By: Emil G. Hirsch
The rendering in the English versions of the Hebrew and its synonyms , . At one time darkness was regarded as something substantial, and not merely as the absence of light. This is apparent from the frequent juxtaposition of "darkness" with "light." God forms light and darkness (Isa. xlv. 7); light and darkness are consumed or confined (Job xxvi. 10). In the Creation-story, darkness is said to have been over primitive chaos, Abyss. In this opening sentence traces or reminiscences of an early mythological personification have been detected (see Cosmogony). Darkness antedates creation. It has also been noticed that it is not called good, as are the other works of the Creator. The absence of the definite article before in Gen. i. 1 points in the same direction.
Something of this mythological notion is present in Job's imprecation (Job iii. 4, 5); where both "Ḥoshek" and "Ẓalmut" (or "Ẓalmawet") are invoked as though ravenous monsters lying in wait for prey (the verb recalls the blood-avenger, the "goel"). They are in parallelism with a phrase—"Let all that maketh black the day" [R. V.]—which is now recognized by nearly all commentators to describe mythological beasts (see Dragon). In ordinary speech, of course, the Hebrew mind did not revert to this personification of darkness and its underlying antecedent mythological conceits. Darkness is simply the night, as light is the day (Gen. i. 5, 18). The sun grows dark; the day is darkened; and the like. In mines and other subterranean regions darkness has its realm, which the searcher for the precious metals invades, and thus forces upon it the establishment of new boundaries (Job xxviii. 3). This impression of substantiality goes with the descriptions of Egyptian darkness (Ps. cv. 28; Ex. x. 23). Darkness is also likened to a pillar of cloud (Ex. xiv. 20), as something almost palpable, if not personal. It is a frequent circumstance of theophany (II Sam. xxii. 12 = Ps. xviii. 12); and is associated with "She'ol" in such a way as to make it plausible that this place of the ingathering of the shades was a domain ruled over by twin demons, Ḥoshek and Ẓalmut (darkness and thick darkness). The double form, masculine and feminine, "ḥoshek" and "ḥashekah," also goes back to mythology.
In figurative speech, for reasons that are apparent, darkness was used for a secret hiding-place (Isa. xlv. 3; Job xxxiv. 22; Ps. cxxxix. 11, 12). As the effect of sorrow is to dim the eyes by tears, or as grief or sin injects darkness into the world (compare'Ab. Zarah 8a), the Hebrew speaks of distress as darkness (Isa. v. 30, xxix. 18; Ps. cvii. 10-14, again "Ḥoshek" and "Ẓalmut").
Darkness is uncanny. It may be the hiding-place of evil spirits; this, at all events, was the notion in post-Biblical times (compare Demonology); therefore darkness expresses fear, dread, terror. As such it is one of the equipments of the Day of the Lord, a circumstance of judgment (Amos v. 18, 20; Zeph. i. 15; Nahum i. 8). This eschatological idea underlies also the darkness which ensues upon the Crucifixion (Matt. xxvii. 45). According to the theory advanced by Gunkel ("Schöpfung und Chaos"), that in eschatological visions primitive mythology finds its expression, the underlying idea is that darkness is an attendant on final judgment or punishment (Matt. viii. 12, xxii. 13, and frequently in N. T.).
Darkness is also the emblem of mysterious afflictions, of ignorance and frailty (Job xix. 8, xxiii. 17; Isa. ix. 2), of sin and evil (Isa. v. 20; Prov. ii. 13), of mourning (Isa. xlvii. 5), of doubt and vexation (Job v. 14, xii. 25), and of confusion (Ps. xxxv. 5). As wisdom is light, so ignorance is darkness (Job xxxvii. 19; Eccl. ii. 14).
Darkness was the ninth of the ten Egyptian plagues (Ex. x. 21 et seq.). What caused the darkness has been a subject of much unsatisfactory discussion. Some reminiscence based upon observation of natural phenomena is always involved in the other plagues. What the reminiscence is in this case has not been determined; a storm of dust has been suggested by some commentators.