Dante’s Divine Comedy Through the Lens of Exodus
Many scholars have explored Exodus motifs in Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly in light of a letter the poet wrote to emperor Can Grande della Scala in the fourteenth century. In the letter, Dante describes his comedy as depicting “the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt in the days of Moses.” While explicit references to the Exodus story may be few and far between, a closer examination of Dante’s poetry reveals numerous significant parallels to the biblical text. Why might Dante have decided to base his comedy on the Exodus story? How does this particular biblical narrative enhance the work of his poem?
In this paper, I will argue that the meaning behind Dante’s comedy is amplified with the use of powerful imagery from the biblical tradition. I will proceed to describe how the Exodus story augments Dante’s comedy in four distinct ways. First, the Exodus narrative makes vivid the bondage, darkness and immobility that characterizes the depths of Inferno. Second, Dante’s description of the penitents’ ascent of Mount Purgatory is enhanced by allusions to the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness. Third, the Exodus story helps to reveal the nature of God’s presence, deliverance and redemption as it is portrayed in Dante’s comedy. Finally, as with the Exodus story, Dante’s comedy is ultimately an invitation to union with God. Both works are intended to be timeless, universal stories that call their readers to deeper faith. Just as the Exodus story continues to hold relevance for many Christians and Jews, Dante’s Divine Comedy still has much to say to us today.
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