The reunion of Yaakov and Esav (Bereshit 33) has been interpreted in contrasting ways by both commentators and artists alike. The three images shown here, Jacob Meets his Brother Esau (1897),1 The Meeting of Jacob and Esau (c. 1650) attributed to Gerrit Claesz Bleker,2 and Jacob and Esau (1878) by George Frederick Watts,3 all portray the same moment in the scene. Yet, they differ in how they illustrate the brothers' interaction, garb, and respective entourages. These choices reflect different readings of the relationship between the brothers and the motives for their actions.
The etching places Yaakov and Esav in the center foreground, presenting Yaakov as kneeling before an armored Esav, who reaches out to greet his twin. Yaakov's wives and several children of assorted ages watch from behind. Esav, too, is flanked by his supporters, but they are armed men with spears and helmets, ready for battle.
Bleker paints his canvas in yellows and browns, setting a calm mood for the scene. In the left-center, a blue cloaked Yaakov places his hand on Esav's shoulders and gazes beseechingly into his face. Esav, in turn, is cloaked in royal red and yellow, with a turban on his head. He, too, grasps his brother, apparently accepting Yaakov's pleas. To the viewer's right, Yaakov's wives, some clasping their hands and others caring for children, watch the reunion in anticipation and worry. A line of sheep and cattle trail behind them. As in the etching, here, too, Esav is accompanied by a military guard armed with spears and helmets.
In contrast to the other artists, Watts chooses to focus exclusively on the two brothers. They cover the whole canvas, and the only suggestion of any accompanying family is two faces that peek through from afar. The brothers are painted in a bronze hue, lending them an almost sculptured look. Esav is positioned to the right, with his hands on Yaakov's neck and his head posed to kiss him. Yaakov stands with his hand raised, apparently not ready to embrace his brother.4
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
The artist of the etching portrays Esav in full battle gear, his armed men standing right behind him. Though Bleker also includes a military guard, he depicts Esav himself as unarmed. Watt's presentation similarly leaves Esav's military intent ambiguous, depicting Esav with a sheath of arrows but without armor or accompanying army. What were Esav's intentions when coming to meet Yaakov? Was he approaching with an army of 400 men intent on battle, as Yaakov feared, or was he coming in peace with his men serving as an honor guard?5 See Esav: Friend or Foe for elaboration.
Both the etching and Bleker depict Yaakov in a conciliatory pose, either kneeling before his brother or looking at him beseechingly. Esav, in turn, appears to accept Yaakov's plea and reaches towards his brother, ready to embrace him. Watts, too, paints Esav reaching his arms out towards Yaakov, but instead of hugging Yaakov to his chest in affection, he appears to grasp his neck as if about to choke him. Yaakov stands with hands up, as if trying to ward his brother off. Is there any hint in the Biblical text that Esav's hug and kiss were insincere, or that his actions hid more sinister intentions? From a straightforward reading of the text it appears that Esav's embrace was heartfelt, but midrashic and later sources view the Masoretic dots atop the word "וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ" as a clue that all was not as it seemed.6
12 Children in 6 Years?
The children in both the etching and Bleker's image span a range of ages from infant to teenager. In Watt's image, there is but one child, a baby held by his mother, seen in the distance from in between the brothers' legs. How young could any of Yaakov's children have been at the meeting? What is the possible range between oldest and youngest? The questions relate to a difficulty in the Biblical text. The simple reading of Bereshit Chapters 29-30 suggests that Yaakov's wives bore him children consecutively, but the verses also suggest that all twelve7 were born in a period of only slightly more than six years.8 This contradiction leads some commentators to propose that some of the pregnancies must have overlapped,9 and others to suggest that there was a period of more than six years in which the children were born.10 See The Births and Relative Ages of Yaakov's Children for more.