The Divine Comedy by Dante ALIGHIERI · Digital Dante Edition with Commento Baroliniano · MMXV ·   Columbia University

Paradiso 5


The Divine Pawnshop

Coordinated Reading: The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 8, “Problems in Paradise: The Mimesis of Time and the Paradox of più e meno”, pp. 189-90.

In the concluding section of Paradiso 4, Beatrice’s “resolution” of the pilgrim’s dubbio gives way to a divinely eroticized paean to his beloved. On this note of saintly eros, Paradiso 4 ends and Paradiso 5 begins.

Intertwined with the hot language used in this passage for Beatrice (for example, the “faville d’amor così divine” in Beatrice’s eyes in Par. 4.140) is the much cooler—indeed economic—language of a new dubbio, introduced at the end of Paradiso 4.  Dante, still meditating on Piccarda’s life story as recounted to him in Paradiso 3, wants to know whether it is possible to “satisfy” (as in “to satisfy a debt” or “to satisfy a creditor”) a broken vow with some other good than the one originally promised:

Io vo’ saper se l’uom può sodisfarvi
ai voti manchi sì con altri beni,
ch’a la vostra statera non sien parvi. (Par. 4.136-38)
I want to know if, in your eyes, one can
amend for unkept vows with other acts—
good works your balance will not find too scant.

Beatrice restates the pilgrim’s question in Paradiso 5, again emphasizing the economic, contractual, and even litigious/legal aspects of failing to maintain a vow:

 Tu vuo’ saper se con altro servigio,
per manco voto, si può render tanto
che l’anima sicuri di letigio. (Par. 5.13-15)
You wish to know if, through a righteous act,
one can repair a promise unfulfilled,
so that the soul and God are reconciled.

Beatrice then launches into her replay with explanation. Before looking at what she says, I will give you some context. The Old Testament deals with the “economics” of the vows made by humans to God in Leviticus 27. The following breakdown of Leviticus 27 and definition of vows within the Old Testament are taken from a Bible-study website.



The Structure of Leviticus 27

The key to the structure of chapter 27 is to be found by the categories of things which are vowed as offerings to God:

  • Vows of people—vv. 1-8
  • Vows of animals—vv. 9-13
  • Vowed houses—vv. 14-15
  • Vowed inheritance (family land) vv. 16-21
  • Vowed (non-family) land—vv. 22-25
  • Illicit vows—vv. 26-33
  • Conclusion—v. 34

The Definition of a Vow

Simply viewed, offering a vow is practicing a kind of “credit card” act of worship. It is a promise to worship God with a certain offering in the future, motivated by gratitude for God’s grace in the life of the offerer. The reason for the delay in making the offering was that the offerer was not able, at that moment, to make the offering. The vow was made, promising to offer something to God if God would intervene on behalf of the individual, making the offering possible. In many instances, the vow was made in a time of great danger or need. The Rabbis believed that the gifts which were vowed in Leviticus 27 were to be used for the maintenance of the Temple.

The Unique Contribution of Leviticus 27

While the teaching of Leviticus is consistent with that of the Old Testament as a whole, it makes some unique contributions. There are three principal lessons to be learned from the legislation of Leviticus 27, which set this chapter apart in its emphasis and methods. Let us consider each of these.

Leviticus 27 teaches men to be cautious about the vows they make, but in a different way than elsewhere. There are three principal ways in which the people of God are cautioned about making vows hastily, and without due consideration. First, there is the method of teaching. In the Law there are clear statements of warning and instruction about hasty vows, as we see above. Second, one can use examples and illustrations to teach. The Old Testament gives us several examples of men who made foolish vows, the most notable example being Jephthah, who vowed so generally that his daughter became the offering to the Lord (Judg. 11:29-40). Thirdly, you can teach men to do what is right by making disobedience painful and costly. In Leviticus 27 the Israelites are taught the folly of hasty commitments by specifying that some vows cannot be reversed, and that in those cases which can be redemption of that which was vowed will be costly. This third method, the method of Leviticus 27, we might call “economic sanctions.”

