Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Genesis 32: Jacob and the Vampire

For the love of God, no: this is not a Twilight post. I would never sink so low in my efforts to make the Bible hip and relevant. (But tune in next week for my snarky take on scripture references in Courteney Cox's career-reviving sit-romp, Cougar Town!)

But you don't need me to tell you that vampires are currently en vogue. There's the Twilight series--in book and film form--there's the CW's Vampire Diaries, there's talk of a new Buffy movie, and Broadway producers will bring an all-fangs reboot of Rent to the stage early next year. (Just kidding on the last one.) Entertainment Weekly even reports that Will Smith has recently signed on to produce and star in The Legend of Cain, a film that re-imagines the Bible's first murderer as a vampire. More to come on that, surely. For myself, I'm hooked on True Blood, the sexy HBO camp-noir series that takes place on the Louisiana bayou.

But sad as Will Smith and I are to say it, there aren't really any blood-suckers in the Bible. However, there's one mysterious being that is nearly vampiric, and he wrestles with Jacob on the shores of the Jabbok in Genesis 32.

Many of you know Genesis 32 as the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. The third patriarch, on his way to meet with his estranged brother Esau, meets an angel at the riverside and wrestles him. Can you see the painting now? Jacob has flowing auburn locks, and the angels wings are only slightly askew? Neither can best the other, so the angel breaks Jacob's hip and gives him a very important new name: Israel.

The only problem with this version of the story? In the Bible, there's no "angel." Here's the opening: "Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him" (32:24-25). The Genesis author will only call him "a man" and say no more. Indeed, Jacob himself is curious, demanding that the wanderer reveal his name. But the man refuses, and the mystery deepens.

For me, there's always been more menace than miracle in this dark stranger. The story continues: "Then he [the man] said 'Let me go, for the day is breaking'" (26). This little roll in the mud has gone on a little long, and both fighters may want to grab a Luna bar before going their separate ways. But why is the "man" so concerned about daybreak? We presume that a member of the heavenly host would not be afraid of morning, so why is the WWE wannabe so eager to avoid the sun's rays? The text reveals nothing.

Jacob, of course, obliges, agreeing to let the man go in exchange for a blessing. He gets one, and the man slips away before sunrise. In the postgame press conference, Jacob tries to call the man God's messenger--or perhaps even God Himself: he calls the place "Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved'" (v. 30). However, this line always sounds like wishful thinking to me, and I'm not sure that Jacob knows what just happened to him; he can only guess.

Harold Bloom, in his Book of J, is suspicious of this strange "man"; he even goes so far as to argue that there's more demon than divine in Jacob's fellow wrestler. I can't help but agree, for this is an extremely dark movement in the Torah narrative. And I always think I catch a glimpse of the "man" licking his fangs as he slinks off into the shadows.

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