My favorite Bible story is of Jacob’s transformative nocturnal encounter with an unnamed and unknown presence:
Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.”
Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there.
So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping on his hip. [Genesis 32:25-33]
The story has been imagined in art in many ways, as can be seen in this sampling here. Most paintings collapse the deliberate imprecision of the Bible – “A man wrestled…You have striven with a being Divine…” – and represent the adversary as angelic, if often gender non-specific. The artists also choose different moments in this brief narrative as their subject.
The interpretations to which I gravitate are the representations by Odilon Redon, who did two paintings based on this story. In one the encounter is at the center, and in the other most of the painting is an opening of light and the two figures are depicted as almost incidental, blending into or emerging out of the background towards the bottom of the frame.
In the square framed painting, the moment Redon has captured looks to be “Said he, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.’ ” In the rectangular framed painting, the moment seems to be “When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him."
Each human life seems to have its own versions of Jacob’s encounter, and usually more than one. Unanticipated, unexpected and unwanted, we often find ourselves entwined with a force or power, a situation or circumstance that challenges us, against which, the Bible writer suggests here, perhaps the best we can hope for is to “prevail” or “endure” – not to be a victor or to be vanquished, but to be transformed.
As Redon suggests in his first painting, the nature of blessing is often imprecise: Jacob’s condition for release is a blessing, but what he receives is a change of name. On one level, this is an anticipation of the aphorism: Be careful what you wish for. But on a more consequential level, the text suggests that at key moments, our expectations and the actual way life unfolds are often out of alignment – but not unrelated.
Put differently: what we are given to work with as we move through life are not the outcomes we anticipate or imagine, but those that emerge out of the encounter between who we have been and what we meet along the way, pointing us towards who we will now become as a result.
There is a poignancy to the price Jacob pays for prevailing, as Redon suggests in his second painting. Jacob stands on one leg, the other rests in the hand of his adversary, who stands almost effortlessly, upright against Jacob’s grasp. The Bible reminds us: “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.” These defining encounters not only transform us, they extract a price from us – they leave a mark. We are never the same again.
I find the interpretations Redon brings to this story to be among the most authentic reflections of the truth of encounter-engagement struggle-transformation as the path we have been given to walk through this life.