Saturday, October 09, 2010


Tue 10 Nov 2009 11:27:03 AM EST




Here is an href="">Introductory
post on this subject.

       What we know today as the Bible crystallized into the

sacred book of Christianity in the fourth century. At that time

the bishops set the canon and closed it. In the ages that followed

it was carefully guarded, copied, studied and used by those who

controlled the destiny of the Christian Church; it remained largely

unavaliable to non-professionals.

       The development of vernacular languages and the invention

of printing put the Bible for the first time in the hands of ordinary laymen. The Protestant Reformation increased the availability

of scripture to all believers. The resulting proliferation of

interpretations dismayed Luther and Calvin as well as the old

Church authorities.

The reaction of the religious establishment to the wide

use and diverse interpretations of the Bible caused a century of

turmoil and violence (See CHAPTER SEVEN)

       In England this instability reached its crisis in the l7th Century Civil War with the

beheading of Charles I and the establishment of a commonwealth

under non-Conformist direction. For a few brief years government

censorship of printing stopped, which led to an explosion of

spiritual creativity, largely inspired by non-Conformist biblical


       The fascinating story of the radical groups active in

the years l640-50 is vividly and ably recounted by Christopher

Hill in
A World Turned Upside Down.

His title is apt; the radical

social, political, and spiritual ideas of the various religious

groups shook the fabric of English society much as the New Testament
church had turned the Roman world upside down.

Look at three of these radical ideas:

1. The Levellers and Diggers took the Hebrew
doctrine of the Jubilee as biblical guidance for
breaking up the land enclosures which had disinherited
and made homeless thousands of English yeomen; Isaiah
had also condemned the immoral amassing of real
property to control wealth.

The New Light Quakers
emphasized the direct creative relationship between man
and God without intermediaries; all the Lord's people
were prophets

target="-blank">as Moses had wished.

The href=""
target=""> Ranters understood Paul's doctrine of justification by faith to signal the end of all laws.

They gave a radical freedom to the believer to follow
his conscience in every particular of conduct; their
spiritual descendants are the modern anarchists
A.L.Morton in The Everlasting Gospel claimed that Blake
was the last and best of the Ranters.

       People have called Blake many things;

Northrup Frye
called him a "Bible soaked Protestant". He

descended from the line of English non-Conformists who refused to

read the Bible in the establishment way and insisted on attaching

their own interpretation to it.


(A good example of Blake's commentary on the Bible comes at the
beginning of the little href=""
target="-blank">book of Thel:

Where might the golden bowl come from? Look href=";&version=31;"
target="-blank">here. What is Blake saying here? Can you find love
in a golden bowl? To grasp this lesson you have to understand that
Revelations is poetry and Thel is poetry, which means the Lord may
give us a great variety of meanings of Revelations 5 and of Thel, and
of how they relate to one another. Think about it. If you get an
idea, a new vision, share
. That's the way we learn Blake-- and the Bible.

Continuing on a few lines we come to The Lilly of the valley?
Well who might that be? Look at an old hymn :

Look again at the context:
"and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time:
The Lilly of the valley". Without question Blake speaks of the
saviour, talking to our heroine and opening the spiritual and material
realms to her.

Blake has shared with us his vision of Christ-- one of many that came
to him through his long life. Does he enrich our understanding of
Christ? Yes, yes, I say.


       With the Restoration in 1660 the contest in England

over the biblical meaning of the Christian faith slowed to a

virtual halt. Society came to attach less and less importance to

such matters. In the century that followed the shapers of opinion

fell increasingly under the influence of the materialism of Newton

and Locke--faith in the five senses rather than in the metaphysical

visions of the past.

target="-blank">Francis Bacon
had written of a second scripture to

which men might more fruitfully address their attention. Paine

called it the Bible of Nature; writing his

Age of Reason
in the

language of the common man he demolished the Hebrew Bible as a

tissue of fabrications, which it certainly is to a reason confined

to the five senses.

       Since that time the Bible has remained a best seller,

but used more often as an item of household furniture than as a

book. In our day it has become unfashionable even for that purpose. But for Blake the Bible was the primary and continuous

fountain for the ideas contained in his art.


       To anyone truly interested in the Bible one of the big

issues concerns the canon--did God close it? When he finished

with John of Patmos, did he stop speaking? Did he assume that

men would thereafter hear his voice and experience his presence

only through the mediation of the sacred page? The orthodox,

explicitly or tacitly, answer these questions in the affirmative;

Blake and his dissenter friends gave a resounding no.

       On the authority of the New Light Blake believed that

his visions had the same sort of authenticity as those of Isaiah

and Ezekiel. Some believers may see such effrontery as a sacrilegious depreciation of the Bible, but the many who worship the

Bible without reading it depreciate it more than Blake did.

