Monday, June 05, 2006

Death Enters

Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal) (1957)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
(Borrowed via Wikipedia)
"και οταν ηνοιξεν την σφραγιδα την εβδομην
εγενετο σιγη εν τω ουρανω ως ημιωριον."
(Revelation 8.1)

As noted in yesterday's post, Death first enters Milton's Paradise Lost in line 666 of Book 2:

... The other shape,
If shape it might be call'd that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joynt, or limb,
Or substance might be call'd that shadow seem'd,
For each seem'd either; black it stood as Night,
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook a dreadful Dart; what seem'd his head
The likeness of a Kingly Crown had on. (
PL 2.666-673)

One might argue that Death first enters in lines 648-649:

... Before the Gates there sat
On either side a formidable shape;

But death isn't described here, or even named, and the following lines (650-666) introduce sin and describe her form before moving on in the second half of line 666 to introduce Death and describe his formlessness. I therefore think that we can legitimately claim that Death first really enters in line 666.

Milton wants Death to remind us of Hell itself, and its very appearance recalls the "darkness visible" that Satan first saw in awakening upon the fiery lake:

... yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible (
PL 1.62-63)

Death is darkness visible, gathered in a shapeless shape, black as night.

Jacob Milgrom -- who was kind enough when I was a Golda Meir Fellow in Jerusalem to invite me to his home one day and give me over an hour of his time to discuss impurity and death in the Torah's levitical Holiness Code -- writes in his great commentary on Leviticus to tell us that:
... in the Priestly symbolic system (fully developed in H[oliness Code]), holiness ... stands for life whereas impurity ... stands for death. (Leviticus 1-16 (Anchor Bible, Volume 3, page 638))
I think that Milton recognized the connection between impurity and death in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Bible and thus made the link noted yesterday:
A Universe of death, which God by curse
Created evil, for evil only good,
Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds,
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,
Abominable... (PL 2.622-626)

As I remarked in yesterday's post, the term "abominable" is freighted with significance by association with the great impurities called abominations in Leviticus (cf. Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature; also "The Abominations of Leviticus," in Community, Identity, and Ideology: Social Scientific Approaches to the Hebrew Bible, edited by Charles E. Carter and Carol L. Meyers).

I think that Milton had similar ideas about the interrelations of impurity and death, though he Platonized these two by interpreting them as reflecting a lack of proper form.

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At 10:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're making me homesick for biblical studies.

At 2:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, you can always be an independent scholar.

Jeffery Hodges

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