Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Struggle

Frans Francken II 1581-1642
The Struggle of Jacob and the Angel
Oil on canvas
68 cm x 86 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn 1606 - 1669
The Struggle between Jacob and the Angel
Oil on canvas
1.37m x 1.16m
Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Luca Giordano 1634 – 1705
The Struggle of Jacob and the Angel
Oil on canvas
251 x 112 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
Jacob struggling with the Angel
La Chapelle des Anges, Eglise Saint-Sulpice, Paris

Genesis relates three major encounters that the Patriarch Jacob had with angels.

In the first, he sees them ascending and descending a stairway that links heaven and earth (28:10-15).

In the second, he meets them on his journey back to Canaan and his parental home after years of exile in the home of Laban (32:2-3).

Soon afterwards, he has a third and traumatic encounter with an enigmatic being, perhaps an angel, who maims him, but from whom Jacob secures an important blessing.

It is the third encounter at the Jabbok or Peniel which formed the centrepiece of Pope Benedict`s recent catechesis on Prayer. The incident has often been portrayed in art and literature. It is a metaphor for human struggle: whether creative, personal or spiritual.

As the Pope makes clear in his catechesis, the context of the third struggle is important.

Jacob is returning home after about twenty years, filled with apprehension. Years ago he had tricked his brother Esau of his inheritance. His brother had promised vengeance. He is approaching his brother`s lands and his brother`s forces are much stronger than his. Jacob fears total destruction at the hands of his brother. Jacob has split up his followers in an attempt to evade this possible vindication at the hands of Esau and his followers.

Up till now Patriarch Jacob has not been wholly straight forward in his dealings with people such as Esau and Laban. Some might describe it as downright treacherous.

Tomorrow or soon thereafter he will encounter Esau. Filled with fear and dread, Jacob wants God`s blessing before this important encounter. Does he still have God`s support ? Without it, he has nothing.

The whole incident and background are in Genesis 32:

"Genesis 32 verses 3 et seq

3 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.

4 He instructed them: This is what you are to say to my master Esau: 'Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now.

5 I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, menservants and maidservants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favour in your eyes.'

6 When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.

7 In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well.

8 He thought, If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.

9 Then Jacob prayed, O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, 'Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,'

10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups.

11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.

12 But you have said
, 'I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.'

13 He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau:

14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams,

15 thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.

16 He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.

17 He instructed the one in the lead: When my brother Esau meets you and asks, 'To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?'

18 then you are to say, 'They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.'

19 He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him.

20 And be sure to say, 'Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.' For he thought, I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.

21 So Jacob's gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.

Jacob Wrestles with God

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.

23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.

24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.

25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.

26 Then the man said, Let me go, for it is daybreak. But Jacob replied, I will not let you go unless you bless me.

27 The man asked him, What is your name? Jacob, he answered.

28 Then the man said, Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.

29 Jacob said, Please tell me your name. But he replied, Why do you ask my name? Then he blessed him there.

30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.

31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.

32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob's hip was touched near the tendon."

Before the encounter, Jacob is scheming, ducking and diving to ensure survival. He is filled with fear. The odds are against him succeeding. He is driven to prayer: to seek God`s blessing. He is a wilful man. He knows what he wants and he is determined to get it. Before the encounter did he think that this was an easy thing to receive ? To ask and he would simply receive it ? He was not going to take "no" for an answer. But did he realise that he may have to pay a price or that something needed to be done before his prayer would be answered ?

The battle description is complex and rather obscure.

Was it God who was Jacob`s opponent ? Did Jacob or was it God who obtained victory ? Was either victorious ? How could a mortal obtain victory from an omnipotent and omniscient God ? Is God merely toying with Man ? Is God testing Jacob ? Can Man change the mind of God ? Is the encounter with God the means by which God changes Man ?

"Reading the passage, it is hard to establish which of the two contenders succeeds in having the upper hand. The verbs used often lack an explicit subject, and the actions progress in an almost contradictory way, so that when one thinks that either of the two has prevailed, the next action immediately contradicts it and presents the other as the winner.

At the beginning, in fact, Jacob seems to be the strongest, and the adversary -- the text states -- "did not prevail against him" (verse 26 [25]); yet he strikes the hollow of his thigh, dislocating it.

One would then be led to think that Jacob has to surrender, but instead it's the other who asks him to let him go; and the patriarch refuses, laying down a condition: "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (verse 27). He who by deception had defrauded his brother of the firstborn's blessing, now demands it from the stranger in whom perhaps he begins to see divine characteristics, but still without being able to truly recognize him.

The rival, who seemed to be held and therefore defeated by Jacob, instead of submitting to his request, asks his name: "What is your name?" And the patriarch responds: "Jacob" (verse 28).

Here the battle undergoes an important development. To know someone's name, in fact, implies a kind of power over the person, since the name, in biblical thinking, contains the most profound reality of the individual; it unveils his secret and his destiny. Knowing someone's name therefore means knowing the truth of the other, and this allows one to be able to dominate him. When, therefore, at the stranger's request, Jacob reveals his own name, he is handing himself over to his opponent; it is a form of surrender, of the total giving over of himself to the other.

