Was Esau white and Jacob black

I will not let you go

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Jakob struggles with the unknown

By Harald Schwillus, Halle (Saale)

The biblical story of Jacob still fascinates many people today. (dpa / picture alliance / Hansjürgen Wiedl)

The old biblical story of Jacob's struggle with an unknown person is puzzling. With whom is Jacob actually fighting: with an angel, with God himself? What does this fight and its result mean: a dislocated hip, a blessing, a new name for Jacob? Not only Jews and Christians are concerned with these questions to this day.

The time in the early morning, when the first daylight appears pale and cool, has a very special atmosphere. For some, Saturday night may be coming to an end - after work or pleasure. The light almost overwhelms you and actually comes at an inopportune time. For some others, a night is over in which they could not sleep properly - perhaps they have rolled over thoughts that could not be pushed aside. And then there are the people who very consciously get up at dawn, for whom the beginning of the new day with a magnificent sunrise or with hazy light is always a wonderful spectacle.

The darkness of the night and the brightness of the new day - that is something that is also important in a very primitive text of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. It's about the archfather Jakob, who has to fight for life and death with an unknown person on the Jabbok river for a whole night until dawn. And Jacob only lets go of him when he is blessed by him.

This narrative is very complex and has received many interpretations and interpretations - some of which I want to pursue this morning.

The dark of the night and the light of the new day, which opens up new perspectives and hopes - this is what the story in the 32nd chapter of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament speaks of. It's about Jakob. He had left his homeland because, under the most dishonest circumstances, he had cheated on his brother Esau of the blessing that a father bestowed on the firstborn shortly before his death. And he also duped his old and almost blind father Isaac and led him to believe he was Esau - and thus sneaked the blessing.

On the same day he has to flee from the anger of his brother Esau. He goes to distant relatives. There he marries the two daughters of his uncle Laban and is betrayed by him and also cheats on his uncle himself. All in all, a confused story full of Jacob's crooked tours.

After twenty years there is a final break with Laban and Jacob makes his way back to his homeland - to Esau. He knows exactly what he has done with his scams and is therefore afraid of his brother's reaction. Has he found out that Esau is going to meet him with 400 men - to retaliate or to greet him? Jakob is unsure.

Finally he reaches the border river Jabbok, which separates him from Esau and his homeland. Jakob brings his family and all his belongings across to the bank of his home through a ford.

And then the Old Testament goes on to say:

"When only he was left alone, a man wrestled with him until dawn rose. When the man saw that he couldn't get over him, he hit his hip joint. Jacob's hip dislocated when he wrestled with him. The man said, "Let go of me, for the dawn has risen. Jacob replied," I will not let go of you unless you bless me. He said, "What's your name? Jacob, he answered. Then the man said," No more Jacob You will be called, but Israel, because you have fought with God and men, and you have won. Jacob then asked, "Please tell me your name. He replied," Why do you ask my name? Then he blessed him there.

Jacob named the place Penuël [face of God] and said: I saw God face to face, and yet I got away with my life. The sun was already shining on him when he passed through Penuël; he limped at his hip. "(Gen 32: 25-32; standard translation)


Fight and blessing - these are the central themes of this Bible text. Some things here sound strange to our ears. Somebody fights with a superhuman opponent to the life and death - and can persist. He even makes a request. But what does he demand: not power and support against his brother Esau and also not a settlement of his conflict with him through divine intervention. No: he asks for the blessing of the unknown. This blessing seems to be as important to him as the surreptitious blessing of his father Isaac was before.

Many people of our day can hardly understand the outstanding importance of blessing in biblical times. It establishes a very personal and intense relationship with God. Birgitta Aicher, pastoral officer in the diocese of Basel, sums up these theological considerations with a view to Jakob as follows:

"It is obvious that blessings are of little importance in our world of thought and language [...]. We usually use blessings in a formulaic phrase, such as: 'Moving oneself brings blessings'. This expresses the fact that it leads to material prosperity Those who work hard and exert themselves can do that, but this is far from the biblical understanding, because there blessing is a gift that does not fall into the realm of material possession, nor does it arise from human performance and actions. Nevertheless, he can very well be found in the mundane everyday life of biblical people. According to the Old Testament, blessing plays a role in every human encounter. In Hebrew, the word for 'greet' and 'bless' is identical […]. But also in Germans still resonate with this combination of “greetings” and “blessings.” When we shout a “Grüß Gott” to each other on the street, we are basically doing it because we are comfortable with our counterparts about mine. […] If Jacob asks for God's blessing, he wants to know that he is connected to God and to God. He also asks for the strength to have a new and beneficial encounter with his brother. But it is also about the strength for a new life, so that the deceiver (Jacob) can become a warrior (Israel). "

