Blake and the Book of Numbers: Joshua the Giant Killer and the Tears of Balaam

  • R. Paul Yoder


William Blake’s last major poem, Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, is a challenging and often obscure work in which one is rarely sure of the validity of statements and claims made by the various characters. Often characters make flatly contradictory statements, as when both Jesus and Satan claim divine authority in the poem. Indeed, the entire action of the poem depends on Albion’s decision as to which “God” to follow: Jesus (associated with freedom, forgiveness, and peace) or Satan (associated with Natural Philosophy, judgment, punishment, and war). Repeatedly in the poem, Satan insists, “I am God,” and the question is: how does Albion know that he is not? The question is important because, as Blake saw it, people and states often claim for themselves divine authority to justify their actions, when in fact their actions are led by more human drives like greed or pride or ambition. They use the pretense of divine authority to control others. Through all its difficulty, these are the issues that drive Jerusalem. Blake seems to have recognized that similar issues are played out in the biblical account of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, primarily that narrated in the book of Numbers and completed in the book of Joshua. Indeed he invokes three crucial episodes from Numbers as the biblical context for his poem— the report of the spies about giants in Canaan, Balaam’s attempt to curse the Israelites, and the battle of Peor—and he uses that context to suggest an alternative to war as a means of conquest, and to suggest that the legitimate line of prophecy need not depend on one’s nationality.


Giant Killer Divine Command Precious Stone State Religion Promise Land 
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© Sheila A. Spector 2005

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  • R. Paul Yoder

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