Blake denied to the Bible any exclusive form of authority; he saw

that as the urizenic monstrosity, the

Book of Brass:

    And Urizen Read in his book of brass in sounding tones

    Listen O Daughters to my voice Listen to the Words of Wisdom

    So shall [ye] govern over all. Let Moral Duty tune your tongue

    But be your hearts harder than the nether millstone

    To bring the shadow of Enitharmon beneath our wondrous tree

    That Los may Evaporate like smoke & be no more

    Draw down Enitharmon to the Spectre of Urthona

    And let him have dominion over Los the terrible shade

    Compell the poor to live upon a Crust of bread by soft mild arts

    Smile when they frown frown when they smile & when a man looks pale

    With labour & abstinence say he looks healthy & happy

    And when his children Sicken let them die there are enough

    Born even too many & our Earth will be overrun

    Without these arts If you would make the poor live with temper

    With pomp give every crust of bread you give with gracious cunning

    Magnify small gifts reduce the man to want a gift & then give with pomp

    Say he smiles if you hear him sigh If pale say he is ruddy

    Preach temperance say he is overgorgd & drowns his wit

    In strong drink tho you know that bread & water are all

    He can afford Flatter his wife pity his children till we can

    Reduce all to our will as spaniels are taught with art.

    (Four Zoas 7a-80:2-21; Erdman 355)

       But all his

life Blake read the Bible, loved it, and engaged in dialogue with its

immortal authors. Virtually every line of his poetry and every

picture he painted had direct reference to some biblical idea

that Blake had meditated upon.

       In vivid contrast many of the

orthodox don't read the Bible at all; they just wave it! Little

wonder they dislike Blake. His early ironic description of his

work as the Bible of Hell certainly helped to confirm their



"Thou read'st black where I read white."

( Everlasting Gospel.

There are essentially two ways to read the Bible; Blake

referred to them as black and white. What did he mean? We

might look at Urizen's
Book of Brass

as the black book. It's a

book of rules, a book of law. It tells people what to do, and

more poignantly, what not to do.

       Even today ordinary people see

the Bible in this way, which helps to explain why hardly anyone

reads it today. The few who do read it dutifully and dully.

Such a reading constrains consciousness; it makes the reader

obedient and unimaginative. The faithful few who feel that they

should read their Bible often approach it in a child like way

bordering on the childish. Reading the black book inhibits the

imagination, deadens the mind and prevents spiritual development.

At its worst it has led to many instances of religious persecution

and mass murder.

       But Blake read it white. The white book is not a book

of rules, but a book of visions, a book of wonders. It provokes

thought, causes the imagination to soar. Blake must have learned

to read at about the age of four, when he had his first vision--

the frightful face at the window. Perhaps we've all been

frightened by the Bible in one way or another; most people have

had a sufficiently negative experience to leave it strictly alone.

But little William overcame his fright and kept reading, and the

next vision we hear of was more positive--a tree full of angels.

       All the evidence suggests that for the next sixty five years

Blake's Bible reading and his visions went hand in hand; his art

is the record of it all.

Whoever becomes really interested in Blake's visions

will find himself reading the Bible because that's where most of

them begin. In spite of this his secular critics have looked

all over the world for his sources.

       One of the greatest things

that Blake has to offer the reader is that he makes you see and

read the Bible in a new and better way. Not for nothing did the

youthful circle of admirers of Blake's last years refer to him

as the Interpreter.

       The black book has most often been read as law, as

history, in a restricted, literal interpretation. If the priest

can get people to see it this way, and only this way, then he has

secure control over his flock of sheep. In contrast Blake suggests that it's symbolic. Although written in categories of time

and space, the temporal dimension is only instrumental; it points

to the Beyond, the Eternal, the Real.

       Too often people reading 'black' concern themselves

with foolish questions such as "Did it really happen? Was Jonah

really swallowed by the whale, or rather by the big fish?" But

in Blake's vision that isn't the important thing. The important

thing is "What does it mean?" The reader of the black book gets

himself tied up in knots about the veracity or historicity of

Jonah and his aquatic friend.

       Blake shows you the Jonah in your

psyche and helps you get some grasp of what the turbulent sea

means to you personally. It's experiential, exciting! it puts

you in touch with reality!

Literal or symbolic is black or white, and probably the

two minds will never meet. At this point I simply urge you to

join Blake and read white:

    "Why is the Bible more Entertaining & Instructive than
    any other book? Is it not because [it is] addressed
    to the Imagination which is Spiritual Sensation, and
    but mediately to the Understanding or Reason?"

          (Letter To Trusler;
    Erdman 702-3)

       Blake ascribes this
imaginative faculty to his hero, Los;

    "He could controll the times & seasons & the days & years."

           [And Los says of

    I am that Shadowy Prophet who Six Thousand Years ago

    Fell from my station in the Eternal bosom. Six Thousand Years

    Are finish'd. I return! both Time & Space obey my will.

    I in Six Thousand Years walk up and down; for not one Moment

    Of Time is lost, nor one Event of Space unpermanent,

    But all remain: every fabric of Six Thousand Years

    Remains permanent, tho' on the Earth where Satan

    Fell and was cut off, all things vanish & are seen no more,

    They vanish not from me & mine, we guard them first & last.

    The generations of men run on in the tide of Time,

    But leave their destin'd lineaments permanent for ever & ever.

          (The Four Zoas [Nt
    1], 9.27, and Milton 22:15-25; Erdman 305 and 116)

       Like Los Blake walks up and down the biblical scene

from Adam to John of Patmos. He takes what best serves his

purpose, or rather the biblical symbols rearrange themselves

kaleidoscopically into his visions of eternity. These together

add up to a cogent and provocative commentary on the Bible and on

its child, the Christian faith.

