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Book of Job and Blake’s Response to the Bible Story (SE)

  • The Story.  God allows Satan to attack Job and take everything but his life from him in order to test his faith. Job feels desperate and abandoned but steadfast. God eventually reveals himself to Job and rewards him. Job becomes even richer than he was before.

The Old Testament figure of Job is the universal man and undergoes the spiritual journey from fall to redemption.  The Book of Job is a parable about human suffering; it explores the question of why the faithful and morally righteous suffer.  Job never understands why he is being punished because from his point of view, he has always followed the Law. He is introduced as a “perfect and upright” man (Job, 1:1) and everyone in the Book of Job initially agrees that Job is beyond reproach.  But as the suffering intensifies Job’s patience is tested – he eventually protests – and he is challenged by his friends, which is especially hurtful to him. They doubt him and are trying to reason with him. Long passages in the Book of Job are dedicated to dialogues with his friends who either rebuke or comfort him.

Blake illustrated the story but he changed the sequence of events told in the Bible and he added new scenes. For example, Blake’s Job sees Jesus Christ as well as Satan and God in his visions. Blake’s approach and visual interpretation of the story is supported by quotations from the Old and New Testaments. The question of human suffering is eternal and Blake’s treatment of this question juxtaposes Old with New Testament ideas.

In the Old Testament, the Law was given to the chosen people by God. The laws regulated all aspects of life including health, marriage and sex. If a person followed the Law, they would prosper and if they did not, it was understood that God would punish them. Job’s material riches and large family were seen as proof of his virtuous life and moral uprightness.

In Chapter 19, Job is made to suffer despite being a faithful and good person just like Jesus who was good and would suffer even more. The Book of Job literally prefigures the life of Christ because Job acts as a mediator between mankind and God.  It has often been argued that the Book of Job anticipates not only Christ but also a Christian or non-Jewish perspective of suffering.

In the Book of Job the heavenly and the earthly can be seen to merge because we read about the conversations between God and Satan alongside Job’s sufferings. Christopher Rowland, for example, describes the treatment of heaven and earth in terms of a gradually unravelling duality:

In Job 1-2 the reader is given a glimpse into the activities of the heavenly court, alongside the earthly realm, thereby contrasting the world above and the world below. This is brought out in the early engravings of the sequence. … The removal of the division between heaven and earth reflects a major theme of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, in which the divide between heaven and earth, the age to come and this age, is only a temporary phenomenon.  At the climax of his vision John sees a new heaven and a new earth; but in the new creation the contrast of the old creation have gone; heaven is no longer the dwelling place of the holy God separated from humanity, for God now dwells on earth (Rev. 21:3). In the Job series … the recognition of the communion of the human the divine is seen as something which is possible in this life. In Engraving 17, God and humanity combine, and this in interpreted as a vision of Christ ….” (p. 17)

The Book of Job promotes the idea that we need to look at people differently, that is, we need to move away from the notion that people are justifiably punished;  God chooses good people to suffer. The Book of Job, in short, offers a new way of looking at misfortunes or people who suffer.

  • Blake and the Bible

Blake was a passionate reader of the Bible.

He was baptised in St. James’s Church in Piccadilly and was buried in the nonconformist burial site Bunhill Fields on 17 August 1827.  According to his wife, he asked for this and opted for a Church of England service.  Blake may not have been much of a Church goer during his life-time, but he read the works of Emanuel Swedenborg, Johann Caspar Lavater, George ‘Bishop’ Berkeley and Jacob Böhme.

Blake was an original thinker who was anti-Church as well as anti-science and drew his inspiration from the Bible as well as his own visions. Recent research has uncovered a connection to Moravianism, a group of Protestant Dissenters that gained in popularity after the reforms initiated by the religious leader and poet Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. This connection comes via Blake’s mother Catherine Armitage who had been a member of the Fetter Lane Society in London. It roots Blake within a religious counter-culture which responded favourably to the French Revolution and welcomed the political and social upheavals it caused.  The Moravians hoped for reforms that would grant them more religious freedom to practice their own liturgy and doctrines than had been guaranteed to them by the Act of Toleration (1689).

His opinion about religion has a complex historical context and it finds expression in almost all of his works. Gilchrist writes “He not only believed in a pre-existent state, but had adopted, or thought out for himself, many of the ideas of the early Gnostics; and was otherwise so erratic in his religious opinions as to shock orthodox Churchmen. […] A transcendental Christian rather than a literal one, he would often hazard wild assertions about the Sacred Person. Yet he would consider that a believer only in the historical character of Christ in reality denied Christ.” (p. 348)

Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job is about states of mind. Through vision Job is finally able to realise and understand where he has gone wrong. He has followed the Law but he has been unaware of the difference between the literal and the spiritual meaning of this Law. 

The Law is good, but many of the parables told in the New Testament are about the difference between the literal and the spiritual meaning of the Law. The purpose of the Law is to promote good, which entails – within the context of the New Testament – that sometimes, the Law has to be broken in order to do good, because sometimes doing good supersedes the Law. One only needs to think of the parable of the Good Samaritan here: Jesus sided with outsiders and interpreted the Law more freely.

Blake was a revolutionary thinker, poet and artist.  He welcomed the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man in August 1789.  He gained a different perspective on the Revolution after news of the September massacres reached Britain in 1793 but he never abandoned his mission of social protest.

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Last updated: 14 March 2013

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