‘Even in the midst of strife, one could cling to hope.’

Thought for the week: Bob Ward has a gripping story

Jacob and the Angel | Photo: Sculpture by Jacob Epstein

The book of Genesis tells the story of Jacob, patriarch of the Israelites. It’s an uncomfortable tale, at times. Before leaving home to pursue a tricky but successful life, Jacob first has to cheat his twin brother Esau out of his inheritance. Eventually he feels drawn to return to his region of origin – but that will involve meeting the brother whom he has wronged.

On the way there, having sent his wives ahead with placatory gifts, Jacob is left alone overnight in a state of anxiety. Then a being arrives, and wrestles with him until morning. This being dislocates Jacob’s hip but offers him a blessing because he did not give up. Jacob is also renamed ‘Israel’, meaning one who has struggled with God.

Now full of remorse, Jacob accepts that he must meet his brother and continues his journey, whereupon the two are reconciled.

In his fraught poem ‘Carrion Comfort’ Gerard Manley Hopkins felt himself to be in a parallel situation. He had chosen to become a Jesuit priest but the severe discipline required by the order taxed him sorely. Having come through a year of darkness he realises that: ‘That night, that year / Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.’

The sculptor Jacob Epstein was fascinated by the biblical account of his namesake. Like other artists in the early twentieth century he drew inspiration from the robust vigour and originality of non-European art. When he came to represent Jacob wrestling with the angel (in 1940, above), he chose forms bursting with animal strength, which revealed what such a struggle must have felt like, and how exhausted Jacob must have been at the end of it. In part at least, this demanding work by a sixty-year-old man must have arisen as his response to a desperate war. Even in the midst of strife, one could cling to hope.

Epstein injected energy into the art world but at the cost of controversy. His Jacob and the Angel was hawked around for years as a derided curiosity before securing a place in the Tate, where it stood a chance of being properly understood.

In his recent book, The Guided Life, Craig Barnett also draws attention to the story of Jacob. He says that if we are to pursue a meaningful life, rather than settle for a comfortable existence, then struggling with God is likely to arise as a step towards maturity. This is a consequence of any true leading that takes us where we need to be. Many Quakers can testify to this: the experience may be difficult but ultimately worthwhile. Has it happened to you?

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