Sunday, September 29, 2013


“I discerned among the youths, a young man void of understanding, passing through the street near her corner; and he went the way to her house, in the twilight, in the evening, in the black and dark night.
—The Book of Proverbs
Late summer sunset  [Flickr page]
With its moody poetry, captured wonderfully in the King James translation, the seventh chapter of Proverbs puts the setting for a foolish young man’s seduction away from wisdom “in the twilight, in the evening, in the black and dark night.” Those who look back on the Hebrew Bible through Christian lenses can easily see in the passage a warning against descending into sin, which Christianity compares to a sense of spiritual darkness. Ephesians 8 makes that connection, urging readers to “walk as children of light” and avoid the “unfruitful works of darkness.” Jesus is depicted as telling followers to let their light shine before men, and promising that their bodies will be full of light if they avoid having an evil eye. The first Epistle of John speaks of walking in the light, as God is in the light. In all of this, the darkness is where evil lurks, where goodness and God, or at least Wisdom, are absent.

Alcatraz under a darkening sky  [Flickr page]
Another ancient specter in the dark recesses of human imagination is death. Long has it loomed, along with the animals and enemies that could induce it prematurely, outside the feeble circles of firelight that people erected against the night. The hero of the 4,000-year old Epic of Gilgamesh admitted his fear of death, lamenting that he would someday enter the Netherworld and “lie there sleeping all down the years.” So, he cried,
Let my eyes see the sun and be sated with light!
The darkness is hidden, how much light is there left?
When may the dead see the rays of the sun? [Tablet IX]
It is reminiscent of the way King Hezekiah lamented his death in Isaiah 38. “From day even to night wilt thou make an end of me,” he complained to God, facing the wall from his bed. Hezekiah knew what awaited him, and his conversational relationship with the God of Israel did nothing to make him relish the prospect:
I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years. I said, I shall not see the LORD, even the LORD, in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world. [Isa. 38:10-11]
God gave him an extra fifteen years, but night came eventually regardless. He went to the same place as Job and the billions of others whose brief candles have burned out, “to the land of darkness and the shadow of death; A land of darkness, as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness” (Job 10:21-22). As Gilgamesh had put it long earlier, “Only the gods dwell forever in sunlight” (Yale Tablet).

Big Dipper at dusk  [Flickr page]
Now we sit in our evenly lit houses before glowing screens and drive through bright cities, and we forget the impact of the darkness on our ancestors. For them, the flickering glow of fires and fat lamps did little to keep away the terrors of the night.

I mused about these things last night while driving through dark woods and fields of my rural home in the Inland Northwest, where the lights are pinpricks dotting hillsides, glimmering faintly behind trees. Fall Equinox is now just past, and the nights are as long as the days, soon to be longer. The stove is already burning wood that I harvested from dead trees in the hot bright forest of just a few months ago.

But we have lights, a good generator for when the power fails (as it does at least a few times per year), plenty of backlit screens to engage our attention and soak our brains and retinas in brightness. The coyotes sometimes shriek and howl outside, but there are sturdy walls between us. As for evil, it now stalks well-lit boardrooms and halls of power much more than the forests.

Even the primal force that spawned religion and keeps people in its thrall, the fear of death, has largely abated in my imagination, and in those of many others. We have come full circle with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes: “The living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” Love, hatred, and envy all perish, says the Preacher. “Go thy way,” he advises his fellow mortals, “eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart” (Eccl. 9:5-7).

And so, even without any wine, the inky gloom feels peaceful, embracing, calm. Summer went on long enough; it is time for the light to abate, for the cool to creep back into the air.

The lights of West Maui from Molokai  [Flickr page]
Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out the entire set (and others following the “darkness” theme) on Flickr. All are Copyright © 2013 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.