Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Pilgrims Out of Egypt

"In exitu Israël de Ægypto..."

The words of the one-hundred and thirteenth psalm are sung by the souls being ferried by an angel to Purgatory in Dante's Commedia. It is a psalm of victory and joy, of a triumph so wondrous that the earth and sea tremble at the entry of the Twelve Tribes into the Promised Land. "Our God is in heaven," the psalmist declares, while idols are "the work of human hands." The souls of the repentant dead in need of purification appropriate this hymn as their own, its spiritual meaning found in their progress toward the face of God.

Israel's exodus from Egypt is abundant with spiritual and allegorical meaning, capable of appropriation in many ways. The crossing through the Red Sea is a prefigurement of Baptism for St. Paul, and his moral exhortations to the Corinthian Christians are based on the wanderings of the Hebrews in the desert. Both danger and glory are present in the narrative from Egypt to Canaan. Some were saved, but many were destroyed in God's wrath. The pilgrimage of Israel from bondage is as much an allegory for the Christian life as it is historical record.

The first seven books of Holy Writ have been much on my mind as I approach a notable anniversary of my reception into the Catholic Church. From the famine that brought Jacob and his sons to Egypt, all the way to the laxity of the settled tribes after the death of Joshua, the pilgrim sons of Abraham offer ample material for spiritual reflection.

The wanderings in the desert are a type of our exile on Earth, and also of the purifying fire in Purgatory: that which is gold and precious remains while that which is straw and wood burns away, just as an entire generation of Israel had to die before they could cross the Jordan. The campaign to take the Promised Land is a type of Christ conquering the territory of the Devil, and also a symbol of the Christian conquering his own sin. Allegorically, Jericho is an impenetrable fortress of sin, and its walls can only be razed by divine intervention. The Hebrews made compromises with the local heathens for the sake of peace, and they were troubled for many years by those unrooted weeds; just so is it difficult to rid ourselves of evil once we have called it our master.

Lent is the salvation from famine by the brother thought dead but found alive. Lent is the endurance of plagues until the firstborn is slaughtered. Lent is a desert between slavery and paradise. Lent is a renewal of the campaign against the Philistines and Ammonites. Lent is a series of judges being raised up by God to deliver us from our captors.

Is not Eglon the exceedingly fat king of Moab an allegory of gluttony? Is not Samson an allegory of lust and vainglory? On the side of virtue, Joshua becomes an allegory of fortitude and Joseph an allegory of prudence. Phinees spears the sacrilegious fornicators without delay, just as we ought to exterminate sin in its first stirrings. Our spiritual warfare is writ large in the sacred histories.

Dante's mount of purgation is an allegory as well as a more literal image of the world to come. The soul crosses the waters, endures many pains, and finally comes to the earthly paradise where he receives illumination and forgetfulness of his past sins. There finally the last of the poet's pagan influence falls away; Virgil cannot linger in the presence of Beatrice.

"The dead shall not praise thee, O Lord; nor any of them that go down to Hell. But we that live bless the Lord."


  1. Completely unrelated, but were there peoples that actually believed that their graven idols were gods, or would it have been something akin to our devotion to images?

    1. The Old Testament wisdom writers mocked the making of idols because they were things dumb, deaf, and blind. But the idol was often an image of an unseen god, and even the golden calf made at the foot of Mt. Sinai was meant to represent the living God who had just freed them from Egypt. I do not know if idolaters often believed their gods to be literally contained within the images they themselves had carved, but in the case of local and household deities they probably did believe it to be so. You also have people like the ancient Greeks who created idols but also believed their gods to reside far above on a mountaintop.

    2. omnes dii gentium daemonia sunt - Psalm 95