       Out of this intuitive unconscious

process arose the great themes of his faith, embodied in his

art: the universal man, fallen and fractured, struggling, redeemed

and returning in the fullness of time into the blessed unity from

which he came. This is the essential story of the Bible for one

who reads it whole and without the constraints and blinders of

what I have called the black book.

       It should be said however that Blake found inspiration

for his myth from many other sources beside the Bible; the

secular critics have pointed them out in great detail. He drew

impartially on everything in his experience, but found the Bible

his richest fountain. The other sources were secondary and for

the most part commentaries on or elaborations of the biblical


       Much as he loved the Bible, Blake ascribed paramount

authority to his visions. The true man of God has visions which

refine, bring up to date, and correct the earlier visions of the

earlier prophets. This is where Blake departed from the orthodox

attitude to the Bible, which he called reading it black. This is

where he acted on the heritage of English dissent. This is how

he saw the New Light and became a man of the New Age.


Redemption History

       One formative idea that Blake owed to Greek rather than

to Hebrew thought was the cyclic view of history. Plato's doctrine

of the
Great Year

and the eternal recurrence of archetypal events

strongly colors Blake's poetry, where it exists in continuous

tension with the linear view of history expressed in the Bible.

       In addition Blake like other students before and after him found

cycles in the biblical history. In fact the cycles he found

helped him (and us) to move from the temporal to the eternal

level of consciousness.

The primary event of the Old Testament is the exodus,

the return from Captivity to the Promised Land. Actually it's

the central figure in a constellation of events:

       the primeval

(innocent) possession of the Promised Land by Abraham,

the fall

into captivity in Egypt for 400 years,

the deliverance from Egypt,

the struggle in the wilderness and

       conquest after forty years of

the Promised Land.

       Right there, in what theologians call redemption history, lies the biblical basis of Blake's myth.

Blake and many other students of the Bible perceived

that this cycle had happened not once but several times. When

they got to the Promised Land, the children of Israel didn't enjoy it; they continued to behave like the rest of fallen mankind:

they alternately fought wars of conquest and cringed before the

weight of mightier conquerors. They "went whoring" after the

local gods. Solomon married a daughter of every foreign god he

could find and turned the temple of Jehovah into a pantheon.


the children of Israel fell again, this time into Babylon. After

sixty years Cyrus delivered them, and there was another return

through the wilderness to the Promised Land, but soon they suffered

another fall--to Greece and then to Rome.

Even some readers of the black book understand that

Jesus reenacted this redemption history: Moses' birth was accompanied by Pharaoh's slaughter of the innocents, Jesus' birth

by Herod's slaughter of the innocents. Jesus as a baby was taken

to Egypt; he spent forty days in the wilderness; he suffered at

the hands of Pontius Pilate a

captivity to death

from which he

returned after three days and established the Church
(For a discussion of Luke's verse look at this target="">note).

       The black

book ends here, but the white book continues:

The Church fell into captivity to
a Caesar named Constantine

and 400 years later to
another named Charlemayne.


came Luther, and Blake at his worst moments feared that the whole

thing would go back to the beginning with Adam. (In one of his

visions he must have seen Nuke!)

       Virtually all of the sixty six books of the Bible center

their attention in one way or another upon this series of events.

The Pentateuch describes the original cycle; the Psalms celebrate

its various facets; each prophet interprets his own day in its

terms; the evangelists understand and describe Jesus strictly as

the fulfilment of this redemption history.

       The whole biblical process represents a taking up of

temporal material into an eternal consciousness. Blake perceived

not only that the same story was unfolding in 18th Century England

and Europe, but that it describes timelessly the destiny of the

human psyche. Put the two things together and extrapolate in

both directions, and you have the macrocosm/microcosm:

       On one end

is the One Man, and on the other "A World in a Grain of Sand'".

Time and space loosen their grip on the mind; the doors of perception are cleansed; Man walks out of the cave into the light

of eternity. That was Blake's myth; it was the structure of

reality as he understood it. And it was the shape of his faith

until his Moment of Grace.

       As can be said of the Bible, Blake's art basically

consists of telling this story in a thousand different ways. In

the early prophecies he applied it to the political events of his

day. In 'America' he portrayed the American Revolution as a

breaking free from Egypt/ Babylon/Rome. The French Revolution

was much more so. 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' celebrated

the dawn of the New Age. In these works he robustly translated

the temporal events of his day into the eternal categories using

the biblical symbols.

       Of course he shared with the other liberals

of his time in the growing disillusionment with these political

movements. Napoleon turned into a reincarnation of Pharoah/Nebuchadnezzar/Caesar--a severe blow to Blake's faith in human redemption. As the political scene deteriorated, his art became less

vital, wearier. He was approaching what St. John of the Cross

called the dark night of the soul.

