, robbed and burned their fellow-men. The inspiration of this hook has been established by famine, sword and fire, by dungeon, chain and whip, by dagger and by rack, by force and fear and fraud, and generations have been frightened by threats of hell, and bribed with promises of heaven.
Let us examine a portion of this book, not in the darkness of our fear, but in the light of reason.
And first, let us examine the account given of the creation of this world, commenced, according to the Bible, on Monday morning about five thousand eight hundred and eighty-three years ago.
Moses commences his story by telling us that in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
If this means anything, it means that God produced, caused to exist, called into being, the heaven and the earth. It will not do to say that he formed the heaven and the earth of previously existing matter. Moses conveys, and intended to convey the idea that the matter of which the heaven and the earth are composed, was created.
It is impossible for me to conceive of something being created from nothing. Nothing, regarded in the light of a raw material, is a decided failure. I cannot conceive of matter apart from force. Neither is it possible to think of force disconnected with matter. You cannot imagine matter going back to absolute nothing. Neither can you imagine nothing being changed into something. You may be eternally damned if you do not say that you can conceive these things, but you cannot conceive them. Such is the constitution of the human mind that it cannot even think of a commencement or an end of matter, or farce.
If God created the universe, there was a time when he commenced to create. Back of that commencement there must have been an eternity. In that eternity what was this God doing? He certainly did not think. There was nothing to think about. He did not remember. Nothing had ever happened. What did he do? Can you imagine anything more absurd than an infinite intelligence in infinite nothing wasting an eternity?
I do not pretend to tell how all these things really are; but I do insist that a statement that cannot possibly be comprehended by any human being, and that appears utterly impossible, repugnant to every fact of experience, and contrary to everything that we really know, must be rejected by every honest man.
We can conceive of eternity, because we cannot conceive of a cessation of time. We can conceive of infinite space because we cannot conceive of so much matter that our imagination will not stand upon the farthest star, and see infinite space beyond. In other words, we cannot conceive of a cessation of time; therefore eternity is a necessity of the mind. Eternity sustains the same relation to time that space does to matter.
In the time of Moses, it was perfectly safe for him to write an account of the creation of the world. He had simply to put in form the crude notions of the people. At that time, no other Jew could have written a better account. Upon that subject he felt at liberty to give his imagination full play. There was no one who could authoritatively contradict any thing he might say. lt was substantially the same story that had been imprinted in curious characters upon the clay records of Babylon, the gigantic monuments, of Egypt, and the gloomy temples of India. In those days there was an almost infinite difference between the educated and ignorant. The people were controlled almost entirely by signs and wonders. By the lever of fear, priests moved the world. The sacred records were made and kept, and altered by them. The people could not read, and looked upon one who could, as almost a god. In our day it is hard to conceive of the influence of an educated class in a barbarous age. It was only necessary to produce the "sacred record," and ignorance fell upon its face. The people were taught that the record was inspired, and therefore true. They were not taught that it was true, and therefore inspired.
After all, the real question is not whether the Bible is inspired, but whether it is true. If it is true, it does not need to be inspired. If it is true, it makes no difference whether it was written by a man or a god. The multiplication table is just as useful, just as true as though God had arranged the figures himself. If the Bible is really true, the claim of inspiration need not be urged; and if it is not true, its inspiration can hardly be established. As a matter of fact, the truth does not need to be inspired. Nothing needs inspiration except a falsehood or a mistake. Where truth ends, where probability stops, inspiration begins. A fact never went into partnership with a miracle. Truth does not need the assistance of miracle. A fact will fit every other fact in the Universe, because it is the product of all other facts. A lie will fit nothing except another lie made for the express purpose of fitting it. Alter a while the man gets tired of lying, and then the last lie will not fit the next fact, and then there is an opportunity to use a miracle. Just at that point, it is necessary to have a little inspiration.
It seems to me that reason is the highest attribute of man, and that if there can be any communication from God to man, it must be addressed to his reason. It does not seem possible that in order to understand a message from God it is absolutely essential to throw our reason away. How could God make known his will to any being destitute of reason? How can any man accept as a revelation from God that which is unreasonable to him? God cannot make a revelation to another man for me. He must make it to me, and until he convinces my reason that it is true, I cannot receive it.
