The history of the Old Testament patriarch Jacob reads like a romance. He was the younger of the two sons of Isaac, and was at a great disadvantage on this account. Among his people the eldest son always became the family heir and also received the choicest blessing from the father, a privilege coveted as much as wealth. In this case therefore the privileged son was Jacob's brother Esau. Jacob resented keenly the inequality of his lot; and his mother sympathized with him, as he was her favorite. A feeling of enmity grew up between the brothers, and in the end Jacob did Esau a great wrong.

One day Esau came in from hunting, nearly starved, and finding his younger brother cooking some lentils, begged a portion of it for himself. Jacob seized the chance to make a sharp bargain. He offered his brother the food—which is called in the quaint Bible language a "mess of pottage"—making him promise in return that he would let their father give his blessing to the younger instead of the older son. Esau was a careless fellow, too hungry to think what he was saying, and so readily yielded.

But though Esau might sell his birthright in this fashion, the father would not have been willing to give the blessing to the younger son, had it not been for a trick planned by the mother. The old man was nearly blind, and knew his sons apart by the touch of their skin, as Esau had a rough, hairy skin and Jacob a smooth one. The mother put skins of kids upon Jacob's hands and neck and bade him go to his father pretending to be Esau, and seek his blessing. The trick was successful, and when a little later Esau himself came to his father on the same errand, he found that he had been superseded. Naturally he was very angry, and vowed vengeance on his brother. Jacob, fearing for his life, fled into a place called Padanaram.

In this place he became a prosperous cattle farmer and grew very rich. He married there also and had a large family of children. After fourteen years he bethought himself of his brother Esau and the great wrong he had done him. He resolved to remove his family to his old home, and to be reconciled with his brother. Hardly daring to expect to be favorably received, he sent in advance a large number of cattle in three droves as a gift to Esau. Then he awaited over night some news or message from his brother. In the night a strange adventure befell him. This is the way the story is told in the book of Genesis.[2]

[2] Genesis, chapter xxxii. verses 24-31.

Berlin Gallery

"There wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, 'Let me go, for the day breaketh.' And he said, 'I will not let thee go, except thou bless me,' And he said unto him, 'What is thy name?' And he said, 'Jacob,' And he said, 'Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.'... And he blessed him there.

"And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And as he passed over Penuel, the sun rose upon him and he halted upon his thigh;" that is, he walked halt, or lame.

The crisis in Jacob's life was passed, for hardly had he set forth on this morning when he saw his brother whom he had wronged advancing with four hundred men to meet him. "And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him: and they wept."

So were the brothers reconciled.

The picture represents Jacob wrestling with his mysterious adversary. We have seen from his history how determined he was to have his own way, and how he wrested worldly prosperity even from misfortunes. Now he is equally determined in this higher and more spiritual conflict. It is a very real struggle, and Jacob has prevailed only by putting forth his utmost energy. It is the moment when the grand angel, pressing one knee into the hollow of Jacob's left thigh and laying his hand on his right side, looks into his face and grants the blessing demanded as a condition for release. Strong and tender is his gaze, and the gift he bestows is a new name, in token of the new character of brotherly love of which this victory is the beginning.

The story of St. Michael and the Dragon, which Raphael has painted, stands for the everlasting conflict between good and evil in the world. There is a like meaning in the story of Jacob's wrestling with the angel. The struggle is in the human heart between selfish impulses and higher ideals. The day when one can hold on to the good angel long enough to win a blessing, is the day which begins a new chapter in a man's life.