       Blake's myth closely follows the biblical story as

described above: fall, struggle, redemption, and return. But about
the psychodynamics of the process he

had other things to say

than did the Bible. In Genesis the Fall occurs after the Creation

of Man. Blake, following 'Paradise Lost', placed the original

Fall in Eternity prior to Creation. Adam and Satan came along

after the division and fall of the four giant forms of Man; they

appeared in 'The Four Zoas' near the end of Night iv immediately

following the binding of Urizen, and their advent served as a

preliminary step of redemption:

    And first [Jesus] found the Limit of Opacity, & nam'd it Satan,

    And next he found the Limit of Contraction, & nam'd it Adam.

    (Four Zoas [Nt 4], 56.19; Erdman 338)

       In the Bible the episode of the apple is generally

understood as the primary event of the Fall. In contrast Blake

gives it an ambiguous moral significance stressing its redemptive

dimension as 'peccata felice'. Whereas Milton ascribed Adam's

participation in this wrongdoing to idolatrous love of Eve, Blake

described it as an act of love and solidarity, akin to and evocative of Christ's kenosis:

    But Los stood on the Limit of Translucence, weeping & trembling,

    Filled with doubts in self accusation, beheld the fruit

    of Urizen's Mysterious tree. For Enitharmon thus spake:

    When in the Deeps beneath I gather'd of this ruddy fruit,

    It was by that I knew that I had Sinn'd, & then I knew

    That without a ransom I could not be sav'd from Eternal death;

    That Life lives upon death, & by devouring appetite

    All things subsist on one another; thenceforth in despair

    I spend my glowing time; but thou art strong & mighty

    To bear this Self conviction; take then, Eat thou also of

    The fruit & give me proof of life Eternal or I die."

    Then Los plucked the fruit & Eat & sat down in Despair,

    And must have given himself to death Eternal, But

    Urthona's spectre in part mingling with him, comforted him,

    Being a medium between him & Enitharmon. But This Union

    Was not to be Effected without Cares & Sorrow & Troubles

    Of six thousand Years of self denial and of bitter Contrition.

    (Four Zoas [Nt 4] 56.19ff; Erdman338)


Jehovah and Astarte

       After the Biblical Fall the Old Testament drama unfolds

as a protracted struggle between two Gods. In every age the

majority of Mankind have worshipped Mother Earth, Matter or the

recurring cycle of vegetative life. She has many names; in the

Bible one of the most common is Astarte. In our day "Astarte"

exacts an acceptance of things as they are, an attempt to flow

with the stream of Nature. The Bible called this "whoring after

other gods".

       Blake called it Natural Religion or Druidism. He

meant by Natural Religion the worship of the principle of fallen

life; those most conformed and faithful to it become the rulers

of this world.

Natural Religion involves choosing to remain at the

level of the material, which Blake called vegetative life.


believer in Natural Religion closes his mind to the reality of spiritual development; he turns his back upon the

Spirit. Unable to endure the tension of struggling and waiting

for spiritual evolution he erects a golden calf. He either acquiesces in or actively contributes to the brutishness and horror

of a life that "lives upon death".

       The Bible and Blake's poetry alike are filled with gory

images of this ultimate horror, which comes from identifying life

with the merely natural. T.S.Eliot said in
The Sacred Wood that Blake's poetry is

unpleasant, as all great poetry is unpleasant.

It is "unpleasant" basically because Blake, like the Bible,

insists on calling a spade a spade. Nowhere is Blake closer to

the Bible than in his constant reiteration of the ultimate horror

of unredeemed life, celebrated in page after page of minute

       Blake and the Bible both insistently remind us that
Nature is fallen

, and that one flows with this fallen Nature to

one's destruction.

Abraham and Moses knew a higher God: he was above Nature; he was Spirit. He called men to rise above the natural

and to become sons of a God opposed to everything Astarte stood

for, to live by the laws, not of earth, but of heaven.


children of Abraham tried to put this God first, but rarely with

notable success. Instead at every opportunity they turned away

from Jehovah "under every green tree", back to Nature.
This inevitably led back to Captivity in the

iron furnaces
of Egypt/Babylon/Rome, etc. The biblical cycle discussed above thus

relates to the alternating dominance of Jehovah and Astarte.

Blake's myth recreates this biblical story, but with

one vital difference.

       Vala and her fellow females--Tirzah, Rahab,

the Daughters of Albion--represent the various forms of Astarte,

the Earth Goddess. Urizen represents Jehovah, the Sky God. But

in 'The Four Zoas' both are fallen. Blake claims that the Hebrew

consciousness of God is flawed at best.

Secular materialists had reached this conclusion long before,

but it was a startling and revolutionary idea for a man like

Blake, embedded in the biblical faith and firmly attached to the

life of the Spirit.

Blake had made as serious a commitment to the

eternal as anyone could, and now at the mid point of his life he

saw an eternal without a God worthy of worship. It was a dark

night of the soul indeed!

       This honest and painful confrontation with what was for

Blake an existential reality has made him into the pariah of the

orthodox. The black book has no place for any criticism of the

Hebrew consciousness of God; he is perfect from first to last,

and everything the Bible says about him is perfect (inerrant!) as

well. The superstitious awe which has been called bibliolatry

forbids any questions of Abraham's God or Moses' God.


when we read without blinders, we can see their consciousness of

God changing before our eyes. Note Abraham bargaining with God

for the survival of his nephew in Sodom and Moses
simply defying God

if he

refuses to forgive the worshippers of the golden calf. In the

spirit of these two revealing passages Blake in his own recreation

of the biblical story dramatically portrayed an evolving God consciousness, which the black book simply cannot permit. It was

Blake's willingness to let the old die that made him notably

ready for the new birth. The dark night of the soul had intensified until it became the
Sickness unto Death.


