Rembrandt the Theologian

Martin Luther characterized it as one of the most obscure recorded: an amazing account, the mysterious struggle between two combatants, one human, one divine, written of in Genesis 32: 22-31.

The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARembrandt_-_Jacob_Wrestling_with_the_Angel_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
Rembrandt, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, circa 1659

There are so many facets to this encounter that it’s difficult to know where to start. My mind has hardly settled on one startling aspect of the text before it is drawn to another. Much like Rembrandt’s rendering of it: the Old Testament patriarch Jacob’s struggle with a man whom Jacob plainly considers to have been God incarnate and whom the artist portrays with angel wings.

Rembrandt, too, wants our gaze drawn to diverse, startling elements in his painting in order to piece together the puzzle-like complexity of the episode into an overarching and unifying idea. Yet before we can begin, we have to deal with the initial confusion and absurdity of Rembrandt’s portrayal as we do that of the Biblical text.

If the absurdity of a man attempting to struggle with the incarnate God (a prefiguring of Christ) doesn’t strike you straightaway, then surely His pronouncement that Jacob has “prevailed” with Him as well as man must strike the reader as preposterous for two reasons. Far from operating from a position of strength relative to his fellow man, Jacob is running scared from his brother Esau who’s on his way to kill him. Meanwhile, he’s in mortal combat with God and has just had his hip dislocated. Obviously, God remains uninjured and has no difficulty extricating Himself once His purpose has been accomplished. How then has Jacob “prevailed”?

Now consider Rembrandt’s seemingly absurd portrayal of the encounter: does this look like a wrestling match to you? Consider the faces of the two combatants: do they look like those of fighters grappling with all their might to gain the upper hand?

When I first saw the painting, I was so confused as to have to re-check the title and then check the artist’s name to make sure it was indeed a Rembrandt because I felt certain it had to be an attempt by a lesser artist. How else to explain the jarring incongruities?

But I was looking for a Rembrandt. The unmistakable product of Rembrandt the artist, the identity of the artist lost in the strokes of his brush to the spectator who sees the artist only in his art, not through his art. So much so that I almost missed the man Rembrandt, now thinking as a theologian, revealing as a poet, riveting as a storyteller, worshipping as a sinner in the presence of God through this most exquisite product of his brush and paints.

What Rembrandt has composed in the painting is what he has felt keenly and most poignantly in his heart, mind, and soul. Even his body, even as a physical sensation coursing through him. Which is why the immediate impact of the painting is its blatant sensuality. It’s not hidden. It’s unavoidable: the tenderness, as if the two are embracing rather than struggling for supremacy; the possessive hold that speaks of a deeper emotion than determination; and the evocative and familiar touch.

The position of the being’s knee is surprising; it’s not used combatively, just the opposite in fact. His face shows no signs of exertion or triumph. His hands clasp rather than grip. His attitude is serene, knowing, and poised, at once in supreme control.

In contrast, Jacob seems overwhelmed, but not in defeat. His body sways as if he is about to lose his balance. His eye is half-closed, his arms are around his opponent’s waist, his face composed not with passion but with a sublime restfulness.

There is, in short, nothing about this painting that denotes struggle. Everything about it speaks instead of love. Wrestling with the biblical narrative of Jacob’s midnight struggle with his heavenly visitor, a text we have all contended with, Rembrandt shows us the heart of the passage and its truth in relation to him, and to you and to me.

You see, Jacob had begun his struggle thinking he had to wrestle a blessing out of God, even as we wrestle in prayer, at times hopelessly, feeling ourselves woefully inadequate. But at some point during the struggle – the moment Rembrandt captures for us with his paintbrush – Jacob relaxes, tired from his strenuous attempts to overpower God, and finds himself upheld by the very Person he had tried to overthrow. It is His knee that provides support for Jacob’s flagging limbs, it is His arm that keeps him from falling, and it is His hand that supports Jacob’s weary head, and His face that conveys absolute love. And in this divine love, Jacob finds his rest.

He finds this rest, this contentment, even though Jacob does not appear to see what we can see in the face above him: a tender, all-consuming love such as can never be matched, never be won by any feat of man, never be shaken, and from which we can never be separated. It is the eternal love of God. Full of grace. Full of beauty. And fully free to those who seek Him.

Jacob gains a new identity, indicated by the new name he is given by God, “Israel,” a name that is meaningful for every Christian because Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is the embodiment of true Israel, as are we because of our identity in Him (Rom. 9:1-13).

Rembrandt has discerned for us how Jacob did indeed prevail, as the textual account has it. He has prevailed by his very realization that he is the object of a holy love, a love that puts him not in the position of a combatant or even a supplicant, but as one beloved of God and one whom, therefore, no man can prevail against. What was Jacob’s “hold” on God that He should ask Jacob to let Him return to heaven at daybreak but that the hold was one not of might, but of love? In such a position, with such an identity, Jacob, though flawed like us, has prevailed, for love can withhold no blessing from the beloved.


1 Corinthians 10:11
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.
Romans 8: 31-39
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Song of Solomon 8:6-7
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly despised. 
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