Friday, July 22, 2016

The Birthright Brothers

Copyright © Edward Riojas

There’s a little bit of Esau in me.

Ask my kids if I may take my shirt off at the beach and you will almost HEAR the eyes rolling. I’ve been called “Silverback,” “Sasquatch” – you name it. I know this might be too much information, but I have been marked with a unique, visual reminder of my imperfection. As if I need such a thing. Doctors have scrutinized the patch of goat-like hair on my left shoulder and have simply shrugged. It’s not my twin – it’s just me. So when the Biblical detail comes up of Jacob donning goat skin to snag a blessing from his blind father, I don’t need a great imagination. It makes total sense to me.
“Esau Selling His Birthright”
Hendrick ter Brugghen. c. 1627.
(Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)

Most artists, however, seem to have trouble with this one. There are no depictions of Esau with Hypertrichosis – the “Werewolf Syndrome – which might make things visually plausible. Some folks hint at a black Esau and white Jacob, stretching things to non-Biblical proportions. Most artists, however, make Jacob and Esau more identical than polar-opposite.

Hendrick ter Brugghen’s painting of “Esau Selling His Birthright” uses dramatic chiaroscuro lighting to play up the event. The painting is handsome, and vaguely smacks of Maxfield Parrish. Isaac’s boys look like any quarrelsome teens, but Esau should certainly have a head start on the facial hair-thing. He doesn’t. Neither does he have hairy arms, and it’s annoying.
“The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau”
Peter Paul Rubens. 1624.
(Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh)

An earlier example by Rubens doesn’t fair much better. His vision of the brotherly reconciliation shows older siblings who both sport copious facial hair, but apparently Esau has been getting his legs waxed at the spa. Perhaps the artist was too caught up in rendering his signature fat babies and curvaceous ladies to notice the obvious Scriptural detail.

In case our two Flemish paintings haven’t helped flesh out the Biblical account, here’s the score:

Esau was the hairy one. He was the outdoorsman – a man’s man whose every garment was probably cammo, including his loincloth. Physical strength was his strong suit. Patience, not so much.

Jacob was a mamma’s boy who knew his way around the kitchen. He also knew how to get things done – by shrewdness and cunning. Both Esau and Jacob paint a precise picture of the worst in each of us.

Woven into the story are familiar strands of fallen men who struggle with shortcomings and each other, a knowing father who is blessedly blind, reconciliation of enemies, and a blessing that reaches beyond mortality.

The account, however, isn’t simply a sad yarn of a dysfunctional family. This bit of ugliness from the Messianic line is both assuring and sobering, in knowing that The Christ descended from His royal throne into an unhealthy gene pool of a few to save us all through His death and resurrection. Through Baptism in the same, we become adopted children, enjoying the fruits of Jacob’s birthright and becoming heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven.

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