Images of Grace

       For the Christian of course Blake's happiest use of the

Bible occurs with his statements of the gospel; these came after


Moment of Grace
in 1800. 'The Four Zoas' had been an attempt

to organize experience into a pattern of meaning. In the years

before grace Blake's concept of redemption rested upon the efforts

of Los, the Imagination, to create meaning out of the chaos of

fallen life.

       This process begins in Night iv and goes on to the

end of the poem. Blake called it "building Golgonooza", an adaptation of the biblical drama of rebuilding fallen Jerusalem.

Blake took this from the
book of Ezra

, one of his earliest

companions. At the beginning of Night ix, written after the
Moment of Grace

, Los and Enitharmon are no longer building Golgonooza; now they are building Jerusalem!

       In the earlier years salvation for Blake lay in art, as

it has for so many sensitive souls before and after his day.

Once he met grace, Jesus became for Blake the One and the All.

Jesus subsumed Blake's art and redeemed it. He tells us that

Jesus appeared to him in "the likeness and similitude of Los".

       Kierkegaard spoke of
the aesthetic phase.
Some aesthetes among Blake's critics, valuing art more highly

than Christ, have experienced the change as a deterioration of

Blake's art. Christians in contrast see the new work like Blake

saw it, as a glorified art, sublimated and fulfilled:

    Prayer is the Study of Art.

    Praise is the Practise of Art.

    Fasting &c., all relate to Art.
    br ....

    Jesus & his Apostles & Disciples were all Artists.


    The Old & New Testaments are the Great Code of Art.

    Art is the Tree of Life.

    (Selected Passages from The

       These are certainly provocative words! We should know

that the Bible is art in its highest form, but never art for art's

sake, always art for God's sake. In the
Laocoon' inscriptions
(quoted above) Blake made a frontal attack upon the "aesthetic"
orientation by pointing out the identity between true art and
true godlinesss, the "Tree of Life", which was God's original
intention for man before the serpent snarled up his plans.

It became a special joy and a labor of love for Blake

after his conversion to go back and recolor his biblically inspired

myth with those previously discounted parts of the Bible which

now burned in his consciousness. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

tell the story of the Lord of Love, adored by thousands who know

little or nothing about the rest of the Bible. Blake now puts

Jesus at the center, or rather the apex, of his myth of meaning.

       The 17th chapter of John is probably the central passage

of scripture for Blake's myth, both before and after the Moment

of Grace. In it Jesus prays to the Holy Father:

that they may be one, as we are one....That
they all may be one: as thou, Father, art in me
and I in thee, that they also may be one is
us... that they may be one, even as we are
one: I in them and thou in me, that they may be
made perfect in one;

       Blake's visionary experience from his earliest days had

centered on this image of oneness. All of his reading in the

heterodox tradition had reinforced it as the basic shape of reality. The Gnostics, the Neo-platonists, the alchemists, the

cabbalists, the Christian mystics, all had emphasized the supernal

oneness of God and Man and life. Blake had seen all trouble and

sorrow and brokenness in terms of the fracture and separation or

division from the primeval oneness. This was the basic idea of

his myth:

    "Daughters of Beulah, Sing His fall into Division & his
    Resurrection to Unity."

           And now on the sands of Felpham he had met the One,

been folded into his bosom and heard himself affectionately named

by the One ("Thou Ram Horn'd with Gold"). Turning to scripture

with new eyes, irradiated with his

First Vision of

finds the Saviour praying that we might be one as he is one with

the Father.

       In the eternal realm the sequence is reversed: the

divine prayer had in earliest childhood fallen into the deepest

levels of Blake's being. Like the veritable mustard seed it lay

there exerting an unconscious force, guiding him to the Gnostics

(who knew more about oneness than did the Church Fathers), the

Neoplatonists, and the others. And when the soil of Blake's

psyche was fully prepared, the seed burst out in the full embodiment of the vision of Light, when for Blake the One became flesh.

       This is the center of the Christian faith: that we are

one, that we are all Christ's members. Those who deny to Blake

the name of Christian on the basis of his 'white' reading of the

Bible thereby betray their own off centeredness. Certainly he

was no orthodox Christian; orthodox Christianity in its many

forms has been way off center. When Blake dreamed of the One and

met the One and sang of the One, he imaginatively incarnated the

answer to the divine prayer. Is there any better way to be a




       If a poll were taken to choose the most obscure of the

major books of the Bible, Ezekiel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New might win by a wide margin. Strangely enough

these very books seemed to mean the most to Blake. Their

meanings are largely symbolic; Blake adopted their symbols and

strenuously commented upon their meanings.

       In his

major work, 'Jerusalem', Blake took a great deal from Ezekiel:

the structural format, the oratorical style, the dialectic of

judgment and grace. But he used Ezekiel's style and material to

refute Ezekiel's vision of a jealous and punishing God.