But in this act of surrender, Jacob paradoxically also emerges as a winner, because he receives a new name, together with an acknowledgement of victory on the part of his adversary, who says to him: "Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed" (verse 29 [28]).

"Jacob" was a name that recalled the patriarch's problematic beginnings; in Hebrew, in fact, it calls to mind the word "heel," and takes the reader back to the moment of Jacob's birth when, coming from the maternal womb, his hand took hold of his twin brother's heel (cf. Gen. 25:26), as though prefiguring the overtaking of his brother's rights in his adult life; but the name Jacob also calls to mind the verb "to deceive, to supplant."

In a straight contest of wills between Man and God, Man`s struggle is doomed to failure. But by the struggle and subsequent surrender to God`s will, he is rewarded through God`s mercy and is transformed. He is given a new name and is declared the victor. His will is aligned to God`s will.

Having seen God face to face at Penuel, Jacob can now prepare to meet Esau face to face as well. His fear is overcome

The Pope went on to say:

" [T]he Catechism of the Catholic Church also affirms: "the spiritual tradition of the Church has retained the symbol of prayer as a battle of faith and as the triumph of perseverance" (No. 2573).

The biblical text speaks to us of the long night of the search for God, of the battle to know his name and to see his face; it is the night of prayer that, with tenacity and perseverance, asks a blessing and a new name from God, a new reality as the fruit of conversion and of forgiveness.

In this way, Jacob's night at the ford of the Jabbok becomes for the believer a point of reference for understanding his relationship with God, which in prayer finds its ultimate expression.

Prayer requires trust, closeness, in a symbolic "hand to hand" not with a God who is an adversary and enemy, but with a blessing Lord who remains always mysterious, who appears unattainable. For this reason the sacred author uses the symbol of battle, which implies strength of soul, perseverance, tenacity in reaching what we desire.

And if the object of one's desire is a relationship with God, his blessing and his love, then the battle cannot but culminate in the gift of oneself to God, in the recognition of one's own weakness, which triumphs precisely when we reach the point of surrendering ourselves into the merciful hands of God.

Dear brothers and sisters, our whole life is like this long night of battle and prayer that is meant to end in the desire and request for God's blessing, which cannot be grasped or won by counting on our own strength, but must be received from him with humility, as a gratuitous gift that allows us, in the end, to recognize the face of the Lord.

And when this happens, our whole reality changes; we receive a new name and the blessing of God.

But even more: Jacob, who receives a new name, who becomes Israel, also gives a new name to the place where he wrestled with God; he prayed there and renamed it Peniel, which means "the Face of God." With this name, he recognized that place as filled with God's presence; he renders the land sacred by imprinting upon it the memory of that mysterious encounter with God.

He who allows himself to be blessed by God, who abandons himself to him, who allows himself to be transformed by him, renders the world blessed."

As the Pope points out in his catechesis there have been numerous interpretations of this chapter in the Book of Genesis.

Often the story becomes a metaphor for the existential process of "artistic creation" but as can be seen above only by a superficial reading of the Scriptural passage. For instance in the poem "A Little East of Jordan" (Poem 59), Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote:

"A little East of Jordan,
Evangelists record,
A Gymnast and an Angel
Did wrestle long and hard -

Till morning touching mountain -
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast - to return -

Not so, said cunning Jacob !
"I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me"- Stranger !
The which acceded to -

Light swung the silver fleeces
"Peniel" Hills beyond,
And the bewildered Gymnast
Found he had worsted God !

(Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. London : Faber, 1975, p. 31.)

Other interpretations deny that the mysterious adversary was either God or an angel. In Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (p.229), Robert Graves and Raphael Patai posit the theory that the adversary was in fact his elder brother Esau:

"The prime enemy to be faced by Jacob upon crossing the Jabbok was his twin Esau, from whose just anger he had fled twenty years before. In fact, one Midrash presents Esau as Jacob’s unknown adversary [i.e., “man” or “angel”] at Peniel, an identification based on his likening Esau’s countenance to God’s (Genesis xxxiii. 10)."

Writers of the modern historical novel (and those of "Psycho history") have used the incident as a myth on which to hang their own particular theories. The first volume of Thomas Mann`s Joseph and his brothers (Joseph und seine Brüder) (1926 - 1943) concentrates on Jacob and his Sons.

One does wonder if the present catechesis by the Pope on prayer is an attempt to rescue important parts of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible from those who regard it Bronze Age myths influenced by Babylonian sources and to instill the importance of these narratives to present day Christian spirituality and practice.

But not all artists within the last 150 years have looked on the story as myth and rejected the spiritual importance of the story. Here is Gerard Manley Hopkins` poem, Carrion Comfort:

Carrion Comfort

NOT, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Here is the famous work by Gauguin:

Paul Gauguin 1848 - 1903
Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)
Oil on canvas
72.20 x 91.00 cm
The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

and a beautiful study by Jean Revol (b. 1929)

Jean Revol b. 1929
La Lutte avec l’ange
c. 2000
Black ink
Artist`s collection