Jacob fights alone on the Jabbok River against a powerful stranger whom he can only withstand with the greatest effort and exertion - a dark and mysterious story. It is very old and originally told of a river spirit or demon who has enormous powers in the dark of the night, but loses its power at dawn. There are stories of this kind in many cultures: they tell of demonic beings who attack and kill people at river crossings or crossroads.

The people of Israel have included this story in their narrative world. It connected them with Jacob - with that Jacob who on his return to his brother Esau does not dare to cross the border river Jabbok without further ado. The story now speaks in impressive terms of a God who is not simply nice and harmless. Jacob has to fight with him - with his idea of ​​God and blessings. Only then does he become the progenitor of the Jewish people, Israel - because only at the end of the battle does the stranger give him a new name: "You will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel [warrior], because you have fought with God and men and you won. "

Jacob thus becomes a symbol for the warrior of God, for those who wrestle for and with God - especially in the face of inexplicable and involuntary suffering. This is of fundamental importance for Israel's relationship with God. The theologian Diego Arenhoevel explains this in a commentary on the Jakobskampf am Jabbok:

"Israel, the people of God, is not the people who are loyal to their God and keep their laws; they are the people who fight with their God. The history of faith does not arise from the fact that the old beliefs are better exhibited, ordered, perfected . It is a struggle for God and with God, the so often incomprehensible. Believing existence means: to hold on to God, even if one thinks that God wants to throw the believer away. One is wounded in this superhuman struggle, one limps, but come out blessed. "

Suffering is neither played down nor glorified here. Mark Chagall has interpreted this experience in an impressive way in a painting:

His "Battle of Jacob with the Angel" in the "Message Biblique" museum in Nice is wrapped in a deep blue. It is the color of the world that everything happens before your eyes. The focus is on the unknown: depicted as a huge messenger with waving wings. Jacob braces himself - already quite powerless - against him; but he is blessed. Smaller pictures are grouped around this scene: pictures from the story of Jacob, but also pictures that do not deny the dark side of God through the centuries: Chagall, who has lost almost his entire family and many friends in the gas chambers of the National Socialists, paints below the Jakobskampf houses in his hometown Vitebsk. A reference to the lost world of the shtetl and the systematic destruction of Jewish life in the 20th century.

Chagall paints a god who is not easy to have, who appears dark and dangerous. Jacob encounters such a god in the unknown on the river Jabbok - a god to whom he has to contort.

Nelly Sachs condensed this experience of God in her poem "Jakob":

"(a) O Israel,
First in the morning gray fight
where all birth with blood
is written on the twilight.
O the pointed knife of the cockcrow
stabbed humanity in the heart,
o the wound between night and day
which is our place of residence!

(b) champions,
in the writhing flesh of the stars
in the night watch mourning
a bird song cries out of it.

(c) O Israel,
you once to bliss at last
Delivered -
grace dripping with the morning dew
on your head -

(d) Blessed for us
those sold in oblivion,
groaning in the drift ice
of death and resurrection
and from the heavy angel above us
twisted to God
like you! "


Jacob wrestles with a powerful stranger at the ford that leads through the Jabbok River to his home and to his brother Esau. The interpretation of this struggle occupied not only theologians but also artists for centuries. The 19th century, for example, often interpreted Jacob's struggle with God as a symbol for the artist struggling for recognition; the artists of the baroque period had a special interest in the representation of the moving fighting bodies in order to prove their painterly virtuosity.

In contrast to these interpretations, the depictions of the Jacobean fight in antiquity and in the Middle Ages explicitly deal with its religious interpretation.

Probably the oldest Christian depiction of the scene is on the relief of an ivory case from the late 4th century. It is now kept in the Museo Civico dell’Età Christiana in Brescia. There, Jakob and the stranger face each other like wrestlers: both bend their upper bodies forward to prevent the opponent from reaching under. Jacob grabbed his opponent by the shoulder while the other grabbed Jacob's knee to throw him off balance. A blow to the hip is not indicated.