       The first chapter of Ezekiel contains his definitive

epiphany, the encounter with God that initiated and sustained his

prophetic activity. The vision of the four living creatures, the

wheels, the fiery chariot, all are the trappings of the Shekinah,

the Glory of God. This vision originally empowered Ezekiel to

prophesy; it recurred throughout his prophetic life.

       In a climactic scene shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem the

prophet saw it hovering over the Temple and departing (read Ezekiel 10
with special attention to verse 18). Years

later he saw it returning to Jerusalem

as the liberated pilgrims

arrived from Babylon.

       Blake took
Ezekiel's living creatures

(zoas in Greek) as the

subject of his epic poem, 'The Four Zoas'. He humanized the Zoas

and enacted through them the destructive tendencies of the human

psyche which have led to the fracture and fall of Mankind. With

their fall Blake's Zoas became the "rulers of the darkness of this

world". As you study 4Z, keeping always in mind the biblical

source, you become aware that it all relates to Ezekiel's vision

of God.

       The striving found
in 4Z was interrupted by the
Moment of Grace. This led to a radical reorientation of Blake's theology.

He didn't change his mind about Ezekiel's God, but he met a new

and more loving God in the person of Jesus. In 'Jerusalem' he

gave the most overt and candid evaluation of the relationship

between these two visions. The Negro spiritual has it that Ezekiel saw the wheel. Here, in the language of Old Testament prophecy, Blake tells us what the Wheel has meant to Mankind:

       Plate 77 of Jerusalem might
well be considered Blake's valedictory: he tell us pretty plainly the
meaning of true religion. Here is a passage, but you should read it
wherever you can get your hands on it:

    I stood among my valleys of the south

    And saw a flame of fire, even as a Wheel

    Of fire surrounding all the heaven: it went

    From west to east, against the current of

    Creation, and devour'd all things in its loud

    Fury & thundering course round heaven & earth.

    By it the Sun was roll'd into an orb,

    By it the Moon faded into a globe

    Travelling thro' the night; for, from its dire

    And restless fury, Man himself shrunk up

    Into a little root a fathom long.

    And I asked a Watcher & a Holy-one

    Its Name; he answered: "It is the Wheel of Religion."

    I wept & said: "Is this the law of Jesus,

    "This terrible devouring sword turning every way?"

    He answer'd: "Jesus died because he strove

    "Against the current of this Wheel; its Name

    "Is Caiaphas, the dark Preacher of Death,

    "Of sin, of sorrow & of punishment:

    "Opposing Nature! It is Natural Religion;

    "But Jesus is the bright Preacher of Life

    "Creating Nature from this fiery Law

    "By self-denial & forgiveness of Sin.

    "Go therefore, cast out devils in Christ's name,

    "Heal thou the sick of spiritual disease,

    "Pity the evil, for thou art not sent

    "To smite with terror & with punishments

    "Those that are sick, like to the Pharisees

    "Crucifying & encompassing sea & land

    "For proselytes to tyranny & wrath;

    "But to the Publicans & harlots go,

    "Teach them True Happiness, but let no curse

    "Go forth out of thy mouth to blight their peace;

    "For Hell is open'd to Heaven: thine eyes beheld

    "The dungeons burst & the Prisoners set free."

       Here Blake with unparalleled eloquence has set forth

the opposition between the God of Wrath and the God of Mercy, the

dark Preacher of Death and the bright Preacher of Life. Mankind

in every age has turned Ezekiel's wheel into a juggernaut to enforce a worldly solidarity under the banner of priest and king.

And every age has had its dissenters who strove against it and

were all too often crushed.



       To understand the last book of the Bible the reader

must have achieved a certain level of consciousness. He must

have at least a rudimentary grasp of the eternal and a certain

feel for symbols, especially those metaphors of time and space

that point to eternal truth. Without this equipment the Apocalypse

is commonly read either as a grotesque phantasmagoria or as a

convenient coatrack upon which to hang a fabric of theological


       John of Patmos, the writer of the Apocalypse, had been

a bishop of the Church, a man of authority, a man of action, a

man who had commited himself with a whole heart to actualizing

the ideals of Jesus of Nazareth. John had seen his religious

program overwhelmed by a heartless political structure, his congregation scattered, and himself exiled to a small island where

he had little to do but reflect upon the past and gaze into the


       In his reflections John was informed by an intimate

knowledge of scripture. The vivid images of the Hebrew writers

ignited his imagination. They took the place of the people and

events which had formerly filled his mind. The seven eyes of

God, the plagues, the beasts from the sea and from the land, the

harlot, the Lamb, the bride, the new heaven and the new earth--

all these and many more of John's images originate in various

books of the Old Testament.

       Northrup Frye referred to Revelation

as "a dense mosaic of allusions and quotations" from the Bible.

The Apocalypse is an imaginative recreation of the entire Hebrew religious consciousness in an epic that carries us

to the end of time and the return of man to the golden age.

       Blake attempted to do the same thing with the English religious

consciousness, which explains why Revelation meant so much to

him. His epic can just as rightly be called a "dense mosaic of

allusions and quotations" from the Bible. In particular he seized

upon John's images and combined them into the stuff of his prophetic poems.

       When Christ ascended into Heaven, he left his disciples

with the expectation that he would soon return (See
John 21.22).

The writer of Revelation had lived through the years when this

hope was increasingly deferred. It became more and more apparent

that the return of Jesus was not within the time frame of their

original expectations. John outlived his associates, and he differed from the other New Testament writers in that he was forced

to look beyond the immediate events and their immediately expected

       He was forced to look into a more complex future. The rigor of this necessity freed him from the limited

time frame that characterizes most of the New Testament. He knew

the Old Testament truth that "a thousand years in thy sight are

but as yesterday". He of all the writers of the New Testament

had been most significantly disappointed in his temporal hopes

and forced to lift his mind from time to the eternal. That's why

his is the most symbolic book, and that's why it most appealed

to Blake.

       Blake used all of the symbols we have just noted and

many others as well. He had brooded over these images for a life

time, and they were fraught with meaning to him. They conveyed

to him not only John's meanings but the original meanings of the

O.T. writers from whom John had borrowed them, plus untold accretions of additional meanings acquired in the two millenia


       It's doubtful that John's images mean to anyone today

exactly what they meant to him. That's the nature of the symbols

of eternity: their temporal meanings change with the times. Our

religious consciousness changes with the times; even our images

of God change with the times--not just in the historical frame but

in the personal frame of a man's lifetime.

       Blake took the images of Revelation--and of the rest of

the Bible as well--and recreated them so as to express the evolving

spiritual consciousness of his day, and ours.

The images link us

to our heritage, the consciousness evolves, the Spirit is timeless.

       Two of the primary
images of Revelation are the
"woman clothed with the sun"

and the
"great whore that sitteth upon many waters".

Much of the interest of John's epic lies in the conflict between these two women; they respectively represent spiritual Jerusalem and spiritual Rome. The first woman is driven into

the wilderness by the Great Red Dragon; the Whore sits upon his

back. But in due time the Whore is burned (much to the satisfaction of the faithful) while the other woman becomes the Bride of

the Lamb.

       A minimal knowledge of this symbolism prepares one to

appreciate Blake's use of the same images to tell the same images

to tell the same story. 'The Four Zoas' was first called 'Vala':

she is the woman with whom Blake began, and she originally included both of John's women. But the Moment of Grace released in

Blake the vision of Jerusalem, and the long poem bearing her

name recounts her suffering at the hands of the other, who gradually
evolves into the Whore.

       Like John's woman clothed with the

sun Jerusalem is driven into the wilderness and continually oppressed and afflicted by the forces of the Beast and the Whore.

Vala, eventually manifested as Rahab, is finally burned; the

scene in

at the end of Night viii, contains one of Blake's

most explicit and extended quotations from Revelation.

       Here as in all of Blake's work he takes the biblical

material, and while remaining largely faithful to its accidents,

shows us new essence. Part of the final essence of Jerusalem is

that her name is Liberty (Jerusalem plate 26), another manifestation of Blake's most

vital lesson for us.


Job and Jerusalem

       If Ezekiel and Revelation are the most symbolic books of

the Bible, Job is the most poetic and indirect. It's significance

lies not in its theological statements, but in the questions it

raises. The primary question is how or why does a good and all

powerful God permit untold suffering to his most faithful servant.

The gospel of course provides the definitive answer, but an answer

grasped and accepted only by those commited to it as final truth.

       The modern prophet,
C.G.Jung, in his

Answer to Job
(click on the next article if you want to read further),

made some comments about God (the Hebrew God consciousness) very

reminiscent of those which fill Blake's earlier prophecies. By the time Blake got around to his recreation of Job

he had less interest in commenting on God than in retelling the

old, old story. Job, the most indirect book of the Bible, proved

an ideal vehicle for this, Blake's last and plainest statement of

the truth of his life.

       The biblical Job is presented as a good man whom God

allows the devil to torment. Blake presents him as a moral but

self-centered and self-righteous man. He prays for his children,

but what about other people's children? Is he praying for God to

favor his children over others? In no uncertain terms, writing

in another work, Blake let us know what he thought of that kind

of goodness:

    It this thy soft Family-Love,
    Thy cruel Patriarchal pride,
    Planting thy Family alone,
    Destroying all the World beside?

    (Jerusalem, 27.79; Erdman 173)

       The point is that it's okay to pray for your children,

but be careful how you pray for them. If your prayer for them to

be first amounts to a curse on their fellows--to be second or

last--that curse will fall upon your children's heads, just as

it did upon Job's.

Job's self-centered prayers and his left handed charity

Plate 5

of the Job series) won him no reward but in fact

delivered him into the hands of his
Selfhood (Satan).


Christians take warning: Blake's Job is the same rich man Jesus

spoke about, and he fills the pews (and too often the pulpit) of

our churches. Here once again, in the twilight of his life, we

find Blake dissenting from conventional religion, but now, unlike

some of his youthful protests, his dissent completely agrees with

the earlier dissent of the Prophet of Galilee: "Many that are

first shall be last."

       So much of our goodness is rotten; let's

face it.