I find very interesting the phrase “offering a vow is practicing a kind of ‘credit card’ act of worship” and the notion of “economic sanctions” imposed by God in order to redeem a broken vow. In Leviticus the economic sanctions take the form of a 20% additional penalty for redeeming a broken vow. In Paradiso 5 we learn that to redeem a broken vow the old offering must be to the new offering as 4 is to 6. Thus a 50% penalty is imposed.

Beatrice’s “Version of Leviticus 27”

Of all the gifts that God gave to humans, the greatest is free will (Par. 2.19-22). When we make a pledge to God, we willingly make a sacrificial victim of our free will (Par. 2.29), and as a result—given that free will is by definition the greatest good there is—we find ourselves in a situation where we have no greater good to offer with which to redeem our pledge. In the divine pawnshop, there is no good as great as free will that we can offer in recompense.

On the other hand, she continues, although it is impossible to redeem a good as precious as the free will with which we entered into the pact, we can redeem the thing we promised, as long as in exchange we offer God a new good that is 50% greater than the old one.

This contractual language, betokening a divinity both legalistic and fiscally severe, seems at odds with the divine principle that governs Dante’s heaven: the “amor che ’l ciel governi” (love that governs heaven) to Whom Dante addresses himself in Paradiso 1.74. What, we wonder, is at stake here for Dante?

I would say that Dante’s primary goal here is to trace a genealogy of the economics of devotion and to delineate the place of a Christian/New Testament economy within that genealogy.

Dante is extremely conscious about this genealogy. Paradiso 5 is clearly engaged in a dialogue with Leviticus 27, which it echoes in many respects. Christians are held by him to an even higher standard (hence the 50% penalty) because they have greater guidance. This guidance and this support system are a source of enormous pride to Dante. Christians have the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Church to guide them:

Avete il novo e ’l vecchio Testamento,
e ’l pastor de la Chiesa che vi guida;
questo vi basti a vostro salvamento.(Par. 5.76-78)
You have both Testaments, the Old and New,
you have the shepherd of the Church to guide you;
you need no more than this for your salvation.

In Paradiso 5.81, Beatrice offers a disconcerting exhortation to Christians. Telling them not to be led astray by mala cupidigia (evil cupidity [Par. 5.79]), Beatrice suggests that Jews will mock Christians who—with all the special providential assistance that is at their disposal—still fail to achieve salvation:

Se mala cupidigia altro vi grida,
uomini siate, e non pecore matte,
sì che ’l Giudeo di voi tra voi non rida! (Par. 5.79-81)
If evil greed would summon you elsewhere,
be men, and not like sheep gone mad, so that
the Jew who lives among you not deride you!

In other words, as her way of incentivizing Christians to achieve salvation, Beatrice offers the desire to avoid being mocked by Jews.

Dante here unfortunately seems to establish a kind of unsavory “competition” within the genealogy from Leviticus 27 through to Paradiso 5 that he has delineated: rather than positing continuity with the Jewish tradition, here he exhorts Team Christian not to fall behind Team Jew.

On the one hand Dante implies that the Christian economy of devotion requires higher sacrifice and commitment. On the other hand he suggests that a Jew who strictly observes the law of the Old Testament may do better than a Christian who wantonly makes vows and commutes them.

Most of all, we need to remember that institutional devotion in human history always involves an economic and legislative dimension. Although stated in passing in Paradiso 5.81, we cannot ignore Dante’s harsh assessment with respect to the Jews in this canto: they are viewed not as progenitors but rather as a rival team within a narrative of how best to institutionalize and negotiate with the divine.

In Paradiso 5.93 the transition occurs to the second heaven. Dante is surrounded by souls and he speaks to one, asking who he is and why in this heaven. The soul begins to speak and speaks for the entirety of the following canto. This is Justinian, Emperor and lawmaker.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Paradiso 5 : The Divine Pawnshop." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading