Saturday, July 30, 2011

Jacob and the angel: Wrestling to reconcile body and spirit

“Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” by Leon Bonnat (1876) via Wikimedia Commons

When Jacob wrestled with the angel in the Bible, they embodied the struggle between sexuality and spirituality. Artists have created many homoerotic images of the scene over the centuries.

The story of Jacob wrestling (Genesis 32:24-31) is the Sunday lectionary reading for tomorrow (July 31).  It speaks to LGBT people and our allies.

Many have interpreted this story as a struggle between material and spiritual needs, but it is especially powerful for queer people who are trying to reconcile their sexuality and their faith. Jacob refused to give up the fight until he forced a blessing out of God. Like Jacob, LGBT people can also win God’s blessing by continuing to wrestle with our faith, regardless of those who condemn as sinners.

Jacob, ancestor and namesake of the Israelites, is alone one night when a mysterious stranger comes to him. Scripture refers to the stranger as a man, God, and an angel (Hosea 12:4). He wrestles with Jacob until dawn. Then the angel wants to leave, but Jacob insists, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

The angel gives him a new name and identity as Israel, which can be translated as “one who has prevailed with God.” Jacob asks to know the angel’s name, but he just gives a blessing and leaves. Alone again, Jacob marvels, “I have seen God face to face and lived.”

Jacob is honored in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For Christians, some see the pre-incarnate Christ himself as the mysterious stranger who wrestled with Jacob.

The story raises intriguing questions. What was the nature of the “wrestling” that went on all night long? Whether or not there was an erotic interaction, the friendly conclusion affirms that God wants to relate to human beings as equals. God rewards those who challenge God.

“Jacob and the Angel” by Hendrik Andersen, lover of Henry James. For the uncropped version (warning: full frontal nudity), visit Wikimedia Commons.
Related links:

Wrestling with God” at the Queering the Church Blog is a queer reflection on Jacob and the angel.

Click here for a gallery of art showing “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” at Wikimedia Commons.

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts


Trudie said...

What a fascinating post! I had never thought about the erotic aspects of Jacob's wrestling match with the angel. But doubtless that's because I've never really been a wrestling fan. Smile. I found the link to the Wikipedia sources intriguing.

Josh Thomas (Indiana) said...

You do such beautiful, healing work. I'm sore impressed.

Jacob's wrestling with God and renaming as Israel is a pivot point in human history. "I won't let you go until you bless me."

Doubtless God was toying with him - but doubtless too, Jacob wasn't letting go. Once they both understood what was happening, Jacob could release and the angel could fly.

It's homoerotic, all right; the Bible is full of hidden messages for Gay people. Who do we think wrote it in part? Whom did God choose to help with the writing?

Who did he know would still read it all these years later? Who are the ones uniquely able to open it up and understand it?

We are - just among the many, but we are. Thank you for honoring our place among the company.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thank you, Trudie and Josh, for letting me know that you liked my reflections on Jacob wrestling. I do strive to do “beautiful, healing work,” so it helps to know when I hit the mark.

Josh, I appreciate your questions, which lead us deeper into the story. Trudie, I’ve never been a big wrestling fan either, but I was always intrigued by the idea of wrestling with an angel. It seems so different from the usual portrayals of angels as guardians or harp players!

dedeurs said...

