Monday, July 28, 2014


For such a physical struggle – all night, you may remember – many depictions of Genesis 32:22-31 are remarkably unphysical. For all it appears in those works, Jacob might be dancing with his mysterious opponent. In at least one version (Rembrandt, 1659, Gemaldegalerie) it looks like God's messenger is about to “dip” his dance partner. But the text recounts a physical endurance contest between two determined opponents.

The painting by Leon Joseph Florentin Bonnat (c. 1876), below, captures the physical nature of the struggle as each wrestler refuses to let go of the other. Details are dropped out. The color palette is limited. Judging by the sky blue background, the time of day does not appear to be deepest night. Perhaps dawn is breaking and this is the final moment of the match. With an indistinct setting, the emphasis is on the push and pull between the two figures. The two are distinguished by the paint's value – one lighter, the other darker, though the darker figure of Jacob has the same light highlights as the angel, and the underside of the angel's wings are the same tonal family as Jacob's skin.
At the moment captured by the painting, Jacob appears to be lifting the angel off the ground. There seems to be a pointed toe desperately trying to remain connected to the earth. You may remember the story of Hercules and Antaeus. And though Jacob would not be familiar with the story, surely the artist was. In the ancient story, Antaeus, a Libyan giant, requires all people passing through his country to wrestle with him. Hercules gains the advantage in the contest of strength and wills by lifting the giant from the earth, which is the source of Antaeus' grounding and power. It seems counter-intuitive, though, that God's wrestler would be determined to remain connected to the earth.

A video clip of the story places the two wrestlers in a different relationship. In this contemporary version, the angel hovers above the earth with Jacob grasping at legs and hem, trying to keep the angel within his grasp. Jacob is clearly in a weaker position here, but he remains determined to hold on. A still is below. The entire video clip is here:

Perhaps both artists understood Jacob's character and that if there was an advantage to be gained, Jacob was determined to gain it. I will not let you go until you bless me. And so there is blessing...and a limp. Though Jacob is blessed with a new name rooted in a relationship with God, the conclusion is still on God's terms.

No comments:

Post a Comment