Monday, July 10, 2017

Genesis 25.19-34: Bowl for Birthright: A Tale of Opposites

The birth of two nations is the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 10/Pentecost 6A. Genesis 25:19-34 tells of the birth and early lives of brothers - twins - Jacob and Esau. They are the sons of Isaac and Rebekah and the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah. They were different from each other - one outdoorsy and the other preferred the indoors. Each parent had a favored child. The story can't possibly be without conflict.

And indeed the conflict begins at birth and doesn't end until much  later in the twins' lives. Along the way is the episode featured here. Esau comes in from the fields and is quite hungry. Jacob has been staying close to the farm and has cooked up a stew. And Esau says he is s-t-a-r-v-i-n-g.

Jacob can help. All Esau has to do is give up his birthright. Pinkie swear.

Hendrick ter Brugghen has painted that moment. In his Caravaggesque style (to oversimplify, that means strong lights and darks) he shows the two brothers in the foreground, a table of food between them. In the background are the two parents, each standing behind their favored child. Rebekah, whose face is between the two boys, holds a plate, making things ready for her favorite, Jacob. Isaac, who will be blind, sits almost invisible in the darkness at the right. The depth of the picture space is stopped by the canvas tent wall. All the action is in front of the tent wall.

Hendrick ter Brugghen. Esau Selling His Birthright. c. 1627. Oil on canvas. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
The artist's use of light focuses attention in the composition's center. The two boys' hands are expressively drawn. The right hand of each is in almost the same position. The left hand of each holds characteristic objects: Jacob the bowl of soup and Esau the wooden handle of a tool. The two boys are even wearing complementary colors: Jacob in red and Esau in a shade of green.

We know from the story that the deal is made and fulfills the prophecy that the older brother would indeed serve the younger. Generations of this family will be impacted by this deal, but ter Brugghen narrows an epic story to a single moment. The exchange of bowl for birthright.

Art&Faith Matters has other posts that relate to this week's Gospel reading and an additional post mentioning Jacob and Esau. This week's Facebook post looks at the very beginning of this a somewhat unusual illustration. Click on the Facebook link below.

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