The art historians Reinhild Stephan-Maaser sees the origin of this representation in the ancient wrestling tradition:

"Wrestling was a high school subject in Athens. The boys had to have already completed the ring school [...] when they entered. Wrestling was considered an all-encompassing education that strengthens and perfects not only the body, but also the mind and maintained a wrestling school in southern Italy. Even Plato and Aristotle are known to be successful wrestlers and recommended wrestling for the training of young men The protector deity and role model of the wrestlers at the same time was Heracles, who had emerged victorious from numerous wrestling matches against animal and human monsters [...]. moral meaning in the sense of striving for the good and the K of the righteous against the unrighteous. "

This moral interpretation of the Jacobean fight took on a new intensification in the Middle Ages. Often it becomes a scene in the larger symbolic context of man's struggle against the stereotypes of evil - even though the representation of the unknown - as in Ste.-Madeleine in Vézelay - increasingly takes on the shape of an angel with a halo and wings .

In the Christian interpretation of the Jacobean fight on the Jabbok River, it is becoming increasingly clear that the unavailable God is the God who blesses people. He is the God who does not let go of people and wrestles with them. In Jesus Christ he wrestled with people to the point of death on the cross. But it doesn’t stop there - where it would have to stay that way according to human standards: the night of death seems to be victorious.

But the dawn of Easter speaks a no to these standards: at dawn of this day God blesses people - it is the blessing of the resurrection.

Jacob wrestles with his fears and fears, his self-inflicted bad conscience towards his brother Esau, from whom he has tricked the birthright.

Unexpectedly, a stranger attacks him and wrestles with him in the dark. Perhaps it is also the personified darkness in Jacob himself that overcomes him at the moment of being alone. Everyone knows memories like this: of a letter that should have been written a long time ago, of a phone call that I avoided, of a visit that I have repeatedly avoided.

Such memories often overwhelm us when it is quieter around us, when we are lying in bed and actually want to sleep. Fears and thoughts that pile up in us when we push them away from us. Fears of experiences of being rejected and the fear of situations of failure.

Not different with Jakob: but he overcomes these fears - and at the same time makes the liberating experience that he has not only struggled with human inadequacy. No: he fought with God and man. Or to put it another way: before God and man, he made up his mind not to avoid the embarrassing and perhaps painful encounter with his brother. In return he gets free breath and the blessing of God. But such fights do not remain without a trace - from now on he will remember them again and again because the stranger injured his hip. Jacob will limp the rest of his life.

He fought with the unknown all night long and won his blessing. In the pale light of the morning he overcame the demonic and met God. He trusts this blessing. At dawn, God blesses people. The new day can come! Easter can come!

Music and literature for this program:
• CD: Heinrich Schütz: Musical Exequies, Part 1: Concert in the form of a funeral Missa, from: Musical Exequies. Motets and Concerts, Polydor
• CD: Johann Hermann Schein: Israelis Brünnlein, ecclesiastical madrigals of 5 or 6 voices and basso continuo, harmonia mundi
• CD: Johann Sebastian Bach: I won't let you, you bless me (BWV 159), from: Motets, The Hillard Ensemble, ECM
• CD: Johann Sebastian Bach: From the depths, Lord, I call to you BWV 131 (penance service), cantatas / cantatas, brilliant classics
• Aicher, Birgitta: "I won't let you, you bless me ...", in: Bibel heute 115 (1993)
• Arenhoevel, Diego: Memory of the Fathers. Genesis 12-50 (Stuttgart small commentary), Stuttgart 1992
• Sachs, Nelly: The Suffering of Israel, Frankfurt undated, pp. 122f .; quoted in Fuchs, Gotthard: Chipped and excellent. On the topicality of the story of the Jakobskampf (Gen 32: 23-33), in: Katechetic Blätter 103rd vol. (1978)
• Stephan- Maaser, Reinhild: Wrestling with body and soul. Jacob's fight with the angel in older art, in: Jabboq 7 (2007)

The Catholic broadcasting representative for Deutschlandradio Kultur, Pastor Lutz Nehk, is responsible for the editorial and content of this report.

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