The statement that in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, I cannot accept. It is contrary to my reason, and I cannot believe it. It appears reasonable to me that force has existed from eternity. Force cannot, as it appears to me, exist apart from matter. Force, in its nature, is forever active, and without matter it could not act and so I think matter must have existed forever. To conceive of matter without force, or of force without matter, or of a time when neither existed, or of a being who existed for an eternity without either, and who out of nothing created both, is to me utterly impossible. I may be damned on this account, but I cannot help it. In my judgment, Moses was mistaken.
It will not do to say that Moses merely intended to tell what God did, in making the heavens and the earth out of matter then in existence. He distinctly states that in the beginning God created them. If this account is true, we must believe that God, existing in infinite space surrounded by eternal nothing, naught and void, created, produced, called into being, willed into existence this universe of countless stars, the next thing we are told by this inspired gentleman is that God created light, and proceeded to divide it from the darkness.
Certainly, the person who wrote this believed that darkness was a thing, an entity, a material that could get mixed and tangled up with light, and that these entities, light and darkness, had to be separated. In his imagination he probably saw God throwing pieces and chunks of darkness on one side, and rays and beams of light on the other. It is hard for a man who has been born but once to understand these things. For my part, I cannot understand how light can be separated from darkness. I had always supposed that darkness was simply the absence of light, and that under no circumstances could it be necessary to take the darkness away from the light. It is certain, however, that Moses believed darkness to be a form of matter, because I find that in another place he speaks of a darkness that could be felt. They used to have on exhibition at Rome a bottle of the darkness that overspread Egypt.
You cannot divide light from darkness any more than you can divide heat from cold. Cold is an absence of heat, and darkness is an absence of light. I suppose that we have no conception of absolute cold. We know only degrees of heat. Twenty degrees below zero is just twenty degrees warmer than forty degrees below zero. Neither cold nor darkness are entities, and these words express simply either the absolute or partial absence of heat or light. I cannot conceive how light can be divided from darkness, but I can conceive how a barbarian several thousand years ago, writing upon a subject about which he knew nothing, could make a mistake. The creator of light could not have written in this way. If such a being exists, he must have known the nature of that "mode of motion" that paints the earth on every eye, and clothes in garments sevenhued this universe of worlds. We are next informed by Moses that "God said let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters and let it divide the waters from the waters;" and that "God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament."
What did the writer mean by the word firmament? Theologians now tell us that he meant an "expanse." This will not do. How could an expanse divide the waters from the waters, so that waters above the expanse would not fall into and mingle with the waters below the expanse? The truth is that Moses regarded the firmament as a solid affair. It was where God lived, and where water was kept. It was for this reason that they used to pray for rain. They supposed that some angel could with a lever raise a gate and let out the quantity of moisture desired. It was with the water from this firmament that the world was drowned when the windows of heaven were opened. It was in this firmament that the sons of God lived--the sons who "saw the daughters of men that they were fair and took them wives of all which they chose." The issue of such marriages were giants, and "the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown."
Nothing is clearer than that Moses regarded the firmament as a vast material division that separated the waters of the world, and upon whose floor God lived, surrounded by his sons. In no other way could he account for rain. Where did the water come from? He knew nothing about the laws of evaporation. He did not know that the sun wooed with amorous kisses the waves of the sea, and that they, clad in glorified mist rising to meet their lover, were, by disappointment, changed to tears and fell as rain.
The idea that the firmament was the abode of the Deity must have been in the mind of Moses when he related the dream of Jacob. "And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder set upon the earth and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it; and behold the Lord stood above it and said, I am the Lord God."
So, when the people were building the tower of Babel "the Lord came down to see the city, and the tower which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and nothing will be restrained from them which they imagined to do. Go to, let us go down and confound their language that they may not understand one another's speech."
The man who wrote that absurd account must have believed that God lived above the earth, in the firmament. The same idea was in the mind of the Psalmist when he said that God "bowed the heavens and came down."
Of course, God could easily remove any person bodily to heaven, as it was but a little way above the earth. "Enoch walked with God" and he was not, for God took him." The accounts in the Bible of the ascension of Elijah, Christ and St. Paul were born of the belief that the firmament was the dwelling place of God. It probably never occurred to these writers that if the firmament was seven or eight miles away, Enoch and the rest would have been frozen perfectly stiff long before the journey could have been completed. Possibly Elijah might have made the voyage, as he was carried to heaven in a chariot of fire "by a whirlwind."
