Behemoth and Leviathan from Illustrations of the Book of Job by William Blake

William Blake

Behemoth and Leviathan from Illustrations of the Book of Job, 1825–26, Engraving, 411 x 275 mm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of Edward Bement 1917, 17.17.1–15, www.metmuseum.org

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out

‘Behold now Behemoth, which I Made with Thee’

Commentary by

William Blake was haunted by the book of Job, returning to this biblical text again and again.

What is surprising in Blake’s depiction of Behemoth and Leviathan in both his watercolours and engraving of the subject is how constrained these creatures are, encapsulated in a circle, the womb of God’s creation. Earlier, in 1794, Blake’s well-known poem ‘The Tyger’ asks a Job-like question of God concerning creatures like Behemoth and Leviathan: ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ But in Blake’s reflections on the book of Job the only questions are God’s.

In the watercolours and engraving both Behemoth and Leviathan are contained, clearly within and under God’s control, though Leviathan in particular conveys a sense of impending movement and power. God, angelic creatures, Job, Job’s wife, and Job’s three friends look on as God points to these mighty creatures, the apex of God’s creation: ‘Nothing on earth is like it. … It is king over all the sons of pride’ (Job 41:33–34 own translation). The images and the text in the margins (of the engraving) are accepting of, rather than resistant to, the mystery of bounded power and violence, whether animal (Behemoth and Leviathan) or human (thee): ‘Behold now Behemoth, which I made with thee’.

The image invites the reader to recognize the kindred nature of the great beasts, the biblical human watchers, and contemporary viewers. God’s arm links all three. The three levels of God’s reality are clearly framed: the inner circle of these most awesome of animals, the intermediate oval of the human and animal, and the outer rectangle in which God and the angels frame all in all. Here all is harmony; each has its place and power, under God. Job’s relentless interrogation of the retributive theology of his friends and the justice of God are interrupted and answered in Blake’s image. Blake captures the moment of epiphany for Job: ‘I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You’ (Job 42:5).

 

References

Blake, William. 1805–10. Behemoth and Leviathan. Watercolour, available at http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1668292 [accessed 22 October 2018]

Blake, William. 1823. Illustrations of the Book of Job, ed. by Charles Eliot Norton (Boston: James R. Osgood and Co.). Available at http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/blake-blakes-illustrations-of-the-book-of-job [accessed 22 October 2018]