Jacob Wrestling the Angel: A Visual Meditation

I wrote ArtWay.eu’s visual meditation for today, on a painting by Jewish artist Arthur Sussman (1927-2008). Hop on over and check it out! http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=1281&action=show&lang=en

The meditation is based on Genesis 32:22-32:

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants 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 humans 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.

Who was this mystery man who wrestled with Jacob all night long? I am of the opinion that he was a Christophany—a preincarnate appearance of Christ—because after the encounter, Jacob says he saw God face-to-face. And God in human form is Christ. Why, then, have artists almost always depicted the man as an angel? The main reason is probably because Hosea refers to him as such (12:4). But secondarily, putting wings on the man easily distinguishes him from Jacob, as well as makes for a more dynamic picture.

Some Bible commentators suggest that perhaps the man was the same person referred to as “the angel of the Lord” in other biblical stories, and that, in contrast to an angel of the Lord, the angel of the Lord was really Jesus.

Whether a messenger of God or God himself, this man gives Jacob a new name: Israel, “he who struggles with God.” And Israel becomes the namesake of the Jewish nation.

There are so many facets to this story, and it can be read in several ways. For example, what are we to make of Jacob’s struggle and of his new name? Read my take at ArtWay.eu.

For different visual perspectives on the story, see:

  • Walter Habdank (wrestling with a dark shadow, with the unknown)
  • Odilon Redon (the pair is dwarfed by a giant tree, making their wrestling match seem petty, insignificant; Jacob is obviously of inferior strength, as he strains to push against his immovable partner)
  • Marc Chagall (God pained by . . . Jacob’s pain? Jacob’s blows? Jacob’s inability to see who he is?)
  • Tamar Fishman and Pat Johns (the awesomeness of the event; the glory of God manifested to Jacob)
  • Lynd Ward (injury, bringing to surrender)
  • Max Beckmann (hanging on to the divine blessing come down from heaven)
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One Response to Jacob Wrestling the Angel: A Visual Meditation

  1. Thanks for sharing these paintings, and your thoughts on Sussman’s (my fav) at artway.eu! As always, great writing and insights.

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