The truth is, that Moses was mistaken, and upon that mistake the Christians located their heaven and their hell. The telescope destroyed the firmament, did away with the heaven of the New Testament, rendered the ascension of our Lord and the assumption of his Mother infinitely absurd, crumbled to chaos the gates and palaces of the New Jerusalem, and in their places gave to man a wilderness of worlds.
We are next informed by the historian of creation, that after God had finished making the firmament and had succeeded in dividing me waters by means of an "expanse" he proceeded "to gather the waters on the earth together in seas, so that the dry land might appear."
Certainly the writer of this did not have any conception of the real form of the earth. He could not have known anything of the attraction of gravitation. He must have regarded the earth as flat and supposed that it required considerable force and power to induce the water to leave the mountains and collect in the valleys. Just as soon as the water was forced to run down hill, the dry land appeared, and the grass began to grow, and the mantles of green were thrown over the shoulders of the hills, and the trees laughed into bud and blossom, and the branches were laden with fruit. And all this happened before a ray had left the quiver of the sun, before a glittering beam had thrilled the bosom of a flower, and before the Dawn with trembling hands had drawn aside the curtains of the East and welcomed to her arms the eager god of Day.
It does not seem to me that grass and trees could grow and ripen into seed and fruit without the sun. According to the account, this all happened on the third day. Now, if, as the Christians say, Moses did not mean by the word day a period of twenty-four hours, but an immense and almost measureless space of time, and as God did not, according to this view make any animals until the fifth day, that is, not for millions of years after he made the grass and trees, for what purpose did he cause the trees to bear fruit?
Moses says that God said on the third day, "Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself upon the earth; and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit whose seed was in itself after his kind; and God saw that it was good, and the evening and the morning were the third day."
There was nothing to eat this fruit; not an insect with painted wings sought the honey of the flowers; not a single living, breathing thing upon the earth, plenty of grass, a great variety of herbs, an abundance of fruit, but not a mouth in all the world. If Moses is right, this state of things lasted only two days; but if the modern theologians are correct, it continued for millions of ages.
It is now well known that the organic history of the earth can be properly divided into five epochs--the Primordial, Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, and Quaternary. Each of these epochs is characterized by animal and vegetable life peculiar to itself. In the First will be found Algae and Skull-less Vertebrates, in the Second, Ferns and Fishes, in the Third, Pine Forests and Reptiles, in the Fourth, Foliaceous Forests and Mammals, and in the Fifth, Man."
How much more reasonable this is than the idea that the earth was covered with grass, and herbs, and trees loaded with fruit for millions of years before an animal existed.
There is, in nature, an even balance forever kept between the total amounts of animal and vegetable life. "In her wonderful economy she must form and bountifully nourish her vegetable progeny--twin brother life to her, with that of animals. The perfect balance between plant existences and animal existences must always be maintained, while matter courses through the eternal circle, becoming each in turn. If an animal be resolved into its ultimate constituents in a period according to the surrounding circumstances, say, of four hours, of four months, of four years, or even of four thousand years,--for it is impossible to deny that there may be instances of all these periods during which the process has continued--those elements which assume the gaseous form mingle at once with the atmosphere and are taken up from, it without delay by the ever-open mouths of vegetable life. By a thousand pores in every leaf the carbonic acid which renders the atmosphere unfit for animal life is absorbed, the carbon being separated, and assimilated to form the vegetable fibre, which, as wood, makes and furnishes our houses and ships, is burned for our warmth, or is stored up under pressure for coal. All this carbon has played its part, and many parts in its time, as animal existences from monad up to man. Our mahogany of to-day has been many negroes in its turn, and before the African existed, was integral portions of many a generation of extinct species."
It seems treasonable to suppose that certain kinds of vegetation and certain kinds of animals should exist together, and that as the character of the vegetation changed, a corresponding change would take place in the animal world. It may be that I am led to these conclusions by "total depravity" or that I lack the necessary humility of spirit to satisfactorily harmonize Haeckel and Moses; or that I am carried by pride, blinded by reason, given over to hardness of heart that I might be damned, but I never can believe that the earth was covered with leaves, and buds, and flowers, and fruits before the sun with glittering spear had driven back the hosts of Night.