The image of the boil ridden man haunted Blake and

appears frequently in his prophecies. In his hands it became a

vivid symbol of the general fallenness of man. Job's boils

represent the physical misery of the fallen state of nature.

Blake's Job, like the O.T. Job, represents Man. His adventures

are a paradigm of the destiny of Man: he falls, but he is redeemed.

       The importance of Job for the biblical writer as well as for our

poet is to make us poignantly aware once again that we're not

okay until we have experienced grace. Job's goodness got him

nowhere, but his faith opened him to redemption.

       Now look at Job's God; he resembles Job. Once again

Blake reminds us that man's God is an image, a construct of his

mind. In the begining Job saw God as a solid moralist like

himself. In the dark night his God turned bad (
See Plate 11),

but in the end gave way to a new and better image. The whole

thing foreshadows Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

       If we could learn that our experience of God comes only through

our image of him, then we would be less prone to attempt (wickedly) to impose our God on others. Then we might experience a

loving rather than a coercive God, and the others, not feeling

compelled, might be attracted, like Job's friends are in the end.

Blake's Job is a beautiful series of pictures, a perfect wedding

of exquisite art and lofty faith, Blake at his plainest and


       In 'Jerusalem', his most mature poem, Blake's basic

technique is to superimpose bodily the biblical scene, the biblical

story, the biblical truth upon the history and geography of England, and of the rest of the world as well. Understood in its

literal sense 'Jerusalem', like the book of Revelation, is

grotesque in the extreme. The reader will turn away in despair

or derision unless he succeeds in going beyond the literal

meaning and learns to see through rather than with the eye.

       In reality the biblical truth is just as relevant to

18th Century England as it is to first century (or any century)

Palestine. The same spiritual events continue to unfold today

that Ezekiel, John and the others saw and described in their

day. The same choices are to be made by 18th Century Britons

(or 20th Century Americans!) as were made by first (or any) century Palestinians, and these choices have the same consequences.

Truth is spiritual and timeless; the passing scene is only a

shadow of the eternal reality.

       Blake's grotesque juxtaposition of Canaan with England

may conceivably shock the reader into an understanding of these

profound truths. When this happens, the Bible suddenly takes on

new and gripping significance. It's no longer about all those

events way back in the past; it's about the stories unfolded in

this morning's newspaper. Blake's ability to live in the eternal,

his visionary capability enabled him to see with vivid clarity

the immediate relevance of scripture--personally, socially, and


       His young friends called him Interpreter because he

taught them to see it also. If we read his work with aroused and

concentrated attention, we, too, may see how scripture relates to

us--with immeasureable enrichment to our spirits.


The Recreation of the Word

       Having said all this how can we summarize Blake's

relationship to the Bible? First we recall that he didn't read

it literally but symbolically, not historically, but poetically.

Then we remember that he read it often enough and intensively

enough to see it as a whole. That's a rare view nowadays. The

Book has been almost universally blackened by simple ignorance

(the failure to read it) and by preconceived theological notions

that color and predetermine all of its meanings.

       Few people have

the happy faculty of looking at what's there without preconceptions

of one kind or another. Blake's freedom from the conditioning of

formal education gave him a most singular ability to do this. His

powerful and energetic reading of the Bible therefore offers us

the priceless gift of a new beginning, of getting behind our preconceptions and seeing the bedrock of western life in a new way.

       This new way is not really a new way, but a very old

way; it's a way that was lost when two things happened inaugurating

the modern age. First, Bacon, Newton and Locke convinced the

intellectual world that spirit doesn't really matter; all that

matters is matter. Second, knowledge exploded in such an expansion

that it became inconceivable to encompass it.

       Blake's new way is

a medieval way, but it's a lost way that we desperately need today, for failing an organized unity of spiritual direction, we all

sink together into the abyss.

The Bible according to Blake provides that direction.

If you can make a commitment to the Bible like his, intensive

enough to read it thoroughly, if you can put away the black book,

if you can learn to read it imaginatively instead of binding it

down to literal-historical categories of time and space (which

Blake called "single vision"), if you can do all of these things,

what emerges is a myth of meaning, a way of understanding life--

the Hebrews' life and your life.

       You find this myth of meaning most explicitly stated in

the earliest adventures of the children of Israel: they fall into

Egypt, at the Exodus are delivered, wander in the wilderness and

eventually occupy the Promised Land--but faithlessly. You see

this story recreated by every writer of the Bible and applied one

by one to a series of local scenes occuring over a period of about

a thousand years. You see a man named Jesus who deliberately sets

out to live this myth, and to live it in full, to do completely

what the successive preceding generations had always failed to do.

You see his death and resurrection and promise to come again to

achieve for us all what he had achieved as an individual (he in

us and we in him).

       Finally you see John on Patmos still waiting

for the Return and recreating the whole thing one more time in

terms of the struggle between the Beast of Rome and the New Jerusalem.

But is that the end of the story? For Blake it went

on. In the City of God Augustine recreated it for the fourth

century. There was Dante's recreation in the 13th, Milton's in

the 17th, Blake's in the 18th--and yours and mine today! It's

our myth of meaning; it's the way we get from time to eternity.

Otherwise we stick with Locke, we decide there is no eternity,

and we rot--or burn!

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