The Parade of Demons V
Bill Long 12/13/09
But Milton isn't finished yet with the story about the people of Israel. He picks up on the word "Maker" in 486, and then focuses on God's activity:
"Jehovah, who in one night when he (i.e., Israel) pass'd/ From Egypt marching, equal'd with one stroke/ Both her first-born and all her bleating Gods," 487-89.
We return to the Exodus and the biblical verse that says that the Lord slew:
"all the first-born in the land of Egypt both man and beast, and upon their Gods also the Lord executed judgments," Ex. 12:12.
Note that we are talking about "bleating" Gods here. What a great word to suggest the whimpering and crying of animals. As one commentator noted, "bleating" is even less favorable than "lowing" or even "bellowing." As the OED tells us, the word "bleating" is used contemptuously in connection with human utterances; how much more is it used in derision to describe the weak and powerless protests of the Egyptian gods.
Introducing Belial (490-505)
Belial is the only Rebel Angel introduced who had no temple. As Milton says:
"To him no Temple stood
Or Altar smoked," 492-93.
So, who is he? Well, for one thing, he is contasted with Moloch in Book II of PL. Moloch is "the fiercest Spirit that fought in Heaven" (II.44), while Belial is represented as the most "timorous and slothful" (II.117). The name Belial comes form two Hebrew words meaning "not" or "without" and "beneficial." Thus, it means "of no help" or, if the person isn't of any help, a "scoundrel." Of the nearly 25 Hebrew Bible passages containing "bel-yal," the majority simply refer to people of debased character or worthless thoughts. For example, in Deut. 15:9 it simply signifies a "mean thought." In I Sam. 1:16 it is used by Hannah, the mother of Samuel, in speaking to Eli the priest. "Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman." Thus, it originally had no reference to any kind of demonic or divine force.
Yet, in the literature of Second Temple Israel (after 586 BCE), Belial became an independent figure associated with wickedness and death. The principal text from this period in which Belial plays a major role is the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. There he is personified as the "Prince of Error" or the spirit of jealousy or one pursuing sexual promiscuity or love of money (Archie Wright, The Origin of Evil Spirits, p. 159n83). Thus, by the time of the New Testament, Belial could be associated with any number of nefarious schemes. In PL, Milton sees him as lewd and vice-loving. Indeed, the first illustration of Belial's influence is over the sons of Eli the priest.
"when the priest
Turns atheist, as did Eli's sons, who fill'd
With lust and violence the house of God," 494-96.
Interestingly enough, the word used to decribe the sons of Eli in the Hebrew text of I Samuel 2:12 is "belial"--they were "scoundrels." For Milton, then, they would be acting in the spirit of Belial.
Milton then concludes his rather long treatment of Belial with a mention of how he reigns "in courts and palaces" and "in luxurious cities." But he has two cities in mind, even though some excellent commentatorys (Hughes, for one), only list one biblical text--Gen. 19--to which Milton is referring. But Milton refers to two similar Scripture stories in lines 500-05 which show the lewdness and violence of the "sons/ Of Belial," (501-02). The stories concern the inhospitable treatment of strangers in the towns of Sodom (Genesis 19) and Gibeah (Judges 19). In both instances the native people want to abuse ('know') the male visitors in town. In trying to placate the wrath of these evil people, the householder where the visitors are staying offers his daughters (Sodom) or a daughter and a concubine (Gibeah) to satisfy the lust and violence of the townspeople. In the first story the daughters are never actually given over to the townspeople since the townspeople were struck with blindnes and couldn't find the door of the house. In the second story (Gibeah) only the concubine is actually taken, abused, and killed by the townspeople. Now let's look at Milton's line describing these (conflated?) stories. He says:
"when the hospitable door
Expos'd a matron to avoid worse rape," 504-05.
Yet, as Thomas Newton pointed out as early as 1750, in the first edition Milton had these words:
"when hospitable doors
Yielded their matrons to prevent worse rape."
Milton altered his words between the first two editions in a felicitous direction. Why? Because in the first story no matrons actually were "yielded," despite the fact that they were offered. None were even "exposed." In the second story only one woman was eventually "yielded." So Milton softened the verb from "yielded" to "expos'd" and, because the women of Sodom weren't either yielded or exposed, had to change the plural to a singular--since the story of Gibeah only emphasizes the actual exposure of one woman. Wow. Such care with such words, derived from two stories that make up a little more than a line of text in PL.
Milton will go on to tell us about other Rebel Angels not quite as distinguished or as early-born as these, but he has now done the heavy lifting of introducing us to the major characters of the infernal world. These will come together in Book II for their conclave on how to respond to their recent defeat in battle. In the meantime, however, Milton wants to tell us a bit more about the Rebel Angels, about Satan's rousing effect on them and about their building a city in Hell for themselves. Let's turn to those subjects now.