I'm an atheist, but I find the Bible stories, and the art they derive, interesting in a psychological way.
There's a drawing by A E Chalon in where Adam and Eve mourn their dead son, and in the background you see Cain walking off, gesturing with the murder weapon (a club) in an agitated way. Adam and Eve wear clothes, Cain is totally naked.
There's a similar painting by Pietro Novelli, except that Cain leaves the scene dressed in an animal skin draped in Greek style, but leaving one buttock bare. (Of both works I saw censored versions as well; smoke from a sacrifice pyre covers up those bare bums.)
Why the nudity? If there's a symbolic meaning in this, it escapes me. Nudity stopped being normal and acceptable once Man left Eden, didn't it? If the descendants from Adam's tribe were primitive barbarians, starting from scratch, then why did Chalon cloth Adam and Eve (and Abel!) and not Cain? Or did Cain use his nudity as a rebellious act? We can't ask Chalon and Novelli; they're dead.
In one painting of the killing, we see Abel with covered loins or in a tunic and Cain fully nude, in yet another rendition it's Cain who is decent, and Abel not. Albrecht Dürer's famous engraving: Abel is naked, Cain wears the tiniest of (late-medieval) jockstraps. He looks like a lunatic, but is at the same time bloody sexy!
It's really striking how often biblical characters are depicted in the nude or semi-nude (where the semi leaves little to the imagination). It seldom has anything to do with the story. 'Odes to the physical beauty of Man', one usually explains. And that's all?
Jacob in his spat with one of God's angels has also been pictured in the nude many times. Which makes sense as sports fights had prior to the Victorian era always been done in the nude. In many art works however, even the angel is nude (albeit seldom explicit).
The catch is; Jacob wrestled with God. Who must have thought: 'Damned if I materialize on earth nekkid, I'll send an angel shaped like something that is up to Jacob's level: a man.'
So far, this story is quite innocent, in relation to the violent, physical contact with God, right? But armies of artists turned this affair into unabashed homo-erotic spectacles. If this - beautiful and even moving - Andersen sculpture does not express an act of male2male love & sex, NOTHING does.
The odd thing is, that the artist got away with it (and with his affair with Henri James?). They all do. Most art on Jesus is drenched in homosexual ambiance. The Roman habit to crucify people naked got civilized in later times by outfitting the messiah with a loin cloth, but it went all wrong, the loin cloth eroticizes Jesus.
OK, Andersen was gay. Almost all painters and sculptures from classical days were gay. But no Christian objected. Although a Jesus with a penis has always caused unrest and church bans, there were hardly any protests and iconoclastic furies over full frontal nude post-Eden Adams, naked Moseses (I saw three of them), naked Noahs, naked king Davids, naked Samsons and naked prophets like Ezekiel and Elijah and John. Everybody was aware of the homosexual innuendos of the visualizations. At the same time pastors and priests and Christian Republican politicians never stop condemning homosexuality as an act against God. And I scratch my head.

dedeurs said...

I now realize that I could have trimmed my reaction of biblical proportions down to one line...
'Andersen started on a sculpture of Jacob and the Angel, and ended up with a fantasy of him with Henri James.'

Kittredge Cherry said...

DeDeurs, you raise many interesting points. Thank you for boiling it down to one line that does clearly state the dilemma (and perhaps the glory) of making queer spiritual art.

dedeurs said...

Mind if I venture a bit further?
I wrote a blog series titled 'The sex-appeal of Mr Messiah'. Not to insult or to mock the martyrdom (well, I call the Vatican a bunch of hypocrites at one point), but I couldn't help smiling at the sight of some of these (medieval and renaissance) loin satin, elaborate draping and folding, even gauze ones. I mean, really.
The erotic element simply cannot be overlooked. At the same time, it has always been recognized that the crucifixion - any crucifixion - was a gruesome event. So what are we seeing here? A yearn for glamorization with a touch of sado-masochism? I think the Catholics went way too far in their devotion of Jesus. But it's never a subject for debate. That's not hypocrisy, it's pure blindness.

Michelangelo made a statue of a standing Jesus, holding his cross. The original work shows him naked. Of course it caused a controversy, but the sculptor had already been short of canonized by that time, so a lot of Catholics said, 'Leave the work as 'Il Divino' meant it to be.' They solved the 'problem' by fabricating a bronze codpiece. After the old grump died, of course.
It's a sort of clip-on which leaves Jesus' left hip side uncovered. It has been applied and taken off quite a few times ever since, it depended on the era and on what political course which papacy followed. The previous one, John Paul, wanted Jesus 'decent' once more, although he is known for having said during his reign that there was nothing wrong or sinful about nudity (he was also known for swimming in the nude in his private pool). So far his successor Benedict hasn't reverted the codpiece decision.
Clear pictures of it can be seen here:
Michelangelo's choice for a nude Jesus was an odd one to begin with. It's the moment where the messiah is to carry his own cross. In biblical-historical view, he did that in a loin cloth, at the least.
So what I don't understand, is why the Church never came to the conclusion that this work is inappropriate to represent the Faith because it's nudity isn't relevant in the first place, and even gives off a false message. A real Michelangelo or not; out with it.
And I would say, OK, ship it to my address, it will be wonderful in the living room! And don't bother to include the codpiece!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks for the link to your fascinating blog! 'The sex-appeal of Mr Messiah' is a funny titled and I do not find it offensive in any way. I believe that uniting sexuality and spirituality is an important and sacred pursuit.

Historians say Michelangelo was gay, which helps explain his focus on male genitals. Artists of the Renaissance era also used the naked sex organs to symbolize the humanity of Christ. There is a whole book on this subject that you will probably like:

The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion by Leo Steinberg,. University of Chicago Press, 1996. This is the definitive work on the subject, with 300 illustrations. A must-see!