• Wrestle On, Jacob: Antebellum Spirituals and the Defiant Faith of the Hebrew Bible

    Will Kynes (see profile)
    Bible. Old Testament, Intertextuality in the Bible
    Item Type:
    hebrew bible, African American Interpretation, Old Testament, Lament
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    A tension between pious submission and defiant protest pervades responses to suffering and oppression in the Hebrew Bible. Though both positions are frequently encountered in the same books, even embodied in the same character, interpreters tend to dissociate them from one another and then privilege one over the other. The genius of the Israelites’ faith, however, is that they merged both responses to suffering into one profound paradox, understanding themselves as those who wrestle with God (Gen 32:24–28). The spirituals sung by enslaved African Americans are a powerful demonstration of this same dialectic. In this article, I consider how these songs interpret and resonate with the Hebrew Bible and then, in turn, how this intertextual relationship illuminates the interpretation of the biblical text. The spirituals bristle with biblical allusions. They wrestle with God like Jacob and lament with the psalmists. Like Job, Jeremiah, and Jonah, the singers long for death and wish they had never been born. With Abraham, Moses, and Habakkuk, they question God’s justice. Yet, as Du Bois observes, “through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things.” The intertextual dialogue between wrestling with God in the Hebrew Bible and in the spirituals, which display, draw on, and even directly engage with that biblical tradition, therefore, challenges readers who have misunderstood the dynamics of defiant faith and divorced piety from protest because they have not faced the oppression that forges faith and defiance together.
    Published as:
    Journal article    
    Last Updated:
    1 year ago


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